J. D. Thorne, speaker and author of the new book Baseball’s Winning Ways (Available on Amazon Books).
The Value of a Nickname: The Cleveland Indians No More
I recently saw a minor league game at Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis featuring the Omaha Storm Chasers and the Indianapolis Indians. The “Storm Chasers” chased the Indians off to defeat on the diamond. But that week what surprised me was the Cleveland Indians insisting that its nickname had to be changed. The Indians and their fans in Indy felt different! In fact, the “Indians” celebrated their 25th Anniversary at Victory Field in between games of a doubleheader.
There was no “Willie Wampum” mascot such as the Marquette Warriors once employed, but there was also no sign of embarrassment over the team nickname. Many sports team nicknames exist for reasons that are long forgotten or misunderstood today. Sometimes nicknames came from newspaper reporters covering teams and coming up with a moniker that caught on with the public.
Is the Indians a better nickname than the Indianapolis “Clowns,” for whom Hank Aaron once played? Doesn’t it sound better than the historic “Mud Hens” of Toledo?
But “Indians” are out in Cleveland and we have the “Guardians” coming in 2022. Guardians is meant to connote “protectiveness” and “loyalty.” It reminds me of Guardians of the Galaxy, the film series based on Marvel Comics.
In choosing the nickname in our 21st century, the franchise reportedly considered 1,200 potential nicknames, including the original name from the 1890’s, the Cleveland “Spiders.” But the last season of the Spiders existence in 1899, they finished with a pitiful record of 20 wins and 134 losses. The Spider’s owner, Frank Robison, had moved several of his best players to his Saint Louis Perfectos, another team he had bought. Not surprising, the Spiders were one of four teams dropped from the National League in 1900. Technically, the franchise was over. But Robison unloaded what was left of the team. The remnants and some new men on a new rooster became a minor league team in the American League. The American League declared itself a Major League in 1901. The old Spiders-plus had morphed into the Cleveland Naps named after its great star, Nap Lojoie. But players come and go. When Lojoie left Cleveland, the team looked for new name. They chose the Cleveland “Indians” in 1915 rather than return the Spiders moniker.
But why did they choose the Cleveland “Indians?” Many suggest it was to honor an American Indian of the Maine Penobscot tribe who was a ballplayer from the Spider days, “Chief” Lou Sockalexis.
Sockalexis joined the Cleveland Spiders in 1897, having been educated at Holy Cross and briefly at Notre Dame University. He had played baseball in college. Sockalexis was of American Indian and French Canadian ethnicity, but self-identified himself (as they call it today) as an Indian. He was an outstanding athlete who could also hit major league pitching.
Fans, competitors, and newspaper reporters took special interest in Sockalexis who was tall, “exotic-looking,” and most of all, a gifted athlete. Baseball crowds were rough in those days. Newspaper reporters loved to fill their stories with silly idioms, puns, harsh criticisms, and even bad poetry. Newspapers were about the only choice for news and timely entertainment. See Public Bonehead, Private Hero, if you doubt it!
At first some fans would yell out war whoops when Sockalexis came to bat, but quickly the fans “took to him” thereafter because of his skill and the proud demeanor with which he played. He drew crowds. At games, they chanted: “Indian, Indian, Indian.” Today’s readers might think Sockalexis must have felt abused. He could have, but in at least one interview he said that the noisy fans did him no harm, it was all background noise.
Attendance increased in Cleveland with Sockalexis in the lineup, and he became a fan favorite. Even at away games, the opposition fans were often converted to “Socks” fans. Unfortunately, in midseason, Sockalexis who had a history with drink going back at least as far as his college days, injured himself in a fall. His “recovery time-off” only created more drinking problems. His career was never the same. He made only brief appearances in 1898 and1899 and left the game for good in 1903. He found himself back at the Penobscot reservation in Maine, where he took on several jobs. His health suffered from various illnesses and he died of a heart attack while working on a logging crew.
Although a Major Leaguer for a short time, over a decade after his playing career and just after his death, fans remembered him with affection. So strong was his influence that when a Cleveland newspaper ran a contest for a new nickname after Sockalexis death, “Indians” was the winner.
So a century ago, the “Indians” was a nicknamed that many believed honored the first self-identified American Indian to play the game. Today, the name is somehow a cause of derision.
Copyright 2021, Sporting Chance Press
Baseball’s Winning Ways is written for enjoyment, inspiration, and information by the author of The 10 Commandments of Baseball, J. D. Thorne. Winning Ways explores baseball history and high profile players both current and past. American history highlights provide a more complete point of reference. The drama of the game, its history, baseball superstitions, statistics explained, and more provide features of interest to all fans from age 12 on up. The central theme of the book is baseball’s winning ways, those principles essential to the game itself–values that parents, grandparents, teachers and coaches want to pass down that are as important now as ever.