Cleveland Indians

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Jan 3 18:06:25 UTC 2003

In the course of a larger discussion here, a year or so ago, of present day sports teams with insensitive or offensive nicknames and logos, the fact was noted that the Cleveland Indians claim their nickname should be spared from this criticism, because it was originally a sentimental gesture honoring the memory of a former player, Lou Sockalexis, who was a Penobscot Indian.  As I recall, one of us pointed out that Sockalexis' career with the Indians had lasted only months and had been a decade and a half in the past when the present nickname was established, and that therefore the story is unlikely.

A new book has just passed through my hands here, from which I take the following extracts.  From David L. Fleitz, Louis Sockalexis: The First Cleveland Indian, Jefferson, N. C. & London: McFarland & Co., 2002.

[The Cleveland baseball club was called the Spiders before Sockalexis joined.]  No one cared for the name "Spiders," which dated from the early 1890s, and in those days team nicknames varied from year to year, depending on the whims of the [sports] writers.  ***
        The main paper in Cleveland, the Plain Dealer, used the term "Indians" for the first time in a headline on March 20, 1897, the day after Sockalexis arrived in Cleveland.  Within a week, the writers were identifying the team as the Indians on a regular basis.  On March 27, the Plain Dealer commented on the upcoming slate of outdoor practices.  "The Indians," remarked the Plain Dealer, "have a spring schedule which is bound to give them good, hard work."  (p. 60)

[Sockalexis' career with the Indian -- and in baseball -- lasted only a few months.  In the early 1900s, Napoleon Lajoie, now in the Hall of Fame, joined the team.]  So popular was this French-Canadian second baseman that soon after his arrival in 1902, the writers started calling the team the Naps in his honor, much as they renamed the Spiders the Indians when Sockalexis joined.  The well-respected Lajoie became the playing manager of the team in 1905 and drove the Naps up the standings. . . .  The Naps reached their high-water mark in 1908, when they lost the pennant to Detroit by half a game. . . .  Lajoie stepped down as manager in 1909. . . .
        By 1914, the Cleveland team had hit rock bottom.  ***  . . . in January 1915 Charles Somers reluctantly released his most popular player [Lajoie] to his old team, the Athletics.
        The Cleveland team could no longer be called the Naps with Lajoie gone to Philadelphia, so Somers asked the Cleveland sportswriters for ideans on a new nickname.  ***  Some of the local writers solicited suggestions from the public in their columns. . . .
        [I haven't actually read this book, and didn't photocopy what it says about the nickname of the team after Sockalexis had left it and before Lajoie joined it. If I recall correctly, the sports writers had reverted to the old nickname the "Spiders."]
The Cleveland Plain Dealer of January 17, 1915, explained what happened next: "***  The title of Indians was [the sports writers'] choice, it having been one of the names applied to the old National league club many years ago.  The nickname, howver, is but temporarily bestowed, as the club may so conduct itself during the present season as to earn some other cognomen, which may be more appropriate."  (p. 181-82)
***  The Plain Dealer, on January 18, 1915, printed an editorial that tied the memory of Sockalexis to the new name.  ""Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club.  As batter, fielder, and base runner he was a marvel.  Sockalexis so far outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team.  The "fans" throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders the "Indians."  It was an honorable name, and while it stuck the team made an excellent record.  It has now been decided to revive this name.  ***  There will be no real red Indians on the roster, but the name will recall fine traditions.  ***  It also serves to revive the memory of a single great player who has been called to his fathes in the happy hunting grounds of the Abenakis."  (p. 182)  [Sockalexis had died in 1913.  This misrepresents the original coining of the nickname, in attributing it to the folk, rather than to sports wri!
ters.  Fleitz also offers a second reason for reviving that particular nickname: a bad team in Boston in 1914 had changed its nickname from the "Beaneaters" to the "Braves" and had won its league's pennant.]  Some of the Cleveland writers opined that a Native American nickname would revitalize the Cleveland team in a similar fashion.  (p. 183)  [On p. 184-85 Fleitz quotes the 1996 Indian's media guide's misrepresentation of the history of the nickname.]

[The ethnic stereotyping of Indians in the passage from the Plain Dealer has not escaped my notice; and if I could possibly be dense enough that it might have, there is an editorial cartoon reproduced on p. 183 that makes the point graphically.  But in any event, the story tracing the history of the nickname to the memory of Sockalexis, evidently has some justification.  Whether the team's current Chief Wahoo logo is justified is no doubt a matter of taste.  I assume at least that the local sports writers no longer ring the changes on the Indians scalping their opponents, or being scalped, as it seems they did until fairly recently.]


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

More information about the Ads-l mailing list