Choosing Your Battles
Jonathan Knight | On 10, Jul 2015
In lieu of a column drawing parallels between the current Confederate flag groundswell and the constancy of Chief Wahoo in a sanctimonious snit of writing absolutely nobody wants to read, let’s carve some meat off another part of the turkey.
Let’s fast-forward into the not-too-distant future, to a point when Chief Wahoo has been safely tucked away. (Sorry, “Keep the Chief” activists, but however you feel about the logo, you have to admit it’s just a matter of time.)
It seems like a fair compromise would be to trade in Chief Wahoo to keep the “Indians” name. The Cleveland Indians Baseball Company throws Native Americans a bone and vice versa.
But let’s go a step further – to a place that, admittedly, we may never get to. Forget the how and why for the moment and let’s say that the Indians decide not to be the “Indians.”
For many, no doubt the first instinct is rage. Abject hostility for unnecessary political correctness and meddling northerners in our southern tradition (sorry…too clear a parallel not to make).
Not saying it’s going to happen, not saying it should happen. Let’s just pretend it does. And let’s also pretend that you’re not angry about who’s leading the charge or why. Let’s just examine the reality.
Would it really be the worst thing in the world? Or more to the point, does the name “Indians” really represent a tradition worth fighting for?
It’s not like it reflects Cleveland’s history or literally any aspect of the city or its citizens. Or that it even symbolizes anything at all. As nice as the Louis Sockalexis story may (arguably) be, do we really believe that when the team adopted the “Indians” nickname a hundred years ago, it was to celebrate him in a Jackie Robinson/Women’s World Cup kind of way? History seems to suggest it was as much a PR maneuver attempting to ride the wave of the “Miracle Braves” of 1914 as much as anything else.
Regardless of the origin, let’s look at the history and ask ourselves a tough question: how much of the past hundred years represented by the “Indians” nickname is really worth clinging to?
To be sure, there are some great moments – 1920, 1948, and the late ‘90s to name a few – and lots of good players. But by and large, this franchise hasn’t had a great century. The vast majority of it is years like this one – filled with disappointment and frustration. Oh, and empty seats. Sweet merciful God, the empty seats.
Again, keep in mind we’re not talking about restarting the franchise. The idea isn’t that the Indians’ history should be dropped like third-period French and we start up a new team with a blank record book. The actual on-field history, good and bad, is indeed precious and should unquestionably be kept, like a sturdy old house that’s been in the family for decades.
The question is simply would it really be that unreasonable to consider repainting the exterior?
What if a new nickname replaced “Indians”? It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened in the upper echelon of pro sports. Washington’s regrettable selection of “Wizards” instantly comes to mind, which sadly overshadows D.C.’s much better job in renaming its new baseball team with an informal moniker from its “Senators” past.
Maybe Cleveland could pull a “Nationals” out of its hat. Or maybe not. There’s not a lot to revert back to in Cleveland’s baseball history. “Naps” is obviously out, taking us back to the franchise’s infancy and even into the previous incarnations of pro baseball in Cleveland.
Blues? No way.
Bronchos? Perhaps as a way of finally accepting what John Elway did to us, but otherwise no.
Forest Citys? Uh-uh.
The only one that would have a chance – and give it a second – is “Spiders.” Sure, it raises a phobia problem that the marketing department would hate, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented. The University of Richmond carries that nickname for its athletic teams, as does one of our most popular superheroes.
Perhaps more problematic than the run-out-of-the-bathroom-squealing element is the stinky legacy of the last edition of the Cleveland Spiders: the 1899 team that lost 134 of 154 games and is widely considered to be the worst baseball team in history. Understandably, you may not want to wake those echoes.
But isn’t that, to a lesser extent, what the Indians are doing? Don’t the current Indians carry along the miserable years at Municipal Stadium and the decades of non-contention with their name? And more recently, the lack of community interest and embarrassing attendance figures?
This franchise could use a rebranding. If you think renaming the team goes too far, that’s understandable. But if you think adding a bar in right field and a Corey Kluber bobblehead is all it’s going to take to get people excited about this baseball team, think again.
Just for a moment, consider what a fresh start would be like. New uniforms and colors. A new cap and logo. In film terms, a reboot of a beloved but dated franchise, with a modern twist.
Maybe a new name wouldn’t make a difference. Or maybe it could completely reinvigorate the franchise with the added bonus of pulling it out of the muddy quagmire of potential racial insensitivity.
Five years ago, how many people wanted to attend an Akron Aeros game? At least compared to how many would now pay to see the Akron RubberDucks? That’s pure novelty, and a major league team wouldn’t go that far, but it’s clear that there are benefits to hitting control-alt-delete.
Even if you take the racial and slavery connotations away from the Confederate flag (which you both shouldn’t and can’t), you’re left with a representation of resounding defeat. Some Southerners see sacrifice and other admirable traits in there, but the bottom line is that the Confederate flag represents a military failure, 600,000 deaths, and 12 years of Reconstruction suffering and squalor.
Neither Chief Wahoo nor the “Indians” nickname is the Confederate flag. But I think it’s fair to ask whether any of the three are really worth fighting for.