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‘Indian names, caps, symbols and how media should portray them’

Ah yes, Major League Baseball’s post-season. “October Ball” is about to begin, and once again the low-budget baseball team from Cleveland will be absent. In fact, despite an exceedingly small handful of playoff-season appearances, including its 2016 World Series loss to the Chicago Cubs, the last year the team from Cleveland won it all was 1948. It’s the longest current World Series losing series in baseball. Sigh.

Now I’m “as old as cat dirt,” as a friend once said, being born in 1949. But when I was born that year the Baseball World Series had not been played, so I lay claim to having entered the world when my hometown team was still the world champion.

Now I admit to no longer following professional baseball. That said, I still follow the Cleveland Indians. Yes, I said “Indians.” I consider it bizarre, to say the least, that folks from my hometown northern Ohio city last year changed the name from Indians to Guardians to honor “Guardian bridge signs” near the Cleveland baseball stadium. Oh, please.

No one truly knows why Cleveland’s baseball team name was changed in 1914 from Naps to Indians, but legend has it the change came about to honor Louis Sockalexis, the first American Indian to play major league baseball and who played for Cleveland and who died of alcoholism in 1913. And I should add, Cleveland is in Cuyahoga County, named after the now extinct Cuyahoga Indian Nation bearing that name. Thus, calling the team Indians seemed anything but racist, except for a handful of politically correct historical revisionists.

And no, I’m using the term “Indians,” not “Native Americans,” as I was corrected a number of years back when as a journalist I was interviewing the Ojibwe Nation chief in Minnesota. In our chat, I used the term “Native American” and he immediately shot back: “No; only you liberal white boys call us ‘Native Americans.’ It’s ‘Indians,’ got it?” I responded the only way possible, “Yes, sir.”

I should add that from at least the 1940s until 2018, the Cleveland Indians used the controversial “Chief Wahoo” logo, a caricature of a smiling Indian. I recall teaching a media ethics class in the Twin Cities, and asking students how best the media should deal with that logo, which at the time graced the baseball caps of Cleveland Indians players. I vividly recall a young woman standing up in the middle of this class of 65 students, and saying: “My name is _____. I’m a member of the Ojibwe Nation in northern Minnesota. That cap (she pointed at the Chief Wahoo cap I was holding) is the most popular cap on our reservation. It’s worn by more kids than are all other baseball caps combined. We know it’s a stereotype. We’re not stupid. What’s the big (expletive) deal?” A most spirited class discussion followed.

So as yet another October baseball playoff season approaches, I once again think of appropriate Indian names and caps and symbols and how the media should portray them and what they should be called and how the public and fans should react. And as I have for the past 74 years, I look forward to the April 1 start of the 2024 MLB season, with hopes my Cleveland hometown team might do well in the new year.

William A. Babcock, a former media ethics professor, is retired and living in Durango.