Major League Baseball and the Cleveland Indians have announced an agreement that spells the end of the on-field uniform presence of the caricature known as “Chief Wahoo” (a cartoon-like depiction of a Native American that has been directly affiliated with the club since 1947), beginning in 2019. A similar version of the caricature appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1932 and it was a popular accompaniment to news of the Indians for decades. It, along with the 1947 version of the Indians logo, is considered to be far more offensive than the current version of the logo.
A polarizing figure in recent years, “Chief Wahoo” continued the tradition of associating the Cleveland major league baseball team with Native American figures since their name change to the Indians in 1915. The Indians, called such diverse names as the Infants, Spiders, Naps, and Blues throughout their early history, are alleged to have changed their name to honor the contributions to Cleveland baseball by Louis Sockalexis, a Native American from the Penobscot tribe, who played baseball in Cleveland from 1887 to 1899.
In recent years, many groups across the nation had protested the continued use of the logo, with little interest expressed by the team in changing either the “Chief Wahoo” logo or its profile on team uniforms and on in-stadium displays. In 2014, then-team president Mark Shapiro, began to reduce the exposure of the “Chief Wahoo” logo, replacing it with a capital-C, in block format. But that reduction did not lead to outright termination, with “Chief Wahoo” displayed on the Cleveland uniform and in-stadium in high profile games, including the 2016 World Series.
After national debate was renewed during that October postseason regarding the appropriateness of the logo, Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred promised at the time to speak to the ownership group about the logo’s future. In April of 2017, Manfred made good on that promise, making public his intention to press the Cleveland ownership to eliminate the logo altogether. After months of discussion, today’s announcement identified the results of those conversations. In a joint statement, Cleveland owner Paul Dolan said “”We have consistently maintained that we are cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the discussion. While we recognize many of our fans have a long-standing attachment to Chief Wahoo, I’m ultimately in agreement with Commissioner Manfred’s desire to remove the logo from our uniforms in 2019.”
So this is the point in the story where we can all feel good that a business, which the Cleveland Indians most assuredly are, realized that greater forces than remaining static in the face of history exist, right?
Wrong. It’s like the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
While the logo won’t be seen on the uniforms or in-stadium displays beginning in 2019, “Chief Wahoo” hasn’t left the building or the public consciousness just yet. The Indians will still maintain the trademark, which means that, with the approval of Major League Baseball, they still control how the logo is used.
Maintaining the trademark to the logo is a prudent move for Cleveland—if they abandoned it, the logo could be claimed by another business or organization and be used in nefarious ways. But because they maintain control of the trademark and the logo, they can still create and sell merchandise with the “Chief Wahoo” logo on it. Which they are planning to do, profiting off of items with the “Chief Wahoo” logo on them available for sale at the souvenir shops located inside their home stadium, as well as retail outlets in the northern Ohio area. Major League Baseball has no current plans to make items bearing the “Chief Wahoo” logo available at their fan shops at MLB.com.
So, should we applaud the Indians and Major League Baseball for coming to grips with an outrageously out-of-place logo and banishing it from the field? Only if you think that limited progress is better than none.
While you won’t see it on or around the field in 2019, you can still buy it in the stadium, wear it, and thus continue to propagate a harmful stereotype in the name of team history, fan loyalty, or any one of a number of other worn excuses. The Indians move allows them to continue to profit, and to do so handsomely, thus doing nothing more than sweeping the issue aside in the name of corporate uncomfortability, when what was called for was corporate courage.
Doing the right thing isn’t easy, or popular, it remains the right thing. There’s a difference between worrying about political correctness gone amok and understanding that the times have changed from when your logo was created and deciding to reflect those changes for the better. And the Indians, and by extension Major League Baseball, chose to do the expedient thing and hope that everyone is satisfied, or at least quiet.
And that moribund silence and misplaced satisfaction is the last thing that we can afford.