Saturday, May 26, 2007

You're Off the Hook, Jose Mesa

Chief Wahoo is smiling at me. Smirking actually, with that toothy, gloating grin and the bright, all-knowing gleam in his eye. If you’re a baseball fan you know him well: beakish nose, pronounced cheeks, skin an impossible shade of boiled lobster.

I’m still here, he’s saying. Still smiling. Smiling maybe, but he doesn’t make eye contact. His eyes dart off to the side. He’s shifty like that.

I remember summer days in the early eighties, an eight-year-old boy having come up I-77 from Akron to Cleveland to catch a meaningless Indians game in another, inevitable 68-win season. How glorious it was, just me and Dad and an afternoon of Andre Thornton, hot dogs slathered with that famous brown mustard, and a stadium that wasn’t big, it was oceanic.

To me, Municipal Stadium was never ugly, and it was certainly no mistake. To me it was big, brown and beautiful. I loved how a bird’s-eye view revealed its shape—a giant “C” for Cleveland. And how thrilling to pull into the parking lot and be greeted by the full-size, fully-uniformed Chief Wahoo perched atop the Cleveland Indians sign, smiling a smile of infinite baseball bliss.

How I loved him. Bat gripped tight, leg cocked, ready to send a Yankee fastball sailing over Lake Erie. I can still see the cleats on his shoes, and those pointed eyebrows raised high and sloping down dramatically. This one is crushed, he was thinking. I could imagine him rounding the bases, that single feather standing tall and proud.

I was probably ten when I realized how offensive he is. OK, maybe eleven. The point is: I wasn’t that old. I was considerably older when I put the pieces together and figured out why the Indians simply cannot win a World Series.

Do I believe in curses? Not at all. Not unless they’re sports-related. And I believe the Sports Gods are offended.

Chief Wahoo was born in 1946 (the early incarnation to the right was replaced by the modern Chief in 1950). In 1948 the Tribe won it all, handling a rival tribe, the Boston Braves, in six games. A vast desert lay between then and now, with only a few near misses providing any kind of oasis

So whose fault is it? The owners? Decades of penny-pinching and mismanagement definitely haven’t helped. The players? Sure, you can reason that Jose Mesa could have closed out the ’97 World Series if he hadn’t suddenly stopped trusting his fastball. But I believe there are more sinister forces behind this drought of six decades.

Consider that after ten years of prosperity the Indians began a precipitous downfall in the late 1950s. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Political correctness was in its infancy, already working to tear down stereotypes. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the desegregation of schools. Three years later, national guardsmen enforced it in Little Rock, Arkansas. More and more it was becoming unacceptable to differentiate people in terms of color.

With racism being countered, doesn’t it seem like the Cleveland Indians, somewhere along the line, might have taken the chance to phase out their own relic of discrimination? The warnings were there, in the newspapers, on the airwaves. You could hear them in the speeches of Dr. King and Malcolm X. You could see it in on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, where a seamstress refused to give up her seat. Later the warnings were in Watts, in Detroit. There sure as hell was a warning, and it was getting louder and louder.

Did we listen? Well, since that last championship, almost 60 years ago, Chief Wahoo can still be seen on the pitcher’s mound at Jacob’s Field. He’s still in the outfield, the batter’s box, the dugout, the stands. He can be found in the stadium’s souvenir shops, in malls, all over Ohio, the US, abroad. Look for him online—he’s there, floating out in cyberspace. Look hard enough and you can find him just about anywhere. For a price, you can have him too. Ah, and there’s the rub, isn’t it? Those hats, jerseys and pennants sell, don’t they?

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking, and you have a point. The Indians in a way were ahead of the field in civil rights, at least in terms of American sports. In 1947 Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League. One year later, he helped the Tribe wipe out the all-white Braves in 6 games.

But racism and civil rights are more than just black and white, more than who sits where and who eats where and who goes to what school. It doesn’t take much knowledge of American history to know what kind of a deal Native Americans got. Any dope knows that they were here first, and that when the Europeans arrived, when the land was ripe for stealing and plundering, they stole and plundered. What did our native people end up with after all the robbing and killing? Not much. Somehow there is a whole demographic out there that is still routinely ignored, marginalized and, as Chief Wahoo demonstrates each season, made fun of.

But what about Larry Doby? As to that, the Hall of Famer himself once remarked that Wahoo reminded him of minstrel shows.

The Cleveland Indians is not a racist organization. Look at this year's roster and you’ll find whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. But Chief Wahoo remains the single ugliest, tackiest, most cartoonishly offensive and, above all, racist logo in all of professional sports. His existence anywhere other than a museum is a slap in the face of any minority group that has ever struggled to gain equal footing with the privileged. Why, when other offensive logos have been phased out or, at the very least, changed to fit the times (see Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben), does he endure? Is he really necessary? Does he move so much merchandise that he is indispensible to the organization? If our ball club insists on calling itself the Indians, can't we at least come up with a symbol that does indeed honor those who were the victims of a centuries-long genocide? Can we not extend a single gracious gesture to a people we have spent hundreds of years oppressing by turning Chief Wahoo into a distant and dark memory? I’m willing to bet that, with the Indians having a solid team and popular players, a new logo would prove a financial boon.

The point is: a whole lot of courageous people went through a whole lot of crap to make the United States a less racist, more tolerant country for everyone to live in. I love my Indians. I hate Chief Wahoo. I would love nothing more than to see a victory parade in Cleveland after an October triumph. Until Chief Wahoo is given his walking papers, I don’t believe that is going to happen. Until he’s gone, until the curse is broken, until someone wipes that hateful smirk off the face of the organization, we don’t deserve it.


PS: Change the name, too.


Anonymous said...

You really are a beautiful writer Nate. I couldn't have put it any better myself. Paul Hoynes could take a lesson or two.

BillBow Baggins said...

Thanks, Doc. That means a lot coming from a genuine Indians fan.

Anonymous said...

Check out this funny take on the Wahoo subject: