October 12, 2007

Were Indians Named For Louis "Chief" Sockalexis?

Dan Shaughnessy's column this morning is about Chief Wahoo -- "the grinning, big-nosed, crimson-faced Native American with the gigantic teeth". He reports the standard history:
The team became the "Indians" in 1915 in honor of Louis Sockalexis (former Holy Cross man), the first Native American to play in the majors. ...

Indians vice president of public relations Bob DiBiasio yesterday said, "Our name is steeped in history in honor of the first Native American to play Major League Baseball."

Cleveland's team name is easily defended.
But is it true? No.

A May 1999 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated:
A perusal of the four Cleveland newspapers of 1915, when the team was christened [allegedly by fan balloting], shows that the name was chosen by a committee of sportswriters.

Further, when the name was announced, the papers made no mention of Sockalexis ...
Ithaca College professor Ellen Staurowsky researched the matter for an article in the Sociology of Sport Journal. She says bluntly: "There is no evidence the team was named after Sockalexis."

On January 7, 1915, the Cleveland Press ran a story headlined: "Fans Will Help Select New Nickname For Naps". Although the paper asked for readers' suggestions, it was not a contest. (The city's other papers also received suggestions.)

The Press published many possibilities -- Tip Tops, Originals, Scraps, Panthers, Leaders, Vikings, Buckeyes, Settlers, Colts, Turners, Foresters, Grays, Hustlers, Barons, Minors, Bears, Kids -- but Indians was not among them.

Indeed, two days before the Indians name was chosen, the paper reported that Grays was the favorite name. Afterwards, however, the Press stated, "We hope they will become very Indian-like and wake up. Indian war dances are what the fans want."

The Sockalexis/contest story was first published in the team's 1968 media guide. According to Eddie Uhas, who ran team's publicity department at that time, "some baseball historian told us about it and we took it as fact and put it into the mediua guide."

Shaughnessy quotes Bob DiBiasio as saying the team's "name is steeped in history in honor of the first Native American to play Major League Baseball". He seems pretty sure of himself.

But seven years ago, when asked about Staurowsky's research, DiBiasio agreed that "it's interesting" that Sockalexis was not mentioned when the team's new name was announced. He said the team would rewrite that section of its media guide for the 2000 season to "more accurately" recount the history and state simply that "legend has it" the name was meant to honor Sockalexis.


Josh Wilker said...

So glad you picked up on this. Shaughnessy is a blundering idiot on this one (not a surprise; I still bristle over a line in his "farewell to Pedro" article that condescendingly thanked him for bringing Dominican culture to "us" (note how this leaves Dominican Red Sox fans on the outside of "us"). The Baseball Reliquary has [a href="http://www.baseballreliquary.org/story_of_sockalexis.htm"]a good article[/a] on Sockalexis that addresses (in paragraph 5) the naming of the Indians. (And thanks for the link to C. Gods today.)

Josh Wilker said...

Whoops. Guess I still need some work on the whole link-making thing...