Were the Cleveland Indians named to honor Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play Major League Baseball? For many years, fans have assumed that Sockalexis directly influenced the Indians team name change in 1915 but it’s not that simple.
The popular story is that the Cleveland team, after losing their star player Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie before the 1915 season, had to change their name from the “Naps” to something else. A newspaper held a contest asking readers to submit their ideas for a new name. Fans picked “Indians” to honor Sockalexis who they remembered from years earlier with fondness. With this questionable narrative comes the belief that Sockalexis was the direct and primary reason for renaming the Cleveland team the Indians. This debate, however, masks a larger issue pertaining to Native Americans’ role in baseball history, particularly they way people exploit their heritage.
Four Scholars Chime In On the Debate
Four scholars, Ellen J. Starowsky, Jeffrey Powers-Beck, Ed Rice, and Brian McDonald, have written extensively about Sockalexis and the role of Native Americans in baseball, with each presenting their own thesis about the name’s origins. Their scholarship challenges the narrative that Louis Sockalexis directly influenced the name change. This belief exacerbates the problematic idea that naming sports teams after Native Americans is often done out of honor. The reality though is that such narratives contribute to oversimplified ideas about Native Americans that reduce them to a particular role all the while ignoring other aspects of their identity and autonomy.
Is the Cleveland Indians’ Rationale Flawed?
In “An Act of Honor or Exploitation? The Cleveland Indians’ Use of the Louis Francis Sockalexis Story,” Staurowsky takes a critical theory approach to answer two questions: 1) Who benefits from Sockalexis’ story, and 2) What does the history of Native imagery in advertising reveal about the genesis of the franchise’s name logo? After examining primary sources dated between 1897, the year of Sockalexis’ debut, and 1997, Staurowsky concluded that the Indians’ claim that their namesake honors Sockalexis is flawed. She discusses how in 1996 the Indians team cited a newspaper contest behind the source of the name change, but her research found that the newspapers she reviewed never mentioned Sockalexis’ name.
Sportswriters Exploited Native Americans
Making this story all the more problematic is that while sportswriters did write about Sockalexis during his playing days in the late 19th century, their articles about him were often more critical than praiseworthy, an inconsistency that makes it difficult to respect the Cleveland Indians’ claim that fans wanted to honor Sockalexis. These articles objectified Sockalexis’ Native American identity, reflecting the idea that sportswriters were not as interested with Sockalexis’ playing abilities as much as they were in his Native American identity, which sports teams like the Indians sought to exploit.
Does a Flawed Narrative Even Matter?
Starowsky alleges that in an effort to appeal to its fan base and increase ticket sales, baseball teams focused on creating faux rivalries that pitted white players against Native Americans like Sockalexis. Staurowsky argues that the Cleveland Indians feel that the flaws in their narrative about Sockalexis do not matter because most people prefer that version anyway. This idea suggests that the Cleveland team exploited Sockalexis’ identity to boost ticket sales, and continued to exploit him for years to come by allowing the false narrative to persist. Additionally, the Indians’ fan base has tethered itself to this narrative, as well as the idea that Native Americans are nothing more than warriors. That mentality reflects the team’s successful efforts to reduce Native Americans to a simplistic and one-sided symbol, as fans cannot or will not consider the more complex information that contradicts their beliefs.
English Professor Adds His Two Cents
Powers-Beck’s “Chief: The American Indian Integration of Baseball, 1897-1945” details how, in his words, baseball was seen as “a crucible of racial and cultural prejudices for first generation players.” Powers-Beck discusses how baseball was used in Indian boarding schools as a means of assimilating Native Americans into American culture. In these instances, Native Americans did not see playing baseball as assimilation as much as they saw baseball as a means to maintain a deep sense of pride in their athletic abilities. It was also a chance to beat white people at their own game. For Native Americans, it was not assimilation because they used baseball to refashion a European game into their own athletic and refigured warrior tradition.
Powers-Beck echoes Staurowsky’s notions about the way that sportswriters exploited Native Americans to boost ticket sales and provide fodder. They often used insensitive language in their articles about Native Americans, specifically using the phrase “Chief” to describe Native American players and relegate their heritage for professional gain. In regards to the name change, Powers-Beck identifies Sockalexis’ debut in 1897 when the Cleveland team adapted the nickname “Indians” as the central contributing factor towards the team name’s origins.
Did Newspaper Writers or Fans Create the Indians’ Name?
Like Powers-Beck, Rice challenge the notion that a fan contest hosted by local newspapers led to the adoption of “Indians” as a new name for the team in 1915. However, Rice claims that the name change was the brainchild of the Cleveland team owner Charles W. Somers, who in 1915 created a committee of sportswriters from the city’s four major newspapers to choose a new team name. Fans got to submit their ideas to the committee, but ultimately the committee chose the name. The only mention of Sockalexis’ name in the news about the name change Rice finds is in a Cleveland Plain Dealer article dated January 18, 1915 that indirectly references him, “The Clevelands of 1915 will be the “Indians”…It also serves to revive the memory of a single great player who has been gathered to his fathers in the happy hunting grounds of the Abernakis.” Rice adds, “The editorial makes it clear that in adopting the nickname Indians, the committee understood that the name arose in 1897 because of the presence and impact of Louis Sockalexis on the Cleveland baseball club.” Rice adds more evidence-based clarity to the debate by finding information that connects Sockalexis to the name in 1915.
