By Brad Ricca
The recent decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins football team due to the “disparaging” nature of their name raises one question all over Cleveland: what about Wahoo?
Chief Wahoo, the logo of the Cleveland Indians, is kind of like Dracula. He has flashed his white teeth over the city for what seems like an eternity. Even as the team and Major League Baseball has quietly pushed the “block C” logo as the club’s primary visual mark, Chief Wahoo still smiles from the uniform sleeves, caps, batting helmets, and stadium decor. Let’s be honest: Could there ever be a Cleveland without Chief Wahoo? And I don’t mean in terms of any eventual change in name or logo, but in the sheer amount of stuff that the Chief is already stitched in, ironed on, applied to, and inked in. In a town where you might spot a Couch, Edwards, or Frye jersey up at Applebee’s on any given Thursday, Wahoo trumps all of them. Wahoo in Cleveland is like infrastructure: it is way down in the bowels of things. We have to follow it down to its dark source.
We know that the Chief is beloved—or offensive—for many, depending on who you ask. Weeks before this year’s home opener, the Cleveland Plain Dealer called for the “racially insensitive” Wahoo to finally be retired. At the same time, local company GV Art & Design sold out of t-shirts emblazoned with “Keep the Chief.” Chief Wahoo, in the battleground state of Ohio, still splits friends and family across all sorts of boundaries. Why? Because people disagree about what Wahoo really means.
In baseball, meaning comes down to history, whether it is numbers in a box score or stories shared over pretzels and beer. Even in the era of high-definition replay, history is the only thing we can agree on. For example: I can’t stand the Yankees, but I can agree that Mariano Rivera was an all-time great closer (with some great entrance music). That’s why we hate talking about changing baseball history so much when men asterisk themselves to get into the record books. We need a baseline .000 to create meaning. We hate when we are wrong about history.
So what if we are wrong about Wahoo?
It turns out that much—much—of what we think we know about Chief Wahoo is wrong. Even the origin of the name “Indians” is debated over. The team’s front office claims that the Indians name honors an old “full-blooded Native American” named Louis Sockalexis who played for the club in the late nineteenth century. Over a succession of franchises in multiple leagues, Cleveland baseball clubs couldn’t stick on a nickname. Perhaps the worst was the old Players’ League franchise, the Infants, who lost 75 of the 130 games in their lone season. In 1901, Cleveland’s franchise in the new American League was called the Blues, then the Bronchos in 1902. The team settled on the Naps in 1903 after Napoleon Lajoie, the future Hall-of-Famer second baseman. But when Nap left after the 1914 season, the team needed a new hero—and a new name.
On January 18, 1915, a Plain Dealer article titled “Looking Backward,” confirms that “many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player … the team will be named ‘Indians’ to honor him.” But many current writers and historians call foul. Ellen J. Staurowsky first suggested in a landmark 1998 article that the new name may have been piggybacking on the popularity of the 1914 Boston Braves, who miraculously rose from worst to first in mid-season. Craig Calcaterra of NBC’s Hardball Talk agrees, calling the Sockalexis story “bogus.” Keith Olbermann just calls it “lies.” The Braves angle passes the common-sense test: Borrowing the ideas of a successful team is a tradition as old as the game itself. Picking “Indians” to evoke “Braves” seems very plausible, especially when you consider baseball’s love of superstition. What could be better karma than adopting a nickname inspired by the team that just won it all?
Still, other accounts support the idea that the name actually is meant to honor Sockalexis, who was, from May to July 1897, a very good baseball player. In fact, Sockalexis was so beloved—he was hitting over .370 that spring—that the sportswriters wrote poems to him in the newspaper. In the Plain Dealer:
This is bounding Sockalexis
Fielder of the mighty Clevelands
All the crowd cries: “Sockalexis,
When he circles like the eagle
Round the bases, or serenely
Slides upon his solferine
Pie and doughnut padded stomach,
Wiping all the glaring war paint
Off his nasal in a jiffy.
There is an old tone at work here. The focus of the “poem” on his war paint, belly, and nose uses praise for his play as an excuse for casual racism. They didn’t even need cartoons in 1897. During Sockalexis’ magic May, the paper riffed on the infamous words of General Philip Sheridan, stating “The man who said that there are no good Indians except dead Indians … surely never saw one Louis Sockalexis.”
