Descendants of first Native American major leaguer want Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo scrapped

Chris Sockalexis said Cleveland is doing little if anything to honour his ancestor Louis Sockalexis, who played for the Cleveland Spiders

(Louis Sockalexis in a photograph from a 1912 postcard)

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The descendants of the first Native American major league baseball player want the Cleveland Indians to scrap Chief Wahoo.

Chris Sockalexis said Cleveland is doing little if anything to honour his ancestor Louis Sockalexis, who played for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. He said the Chief Wahoo logo and mascot is an insult to the ballplayer’s legacy.

“The mascot is really not an honour,” said Chris Sockalexis, an archeologist and member of the Penobscot Indian Tribe in the State of Maine. “If they want to honour him, they should talk about his gameplay rather than the mascot issue.”

Louis Sockalexis was signed in 1897 and played 94 major league games with the Cleveland Indians precursor Spiders. He is believed to have been the first Native American ball player to play in the major leagues.

The Cleveland Indians have claimed in the past their name and logo are meant to honour Sockalexis. The team continues to claim Sockalexis is the inspiration behind the name.

The team said on its website Cleveland chose the name Indians in 1915 “reviving a nickname of its old (National League) club upon the arrival of this Native American in 1897.” The website said, “Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward referred to Sockalexis as a ‘marvel.”’

Facing protests and outcry over the name in 1995, Cleveland issued a press release that referred to Sockalexis as the true source of the name.

According to Joe Posnanski, a sportswriter for NBC Sports, the Indians name was chosen by sportswriters from the four city newspaper at the request of then-team owner Charles Somers. Posnanski writes they chose the name because the Boston Braves had a dynamite season the year before and it was “a glorious opportunity for…Native American jokes and race-specific clichés and insults that fit well in headlines.”

Posnanski wrote there was never any mention of Sockalexis.

Chris Sockalexis said his family has always stood against the Chief Wahoo logo.

“I guess first and foremost they should lose the logo,” he said. “Indians is still a stereotypical name, but it’s better than Redskins (the Washington NFL football team), so I’m not totally offended by the name Indians, just the logo.”

When he started playing, Louise Sockalexis was called a “wonder” by former New York Giants manager John Ward, who had seen him play in college, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. In his first 20 major league games Sockalexis hit with an average of .372, according to the society.

Sockalexis also faced racial taunts from fans during games.

“He is hooted and bawled at by the thimble-brained brigade on the bleachers. Despite all this handicap the red man has played good, steady ball,” wrote Sporting Life, in a May 15, 1897 article quoted by the Society for American Baseball Research.

His blossoming career began to wilt after he either fell or jumped out of a two-story window and suffered a severe ankle sprain during a night of drinking on July 3 during his rookie year, according to the society. Sockalexis never really recovered after that.

He played only 66 games that season which he ended with a .338 average and 16 stolen bases. He died at the age of 42 of a heart attack while cutting down a pine tree on Christmas Eve in 1913, according to the research society.

Robert Roche (left) in a viral photo of a confrontation with Cleveland Indians fan Pedro Rodriguez in a viral Twitter photo from 2014. Rodriguez apologized to Roche in 2016.
Robert Roche (left) during a confrontation with Cleveland Indians fan Pedro Rodriguez in a viral Twitter photo from 2014. Rodriguez apologized to Roche in 2016.

The Cleveland Indians have long faced controversy and outcry from Native Americans over their team name and logo. In 1972, prominent American Indian Movement member Russell Means launched a lawsuit against the team which was settled in 1985 for $35,000 US, said Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache, who is part of the People Not Mascots organization.

Roche, 70, said Means cursed the Indians saying they would come close, but never win the World Series.

The Cleveland Indians beat the Toronto Blue Jays Wednesday to advance to the World Series.

Cleveland last won the World Series in 1948.

Roche is currently before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Appeal Board to have the trademark on Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo logo and name revoked. The case follows a decision that revoked the trademark on the Washington Redskins’ name.

“We are not mascots, we are people, we are a race of people. They are mocking our spirituality, they are mocking our culture, they are mocking us as a person for fun and games to exploit us, who we are, to make money,” said Roche.

However, the trademark case remains in limbo pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that will also impact whether the revocation of the Redskins trademark stands. Curiously, the case that will determine the fate of the Chief Wahoo logo along with Indians and Redskins names depends on the success of an Asian American dance rock band called the Slants.

The Slants failed in a bid to have their name trademarked under the same law, known as the Lanham Act, which led to the revocation of the Redskins trademark. The term “slants” can be viewed as derogatory to people of Asian descent. The Slants took their case to the U.S. Court of Appeal and won in a ruling that said the section of the Lanham Act which forbids trademarking of disparaging names was unconstitutional.

The Patent and Trademark Office then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in late September. It’s unclear when the case will be heard, but it will happen during the court’s current session which runs until June 2017. The Washington Redskins were also seeking a Supreme Court hearing to overturn their trademark rejection.

“If they side with the Patent and Trademark Office, then our case will start back up,” said lawyer Lisa Mach, who is representing People Not Mascots. “We are going to have a problem if they uphold (the U.S. Appeal Court ruling).”

Mach said a $9 billion lawsuit is ready for launch against the Cleveland Indians if things fall their way at the Supreme Court and then before the Patent and Trademark Office.

“People are making millions and billions of dollars off a race of people, off a bunch of stereotypes,” said Mach.

Roche said he will continue the fight until his last breath.

“I am not going to die until they change it,” he said.

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@JorgeBarrera

1 thought on “Descendants of first Native American major leaguer want Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo scrapped

  1. As a card carrying Metis, I am proud that the Indians think my ancestors are worthy to be the nickname of their baseball franchise. I am not offended by a cartoon image, just as I am not offended by similar logos depicting Scots. I am not ashamed of my ancestry nor easily offended. It would appear that not all share my views on the matter.

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