I changed my mind about Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo. Here’s why.

This 28-foot-tall Chief Wahoo sign stood atop Cleveland Municipal Stadium from 1962 until the stadium was torn down in the mid-1990s. It was restored and moved to the Cleveland History Center.
This 28-foot-tall Chief Wahoo sign stood atop Cleveland Municipal Stadium from 1962 until the stadium was torn down in the mid-1990s. It was restored and moved to the Cleveland History Center. Cleveland History Center at Western Reserve Historical Society

Just inside the front door of the Cleveland History Center, one of the first relics of the city’s past on display is the 28-foot-tall Chief Wahoo that was perched above Gate D of Cleveland Municipal Stadium for more than 30 years.

Bat in hand, leg raised, the grinning mascot of the Cleveland Indians is poised to take a swing, his features outlined in red and blue neon lights.

For many Clevelanders, the sight of this restored landmark surely brings back fond memories – and maybe not so fond ones if they recall the quality of baseball played before tiny crowds in that cavernous stadium on Lake Erie. Chief Wahoo has appeared somewhere on the team’s uniforms since 1947, the year before the team won its last World Series.

But for many outside the city, particularly Native Americans, the grinning Wahoo is a degrading caricature, a variation on blackface characters of minstrel shows and the racial stereotypes they represented. And so after years of protests and a diminished use of the logo, the Cleveland Indians have announced that starting in 2019 there will be no Chief Wahoo on the team’s hats or uniforms or on banners and signs at Progressive Field, the team’s home since 1994.

The move seems long overdue to me, but I haven’t always felt that way.

No fuss in ‘80s

Chief Wahoo did not bother me when I attended my first games at Municipal Stadium as a college student in the 1980s, and I don’t recall much of a fuss over the image. If I thought about it at all, I probably considered the grinning Indian no different from the fist-pumping Leprechaun of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish or the blue-coated Revolutionary War soldier hiking a football for the New England Patriots.

I bought a hat bearing Wahoo’s likeness at one of those games and wore it from time to time to celebrate my connection with the city I left behind. For that reason I wish I could wear it still.

But I haven’t worn that hat in years, as I came to understand the grinning chief was an offensive image. I don’t remember when it happened, exactly, but surely reading and hearing the opinions of others made me see a symbol I considered benign in a new way. There was nothing noble or even defensible about this cartoonish representation.

The Cleveland Indians may consider a new logo in the future, but for now the team says it will use a simple block C as its primary symbol. If I want to show my affection for the team and the city it will be with a new hat bearing the C.

Name change?

Some of those who pressed the Indians to abandon Chief Wahoo will next campaign for the team to find another name, too. For now, the team says there are no plans to change the name, which was borrowed from an earlier Cleveland team from the late 19th century. That team was named for its star player, Louis Francis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe in Maine.

I’m torn about whether the Indians should become something else – the Cleveland River Rats, perhaps, or the Cleveland Midges, in honor of the tiny bugs that come in off the lake to afflict opposing pitchers. But as with Chief Wahoo, I’m prepared to have my thinking changed.

Sockalexis is part of the broader story that the Cleveland History Center tells about the restored Chief Wahoo sign. From the time it was installed in its lobby in 1995, the center has acknowledged that many people find the chief’s image offensive even as he remains beloved by others.

The team’s decision to remove Chief Wahoo from its uniforms brings closer a day when a history museum will be the only place he’s found. The story future generations will take away from the image and its abandonment will be how people slowly learned to be respectful of each other.

Richard Stradling has been a reporter and editor at The News & Observer for 19 years. He grew up in Ohio and with his brother, David Stradling, wrote “Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland.”