The Cleveland Indians unveiled changes to their uniform set this past week, the changes focused mainly on cleaning up the script that is worn on the chests of the home and alternate jerseys. What remained untouched was a polarizing piece of their team identity, one which we will examine the history of in today’s piece.

Always controversial, the Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” logo has been a part of the baseball landscape for over 60 years.

Although the club had been named “Indians” since 1915, there was no indication of this in any of the teams uniforms or logos for over a decade. It wasn’t until 1928 when a Native American head, complete with feathered headdress was added to the front of the home jersey.  The logo was altered slightly and shifted to the sleeve after one season where it remained through 1938. One would argue that the choice of Native American graphic used by the club in these seasons were much more respectful, using a logo more like those used by the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Redskins.

Primary logos of the Cleveland Indians since 1946

After a brief hiatus the “more respectful” branding was replaced in 1946 by a cartoon Native American head complete with big eyes, large nose, and feather sticking out of his headband.  This version of the logo didn’t last long, getting replaced in 1951 when “Chief Wahoo” made his debut.

The “Chief Wahoo” logo is a cartoon red-faced Indian head with a large pointy feather sticking out the top, perhaps this was okay in the world of 1951 where racial cartoons and imagery were commonplace but here in 2011 it seems very out-of-place and a throwback to a different set of society rules. The new logo got prominent placement right off the bat on the uniform sleeves of both the home and road jerseys where, with the exception of one season in 1972, it has remained right up to this day.

The "Stars and Stripes" Chief Wahoo cap, worn by the Cleveland Indians on July 4, 2008 - in subsequent seasons a generic block "C" logo was used for these occasions

In 2002 after several seasons of protests from some Native American groups, the club introduced a generic script “I” logo to be worn as an alternate cap.  At the urging of now team president Mark Shapiro, this alternate cap was replaced with a block “C” in 2008, and since then has been used on the road cap as well.

Non Chief Wahoo options for Indians fans, 2002-Present

I spoke with Bob DiBiasio, the Cleveland Indians Sr. Vice President of Public Affairs, earlier yesterday about whether the club had been possibly attempting to de-emphasize the Chief Wahoo logo with the introduction of the aforementioned script “I” and block “C” logos over the past decade.  Mr. DiBiasio explained to me that the introduction of those new marks were nothing more than giving their fanbase the most options to wear the logo they want to wear. In other words, if a fan is uncomfortable wearing the Chief Wahoo logo that same fan can now wear the road cap with a red “C” on it and still show their support for the club.

He continued by pointing out that the Chief Wahoo mascot, while no longer being worn on the road or home alternate cap is still featured very prominently on all the club jersey sleeves.

"Chief" Louis Sockalexis, for whom the Indians were named

Ironically, the same club many observers would claim to have the most racially offensive graphic branding in all of professional sports has a history of racially sensitive moves both on-and-off the field.  Including the naming of the team itself.

Following the 1914 season the Cleveland Naps sold all-star outfielder Nap Lajoie, for whom the club was named, to the Philadelphia Athletics.  Naturally the team could not continue to be named after a player currently on a rival team, so a local newspaper held a name-the-team contest to help come up with the new club monicker. The winning entry was the “Indians”, said to honour another former Cleveland ballplayer, Lou “Chief” Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who had played for the Cleveland Spiders, a former National League team, from 1897 thru 1899. Sockalexis,  the first American Indian to play Major League Baseball, had just died a few years earlier in 1913. This makes the Cleveland Indians the only current Major League ballclub to be named in honour of a former player.

Larry Doby, first African American to play in the American League, wearing the uniform of the 1947 Cleveland Indians complete with pre-Chief Wahoo sleeve patch

Fast forward thirty years and the Cleveland Indians become the first American League team to employ an African-American ballplayer. Larry Doby, an outfielder, made his big league debut for the club just a few months after Jackie Robinson first stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Doby also encountered many of the same racial taunts and death threats Robinson was still facing in the Senior Circuit.

More recently, in 2007 the Cleveland Indians participated in the Civil Rights Game, held during the Spring Training schedule in Memphis, Tennessee.

While some may see the logo as controversial and potentially offensive a poll conducted by the National Annenburg Election Survey between 2003 and 2004 showed that 91% of Native Americans surveyed had no objection to the use of Native American names or imagery in sports.

The Indians method of honouring both their team’s branding history and by catering to those fans who may be uncomfortable by said history, seems to be working. While the club may have faced a lot of pressure in the media and from protests held outside their stadium throughout the 1990s the team says there’s been no real recent pressure to drop the logo. Chief Wahoo looks to be here to stay for many more years.

