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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.