For many years, Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team had an answer to anyone who called their longtime nickname, the Indians, racially insensitive:

Louis Sockalexis, in a 1912 photo postcard

The name and logo – a maliciously grinning cartoon known as “Chief Wahoo” – was never meant as an insult, critics were told, but as a tribute to a great player from the team’s past, Penobscot Nation member Louis Sockalexis.

They kept up the story for decades, even as non-Native fans flocked to the park “honoring” Sockalexis by wearing war paint and feathered headdresses, beating drums and mimicking the kind of chanting they’d seen in Western movies.

The charade has finally collapsed. In 2018, the team stopped featuring “Chief Wahoo” on team uniforms and merchandise. This week, it announced that it would replace the “Indians” name in time for the 2022 season.

Why they have to wait until then is a mystery. If the name was offensive enough to come down in 2022, it doesn’t belong in 2021, either.

While there may be business reasons why the team can’t do what so many Maine high schools with offensive team names have done in recent years, nothing is stopping Cleveland from finding a more appropriate way to honor Sockalexis, considering that they have been using his memory as an excuse for cultural mockery all of these years.

Sockalexis’ story of exclusion and exploitation tells a lot about the struggles Native people have faced in this country.

He was born on Indian Island in 1871 and soon showed himself to be a standout in multiple sports. A fellow player spotted him in the outfield during a semi-pro game at Poland Spring and recruited him to play for the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, where he starred on the football team as well as on the diamond. While playing for Holy Cross, Sockalexis is said to have thrown a ball that traveled 413 feet (as measured by professors), which was considered an unofficial record. After two years in college, he signed with Cleveland’s pro baseball team, then known as the Spiders, in 1897.

Sockalexis played in 94 games over three seasons, proving to be an amazing talent at bat and in the field. He was also the first Native American to play baseball at the highest level, and was the subject of vicious racist taunts, especially when the team was on the road.

“He is hooted and bawled at by the thimble-brained brigade on the bleachers,” The Sporting Life wrote at the time. “Despite all this handicap, the red man has played good, steady ball and has been a factor in nearly every victory thus far.”

His big league career was cut short by injuries, likely made worse by alcoholism. He hung around in the minor leagues for a number of seasons, returning to Indian Island, where he died in 1913 at the age of 42.

Sockalexis never asked to be honored by his one-time employer. Neither did his family or the Penobscot Nation, which has struggled with crushing poverty during the decades in which the team has been making millions selling tickets and Chief Wahoo merchandise.

Now that the sham tribute is finished, the Cleveland club should work with the Penobscot Nation and Sockalexis’ descendants to find an appropriate way to honor a transcendent athlete whose story has much to tell about America’s tortured relationship with Native people.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.