Check out Chris’s site dedicated to the history of sports logos and uniforms, or if Twitter’s your thing you can follow Chris to get all the latest logo news

Comments (37)

  1. They should just go back to the Naps.

  2. Nice article — good read.

  3. If “While some may see the logo as controversial and potentially offensive a poll conducted by the National Annenburg Election Survey between 2003 and 2004 showed that 91% of Native Americans surveyed had no objection to the use of Native American names or imagery in sports.”

    Then why do so many people, most of whom seem to be non-Native Americans, care so much?

    • In the study, while 91% overall found it inoffensive, there were gaps as to whether someone was liberal or conservative and depending on income and education.

      13% of those with college education or above found it offensive, while only 6% of those with high school or less found it inoffensive.

      14% of those declaring themselves liberal found it offensive, while only 9% of moderates and 6% of conservatives had the same opinion.

      12% of those making $75,000 or more found it offensive, compared to 9% of those making $35,000-75,000 and only 8% of those making under $35,000.

      I think the lesson there is that the fewer real problems you have, or fewer things you have to worry about (like rent, bills, wages, health) the more you seek out other issues.

      • Theorist Abraham Maslow considered that the tip of his “Hierarchy of Needs”, the self-actualization stage, where people have all the other needs fulfilled, so the individual becomes focused on realization of poential.

        Thanks for breaking down the stats, those are pretty interesting to consider.

    • Because we are so good at getting offended on other peoples’ behalf.

    • There’s a difference between “Native American names or imagery” and inherently demeaning sambo caricatures that were intended to dehumanize a race of people. Someone should ask Native Americans how they feel about these sambo caricatures, not just “Native American names or imagery.”

      Also, the notion that the team was named to “honor” Sockalexis is a falsehood that’s easily disproven by a little research on the subject (including a good piece by Joe Posnanski). Sockalexis was the subject of brutal taunting by opposing crowds and took to drink and an early death. Folks would show up at the ballpark just to have at “the savage.” The Cleveland team was named the Indians by sportswriters in 1915 when Indian wars were still going on in this country. Not a single report on the name change mentions Sockalexis’s name. This was a time when women couldn’t even vote and Jim Crow was thriving and we’re supposed to believe that the name was intended to “honor” native Americans. What a joke. The name was intended to reinforce the image of natives as anachronistic savages “on the warpath, with scalps dangling from their belts.” The Sockalexis story was concocted after the fact.

      Though again, if you can look past its background, there’s theoretically no problem with the name. It’s the logo that’s the problem.

  4. nicely played.

    also, the minimum character length on comment posts gets me every time.

  5. I’d be willing to bet if those surveyed in 2003-04 were shown an image of Wahoo, their opinion would change. It’s a racialized caricature on par with Sambo and Charlie Chan. It’s gotta go.

    No problem with Blackhawk’s logo, it’s reverential. Same for DC’s NFL team… but their nickname may be even worse than Wahoo. We’re better than this.

  6. “While some may see the logo as controversial and potentially offensive a poll conducted by the National Annenburg Election Survey between 2003 and 2004 showed that 91% of Native Americans surveyed had no objection to the use of Native American names or imagery in sports.”

    I believe the survey was specifically about the Washington Redskins, and specific to the name only, not logo, mascot or related imagery.

    Has there been any study about specific logos? I’d be interested to know In terms of whether a graphic like the Blackhawks’, Braves’ or Redskins’ logos are considered more acceptable than Wahoo.

    • The Braves don’t even depict a Native American in any form on their uniform. In fact, most people probably don’t even know that “Brave” refers to Native Americans.

      Generally, the Blackhawks and Redskins logos are considered way less offensive than Chief Wahoo (though the team name “Redskins” is considered infinitely more offensive than “Indians”).

  7. I wonder what “Chief” Louis Sockalexis would think of Chief Wahoo! Great article for this week Chris.

  8. I’ve been an Indians fan since the family moved to Cleveland in 1993, and even follow them religiously since being stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and moving to Lubbock, Texas. I’ve gone to countless opening day games at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and it blows my mind how there is usually three or four “protesters” who, on one particular occasion, tried to physically block people from entering then-Jacobs Field. What struck me is all of them were no even the remotest part Native American, instead opting to speak “on their behalf”

    Listen, I have no problem with people who oppose the visage of Chief Wahoo. However, if you act “on behalf” of an entire race of people, when, time and time again, show no issue, then you make yourself out to be the one predominantly focused on race, and how the “poor, downtrodden Native Americans” need YOUR help because they are incapable of anything themselves. To me, that’s far more racist than a prideful remembrance of a strongly historical figure in Cleveland baseball history.

