All of the Chief Wahoo talk of the past few days inevitably leads to talk about the Indians changing their nickname as well, not just their mascot.
I’ll grant that there is an argument to be made that they are somewhat different issues as Wahoo is so patently and facially offensive while “Indians” is not quite as viscerally repulsive. I’m not sure I buy that argument — I’d like to see all Native American names, Braves included, go away just to be neat and tidy about it all — but there have been discussions in other sports leagues that have led to accommodations in which Native American names and sports have continued to live on respectfully together, so it is theoretically possible.
But let’s leave that for another day. For now, let’s assume for the sake of off-day argument that Major League Baseball and Indians owner Paul Dolan decide that, in addition to Chief Wahoo going, the “Indians” name is going to go too. I don’t think they’ll actually do this — my guess is that the Cleveland baseball team will be called the Indians for a long time — but let’s just pretend that the two of them have a beer at the Winter Meetings and it’s decided that, going forward, “The Cleveland Indians” will cease to be.
If that happens, what do we call them? Let’s run down some possibilities:
The Cleveland Spiders
The overwhelming answer most people give when the subject of renaming the Indians comes up is “The Cleveland Spiders.” This is understandable, as there was once a Major League team in Cleveland called the Spiders and because no other North American professional sports team has a spider as a nickname or mascot somehow. I don’t like it, though, for a couple of reasons.
A primary reason is that it just seems really 1990s to me. I’m shocked an NBA expansion franchise didn’t use it, actually, complete with black and teal and a ridiculously over-aggressive cartoon mascot because, in the 1990s, everything had to be all grim and gritty and hardcore like that. I can see “Spiders” being treated better than that now than it may have been then, but I could still see all kinds of aesthetic missteps being taken, turning the Indians into a low-level laughingstock.
We’ll leave that aside for a moment, however. A bigger reason is that the name “Spiders” is a reminder of abject failure when it comes to Cleveland baseball.
Contrary to what many believe, the Cleveland Spiders were not a direct ancestor of the Indians. The Spiders started as an American Association team known alternatively as the “Forest Cities” — a mostly disused nickname for Cleveland — and the “Blues.” When they moved to the National League in 1889, they became known as the “Spiders.” Ohio’s own Cy Young starred for them and they had some pretty decent success in the NL in the early 1890s.
The Spiders were most memorable, however, for their ignominious end. They declined from 1895-1898, becoming a middle of the pack club. 1899, however, saw the Spiders experience the worst debacle a major league club has ever experienced. The Spiders owners purchased the St. Louis Browns the offseason before — which is clearly a conflict of interest — and transferred most of the good Spiders players, Cy Young included, to St. Louis. They then turned the Spiders into a sideshow, quite literally, actually, moving most of the team’s schedule to the road. The Spiders were the jobbers of the National League. The Washington Generals without the sympathy. They finished 20–134, which will forever stand as the worst record in baseball history. They finished 84 games out of first place and 35 games behind the next-to-last place team in the league.
The Spiders were so bad that year that they, along with three other NL teams, were contracted out of existence at the end of the season. Ironically, this cleared out some markets and paved the way for the Western League to ramp up to major league status and become the American League we all know today. Which means that the Spiders pathetic futility is the very reason the Cleveland Indians exist.
People usually aren’t thinking about that futile end when they talk about calling the Cleveland team the Spiders. I think most just like the brief nod to history and believe that spiders are badass animals. But it’s hard for me to not think of the Spiders as a relic of one baseball’s darkest chapters. And I’m sorta freaked out by spiders, so they’re not my first choice.
The Cleveland Blues
The Spiders were known as the Blues at times in the 1890s. Nicknames were a lot more fluid then. The name returned to Cleveland baseball when the American League expanded to Cleveland in 1901. For one season, the club that would become the Indians was referred to as the Blues.
