Cleveland Indians’ owner Paul Dolan sparked controversy when he recently announced that his baseball team will officially drop its moniker—the Indians—and adopt a new name beginning next season. This was purportedly done to “unify our community,” but it doesn’t appear that Dolan’s decision is unifying Major League Baseball fans.

Rather, it seems to be creating a schism, divided by those praising Dolan for his progressive steps to correct past wrongs and those who rebuke him for turning his back on a beloved tradition. Meanwhile, others just don’t like the new team name that he chose—the Guardians—which is admittedly pretty lame.

The Guardians is a reference to Cleveland’s so-called guardians of traffic, which are a set of Art Deco statues standing over the Hope Memorial Bridge. Like the name or not, since the team is a privately-owned entity, this name change is—and should be—up to the Cleveland organization. But in making the transformation, Cleveland mustn’t forget the Native American—Louis Sockalexis—reputed by some to be behind their current name.

Sockalexis was part of the Penobscot tribe, and in the late 1800s, he was a promising baseball player with arm strength of mythical proportion. From 1897-1899, he played for the Cleveland baseball team—known as the Spiders—making him the first confirmed Native American to play professional baseball, according to many sources. In his rookie year, he hit .338 (by comparison, the Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman boasted a .341 batting average in his MVP season), but Sockalexis wrestled with demons—internal and external.

Not all of his baseball peers or fans fully accepted him. During play, he was often mocked and taunted for his racial heritage. Idiotic and offensive references to firewater and scalping victims abounded, and people even tried to imitate Native American war whoops to rattle Sockalexis. It was shameful treatment.

His career, however, was brief. He struggled mightily with alcoholism and was hampered by a foot injury—either hurting it while running the diamond or from leaping from a brothel window; the sources differ. Eventually, he lost his starting position and was released after the 1899 season, and no other Major League team would sign him. It was a sad end to a promising career, but despite the Cleveland Spiders going defunct, his memory did not quickly fade.

Another franchise relocated to Cleveland, and from 1903-1914, the team members were called the Naps—after second-baseman Napoleon Lajoie. Yet after he retired, the franchise searched for a new name and settled on the Indians—according to many as homage to Louis Sockalexis who died late in 1913. While the current Cleveland baseball organization has long asserted that this is the truth, others have disagreed. They contend that the name the Indians was chosen in response to the Boston team’s new name—the Braves, now stationed in Atlanta.

Yet in January of 1915, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club. As batter, fielder and base runner he was a marvel. Sockalexis so far outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The ‘fans’ throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders the ‘Indians.’ It was an honorable name and while it stuck the team made an excellent record […] The Clevelands of 1915 will be the ‘Indians.’ […] the name will recall fine traditions.” Thus, whether or not Sockalexis was the direct inspiration of the name change, fans and writers quickly identified a strong connection between Sockalexis and the “Indians.”

Fast forward more than 100 years and the Indians are transforming into the Guardians, which appears to be the final step in an evolution within Cleveland. In fact, over the past several years, aspects around the team name and even its logo have drawn ire from the public.

For 70 years or so, the team’s logo featured “Chief Wahoo,” which was a cartoon depiction of a happy-go-lucky looking Native American. However, it was based upon racially insensitive stereotypes, and it doesn’t depict any Native American that I’ve ever known. The logo was gradually cast aside, until it was officially retired in 2019—previewing the fate of the Indians’ name.

It is impossible to determine how Sockalexis would feel about these developments, and it is difficult to assess how closely he was linked to the Cleveland Indians’ name. Regardless of the truth, Sockalexis is worth honoring for being the trailblazing Native American with a rocket for an arm. As the Cleveland baseball organization sunsets their timeworn name, I hope they find ways of remembering Louis Sockalexis.

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