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The Cleveland Indians are doing the right thing by changing their name. We’ll leave it to Cleveland fans to decide if the new name — Guardians — is a good one or not, but we have little doubt that a change was overdue.
The team deserves credit for listening to Native American voices who have explained how these mascots and imagery are hurtful and demeaning. Some people argue that this decision, and that of other teams and schools who have decided to move away from Native American mascots, is an act of cowardice — one that caves to a woke mob. We see it differently.
When a group of people repeatedly and persuasively tells you that your organization disrespects them and their history, and you take action to address it, we don’t think of that as being woke. It’s called being a good listener, and a good community member.
And while we’re glad that the Cleveland team is following through on this important step, something they moved toward late last year after already retiring the native caricature mascot Chief Wahoo, we share the concern that Louis Sockalexis’ legacy could get lost in the change. It must not.
Sockalexis, a Penobscot man from Indian Island, was the first known Native American to play major league baseball. He played three seasons for the then-Cleveland Spiders in 1897, 1898 and 1899 and would become the inspiration for the “Indians” team name. Accounts of his skill are almost mythical, with reports that he could throw a baseball from Indian Island across the Penobscot River.
Sockalexis attended the College of the Holy Cross, and in 1896 the Worcester Telegram described him as “a whirlwind on the bases,” who “could field anything that his great speed could get him into, and could throw like a bullet.” He later transferred to Notre Dame in Indiana, and then burst on the professional scene batting .338 in his first season and didn’t strike out in 278 at-bats.
How did some fans greet him on the field? With racial slurs and demeaning “war whoops” and “war dances.” He was asked if he was drinking fire water, a particularly cruel question as he increasingly battled alcoholism. Both his health and his play declined rapidly. After only playing seven games in 1899, he was let go by the team. He returned to Maine, where he coached youth baseball on Indian Island and played in the minor leagues. He died in 1913 at the age of 42, having long dealt with tuberculosis and heart disease.
It’s a complicated legacy, sure, but one that needs to be remembered, understood and celebrated.
“The Penobscot Nation remains so proud of the legacy of Louis Sockalexis, and I am hopeful that we can have a real discussion and education around his contributions to baseball, without this harmful mascot hanging over it like a dark cloud,” Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador Maulian Dana said. “I am so happy for all the Indigenous people in Cleveland and all around the country that won’t have Chief Wahoo validated by institutional racism anymore.”
Unfortunately, the video the Cleveland Indians put out announcing their new name didn’t mention Sockalexis. And some are rightfully concerned about the visibility of his story.
“I am afraid now that the Cleveland team will forget the history and let it fade into the background,” Ed Rice, who wrote a book about Sockalexis, “Baseball’s First Indian: The Story of Penobscot Legend Louis Sockalexis,” said. “I think it’s incredibly important now that Maine and Holy Cross do more to recognize that we had an extraordinary ball player who never got the respect he deserved.”
Notably, Indian Island resident Chris Sockalexis, one of Louis’ few remaining distant relatives, has said that he and his siblings found the old Chief Wahoo mascot to be offensive but were less troubled by the team name.
“While we are disappointed with the upcoming name change, we understand the decision by the Cleveland organization in identifying and rectifying social injustices. We stand with [their] decision and will continue to support their efforts,” Chris Sockalexis said in a statement late last year when the team announced it would change its name. “Our biggest concern with the name change is that the history of Louis Sockalexis within the [team] may become lost in the shuffle. We do not want the legacy of Louis to fade into the background.”
We don’t either. It’s important that the Cleveland baseball team, Maine and all of the places and organizations that were part of Sockalexis’ remarkable story make extra effort to continue sharing it.