The Scholars Debate Each Other
Rice takes issue with Staurowsky’s claim that writers exploited Native American imagery to write news articles and sell tickets. While he does acknowledge that sportswriters used a range of racist metaphors to describe Sockalexis’ playing abilities, Rice criticizes Staurowsky’s reliance on disreputable sources, specifically Trina Wellman’s book about Sockalexis that is allegedly riddled with errors (she claims Sockalexis was married despite a lack of evidence). In specific regards to Staurowsky’s arguments concerning the choice of words sportswriters used, Rice criticizes how Staurowsky does not recognize how the tone of the articles fluctuated during Sockalexis’ playing days. While the overarching narrative of the articles did indeed contain insensitive language about Native Americans, the same articles praised Sockalexis for his strong playing abilities. While Powers-Beck does not directly mention Staurowsky’s scholarship, his clarification about the context of phrases like “Chief” is a detail largely absent from Staurowsky’s work; she does not take the context of sportswriters’ use of language into consideration.
Powers-Beck adds that while the phrase “Chief” was often used as a term of endearment, the sportswriters’ true blatant racism emerged when injuries all but ended Sockalexis’ career, resulting in the Cleveland team dropping in the standings. Rice, and Powers-Beck discuss contextualizing information that not only clarifies the name’s origins, but identifies key differences in the writing style of sportswriters that Staurowsky fails to identify, which dilutes her arguments. While she is not necessarily incorrect in her claims that sportswriters’ views of Sockalexis at the time were more critical than praiseworthy, taking their reporting at face value rather than considering whether their insensitive language was a term of endearment limits the scope of her arguments.
Do Trade Books Hold Up to Academic Books?
Brian McDonald’s Indian Summer: The Forgotten Story of Louis Sockalexis The First Native American in Major League Baseball seems at first to treat the subject matter, and the origins of the Indians name change in 1915, with simplicity often found in trade books. However, McDonald, a journalist, provided rich details about the name change origins. For example, he discusses how sports teams often did not have official team names; their nicknames sufficed. McDonald echoes Powers-Beck’s idea that Sockalexis’ debut was the primary event that ultimately contributed to the name change by citing the following article, “A Sporting News column called “Cleveland Chatter,” dated March 22, 1897, was perhaps the first published mention of “Indians” as the new name for the Cleveland team: “There is no feature of the signing of Sockalexis more gratifying than the fact that his presence on the team will result in the relegating to obscurity the title of ‘Spiders’ by which the team has been handicapped for several seasons, to give place to the more significant named “Indians.’”
Did Sockalexis Inspire the Cleveland Team to Change Their Name?
While McDonald provides strong evidence that points to more likely explanations of the name’s origins, he makes no definite assumptions either. McDonald merely cites pertinent information about the name’s origins and allows readers to come to their own conclusions. Furthermore, he adds important contextualizing information that allows readers who are less familiar with the subject matter to understand how the details fit into the overall narrative. This style might straddle the line between academic scholarship and trade books but his scholarship, like all the other scholars mentioned in this article, retains a high standard.
How Does Each Scholar’s View Compare?
Rice provides a thorough review of the history of the name change, and the general history of Native Americans’ role in baseball. McDonald’s book is a praiseworthy study, too. Staurowsky’s article, while thorough and well argued in its own right, seems to use unreliable sources. Additionally, while she clearly holds the Cleveland team ownership, and sportswriters, responsible for the way they exploited Sockalexis, Staurowsky also appears to express her claims using modern standards instead of examining them for their historical context. This approach undermines her scholarship in the sense that it complicates the attention she believes Sockalexis deserves. If she is indeed trying to enhance scholarship on Sockalexis, it would be better if she stayed focused on the events of the time period, and allowed the primary sources she cites in her work to stand on their own like Rice and McDonald did. This does not mean, however, that Staurowsky’s scholarship isn’t valuable at all. She spent a significant amount of time discussing the ramifications of Native American exploitation in sports, specifically discussing how people don’t care whether the Sockalexis narrative is true or not because without it, no one would know who he was, so the ends justify the means. She articulately identifies the pitfalls of this logic by pointing out how this approach further exacerbates Native American exploitation. In regards to McDonald’s book, while trade books do not always make the best secondary sources, the clear prose conveys clarifying information in context to his subject material that allows scholars—and fans—to better understand this topic.
What Are the Lasting Effects?
Given the aggressive debate still raging about whether the Indians should change their name, the lack of contextualizing and inconsistent details in any scholarship on Sockalexis leaves too much room for additional opportunity to not only undermine more legitimate research but also misconstrue the true nature of the team name’s origins.
In 2018 I wrote an article about Sockalexis and his connection to the Indians. I felt that I took too much of a simplistic approach to the topic in that article, so I wrote this article, which was originally a historiography, in part to rectify flaws in my previous article.