Turn-of-the-century sportswriters really wrote like that. Even when they clap, they get in their digs. On May 6, 1897, in a loss against Cincinnati, “the greatest portion of the glory in yesterday’s game fell to the lot of Sockalexis,” who scored a homerun and cut off a runner at the plate in “a sensational fielding play … that will not be soon forgotten.” The writer calls Sockalexis “Big-Man-Not-Afraid-of-His-Job.” Was this racism, or just the way people thought back then? Does it matter?
By June, Sockalexis was so popular that local ads started using his name to endorse their products, almost certainly without his approval. In ads, John, Browning, King & Co. brag that their wares are “going at prices that astonish even Sokalexis.”
But few ballplayers can play a perfect summer. By July, things took a turn for Sockalexis. In a recap from July 8, 1897 titled “A Wooden Indian,” Sockalexis “played very much like one for once” as he struggled at the plate. Finally, by August 17, the paper reveals that the ailing Sockalexis has been “under suspension for some time because of his too infrequent indulgence in the flowing bowl.” There was even fear of a leg amputation due to “blood poisoning,” among other scandalous rumors.
Sockalexis’ reversal of fortune due to his struggles with alcoholism—and his subsequent treatment by the press—was so absolute that even the national papers got involved. On October 19, the Baltimore News ran a three-chapter opus titled “The Song of Sockalexis:”
All your wampum couldn’t
Coax me from the cup that cheers me …
I’d rather play a date with Booze than anything I know of!
Thus departed Sockalexis
To the Land of Awful Headaches,
To the daffy land of Dopedum
And the forests, dark and lonely
Sockalexis died on Christmas Eve 1913 at the age of 42 on an Indian reservation in Maine. The Plain Dealer called Sockalexis “the greatest natural baseball player that ever lived.” But they go on:
Flattery and homage turned the head of the aborigine: he fell into bad habits and became utterly beyond the reach of discipline. “He was only an Indian, after all,” commented the enthusiasts who had been his most eager admirers.
No baseball player should be immune to the barbs of his hometown press box. But Sockalexis was treated differently because of his race, even when he was great, and especially when he was bad. When Cleveland’s sportswriters were polled in 1915 to pick a new name for the team, did they honor Sockalexis out of nostalgia for an exciting couple of months of play—or was it out of guilt for the way they treated him? Or was it a crack—like “Infants”—at a horrible last-place team? Sockalexis was a failed prospect whose tragedy was, in the words of the papers, inseparable from his heritage. Still, his very presence in the majors was and is still—and I think rightfully so—seen by many as heroic. In Louis Sockalexis: The First Cleveland Indian, David L. Fleitz calls him “the Native American version of Jackie Robinson.”
The official origin of the Wahoo logo seems much less problematic. The accepted story goes that in 1947, half a century after Sockalexis, Indians owner Bill Veeck hired a kid named Walter Goldbach, 17, who designed the caricature. Goldbach, who worked for a local ad agency, defends Wahoo to this day. He explains that “it was the last thing on my mind [to] offend someone.” After some alterations in 1951 (less nose, more red), the Wahoo image became the version we see today, though in greatly reduced use on the official uniform and around Progressive Field.
But that’s not the real origin of the famous Wahoo cartoon.
The truth is that a very similar caricature was already in heavy unofficial use for fifteen years before Veeck commissioned Wahoo in 1947. On May 3, 1932, this small image appeared on the front page of the Plain Dealer:
There is a long history of racial stereotyping in cartoons depicting Native Americans, making many of them, by definition, similar in appearance. That’s part of the problem. Still, this looks a lot like our Wahoo. The next day:
Readers liked the cartoon, so it continued, through bad games and rainouts:
The character came to be called “The Little Indian.” He poked his head out on every front page to relay the previous game’s outcome. He became a visual box score that anyone, including kids, could read.
The creator of the Little Indian was native Clevelander Fred George Reinert, who came up with the image soon after being hired in the early thirties. He became so popular that “Whenever school children toured the Plain Dealer office, they almost always asked to see the man who drew ‘the little Indian.’”
