The franchise is changing its name for the first time in more than 100 years
MLB's spring training is in full swing, and Cleveland is taking the field for the final time with their current nickname. The Indians name has stood for 106 years, and the team's moniker and Chief Wahoo logo have often the subject of controversy. Here are 10 facts about both.
1. Grand Rapids
The franchise started in Michigan in 1894 as the Grand Rapids Rustlers in the minor league Western League. In 1900, the team moved to Cleveland and adopted the Lake Shores as its mascot. When the Western League changed its name to the American League and declared itself a major league, the franchise tried the Bluebirds and Broncos as mascots, neither of which caught on.
2. Cleveland Naps
The team's first star was second baseman and player-manager Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie. In 1903, the Cleveland Press conducted a write-in poll for a new name for the team, and readers chose to go with the nickname of their best player.
3. Louis Sockalexis
In 1914, Lajoie was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics, and the franchise needed a new name. Owner Charles Somers asked local sportswriters to come up with some names and ultimately went with the Indians. A common claim is that the franchise was named in honor of Louis Sockalexis, who played three seasons for the defunct Cleveland Spiders and was the first Native American to play in the National League. Current sportswriters are skeptical of that claim given the short period Sockalexis played, and the way journalists insulted his Native American heritage at the time.
4. Founding of Cleveland Celebration
In 1971, Cleveland celebrated the 175th anniversary of its founding and invited local Native Americans to participate. Instead, they took the opportunity to protest the history of their people's mistreatment, including the Indians name and mascot, Chief Wahoo. Protests were subsequently held on every baseball Opening Day starting in 1973.
5. Chief Wahoo
The Indians' mascot, Chief Wahoo, was arguably an even greater point of controversy. In 1947, Indians' owner Bill Veeck hired J.F. Novak Company create a new logo that "would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm." The end result was a Native American with a goofy grin and a big nose that sportswriters eventually named Chief Wahoo. The mascot was popular with many Cleveland fans but was criticized by many Native American, religious, and education groups. In 2018, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Indians' owner Paul Dolan announced that the league and franchise were discontinuing Chief Wahoo. Here is a visual timeline of all of the franchise's logos.
6. Terrible Baseball
If a team is not winning, it gets less attention in all areas, including its controversy. From 1960-1993, the highest the franchise finished was third in the American League in 1968. The American League split into divisions the next year, and Cleveland did not finish higher than fourth over the next 25 seasons. Once the Indians started winning in the 1990s, more focus was given to their name.
7. 1995 World Series
In 1995, the Indians made the World Series for the first time in 54 years. Their opponent was the Atlanta Braves and the Fall Classic saw protests in both cities over the names and logos. Cleveland lost in six games, but the controversy was given a shot in the arm.
8. Penobscot Indian Nation
Louis Sockalexis was a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, who has led the opposition to the Indians' name. In 1993, Kenneth Paul, Sockalexis' oldest surviving relative said of the logo, "Wahoo or Yahoo, it's more insulting than anything. I think they should change the whole thing to something else. It won't break my heart. It won't break anybody's." The Penobscot Nation passed a resolution in 2000 urging the team to retire the logo and remained vocal until it was discontinued in 2018.
9. 2016 World Series
Cleveland returned to the World Series in 2016 and once again brought national attention to the name and logo and more outcry from more organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians and the American Sociological Association. After the Indians lost to the Chicago Cubs in seven games, Dolan and Manfred began to reexamine the Chief Wahoo logo.
10. George Floyd
The killing of George Floyd prompted many organizations to reevaluate race in America, including the Cleveland Indians. Following his death in May 2020, the franchise began reviewing its name. On December 14, 2020, Dolan announced that the team would begin the process of changing its name.
The franchise is still in the process of picking its new name. Whatever it goes with, it is a safe bet that it will not be controversial.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports' Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.