There are pros and cons to “Blues” as a name. On the pro-side is an actual connection to the current franchise. Another is the fact that colors-as-nicknames work really well in sports. This goes back to chariot racing in Roman times, by the way, when fans at the Coliseum would root for their favorite chariot driver based on the color of the cloth hanging from his chariot. You were a partisan of the “red” or the “blue” or what have you. In baseball we have the “Reds” and the “Red Sox” and “White Sox.” It’s an extension of that. We see this in soccer and rugby and a lot of international sports too. Blue is a pretty popular color for baseball teams and the Indians already wear a whole lot of blue, but if they change their name to the Blues they could claim it in baseball more affirmatively than other teams do.
The con is one of concrete identity, in that the modern sports economy really pressures a club to have something that can be easily slapped on logos and merchandise. There are some super venerable nicknames like “Dodgers” and “Yankees” which do just fine not being reduced to an actual mascot — the name or initials and a distinctive font is enough — but I’m not sure if the Blues could pull that off so easily. If forced to choose between selling caps with a spider on it and caps with a some vaguely 19th century concept of blue on it, MLB and New Era and all of the stakeholders are gonna pick the Spiders every time, I suspect.
Some Actual Tribe Variant
Many older Native Americans call themselves “Indians.” “Native Americans” has been taken up by non-indigenous people to refer to indigenous people, but my understanding is that indigenous people don’t often walk around calling themselves “Native Americans” among themselves. They call themselves “Blackfeet” or “Cherokee” or “Navajo” or “Chippewa” or what have you. The link way up at the top of this page goes to the Florida State Seminoles webpage. Florida State may have begun calling themselves that for the same reasons the Indians and Braves and other teams started using Native American nicknames and mascots, but there has since been a dialogue and endorsement from the Seminole Tribe and the university which has rendered the nickname acceptable to most and has seen to it that people and their iconography are not treated disrespectfully.
I don’t know how that has been received by the larger Native American community — I could imagine it still being seen as controversial — but I suppose it’s at least possible for the Indians to take that tack and see if some positive can be made out of so many years of negative portrayal. It’d be a pretty dicey proposition, though, as it would be a process driven by the Indians and Major League Baseball that would be, in essence, asking people for permission that they are in no way entitled to. It’d make Major League Baseball’s century of tone-deafness on the matter of nicknames someone else’s problem, which seems rather rude and presumptuous. And that’s before you realize that, because of the United States’ policy of removing Native Americans from their lands and screwing them over royally for a couple of centuries, there aren’t exactly a ton of Native Americans left in northern Ohio to bestow such permission. I could see it happening in theory, but there may be too many obstacles and too much water under the bridge to even consider it. And that’s before one asks why it’s so important to keep Native American names associated with professional baseball to begin with. Which I don’t think it is. Just throwing it out there.
Major League Soccer screwed up in the 1990s by immediately assigning nicknames to every club. They did it, I suspect, because clubs in all other North American professional sports have set nicknames and that’s just what is done, right? But that wasn’t always the case. Many of them developed organically, with the name being suggested by the press or the fans or as tributes to some local idiosyncrasy. MLS has backed off that now, with new teams being allowed to just be identified as the city and “SC” or “FC” or what have you, tracking the habit of international soccer. For teams that were given a nickname — my local Columbus Crew, for example — the nickname is being deemphasized and an organic identity, driven by fans, is being allowed to take hold.
There’s no reason baseball couldn’t do this. Heck, the Indians have their own history of this, as they were known as the “Naps” for the years between the Blues and Indians monikers. That was to honor the club’s biggest star at the time, Napoleon Lajoie, and it went away after he did. There is no way that specific method happens today due to free agency and clubs having no interest in tying their identity to one player (the “Cleveland Klubers? Eh. No), but some natural evolution of a name could come about.
Maybe you start with the “Blues” as an unofficial/official nickname. Call them “Cleveland BC” and refer to them as “the Blues” and see what happens over the course of a couple of years. Maybe that can’t work in the modern era. Maybe those cap sales would suffer too much. But it seems worth a try.
That’d be my choice, anyway. “Cleveland BC. — Go Blues!”
Any ideas of your own?