    Granted, I have loyalty to the Cleveland team, not the name. Would I be disappointed if they changed their name? Who knows, I won’t know for sure until it happens (if it ever does). It better be strongly related to the city as a whole (I actually liked the hypothetical “Cleveland Rockers” name that the Plain Dealer originally proposed when football returned to Cleveland in 1999 before it was overwhelmingly voted to keep the name “Browns” the official name, and that HORRIBLE WNBA failed experiment (re: the team, not the WNBA in general; while I’m not a fan at all, I’m sure there are some out there, somewhere…)

    I love the team. I love the uniforms (well, except the home alternate… those are ugly as hell), I love the players. I love the stadium. Cleveland baseball has been a huge part of my life, and maybe because I’m a fan associated with the team, I don’t feel it’s as important as others who may or may not believe they know more about racial turmoil in American history than I do. A t the end of the day, I’m a fan of the Indians, and will proudly wear my Chief Wahoo hat around the city.

    Go Tribe!

  9. I think it needs to be acknowledged here that 91% of Native Americans being okay with the use of Native American imagery in sports is not the same as 91% of Native Americans agreeing with the use of Chief Wahoo. Those are two different things. As Chris notes, there are more respectful ways to represent Natives that are inherently less offensive.

    It’s a well-studied fact that most African Americans were not offended by black face at the time of its regular use; and obviously we’ve moved on from that in society.

    Even if that stat reflected the use of Chief Wahoo, it holds very little water to me. Native Americans are quite possibly the most marginalized group in North America and when oppression occurs on that level, those that are being oppressed have a tendency to see their oppression as normal and inevitable; perhaps even deserved.

    And suggesting that white people cannot stand up for injustice even when it doesn’t directly affect them is a tired and convenient way to silence voices of dissent. If we’re told we’re all fighting different and conflicting fights then we’ll never have solidarity and equality.

    “We are bound by an inescapable garment of mutuality, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

    Aside from that, this was an excellent article, Chris. This feature is quickly becoming a favourite of mine.

    • This was an excellent article, and I’m always fascinated and intrigued by the nuances of uniforms. I also love stories about the significance of uniform numbers, are you thinking of anything related to that in the near future?

      Keep up the good work, you’re getting close to becoming my second favourite contributor to this site!

  10. Great article! Thanks. This is my favourite logo in all of sports. Even overly politically-correct Hollywood featured this logo in the movies (Major League, of course). While I get the potentially offensive nature of it, it’s so ridiculously cartoony that it works. At least Cleveland doesn’t have 40,000 rednecks doing the tomahawk chop at home games! BTW be careful not to offend anyone next time you buy pancake mix…

  11. Taking offense kinda bewilders me. The logo is not being used to riducule American Indians. It is more a way to honor a culture, much like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Vancouver Canucks, or the New York Yankees.

    If you look hard enough, you can find insensativity anywhere. That is not Cleveland’s intent here.

    Should we find it also insensative because the animals for which many teams are named were not consulted on the use of thier names? Or if they are offended? It’s not a perfect arguement, as I’m not comparing a race of human beings to animals, but you can see how silly this kind of “advanced sensativity” and over-thinking can get.

    • “The logo is not being used to riducule American Indians. It is more a way to honor a culture, much like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Vancouver Canucks, or the New York Yankees.”

      Well, that’s not really an accurate comparison. It’s the difference between making fun of your own culture or yourself, and making fun of someone else’s culture that was forcibly displaced, assimilated or exterminated.
      I think you can argue accurately that logos like the Blackhawks or Braves “honour” native American cultures, but not so much for Chief Wahoo. Just trying to be objective here.

    • I find nothing wrong with having a Native American head as the logo. But I have a big problem with it being red. What if I names a team the “Asians” and make their logo a smiling person with thin eyes and yellow skin? what would people say then?

  12. I thought this was the most interesting part of the artice:

    “While some may see the logo as controversial and potentially offensive a poll conducted by the National Annenburg Election Survey between 2003 and 2004 showed that 91% of Native Americans surveyed had no objection to the use of Native American names or imagery in sports”.

    Sound like the people that are the most offended by the logo are not the ones we thought would be the most offended.

  13. I am an avid Cleveland Indians fan, however I am not from Cleveland. I love the history of Baseball and have a true love of the game. The team history of “my” Indians has so many special moments including Lary Doby, Satchel Paige, Roger Marris, and many more players that have been a part of such a great organization. I see both sides to the argument of the Logo and I for one wear it proudly,

    If Cleveland decides to remove the logo It will always be a part of its history. Native Americans are remembered as a people who can be respected for their family values to their history of war and love of their land. Maybe the logo is cartoonish and not as pristine as a Spartan helmit or Trojan helmit. I will support the Tribe for as long as I can. I will support the rights of Native Americans for as long as I can. I support the team and the players, the logo and colors are the last of my worries. What If in 2012?!

    Go Tribe!

  14. Not a fan of Chief Wahoo, he reminds me of the way Indians are portrayed in Disney’s Peter Pan (anyone remember the “What makes the Red Man Red” song?)
    Still, NOTHING in baseball is as offensive as the Chop.

