Bring On the Cleveland Spiders: A Historical Defense of Changing the Name

This reflection is adapted from a Twitter thread on this issue, which has more inline pictures to accompany it, and in response to the news that the Cleveland Indians are going to consider changing their name

Getting behind the Cleveland Spiders (or Guardians, or even Rockers) does not erase history, but rather is consistent with history. It’s long past time to change the name.

Cleveland changed its name from the Cleveland Naps in 1915, when Nap Lajoie requested a trade away from the team. (Yeah, things were a little different back then.) The team solicited submissions for the new name through local sportswriters.

The exact process through which the team chose this current name is unclear, but it is commonly accepted that this was done to “honor” Louis Sockalexis, a Cleveland Spiders player from 1897–99. The story on his Wikipedia page attributes this idea to a young girl. I was taught this story, as fact, in school.

But there’s some odd things here. For one, the Spiders did not become the Naps. The two franchises were separate. Even back then, when it was common to name the franchise after associated individuals, Sockalexis was not one.

Sockalexis was also not a particularly prominent player on the Spiders. He played only 94 games over 3 years, and despite showing incredible potential in college, his alcoholism and injuries made him league-average over the course of his career. (While sources do not connect the two, historical records also note that Sockalexis was treated extremely poorly by fans both in Cleveland and elsewhere, and I wonder how that contributed to his alcoholism.)

You may be asking what Sockalexis thought about all of this newfound attention in 1915, and it certainly would be relevant to all of this. But Sockalexis had died of tuberculosis in 1913.

It strikes me as a little odd that a “young girl” in 1915, one who likely never saw the Spiders play, would be so interested in Sockalexis that she would suggest this name. It’s not impossible. But it makes me think that a parent was heavily involved, at minimum. Indeed, on a separate page, Wikipedia lists the Sockalexis story as “largely discredited.” (Note: In the 45 minutes in between me putting this on Twitter and putting this here, somebody’s already corrected this discrepancy on Wikipedia. The internet is wild, y’all.)

Sockalexis was a member of the Penobscot Nation, born and raised on the reservation in Maine. The Penobscot tribe has been public about their opinions on the team’s name. They passed a resolution in 2000 asking for Chief Wahoo to be retired.

The team refused to acknowledge receipt of this resolution, despite it being hand-delivered to a team vice president. After nine years of inaction, the Maine State Legislature passed a resolution asking the team for the same.

This brings us to Chief Wahoo. I’ve written before about my personal experience, where I didn’t even realize that it was a racist caricature until I was a teenager, given that it was so cartoonish. The logo is…mostly gone. And the team’s efforts to scrub the logo have been hailed by virtually all Native stakeholders as unmistakable progress.

That includes the Penobscot Nation itself.

The block-C and script-I logos have asserted their dominance at this point. But people are still extremely attached to the old logo, and the few remaining Wahoo-branded items on the market are some of the best-selling items associated with the team.

According to an intellectual property lawyer in that article, selling a limited number of items apparently allows the team to keep the trademark and thus to prevent knockoffs from using the logo in the market. And if the team is profiting handsomely off the limited amount of Wahoo-branded merchandise out there, they have no incentive to come up with further efforts to “de-emphasize” the logo now that they’ve gotten the PR boost for doing so.

I know many people who think the logo was bad but the team name isn’t. But this demonstrates that the only way to truly get rid of Chief Wahoo as a Cleveland-associated figure is to change the name entirely.

Let it become a symbol of racism and racism only.

I know that the common response to sentiments like this is that it erases history. This is ridiculous. Here is a non-exhaustive list of teams that have changed their name in order to stop using anti-Native stereotypes:

Atlanta Hawks
Los Angeles Clippers
Golden State Warriors
New Jersey Devils
Stanford Cardinal
Syracuse Orange
Miami University of Ohio RedHawks
Marquette Golden Eagles
St. John’s Red Storm
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Dartmouth Big Green
University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks

These were only the ones I could fit in one tweet.

Does the fact that the Stanford Cardinal are no longer called the Stanford Indians erase the fact that Pop Warner brought the program to prominence? What about Syracuse’s 2003 March Madness title, as the Orangemen? No?

There are only a handful of pro sports teams left with anti-Native names. More have been changed than those that remain. But the ones that are left matter. They provide cover for plenty of similar names and mascots at the high school level, for example.

And while pro sports teams change their names less often these days, one type of name change still happens regularly. Here are examples:

Baltimore Ravens
Oklahoma City Thunder
Carolina Hurricanes
Washington Nationals

This bothers me more than any team rebranding.

As an Asian-American who grew up in lily-white Cleveland suburbs, I have seen how racism in America is anti-Blackness first and foremost. But anti-racism requires an understanding of how Native culture has been denigrated, stamped out, caricatured, and appropriated as well.

I, for one, welcome our new spider overlords.

Happy July 4th.

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