Chief Wahoo

Chief Wahoo

Chief Wahoo was the primary logo of the Ohio-based Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise the Cleveland Indians. As part of the larger Native American mascot controversy, it drew criticism from many people including Native Americans, social scientists, and religious and educational groups, but remains popular among many fans of the team. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Indians’ owner Paul Dolan announced that Chief Wahoo would no longer appear on uniforms or stadium signs following the end of the 2018 season. The team’s primary logo is now a block ‘C.’

The logo was last worn by the Indians in a loss to the Houston Astros on October 8 in the 2018 American League Division Series. News outlets noted the irony of the logo’s final appearance being on Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day.

The character dates back to 1932 when the front page of the Plain Dealer featured a cartoon by Fred George Reinert that used a caricatured Native American character with a definite resemblance to the later Chief Wahoo as a stand-in for the Cleveland Indians winning an important victory. The character came to be called ‘The Little Indian,’ eventually becoming a fixture in the paper’s coverage of the team, including a small front-page visual box where his head would peek out to announce the outcome of the latest game. Journalist George Condon would write in 1972, ‘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.’

In 1947, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck hired the J.F. Novak Company, designers of patches worn by the Cleveland police and fire departments, to create a new logo for his team. Seventeen-year-old draftsman Walter Goldbach, an employee of the Novak Company, was asked to perform the job. Tasked with creating a mascot that ‘would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm,’ he created a smiling face with yellow skin and a prominent nose. The phrase ‘Chief Wahoo’ had already been used for years before its use as a reference to the Indian’s mascot. There was a popular newspaper comic strip called ‘Big Chief Wahoo’ that ran from 1936 to 1947.

Native American player, Louis Sockalexis, was an outfielder for the Indian’s predecessors the Cleveland Spiders. He is one of the first Native Americans to play Major League Baseball. Questionable origin myth indicates that the names Indians and Chief Wahoo were meant to honor him. The Penobscot, Louis Sockalexis’ tribe, petitioned the Cleveland Indians to discontinue the use of Chief Wahoo.

Sportswriters would eventually take to calling the unnamed character ‘Chief Wahoo.’ Goldbach has said that the logo’s moniker is inaccurate. Quoting a child he met while talking at a school, Goldbach explained in a 2008 interview, ‘He’s not a chief, he’s a brave. He only has one feather. Chiefs have full headdresses.’ In 1951, the mascot was redesigned with a smaller nose and red skin instead of yellow skin. This red skin logo also appeared in 1948 and 1949.

Ohio sportswriter Terry Pluto has described comics of Chief Wahoo that would run on the front page of the ‘Cleveland Plain Dealer’ in the 1950s, with the character’s depiction signifying the outcome of yesterday’s game. Wins were illustrated by Chief Wahoo holding a lantern in one hand and extending the index finger on his other. Losses were illustrated by a ‘battered’ Chief Wahoo, complete with black eye, missing teeth, and crumpled feathers.

During his tenure as President of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, Peter Bavasi asked players how the team’s uniforms should look. Bavasi has described Joe Carter and Pat Tabler suggesting that Chief Wahoo be added to the hats, with Tabler predicting that it would ‘sell like crazy.’ Bavasi recalls expressing concern that it would offend Native American groups, but that player Bert Blyleven reassured him, ‘Nah, it shouldn’t. Really looks like [manager] Phil Seghi.’ Blyleven made a similar remark to Sports Illustrated, and the magazine described the resemblance as ‘uncanny.’ Tabler’s prediction was ultimately borne out, with hat sales increasing significantly after the reintroduction of Chief Wahoo. The revised hat design has been described as a change ‘in keeping with Major League Baseball’s trend toward ‘old-style’ simulacra.’ Around the time Bavasi added Chief Wahoo to the team’s hats in 1986, he also banned ‘derogatory’ banners at the stadium.

As part of the Native American mascot controversy, Chief Wahoo has drawn particular criticism. However, the use of ‘Indians’ as the name of a team is also part of the controversy that has led over 115 professional organizations representing civil rights, educational, athletic, and scientific experts to publish resolutions or policies that state that any use of Native American names or symbols by non-native sports teams is a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping that promotes misunderstanding and prejudice and contribute to other problems faced by Native Americans.

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