Chief Wahoo’s Long Game

by Nicholas Frankovich
In a prudent move, the Cleveland Indians are resting him but keeping him on the roster.

Fashions change. A hundred years ago, American Indians rode high in the American imagination. Their serious faces graced our coinage. They figured prominently in popular fiction and, by midcentury, in film, where they fought cowboys. James Fenimore Cooper was still on the syllabus. The stories were set in the past, in the early and middle innings of a game whose outcome you already knew. The Indians had fallen behind and were fated never to catch up, though they never gave up. Their toughness was legendary. Sure, the Trojans got whomped by the Greeks, but the losing team had character, and Vergil thought Romans should be proud to claim Aeneas and his crew as their founding fathers. Then the Romans repeated the trope: After executing a charismatic rabbi and sacking Jerusalem, the Eternal City began the long process of succumbing to a variant of Jerusalem’s religion.

You have to admire an enemy who maintains his honor in defeat and lives on in the expectation that his chance to redeem himself will come in due season. Resilience is a virtue. Through most of the past century, our fathers and grandfathers adopted American Indian motifs for countless professional sports teams and college and high-school athletic programs. Often the messages behind the names and the mascots included “Be afraid.” The characterization of Indian men as fierce might have been exaggerated, but how much do you think they really minded? The manly warrior who remains stoic to the bitter end is a stereotype combining a couple of attributes neither of which is wholly negative.

Most American Indians either approve of or do not object to Indian themes in organized sports. So the Peter Harris Research Group found in 2002 after Sports Illustrated commissioned it to conduct a survey. The campaign against the names and logos of various teams — the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, and the Cleveland Indians are subject to some of the loudest criticism — can boast of few Indian supporters at the grassroots. That’s been an embarrassment for leaders of the advocacy group the American Indian Movement. They take the hard line. They represent white liberals on this issue better than they represent Indians.

Only ostensibly are the politics about American Indians. What they’re really about is the primal clash between Indians and chiefs. If you belong to the latter class or aspire to, you know your lines in the script: Name-check Little Black Sambo. Try to change the subject to African Americans. Use the word “sensitivity.” First, identify the opinion favored by your peers or social superiors. Then claim it as yours, too, because you want them to renew your membership in the club or to admit you into it.

Or you can reject the chiefs and side with the Indians instead — with the hoi polloi, the common man, the underdog. The opinion of the first few hundred names in the Cleveland phone book weighs more heavily with you than does the opinion of the Plain Dealer’s editorial board, which recently declared against the cartoon figure Chief Wahoo, the logo of the Cleveland Indians since anyone can remember. Granted, the collective mind of a metropolitan daily newspaper is no longer what it once was. It’s a blunt instrument, too weak and worn down to shape public opinion, but it serves well enough as a stick for pointing readers to opinions already in fashion, which you instinctively buck.

Time is on your side: Fashions change. Depictions of American Indians in popular culture are less common now than in 1947, when the Indians’ owner, Bill Veeck, hired the J. F. Novak Company, a local signmaker, to give the city’s big-league baseball team a face. The job fell to 17-year-old Walter Goldbach, who these days lives in Hinckley, a Cleveland suburb, and says he’s “100 percent against” the movement to ditch Wahoo. Goldbach’s version of the Chief lasted until 1951, when the Indians introduced the upgrade, designed by a New York advertising firm, that has been used continuously since then. Veeck’s son Mike says Wahoo’s purpose was to be a visual statement of optimism and cheer. Most of that effect is achieved through the smile, which is pretty exuberant. Great teeth. This columnist for the Plain Dealer says she always thought Wahoo looked less like an Indian than like the Italian uncles of some of her Cleveland friends. Myself, I always thought the resemblance to Bob Feller was subliminal and then, once you saw it, striking. I wonder whether it was intentional.

“The politics of it don’t bother me,” Wahoo said in an interview with Esquire last summer. “You want to protest, be my guest. Chant. Wave signs. Burn me in effigy. But if you want to do something real to help the indigenous Americans who suffer across this land, get your butt to Pine Ridge and go to work. Putting me out of a job isn’t going to change a damn thing.”

Plain Dealer columnist Phillip Morris echoes the sentiment. “Nothing in this town [more] consistently brings out the holier-than-thou crowd than Chief Wahoo, the embattled emblem of the Cleveland Indians,” he writes, reinforcing his credibility along the way by repeating his judgment that, sure, Wahoo is racist and should retire, “but . . . ” Morris saves his ire for the club of “shallow crusaders” who “have no understanding of the plight of the Indian” in real life and who show no interest in the “corrosive pathologies” — dropout rates, child mortality, teen pregnancy, etc. — that flesh-and-blood American Indians suffer disproportionately.

