Guarding Sockalexis?


Starting with the 2022 baseball season, the Major League baseball team in Cleveland will be known as “The Guardians”.

The old Cleveland mascot, “Chief Wahoo”, is a caricature that has been under legal fire for more than 30 years.

By definition, “caricature” is “a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect”.

“Chief Wahoo” has not been an official logo of the Cleveland baseball team for a couple of seasons.

However, you still see lots of the “exaggerated toothy grin, triangular-eyed, red skinned and single-red feather” logos everywhere.

Depending on which side of the issue you stand, it might be the most beloved or offensive logo of all time.

Growing up in northern Ohio, being a fan of the Indians was almost genetic for me.

The first game I ever attended at the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, I sat in right field and looked at the back of my all-time favorite player…#6…Rocky Colavito.

My first baseball jersey was a #6 Cleveland model, just like “The Rock”.

Rocco Domenico Colavito, although a .266 career batter, did hit 4 consecutive home runs in one 1959 game and was the first American League outfielder to play error -free ball for an entire season.

So, I’ve been a long-suffering fan of Cleveland baseball and still ticked at “The Catch”, Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder snag of a Vic Wertz blast to the bowels of center field at the New York Polo Grounds in the 8th inning with men on base and the score tied at 2 in the 1954 World Series opener.

The whole “Chief Wahoo” and “Indians” issue is shrouded in mystery and convenient double-talk.

In 1897, Louis Sockalexis, a 26 year old member of the Penobscot tribe in Maine became the first “Native American” major league baseball player when he took the field for the Cleveland Spiders, nicknamed because of the lanky and long-limbed look of the team.

Much like Grand Daddy Long Legs.

Informally though, folks began referring to the team as the Indians.

Sockalexis was born on Indians Island in Maine and by the age of 13, he was a much sought-after baseball player.

Rumor has it he would throw baseball from the island to the other shore and ride the ferry across the river, where he would retrieve the ball and throw it back.

In his first season, Sockalexis batted .338 with 16 stolen bases and he didn’t strike out in 278 at-bats.

But after that brief moment in the sun, his career and health went downhill rapidly.

There are those who would like you to believe the baseball club was nicknamed “Indians” to honor Sockalexis.

There’s even a plaque honoring him at the Progressive Field Honor Wall where the team plays its’ home games.

Nicknames for Cleveland baseball teams include the aforementioned “Spiders”, “Infants”, Forest Citys” “Cleveland Lake Shores”, “Blues” or “Bluebirds”, “Bronchos” and the “Naps” in honor of eventual Hall of Fame second baseman Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie.

But when Lajoie left the team in 1914, a new nickname was needed.

Despite all the claims and counterclaims, it’s probably most likely Cleveland chose the “Indians” in 1915, hoping to emulate the on-field successes of the Boston Braves.

At any rate, versions of “Chief Wahoo” were connected to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Fred George Reinert and his cartoon character “The Little Indian” who showed up in the newspaper for some 30 years.

Credit pitcher Allie Reynolds, who had a good career with the Indians that became great when he donned the New York Yankees pinstripes.

In the definition of “caricature”, “Chief Wahoo’s” exaggerated features is what drew the ire of many.

As a matter of fact, the Indians team name is less-troublesome to the Sockalexis family and the Penobscot people than the grinning mascot.

Perhaps if team ownership had dropped Chief Wahoo years ago, “The Guardians” wouldn’t have been needed.

Then again, probably not.

So Cleveland baseball will now become “the Guardians” which is a neat story, connected to the Lorain-Carnegie (Hope Memorial) Bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland.

Eight, 43 foot tall slabs of Berea sandstone watch over the 5,865 foot truss structure.

Each “Guardian” holds either a stagecoach, a covered wagon, a hay wagon, a pre-30’s era passenger car, a dump truck, a cement truck and two other trucks, in a salute to forms of American transportation.

Now, there was a time years ago that I figured I would easily live to see my beloved Cleveland baseball team win another World Series.

My loyalties started in the mid 50’s, about 7 years after the team won its’ last “fall classic”.

I was teased into thinking that might happen in the 90’s when but Jose Mesa forgot how to pitch.

Then I was seriously conflicted when the Cubs and Indians went 7 games in 2016.

Generally speaking though, I’ve probably listened to and seen more bad baseball than most, except former pitcher Herb Score who did play-by-play and color from 1964 through 1997.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated lots of “Indians” stuff and while I don’t mean disrespect to the Sockalexis family, I won’t be tossing out or burning my memorabilia.

I guess there’s a fine line between tradition and being stubborn.

I’m sure I’ll get some “Guardian” stuff but ideally, I’d like to see the Cleveland baseballers win a World Series.

Then, I would happily burn my old Cleveland “stuff” and celebrate with a significant carbon footprint.

Until that day, I’ll keep watching “Major League” every spring and still cry when “Wild Thing” and the team wins to clinch the pennant.

I’m not going to let my guard down!

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