Chief Wahoo’s Curse: How the Cleveland Indians Went From Breaking Racial Barriers To Just Being Racist

1948 was a pretty amazing year to be a sports fan in Cleveland. The newly formed Cleveland Browns had just rattled off a perfect 14-0 season on their way to a third All-America Football Conference championship in three years, the Cleveland Indians had won their second ever World Series behind the brilliant hitting of league MVP and club player-manager Lou Boudreau, and the Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn’t exist for another 22 years so fans weren’t burdened by the looming dread over their team’s unavoidable playoff collapse. There were a multitude of reasons behind the success of the Browns and the Indians in 1948, but one of the biggest ones was the fact that both organizations were at the forefront of breaking the color barrier in their respective sports.

When he was forming his team for the Browns inaugural season in 1946, Paul Brown brought in two black players that he had coached during his time with Ohio State and the Great Lakes Bluejackets, the football team at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Chicago that was the site for the Navy’s first black trainees. Those two men—fullback Marion Motley and defensive tackle Bill Willis—would play their way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and lead the Browns to five straight championship seasons. A year after Brown brought integrated football to Cleveland, Indians owner Bill Veeck signed 2nd baseman Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles of the Negro leagues and started him almost immediately, making Doby the 1st black player in the American League and the 2nd black player in all of baseball after Jackie Robinson. After switching to centerfield in 1948, Doby was an integral part of the Indians’ success, never more so than when he launched what would turn out to be a game-winning solo shot in the 3rd inning of game 4 of the World Series. The Indians would go on to win the Series in 6 and Doby, along with ageless wonder Satchel Paige—who made his debut as an MLB “rookie” at the age of 42 after two decades of brilliance in the Negro leagues—would become the first black ballplayers to win a World Series.

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Larry Doby and Indians pitcher Steve Gromek celebrate winning game 4 of the 1948 World Series

Although there was nothing in the franchise’s past or present to suggest it, the future of the Cleveland Indians would be one characterized by long stretches of misery, punctuated every now and again by instances of the team brutally snatching defeat from the hands of victory when a championship was within reach. After 6 years of nipping at the heels of Casey Stengel’s vaunted New York Yankees, Larry Doby would wind up leading his Indians to the American League pennant in 1954 and a trip to the World Series where they were swept by Willie Mays’ New York Giants. What followed was the longest playoff drought in the history of any of the 4 major pro sports, with the Indians failing to so much as make it back to the playoffs for another 40 years.

To call the Cleveland Indians awful during that time doesn’t do justice to just how wretched a team and a franchise they were. Although they tallied a few runner-up finishes in the AL in the second half of the 1950s, the Indians somehow managed to finish in 4th place or lower in every season but one from 1960 to 1993, with their lone decent showing being a 3rd place performance in 1968 where they ended the season 16.5 games behind the league leading Detroit Tigers and only a half game above the 4th place Boston Red Sox. Over the course of those 34 disastrous seasons, the Indians finished with a winning record just 5 times and the team’s most memorable moment occurred during an ill-conceived 10 cent beer night in 1974 that ended prematurely with fans storming the field and starting a drunken riot. The Indians were so bad that they were chosen as the featured team in the film Major League, in part because their awful record, attendance and stadium made the idea of an owner threatening to move the team to Miami believable.

However, after 4 decades of futility, the Indians struck gold in the mid 1990s, assembling an all-star studded squad that lit the baseball world on fire and, like their fictionalized counterparts in Major League, captured the imagination and devotion of the entire city. In a strike-shortened 1995 season, the Indians were baseball’s unstoppable force, leading the league in nearly every offensive category behind the bats of American League MVP Albert Belle, Jim Thome and a young Manny Ramirez, winning the AL Central by a staggering 30 games and steamrolling their way into the World Series. Unfortunately for the Indians, their opponent in that Series turned out to be the Atlanta Braves and their immovable object of a starting rotation and they lost in 6 games.

Having made a mess of the 1996 playoffs by losing to the upstart Baltimore Orioles in the divisional round, the Indians made their way back to the World Series in 1997, this time against the Florida Marlins. With the Indians and Marlins each nabbing a road win in the first 4 games of the series and then holding serve at home, the teams went down to Miami for the deciding 7th game. Having been in the driver’s seat for the bulk of the game, the Indians took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th and handed the ball off to their closer Jose Mesa, 3 outs away from the club’s 1st championship in nearly 50 years. They wound up being 3 outs too many. After allowing leadoff hitter Moises Alou to advance to 3rd base on a bloop single to left and a opposite field shot from Charles Johnson, Mesa gave up the tying run on a Craig Counsell sacrifice fly, blowing the save and all but sealing the Indians fate. The Marlins wouldn’t win the game until Edgar Renteria’s bases loaded line drive off the tip of pitcher Charles Nagy’s outstretched glove in the 11th, but Mesa’s name is the one that haunts most Indians fans. Cleveland hasn’t been back to the World Series since.

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The Curse of Chief Wahoo, personified.

The causes of the team’s sustained failure over the past 68 years are certainly many and varied, but in a sport that embraces superstition and omens more than any other, it’s worth at least mentioning The Curse of Chief Wahoo. In 1947, Bill Veeck commissioned the J.F. Novak Company to create a mascot and logo for the Indians that “would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm” to fans coming to the ballpark. The result was the first iteration of what would eventually become Chief Wahoo. With it’s cartoonishly toothy grin, big nose and lone limp feather, the first Wahoo was offensive to be sure, but it was nothing compared to the version the team rolled out in 1951 and which has been plastered on Cleveland Indians memorabilia ever since. A grotesque, fire-engine colored caricature, the little red Sambo that is the current Chief Wahoo is the most racist, disturbing logo in all of American sport and it isn’t even close.

Since the 1970s, Native American activists and civil rights advocates have been pressuring the Cleveland Indians to, at the very least, do away with this race based mascot that does real and substantive harm to Native Americans and which increases the willingness of whites to internalize stereotypes of all races, if not the team name itself. Much like the Washington R-dskins, the Indians have not done away with their unconscionable logo. However, unlike their counterparts in the NFL, the Cleveland Indians seem to tacitly acknowledge their anachronistic, racist mess of a mascot. For the 2016 season, the Indians have “demoted” Chief Wahoo to their secondary logo, behind the red, block letter C that will be the primary symbol of the team. The fact that the Chief Wahoo logo will still appear on the sleeves of the team uniforms and still be used for marketing purposes is unacceptable, but the fact that the team is responding to public outcry by slowly minimizing it’s presence is much more encouraging than the moronic and disingenuous prattle of R-dskins owner Daniel Snyder, who peddles false narratives about the team’s origins and generally acts like Davy Crockett defending the Alamo whenever asked about changing his team’s name.

To be fair, it doesn’t make much sense to blame the failures of a professional sports franchise on the introduction of a racist team logo. But, by the same token, holding onto a morally repugnant mascot that causes genuine damage to Native Americans doesn’t make sense either. And, at this point, I’d like to think that more and more Cleveland fans would be willing to believe in a mythical curse that can be broken with a compassionate understanding for others rather than cling to the fallacious belief that a mascot in redface is a tradition worth fighting for.

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Categories: Race, Sports, Uncategorized

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