“Good old Reiny” drew many sports cartoons before retiring in 1962. He then went into business with his son, worked in local television, and drew official caricatures for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even after his retirement, the paper covered his activities and urged fans to write him letters when he was ill.
The Little Indian ran for thirty years. The similarities to the modern-day Wahoo, which it predated by fifteen years, are astounding.
A friend of Reinert’s named George Condon noted in a 1972 column that “When the baseball club decided to adopt an Indian caricature as its official symbol, it hired an artist to draw a little guy who came very close to Reinert’s creation; a blood brother, unquestionably.”
Condon seems to be the only one who ever said this, at least in print. When Reinert died in 1974, he was a Cleveland sports fixture. Yet he is not named in any official Indians literature, or in any books about the creation of the Wahoo logo.
But what about the actual name of “Chief Wahoo?” No one can seem to pinpoint when it first appeared. Reinert didn’t come up with it. “When I first created him,” he said in a later interview, “I had picked out the name of Tommy Hawk, but then I found out somebody else had thought of the name first.” Goldbach didn’t, either. He says that the name is inaccurate: “He’s a brave, he says. He only has one feather. Chiefs have full headdresses.” So who named Chief Wahoo?
“Chief Wahoo” was actually a fairly common nickname for any generic Indian character. In fact, there was a popular newspaper comic strip called “Big Chief Wahoo” that ran from 1936 to 1947. The main character, a naïve, helpful fellow, looks little like the Indians’ Wahoo image, but the name may have been influential. “Wahoo” was also a popular baseball cheer in Cleveland. Peter Pattakos, in his 2012 Scene article “The Curse of Chief Wahoo,” notes that boosters were hand-fed “New Rooting Lingo for the Fans,” including the bizarre, Chewbacca-like “WAHOO ZOEA-ERK!” when the new name was announced in 1915.
In the press, the name “Chief Wahoo” doesn’t seem to appear until 1950. Wahoo’s debut in official accounts offers a tantalizing possibility of not only where the name might have come from, but who Tribe fans associated it with.
In the Plain Dealer on June 22, 1942, fans are urged to “Remember the name of Allie Reynolds … He’s a real Indian and unless the signs are all wrong he’ll be a Cleveland Indian … he recently struck out 37 batters in three consecutive games” in the minors. On August 2 of that same year: “Of all their minor league prospects, the Indians feel most optimistic about a pitcher named Allie Reynolds.”
When Reynolds—a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation—finally makes it to Cleveland as a September call-up in 1942, he was described as “swarthy, black-eyed Allie Reynolds” in an introductory spread in the paper. He is portrayed as a family man whose lifelong dream was simply “to be a pitcher.”
Allie Reynolds pitched in his first major league game on September 17, 1942 and made two more relief appearances that season. When next spring rolled around, Reynolds was designated an “Unsigned Tribesman” and was uncertain to even make the team. But he earned a bullpen gig with the 1943 club. His early, impressive strikeout totals (151 by season’s end to lead the AL), soon snagged him a starting job.
Reynolds pitched for the Indians for five years, mostly as a starter. He worked in 139 games and finished a quarter of them. With Bob Feller serving in the armed forces (Reynolds, as a father, was exempt), Allie became a fan favorite.
On October 11, 1946, Reynolds was traded to the New York Yankees. Since Feller was untouchable, Yankee star Joe DiMaggio reportedly suggested his bosses to ask for Reynolds, because he could never hit the Cleveland pitcher’s fastball. The Tribe got great second basemen Joe “Flash” Gordon in return.
Indians fans can guess what happened next. Reynolds was good with the Indians. He was great with the Yankees. He was a part of six World Series championships, five in a row from 1949 to 1953. He averaged almost 18 wins a season over his first six years. In the summer of 1951, he threw two no-hitters. Manager Casey Stengel said “Reynolds was two ways great, which was starting and relieving, which no one can do like him … He has guts.” In the postseason, Reynolds sparkled. In World Series play, he went 7–2 with a 2.79 ERA over 77 innings, including three Series-clinching performances in relief. In 26 postseason at-bats, he hit .308.