  15. I once took part in a protest at Indians games and yes, most of the protesters were indeed American Indians. The protest was fairly small, I’ll admit, but here’s the other side of that criticism: It’s sort of hard to spend too much time protesting about some sports logo when you’re struggling, as many Native Americans are, just to get by day to day.

    I remember a bunch of drunk white guys in headdresses yelling “Get a job!” at us and making the “woo-woo-woo” noise with their hands over their mouths. It was a weekday day game, and they were coming out the bar plastered at one in the afternoon, ready for the game.

    Let’s face it– the fact that Wahoo still exists is simply evidence of how little political power American Indians have in the United States. If you look at statistics regarding poverty, education, and suicide rates for Native Americans compared to other groups, the picture is REALLY grim. While there is still plenty of racism against blacks and hispanics, at least these groups have enough of a collective voice to be able to fight against many instances of obvious in-your-face racism (which is pickininny images aren’t commonplace anymore.)

  16. In his autobiography Veeck As In Wreck, Bill Veeck, then-owner of the Indians, referred to the first ideation as “the Smiling Indian.”

    Veeck stated that one reason he moved to Maryland in the mid-60s was that Maryland was one of the few states that allowed a person to become a lawyer without a law degree — he toted with the idea of becoming a lawyer to work for American Indians’ civil rights. I wonder, if he were still with us, what he would think of Chief Wahoo.

  17. Nice read overall, but this would have been a better article if the author had done a little more research on the naming of the Cleveland Indians, or at least looked up Wikipedia: “Legend has it that the team honored Louis Sockalexis when it assumed its current name in 1915. Sockalexis, a Native American, had played in Cleveland 1897–99. Research indicates that this legend is mostly untrue, and that the new name was a play on the name of the Boston Braves, then known as the “Miracle Braves” after going from last place on July 4 to a sweep in the 1914 World Series.”

    Not to mention, Sockalexis was horribly mistreated by the media and fans during his playing tenure, so he’s not a good example of our “history of racially sensitive moves.”

    I think any discussion of Chief Wahoo has to start by acknowledging that most Cleveland fans don’t have any ill will or overt prejudices toward Native Americans. For us, Wahoo is associated with baseball, pure and simple, and not with real-life American Indians…the human mind is capable of disassociation like that. But that doesn’t mean it ISN’T clearly wrong, and the surveys and comments about who is or isn’t offended…on behalf of themselves or other people…completely miss the point. Little Black Sambo isn’t wrong as a symbol because it’s offensive to black people (though that makes things clearer) — it’s wrong because it’s a blatant characterization of long-held stereotypes against a repressed group of people, and you’re naive if you think symbols and images don’t reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes even if we consciously reject them. Chief Wahoo is just as wrong for it’s reflection on us as fans, as it is wrong for whether it may offend some Native Americans.

    As a child in the ’90s, I will always associate the Wahoo image with joyous memories and those great 90s teams (and yes, the heartbreak that went with them). But I am just as happy to retire that image and have my own kids associate their fandom with a different logo entirely.

  18. I may be biased, being from Cleveland, but I don’t see the Indians name as particularly bad. I’d say it’s on the edge of what’s tasteful. Chief Wahoo on the other hand is a caricature that’s sort of generically racist; as many photoshoppers have pointed out, a few detail changes could make him stereotypically black, a WASP, or a Hassidic Jew. He is tasteless both for being a racist caricature of a Native American and for being a demeaning picture of any person.

    Do I protest his continued use? No. Do I own Indians hats, both with him and with the block C? Yes. Would I be upset if they retired Chief Wahoo? No. Would I be upset if they retired him and completely ignored his past use? Yes.

  19. The people who seem to have the biggest problem with Indian logos are white men and women who feel guilty about being white and put into practice political correctness to assuage those guilt feelings. Thing is, in trying to be “sensitive” these politically correct people end up being condescending and paternalistic.

  20. I’m a die hard Indians fan and could care less if the logo goes. Surely Indians management is sensitive to fan opinion and know that if they get rid of Chief Wahoo many will complain. Bob Dibiasio is a good and smart man. However, teams produce alternate hats not to give fans options but to sell them and make additional money. What other reason is there to have four caps? Those alternate home red caps are god awful ugly yet they were the top seller for the Indians (and I bought one because…well, just because) Perhaps I missed it in the article but not only did the Indians have the first African-American player in the AL (why doesn’t MLB give him the same treatment they do Jackie Robinson? Maybe everyone in the AL could wear Doby’s number 14 one day a year like they do Robinson’s) but also the first black manager in Frank Robinson.

  21. Don’t forget first black manager!!!! Who also hits home runs!!!

  22. If “91% of Native Americans surveyed had no objection to the use of Native American names or imagery in sports” is true, does this mean perception=reality? That’d be fun!

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