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Sockalexis of the Indians: Honor or Exploitation?

Disagreement on Origin of Indians Name

by Ben Gleason

With the debate about the racial implications of Cleveland Indians logo Chief Wahoo, the cultural implications of baseball club's name "Indians" gets lost in the shuffle. Few Cleveland fans, with the possible exception of die-hard Indians junkies, probably know where the nickname came about. The way the Indians relate their history, their name honors the exceptional athleticism of the first Native American professional ballplayer, Louis Francis "Sock" Sockalexis.

A quotation attributed to legendary manager John McGraw reads, "If Sock had stayed for five years he could well have been better than Cobb, Wagner or Ruth." In the first of his three seasons with the club, Sockalexis managed to steal 16 bases and garner a .338 batting average in a season significantly shortened by injury.

During his brief stay with Cleveland, Sockalexis was the most popular member of a team loaded with three future Hall of Famers. Fans came out to the stadium in throngs to see the great Sockalexis play. The Sporting News heralded Sockalexis as the "Red Man" who was the most advertised player in the business. Sportswriters across the country lauded Sockalexis' natural ability as representative of the race's physiological tendencies. The Sporting Life published a headline that read, "Indian in Ball: The Race Has A Natural Inclination for Sphere Games."

It is with the memory of Sockalexis' incredible athleticism, according to the official Cleveland Indians history, that the organization changed their name to the Cleveland Indians in 1915. In a phone interview with Bob DiBiasio, the vice president of public relations for the Indians, he said, "We firmly believe that the name Indians has an association with Louis Francis Sockalexis and we think we can document that historically by the editorial in the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer in 1915."

However, as powerful as tradition is, revision is even more powerful. Ellen Staurowsky, a professor at Ithaca College, published a paper titled "An Act of Honor or Exploitation: The Cleveland Indians' Use of the Louis Francis Sockalexis Story" that challenges the organization's narrative of how the name came about.

The official history of the organization relates how the old National League team the Cleveland Spiders "began to be referred to as 'Indians' upon the arrival of Louis Francis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Old Town, Maine... It seems clear," the official team history continues, "that the current name 'Indians' for the Cleveland American League club originates from Sockalexis and his arrival in Cleveland in 1897."

DiBiasio said, "Ellen, while she researched accurately, didn't take into account the social aspect [of the time]. Nicknames changed daily in newspapers... Knowing the way sportswriters describe what nicknames were all about back then, and then the Plain Dealer's indicating that Indians was named after Sockalexis, we put two and two together."

DiBiasio is referring to The Plain Dealer editorial that appeared on Jan. 18, 1915, the day after the Indians name was made official. The Plain Dealer posits that the name was made to honor Sockalexis. "He was a star player. That's irrefutable. We continue to foster his legacy in our media guide," DiBiasio said.

Staurowsky disputes this history, offering in its place an alternate version based on articles that appeared in the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press between Sept. 1914 and March 1915. She asserts that Sockalexis was "as much a promotional vehicle, meshing with the 'Show Indian' prototype borne out of the Wild West Show phenomenon as he was a ballplayer." Staurowsky indicates that the image created by baseball owners and the press aggrandized his Native American image to sell both tickets and newspapers. A reporter for The Sporting Life even claimed that Sockalexis was a long-lost relative of Native American hero Sitting Bull.

Meanwhile, the team was putting forth its own histories. The organization even went so far as to fictionalize parts of his life in order to cultivate a more stereotypical Indian to the enraptured audience, saying that Sockalexis had waived his familial obligation as chief of his tribe to play professional baseball.

In a phone interview with Staurowsky, she said, "They're not named after Louis Francis Sockalexis; I'm very persuaded of that. It's more of a marketing convenience and very much in keeping with that genre, using Indians as promotions." Staurowsky wonders if the Indians were so intent on honoring Sockalexis for something other than his ethnic heritage, "Why not call them the Socks?"

The criticism over the use of Native American names and logos has been more widespread than the Indians organization admits. In 1992 the American Indian Mental Health Association of Minnesota wrote, "...Using images of American Indians as mascots, symbols, caricatures and namesakes for non-Indians sports teams, businesses and other organizations is damaging to the self-identity, self-concept and self-esteem of our people." Last January, the Society of Indian Psychologists of the Americas wrote, "What once may have been a unifying symbol for the various bodies using these symbols has been a source of cross-cultural conflict."

What Staurowsky raises in her article is an interesting question about how histories are created, and if honor is accorded to whom it's intended. She believes that the name Indians, and by extension Chief Wahoo, is inherently racist. Staurowsky said, "Certainly they have not done what I think needs to be done to accept responsibility for the mythology created over all these years, to use the image of Chief Wahoo. How much honor can it be afforded to anyone when it's used on a trash can?"

In an article published earlier this year Staurowsky cites a conversation she had with a 13-year-old Haudenausaunee boy about how he would explain the Chief Wahoo image to someone unfamiliar with the logo. The boy said, "I'd say to them: we are a free people. If you make us your mascot, we are no longer free - we are your mascot."

DiBiasio refutes this sentiment. "If people think we foster racism, they don't know enough about the history of our organization. We're considered to have a racist logo...even though we had the first black player in the American League. Those two collide in my thinking."

The Cleveland organization was called the Naps, in honor of Napolean Lajoie, from 1903 to 1914, when Lajoie left the club for Philadelphia. Upon his departure, team officials decided that a name change was in order. DiBiasio recalls how the team owner, Charles W. Somers, solicited baseball writers for suggestions. The sportswriters, in turn, solicited baseball fans for suggestions for the team's name.

In her research, Staurowsky maintains that of the three articles from the Cleveland press in which the results of fan responses were printed, there is no mention of "Indians." Staurowsky said, "The name is a novelty. In 1914 when they were confronted with having to change the name, sportswriters needed something exciting to write about. Indians presented wars and conflicts." According to the Plain Dealer, Staurowsky writes, the nickname was chosen as a temporary solution, until the team could earn another, more deserved title.

DiBiasio disagreed, saying that the name change reflects the organization's desire to honor Sockalexis. "I do think the true die-hard Indians fan is aware of Louis Francis Sockalexis and that the name derives from him being honored," he said. DiBiasio also acknowledges that although some people take umbrage to both the Indians name and the logo, he thinks most people find no problem with them. "Our belief is that the vast majority believes that it's not insensitive. There has absolutely never been any intent to demean. If there is no intent, can it be demeaning? We never humanize that logo. It's just a caricature and that's all," DiBiasio said.

For some people, though, the reach of Chief Wahoo extends beyond the cozy confines of Jacob's Field. In 1973, less than one year after Russell Means and seven others sued the Cleveland organization for slander and libel, saying the name "Indians" was insulting and disrespectful, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office recognized the Indians entity. This is significant because the Patent and Trade Office maintains that no commercial image may be offensive or disparaging and/or scandalous.

Staurowsky sees complicity wherever she looks. She said, "[After getting the trademark], the club went about marketing the story much more aggressively and they sought protection from the Patent and Trade Office. The club was doing whatever it could do to protect the image."

For the Indians' part, they steadfastly maintain that the Chief Wahoo logo represents baseball. DiBiasio said "Any logical, educated people could come to that decision. While I may firmly have a grasp of the plight of Native Americans, the logo has nothing to do with that."

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Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 129, Number 12, December 15, 2000

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