A surprising nickname for Reynolds’ appears on October 6, 1950 in his old local paper, the Plain Dealer. Under the title of “Chief Wahoo Whizzing,” Reynolds fans learn that “Allie (Chief Wahoo) Reynolds, the copper-skinned Creek” lost to Philadelphia, but “in the clutches, though, the Chief was a standup gent—tougher than Sitting Bull.”
The Yankees are always big baseball news (even in Cleveland), but Reynolds especially garnered a lot of coverage in his old town. In subsequent articles, he is called “Chief Wahoo,” “old Wahoo,” and just plain “Wahoo.”
Reynolds saved some of his best stuff for his old team. His first no-hitter in July of 1951 was against the Indians and Feller (his former roommate). In that game, “Chief Wahoo” retired the final seventeen Indians batters. In New York, writers called Reynolds “Super Chief,” probably after a popular high-speed train. But it was perhaps a natural extension of his previous Cleveland nickname. But “Super Chief” stuck, and that nickname is inscribed on Reynolds’ gold plaque in Yankee Stadium. Reynolds was one of the first former Indians to make a difference on successful Yankees squads, a club that includes Graig Nettles, David Justice, and C.C. Sabathia. Reynolds started a fruitful relationship between the two teams, you could say. Or a curse, depending on what city you live in.
The name “Chief Wahoo” also appeared in the popular Cleveland sports column “The Sports Trail” by Jimmy Doyle. On May 25, 1951, Doyle writes that “It’s great to see Bob Feller show how he’s mastered that old pitching know how” and signs it “Chief Wahoo’s-this” as a possible parting shot against the departed Reynolds. The Wahoo’s-this character (one of many employed in Doyle’s writing), would hang around for a while, making pro-Indians statements, as if to say “What was that other guy’s name again? You know, the one who keeps winning championships in New York?” The first time “Chief Wahoo” is given as the name for the Indians’ physical mascot is in 1952, when a person in a Wahoo costume shows up for a kids’ party at Public Hall given by “Cleveland’s dentists.” Was Wahoo ever mentioned before 1950? That is unclear. The Plain Dealer, the paper of record, doesn’t mention the name until 1950, and then only as a nickname for Allie Reynolds.
Reynolds, despite a 131–60 record with the Yankees and some incredible postseason numbers, never made it to the Hall of Fame. He didn’t mind. “Teamwork was more important than some kind of honor,” he said. Reynolds died in 1994 in his native Oklahoma. His career, and his life, was the stuff of baseball legend. He thought being paid to play the game he loved “was the greatest thing in the world.” His success as a Yankee must have been rage-inducing to Tribe fans.
What does Chief Wahoo mean? Is it “just” a logo or is it a scarlet letter on our collective golf shirts, symbolizing lots of history and people we don’t really understand? With the exception of the Sockalexis story—maybe—Clevelanders don’t know the story of the Little Indian, or Allie Reynold’s nickname. I’ll be totally honest: it wasn’t that hard to find. So are we all that afraid of history?
Regardless of where individual Clevelanders stand on whether the image is offensive, we shouldn’t argue with history, or use its omissions as an excuse. The nickname “Indians” and the image of Chief Wahoo are the product of a long lineage that includes a tragic player treated horribly by the press, a beloved local artist who never got the credit he deserved, and a superstar pitcher who was traded away—at the height of his powers—to the hated New York Yankees. If those aren’t Cleveland things, then Cleveland things don’t exist.
The true history of Wahoo might not be the best reason to consider a change in logo or name—or even a reason to consider change at all. The discussion about Wahoo is about more than just cartoons or nicknames. We all know that. But I can’t imagine any Indians fan I know not being horrified—no, make that, grab-the-folding-chair livid—that their symbol is named after a guy who won six World Series championships for the Yankees.
And I lied a little about the first reference to “Chief Wahoo” in the Cleveland papers. If you look beyond baseball, the first appearance of the name really occurred on June 1, 1938 when “Chief Wahoo came in second … in the fourth race of greyhounds at Bainbridge.”
History in baseball is important, for so many reasons. But so is karma. If you believe in that sort of thing.
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Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys (St. Martin’s, 2013), named a Top 10 Book on the Arts by Booklist and now available in paperback. He is the recipient of a 2014 Cleveland Arts Prize for Emerging Artist in Literature and is a SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. Visit brad-ricca.com and follow him @BradJRicca.