If the controversy over Wahoo is a distraction from the hardships of life on the reservation, however, the converse is also true. No one argues that killing Wahoo would make American Indians more comfortable or prosperous. It would please the tastemakers, that’s all — those who think Wahoo undignified, not high-toned enough. He flouts a certain ideal, the weathered Indian elder on the obverse of the Buffalo nickel.

Let me dispute the taste of the tastemakers: Wahoo is a classic specimen of a golden age of American commercial art, born in the heart of the American Century. Just as no one in 1951 foresaw the cloud that hangs over Wahoo in 2014, no one in 2014 can foresee what he’ll look like to the average thoughtful observer in 2077. All we know is that the liberal pieties of our grandchildren will not match up entirely with our own. With respect to our war against Wahoo, will future generations think we were philistine because for the sake of ideology we blinded ourselves to artistic merit? You remember the forward-thinking urban planners who wanted to demolish Fenway Park in Boston, and Grand Central Terminal in New York: Down with the architectural vision of dead men! To clear space for my vision. Now, looking back, everyone salutes the rear guard who fought Progress, who stood athwart History and yelled Stop!

The Cleveland Indians have charted a prudent course. They retain Chief Wahoo but have muted his presence during this storm of controversy. Mitigate the fury he provokes now but keep him poised to return to his place in the sun when the weather changes. In the mid 1980s he replaced the C on the Indians’ cap after ownership decided to relocate the franchise but didn’t know yet whether it would be to Denver or to New Orleans. (That’s when the Jacobs brothers stepped up, bought the team, and resolved to keep it in “Cleveland, city of lights, city of magic.”) Unlike a letter of the alphabet, Wahoo worked as an insignia in any location. A few years ago he began to rotate with a script I, and now a block C has replaced him completely, at least on the cap, where he had a run of about two decades. He remains on the sleeve of the home uniform and on some merchandise.

When he was on the cap, it was popular among local Indians in Montana, according to a Montana resident writing on the letters page of the New York Times in 1997 (a good year for the Tribe, as it turned out, except when Jose Mesa shook off Sandy Alomar’s sign for a fastball one evening in late October). Would the rural Indians still buy it? The media drumbeat against Wahoo may have swayed them somewhat by now. We don’t know.

What we do know, by the way, is that most American Indians call themselves Indians, not Native Americans, which, besides sounding stilted, denotes a broader category including indigenous people of Alaska and Hawaii. Note the name that the American Indian Movement chooses to go by. The New York Times says to call people what they call themselves. Journalistic style manuals generally, including that of the Associated Press, lean heavily toward “American Indian.” Ditto in academe. I was an editor at Columbia University Press in the 1990s when it launched its series in American Indian history and culture. The most recent title is The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southwest, published in 2010.

Why do we say “Native American” when we mean “American Indian”? We presume that the former is more respectful because it’s not a term likely to pass our grandparents’ lips. Underpinning that logic is the more fundamental presumption that we’re morally superior to them and that the language we use should reflect that. I can see the substance of commentary about Native American this and Native American that, but I find that this trying too hard in the choice of terminology diminishes the author’s or speaker’s credibility. He’s talking more about his refined sensibility, as he sees it, than about Indians.

He has his analogue among those Christians who — a fringe group or a creative minority, depending on your point of view — argue that churches should abandon the central symbol of their faith, out of respect for Jews and other non-Christians who associate the cross with anti-Semitism. Mary C. Boys, now a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, once took up the idea in an article in Cross Currents, where she affirmed the view of those who find the cross offensive, argued that the image of the instrument by which Jesus died for our sins was too tightly bound up with Christian practice and tradition for Christians to be able to lay it aside just like that, and proposed that they hold on to it but mindfully: The message that your neighbor perceives when you display the cross may be different from the message you intend.

Which of two conflicting messages associated with a symbol should we teach our children is true? As the cross is for Christians, so Wahoo is for Clevelanders, in principle though obviously not in the magnitude of importance that even the most devout Tribe fan ascribes to him. To those for whom he’s an indefensible anachronism, I would ask: Is that what you think? Or is it only what you think you think? Are you making an aesthetic judgment and calling it a moral judgment? Remember, ugliness, too, is in the eye of the beholder and just as fleeting as beauty, maybe more so. One day you might wake up and, with fresh eyes, see what our grandparents saw when Wahoo was born among them in those early years of the baby boom.

— Nicholas Frankovich, a native of Greater Cleveland and an Indians fan since the days of Sudden Sam McDowell, is a deputy managing editor at National Review.

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