Sunday, October 30, 2016

Billy Rubin Storage Vault: 1995 Edition, Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo Special

Long before blogging came along, I was busy tilting at windmills by shooting off essays to various periodicals, if I can mix my metaphors there. Either way, they never got published, but I did get a certain satisfaction in trying to craft an argument carefully, which is pretty much what I use this blog for.

My proto-blogging has been on my mind of late as I watch the Cleveland Indians on the cusp of finally winning a World Series. Apologies, Cubs fans, I know you've waited longer. I became an Indians fan as a kid growing up in Ohio in the 70s, when they were a perennially terrible team in the midst of a three-decade slump (affectionately known by fans wanting to imitate a Red Sox tradition by referring to it as the "Curse of Rocky Colavito" even though such a wildly overblown comparison to Babe Ruth's departure from Boston only underscored the hopelessness of being an Indians fan in those days). Anyway, they got better--a lot better--in the mid-1990s, and finally got a crack at winning a World Series, but lost to a great Braves team in 1995. (They lost again, to the Marlins, in 1997, but that tragedy is a story for another day.)

The following is a letter I sent to the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that year, taking a look at the team name and its logo. Given the current political climate, it seemed appropriate to dust off a piece I wrote half a lifetime ago, and as I look at it for the first time in decades, I think that young Billy and old Billy aren't so different, as it is largely the same argument I would make today. Thus, I give you thoughts on racism and Chief Wahoo. I made only one small edit; my language was a little more charged back in the day and I've elided some racial examples that strike me now as in very poor taste. Otherwise, it's a voice from the past.

One small point of explanation: the greed of the players and owners mentioned below is in reference to the baseball strike of 1994 and 1995, which led for the first cancellation of a World Series since 1904 and significantly depressed fan interest when the playing resumed.

Cleveland Plain Dealer
July 10, 1995

To the Editor,
As I near the end of my 25th year of life here in Boston, I find that I may have, perhaps, a surprising birthday present in store for me on September 10. My Cleveland Indians, whom I followed religiously throughout my youth in Mansfield, Ohio (and in my college years and beyond here in Boston), are currently not only in first place in their division, are not only first in the American League, but are the best team in baseball by five or so games. It seems plausible, from the vantage of the all-star break, that by the time I turn 26 they will be well on their way to their first pennant in a very long time. I’m told it last happened somewhere in the mid-fifties, but I’ve never been too concerned about the specific year, since the general drift for me as a fan is that they’ve never come close in my lifetime. Unless they choke only in as grand a manner as the baseball team that plays where I now reside, the Indians are assured of the playoffs, and are the favorite to take the Series.
The success of the Tribe this particular year is at once unfortunate and appropriate. Major League Baseball has insisted on demonstrating what fans have been trying heroically to ignore over the past ten years: that the players and owners alike are selfish, venal, and shortsighted. Finally, the fans, having gotten the message, have given up on the game. Overall attendance is down 20 percent, and except for the first-place teams, the fans do not appear to be returning anytime soon. How apropos that Cleveland, whose burning river became a symbol for the myopic greed of Big Industry and earned it a reputation as the national laughingstock, is in this year baseball’s glory team.
The metaphor of Cleveland’s success (an ugly city winning in an ugly year) brings to my mind, as a lifelong fan of the Indians, another, less talked about wart on the face of the team. Literally on the face—for the face is the embarrassment itself. Cleveland’s team name, obviously, symbolizes the Native American tribes from the Cuyahoga area. The icon of the team, Chief Wahoo, is a grinning, wide-eyed character with a lone feather poking up from behind his head. Apparently the team name of “Indians,” along with Chief Wahoo, instill in the fan a feeling that the actual players possess heroic qualities of the Natives: savage, fierce, uncompromising.
Although the sports media has never been known for its sophistication or talent in thinking in the abstract, one would figure that a serious debate about the potential offensiveness of Chief Wahoo could be had. After all, sports commentators—at least the ones that I have read over the past few years here in Boston and in Cleveland—simply love the concept of the symbol, understand its power, and use it all too often in their articles. Anyone who plunks down $150 for a pair of Nike shoes is willing to pay that price in part because of the outline of a certain basketball player’s body that appears on the shoe. That player and his awesome abilities symbolize excellence, beauty, and the illusion of flight—a seductive symbol, and the NBA (and a host of other businesses) nets hundreds of millions of dollars on it. But Air Jordan is the exception (the man symbolizing his own mythical status); team mascots serve just as much a purpose.
The suggestion that Cleveland’s mascot might be regarded as racist, however, has never been taken seriously, at least in the Cleveland media (and I have seen no other media market even mention it—except in Atlanta, whose Braves made the pennant race in recent years, drawing attention to a similar protest). I remember while I lived in northern Ohio during the past two years, watching the eleven o’clock news on Opening Day, where there would be a story on the small group of protesters who each year ask the fans to boycott games so that the team symbol can be changed. I also remember the anchor snorting derisively about the trivial nature of the protest. “Why don’t they do something better with their time?” would be the quip, and then the news would continue with the homicides of the day.
The challenge the protesters issued, apparently, seemed as esoteric as left-wing academic parlor talk. I find that a simple name change, however, highlights the simplicity and beauty of the protesters’ contention. We would blanch, for instance, were the front office to decide to start calling the team the Cleveland Dagos or the Cleveland Wops in honor of its Eastern European immigrants. Immediately our ears would send a message to our brains to go on high alert, not because these names are any worse in nature than a Native American slur, but instead because we are tuned into that brand of racism. Why then do we ignore this slight on Native American culture?
One simple reason is that there aren’t many Native Americans left to raise much of a fuss, and the vast majority of citizens do not have to face an insulted Native in their day-to-day lives. The reason why this has happened is because of the dirty little American secret of genocide. Perhaps, just perhaps, what is unnerving about the debate over Chief Wahoo is that we must be put face-to-face with an ugly history for which our generation is not responsible (though we reap the benefits of our forebears’ actions) and cannot possibly rectify. Perhaps we like to think of “Indians” as that mythical animal, described with the above cardboard cutout adjectives, who roamed the American wilderness and then somehow mysteriously disappeared, instead of realizing that they were simply a group of nations—more than one—that got crushed under a society hell bent on conquering the land on which we live today, and committed to systematically marginalizing (i.e., killing) anyone who opposed that goal.
All of this debate has nothing, so far as I can discern, with my being a fan. Nor does this have anything to do with Eddie Murray’s 3,000th hit, and hopefully his eventual 500th home run, or the pennant that is within their reach. The debate has to do with understanding that symbols sometimes do represent things, and that they can be used to perpetuate stereotypes that are inaccurate and harmful. Surely we as a citizenry must take the protesters and their argument seriously. In a year when baseball’s ugliness is in the fan’s full view, the Indians have it in their power to right a wrong, if only as a symbolic gesture, in the brightest moment of their organization and at the height of the city’s pride in them.