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Breaking Down Cleveland’s Team Name Predicament

As most people already know, the Cleveland Indians might possibly be changing their team name. The moniker referring to American indigenous peoples has been under scrutiny for quite some time now, but it is only now that the organization has given any indication that change might become a reality. The news also comes shortly after the Washington Redskins, our capital’s NFL team, announced a similar course of action. Most would attribute this to the racially charged protests of recent and, in turn, a rapidly changing political climate in this country. I would agree with this assessment, and while I’m not here to argue politics, I do believe there is a correct way to handle this. But before we get to that, let me provide some background.

The current Cleveland Indians franchise was founded in 1901 as the Cleveland Bluebirds (the team has technically existed before, but they played under this name in their first year in the American League). This name didn’t last long, as the team shortly after opted to name themselves after their star second baseman Nap Lajoie. The Cleveland Naps (officially named the Napoleons) retained this name until Lajoie eventually moved on from the team in 1915. Naming the team after a current player and not intending to keep it after their departure seems like a bit of a short-sighted decision if you ask me, unless they just expected Lajoie to play forever. However, trying to make sense of early twentieth century baseball is not something I can or intend to do. Anyway, from then on, they would be called the Cleveland Indians. The Indians, while indirectly, were also named after a player, however this time it was a former player (again, really makes you wonder why they couldn’t just keep the name Naps). Louis Sockalexis was a Native American player who played for the Cleveland Spiders, the baseball franchise that preceded the Indians in Cleveland. Because of Sockalexis’ ethnic background, the Spiders were sometimes called the Indians as a nickname. It was because of this nickname that the organization chose to adopt it as their official name in 1915. The rest is quite literally history, as this is the first time since 1915 where the prospect of a name change seems like a real possibility.

Now that we’ve established how we got here, it’s time to answer the million dollar question: is the name racist? While I believe there is a bit more of gray area here than there is with a team like the Washington Redskins, the answer is still unequivocally yes. The gray area here is the exact reason why they chose the name. Sources differ, and while I previously stated that it was a nickname carried over from the Spiders, the club itself officially claims it was done merely to honor Sockalexis’ legacy. If the latter is true, it certainly does make the situation appear better. However, if the former is true, I would venture to guess that the nickname originally given to the Spiders was likely racially charged. The truth is that it is impossible to know for sure, and in reality the history behind the name doesn’t even really matter. Regardless of whether the intent was good or bad, naming a baseball team after a race of people is unarguably racist. For comparison’s sake, that would be like if the franchise named the team the Cleveland Whites instead of the Naps to honor Nap Lajoie. In short, I simply don’t see the justification for naming a team after a race of people, especially one that has been marginalized to the extent that indigenous peoples in this country have. A corporate enterprise worth $1.2 billion calling itself an oppressed group of people that used to inhabit the land on which it operates will simply never be a good look.

Even after seeing this perspective, there are still many tribe fans who don’t think the name is insensitive, or at least still don’t want to change it. However, I would argue that even if you see no problem with the name, you should still want it to be changed. Prior to the 2019 season, the club officially removed their “Chief Wahoo” logo from all uniforms. While many fans protested this, the Chief is never coming back. I personally think the logo is blatantly insensitive, considering the depiction of the logo is intended to represent Native Americans as a whole. But even if you somehow don’t think the Chief Wahoo logo is racist, there is absolutely zero chance of it ever making an official return. So what’s left? The infamous “Block C” is now the only official logo the Cleveland Indians have (along with the wordmark used on the jerseys). Simply put, this is boring. The team is still called the Indians, and yet no part of the team’s branding has anything to do with Native Americans. Your response to this might be “well then just bring back the chief” but again there is simply no way that will ever happen. Changing to a name that allows branding to be more creative without risk of being culturally insensitive is an outcome that should be desirable for everyone. It had a good run, but the name Indians has exhausted any future possibility of being a remotely interesting branding tool.

By now hopefully you agree that the team name ought to be changed, for one reason or the other. Now comes the fun part: picking a new name. This is obviously a subjective matter, as different people like different names more than others. Therefore, I’ll try to include as many possibilities as possible while highlighting the ones I find most compelling. First, to give some possibilities that I’ve heard but do not particularly like. Wild Things and Guardians are two popular choices I’ve seen on twitter. While following the footsteps of the Anaheim Ducks in naming the team after a movie is an interesting idea, I personally think Wild Things just sounds horrible. I find Guardians to be kind of a basic, bland choice, but I wouldn’t be terribly angry if that is the eventual verdict. I’ve also seen fans wanting to see a resurrection of the Rockers, Cleveland’s defunct WNBA team. I simply do not think this is a real possibility, as it sounds far too much like the Rockies. Speaking of old names, Buckeyes has also emerged as a possible fan favorite. While I love the idea of bringing back a Negro League name, I think Ohio State University should probably have that name to themselves. As far as my favorite names go, I think the name Spiders is somewhat of a no-brainer. It has the history of being the team that preceded the Indians in Cleveland (even if they did set the record for worst single season winning percentage of all time), and the branding possibilities are endless. The fact that no other team in the four major North American sports has the name spiders already should have the organization jumping at the opportunity.

Lastly, I’ve come up with a somewhat out-of-the-box idea myself that I would love to see get some consideration. Hear me out: The Cleveland Chimeras. For those that do not know, a Chimera is a mythological creature that consists of body parts of a lion, goat, and serpent. What better than a giant fire breathing monster to represent a sports team? Not only is it wildly unique, but intimidating as well. Not to mention, the alliteration makes “Cleveland Chimeras” roll off the tongue better than any other proposal I’ve heard. Lastly, it incorporates an element of the city of Cleveland itself. Chimaira was a heavy metal band that derives its name from the word Chimera, so while the spelling is different, the meaning is the same. Not only does this encompass the rock n’ roll aspect of Cleveland, but the band itself is from Cleveland. This would not be the primary selling point of the name, of course, but it is an interesting addition.

I am glad to see the Cleveland Indians organization, one that I am not terribly proud of as a fan, do something right for once. Changing the team name is undoubtedly the correct move, and the only bad part about it is that it took this long to happen. I’m still holding my breath, because it is still a possibility the name doesn’t change. However, the likelihood of a change seems to increase by the day. I am inexplicably excited to see the next generation of Cleveland baseball players play under a name that is not culturally insensitive, and also hopefully play in cooler uniforms.


Featured Image: Aaron Vowels on Flickr

Peter Khayat

I’m a high school student from Shaker Heights, OH, and a huge Indians fan. I write a lot about my Indians, baseball history, and the league in general. Follow me on Twitter: @xwOBA

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