While researching my rankings of the most racist Native American–themed sports teams, I noticed a curious thing about my choice for the absolute worst, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians: “Interestingly, mascot Chief Wahoo is not too prominently displayed on the team’s official website,” I wrote, before noting that the red-faced, big nosed, smiling caricature—a Native American Sambo, plain and simple—remained on the Indians’ main hat and indeed remains the team mascot.
It turns out I may have sensed a burgeoning perestroika on Lake Erie, although really it has more to do with a less snowy locale. The website Sportslogos.net—which, if any place should know, should know—reports that Chief Wahoo may be “finally on the way out.” It lays out a bunch of evidence. In 2009, Cleveland replaced Wahoo with a red, vaguely old-timey “C” on its away batting helmets; in 2013, it started wearing those batting helmets at home as well. When they secured the first American League Wild Card spot last month, playoff apparel also left out Wahoo. In an official MLB graphic showing all 30 teams’ logos, the Indians were the only team not to use their primary logo, instead using the name, in cursive, as it appears on their jerseys. And Chief Wahoo has vanished from all 2014 batting practice and spring training uniforms, as well as season-ticket brochures. And, as I noticed, he is increasingly inconspicuous on the website (though not on the official apparel site, where he smiles at you from the upper-left corner).
Curtis Danberg, the Indians’ senior director of communications, told me Wednesday afternoon that there is not any sudden move to ditch the chief, who remains, he said, one of the three logos, along with what he called the “script Indians” and the “block C.” “It’s not reacting to anything in the news,” he said, acknowledging the controversy over the Washington football team’s name. “There’s no conspiracy theory here.” He declined to comment on the broader question of whether Chief Wahoo should and will stick around in this climate. He insisted, in a way that didn’t contradict Sportslogos.net’s account, that there has been a gradual move toward the block C, but that, he said, is more about “celebrating Cleveland.”
He did say something very interesting, however, when I brought up the new spring training uniforms. “Spring training’s a different animal,” he said, “and when we’ve been in Arizona, we’ve really focused on the block C—being in that region, in that area, we’re certainly cognizant of that.” In other words, it is apparently one thing to use the chief while in the eastern Midwest, but quite another to use him in the southwest, where (whispered voice) there are actual Native Americans. And the first year the Indians did spring training in Goodyear, Arizona, after having spent the past decade-and-a-half in Florida, was … 2009, the year they first started playing around with the block C in a bigger way. Cynical? Democratic? Whatever it takes to ditch Chief Wahoo.
Beyond that, it turns out that there may be no driver of social change like success. The Indians seem poised to make changes after making the playoffs (if only for a single game) this season—the first time they qualified for the postseason since 2007. Many noted that the pressure increased on Washington’s football team to change its name last season in no small part due to the national popularity brought by eventual Rookie of the Year quarterback Robert Griffin III as well as the team’s exciting second-half run, which saw them make the playoffs for the first season since 2007 and win their division for the first time since 1999.
I still think you have to put the Indians below Washington in the racist rankings. I mean, Chief Wahoo looked like this until 1979, and he is still on their official hat. But Washington could take a lesson from Cleveland’s flexibility and receptivity to its (spring-training) fanbase. In sports, this issue is moving in a clear direction.