Finding the right spot for our impolitic past
Saturday night was my first ballgame at Progressive Field since 2009, the year after I got fired (MLB.com called it a layoff. What’s the diff?) as a sportswriter. Perhaps I felt bitterness toward Major League Baseball for cutting loose another Black employee.
No matter, because while I didn’t go to ballgames, I followed baseball. I followed closely the Cleveland team with the impolitic nickname.
In a couple of months, the name will be in its yesteryear, buried next to nicknames like “Broncos,” “Blues,” “Spiders” and “Naps.” Until then, the old nickname will stare me in the face – its bold script on people’s T-shirts and other things inside the ballpark. I can’t miss it, although I would like to.
Attending a ballgame with a former student — oh, and he bought our tickets — I sat behind a handful of men who seemed to have ties with the ballclub. They talked about prospects, about Goodyear, Arizona, and about what they saw in particular players on the Cleveland team and on the Tampa Bay Rays.
They wondered what would happen to the signage. They dwelled awhile on the lit sign above the centerfield bleachers — a sign too large to hang on a person’s living-room wall.
I turned to one of them and offered a suggestion: The gigantic sign should end up in the Western Reserve Historical Society in University Circle, joining the 35-foot-tall image of Chief Wahoo that once rotated outside Municipal Stadium.
One of the men remembered the caricatured Chief, his toothy grin and exaggerated farcical features spoke of a bygone era. But the men behind me had no idea where the sign had gone.
I didn’t tell them I was glad Chief Wahoo, a logo I discovered in my boyhood, was gone. Nor did I tell them I once liked Chief Wahoo and ignored talk about how debasing the Chief was.
Nonsense, I’d said. Chief Wahoo was just a funny logo, so don’t make a big to-do over the character. Don’t y’all have a sense of humor?
Then the years steamrolled along, and I learned what I should have learned decades earlier: You can’t denigrate a people and call it humor. Chief Wahoo wasn’t a salute to Native Americans; the logo was a reflection of what America thought of the indigenous tribes that predated Columbus, peoples whose ancestral lands were stolen and whose way of life went topsy-turvy.
At times, I’d cringe when my duties as a baseball writer demanded I use the team’s demeaning nickname. I did, however, shy away from putting the name “Chief Wahoo” into my stories.
I don’t write much about baseball anymore. I don’t weigh what I should have done when I did cover the Cleveland baseball team. My 10,000 words would never undone the images that went with the nickname. Bold leadership from the family who owned the team had to play that part, just as corporate leaders on brands of rice and on a popular pancake mix decided to ditch negative portrayals of Black folk on their products.
Another sordid piece of America’s past is falling. If the lit sign ends up in a museum, a closet or a person’s backyard, I’m good with it. I just don’t want to see the nickname stare at me in scripted letters when I go to a ballgame.