When the Cleveland baseball club was renamed the Indians from the Naps in 1915, the Civil Rights Act was still 49 years from reality. Women could not vote, and racism against all minorities raged across America. It hadn't yet been three full decades since Custer's Last Stand, and the bloody Indian Wars continued in the American West into the 1920s.
"Why exactly would people in Cleveland — this in a time when Native Americans were generally viewed as subhuman in America — name their team after a relatively minor and certainly troubled outfielder?" asks Joe Posnanski, an award-winning sportswriter originally from Cleveland, now with USA Today.
Indeed, the man for whom the team is purportedly named played in only 96 games over three seasons, compiling just 367 at bats in his career — about half a season's worth for a typical ballplayer. But spotty performance wasn't the half of it.
"In all versions of the story, Sockalexis had to deal with horrendous racism, terrible taunts, whoops from the crowd, and so on," Posnanski wrote on his blog. Among those who cling to the feel-good story, "nobody ever mentions that Sockalexis may have ruined his career by jumping from the second-story window of a whorehouse. Or that he was an alcoholic."
In fact, according to NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman, "when alcoholism ended [Sockalexis'] brief major-league career, sportswriters reported that he had succumbed to an inherent 'Indian weakness.'"
Like Posnanski, Zimmerman calls the franchise's Sockalexis story "simply not true." He presents evidence that the franchise was renamed the Indians by sportswriters — not to honor Sockalexis, but to recall the sensational "fun" that he would inspire in crowds some 15 years earlier, when newspapermen would jokingly refer to the club as the "Cleveland Indians," even though it was formally named the Spiders.
Of course, it didn't hurt that the new name also happened to reinforce the image of Natives as anachronistic savages, the ballclub a fearsome force to be reckoned with. "In place of the Naps, we'll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts," wrote the Cleveland Leader in announcing the name change on January 17, 1915. In fact, none of the reports from the four daily Cleveland newspapers even mentions Sockalexis, but each is replete with negative stereotypes.
The Plain Dealer of the same day included a cartoon titled "Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They're Indians." The panel depicts, among other things, a frowning umpire scolding a Native American who says to him, "WUKWOG-O."
"When you talk to me, talk English, you wukoig," the ump replies. (The cartoon helpfully explains of "wukoig": "That last word is in Indian.")
There's also a section highlighting "New Rooting Lingo for the Fans," picturing a crowd of white men shouting noises like "WAHOO ZOEA-ERK!" and "SLKRO-WOW WAHOOOOOOO!"
When sociologist Ellen Staurowsky combed through the organization's promotional material from the time before the name change, she found no mention of Sockalexis until 1968, which was after Native Americans who had come to Cleveland under the federal relocation program began to protest the name and logo. "There is a vast difference between speculating the Indians were named after Sockalexis and making the claim the franchise now makes, that there was an intentional decision to honor him," Staurowsky told the Associated Press in 1999.
A close reading of the franchise's public statements on Wahoo seems to reveal its own awareness of the impossibility of denying the symbol's demeaning roots. DiBiasio never says outright that the franchise was named to "honor" Sockalexis, but rather just that the organization is "proud to acknowledge and foster [his] legacy." Even the bronze plaque of Sockalexis that hangs in the Indians Hall of Fame at Progressive Field carefully states that he "inspired the nickname used to this very day," glossing over the fact that this inspiration was the result of sportswriters' enjoyment of the sensation created by the vicious taunting he endured.