We watched the Beverly Hillbillies for years and laughed at their being depicted as mountain people and complete idiots. Now, we’re incensed at an Indian caricature that’s nothing more than a logo on a major league uniform. Have we not lost our ever-lovin’ minds?
CINCINNATI — So, it finally comes to pass. Chief Wahoo, the face of the Cleveland Indians for decades, comes to his end. At the conclusion of the 2018 season—no matter what, even if The Tribe wins it all—The Chief goes.
That smiling, happy face won’t be on the Indians’ caps, their uniforms or anywhere in or around Progressive Field—except, of course, by those who refuse to give up a part of the past. Officially, the most colorful insignia in all of baseball will be trashed and replaced by a simple, plain, block “C”.
It’s a damned shame, too. The Chief will be trashed because we’re told, and have been for years, that some find him offensive, that he is a despicable portrayal of a proud people, Native Americans.
“It’s a depiction of a drunk, stupid Indian, the image we’ve seen over and over in movies and on television for years.”
That was the explanation I was given by a member of the American Indian Movement back in 1983. I was in Cleveland to do a story on Carl Yastrzemki’s retirement tour around the league and found myself caught in the midst of an AIM Sit-In at Municipal Stadium.
“Odd, I never thought of it that way,” Yaz said, when I mentioned the AIM argument. “When I saw The Chief I always thought of Rocky (Colavito), Johnny Romano, Sam McDowell…Some of the old-timers: (Lou) Boudreau, (Bob) Feller, Al Rosen.
“Damn, Herb,” he continued. “Herb Score. He was around here just a few minutes ago.”
At the time, Score, the former Tribe pitcher, was a popular Indians broadcaster.
“Besides,” Yaz said, “what’s this about drunk and stupid Indians on TV and in the movies. I don’t see it. You?”
In fact, I didn’t. My memories included stories about Sitting Bull, Cochise, Geronimo, all great warriors and proud men, who in my mind, at least, held an honorable place in a regrettable part of America’s history, and men who, in large part, came to an inglorious end.
Several of the Boston players dropped in and out of our discussion: Jerry Remy, Bobby Ojeda, Bruce Hurst and Dennis Eckersley. It was hardly a scholarly debate, but it was generally agreed that no offense should be taken by the logo. I believe it was Eck who put the cap on the discussion.
“Look,” he said, “it’s an insignia on a big league uniform. Hell, that’s all it is. So why all the…fuss? There’s sure as hell more important things to worry about.”
At that point the conversation returned to Yaz, his career and his place in baseball, except for one final thought tossed out by Dwight “Dewey” Evans.
“What about the guy, the mascot, in Atlanta?” he said. “What’s his name?”
“Chief Knock-A-Homa,” I said. “I lived in Atlanta. Went to a lot of Braves games.”
“So what about that?” Evans said. “That a big issue?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. He hurried on to the clubhouse and final preparations for the game.
That was August 9th, 1983, 35 years ago. Yaz and Eck are in the Hall of Fame now. Evans, in the minds of many, ranks as one of the finest right fielders of all time. (He is also one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet.) Ojeda went on to anchor the ’86 Mets pitching staff and survived a horrible boating accident in 1993.
Much has changed since then, but I still think Eckersley struck a note that day that remains undeniable and inescapable. Chief Wahoo is a harmless insignia, a logo on a big league uniform. As Eck said, “Hell, that’s all it is. So what’s the….fuss.”
The fuss, I guess, is that as a people we have become so thin-skinned, so shockingly sensitive and so quick to find fault or slight that we bend and twist and turn to insure that no one takes offense, even when no offense is intended but, nevertheless, offense is invented or imagined.
In retrospect, I guess my family and all of my neighbors should have taken to the streets to picket and protest the Beverly Hillbillies television show back in the ‘60s, or the long-running comic strip “L’il Abner.”
We didn’t, of course, though both depicted mountain and country people as utter and complete idiots.
But no offense was taken. We knew both for what they were: nothing more than a television show and a comic strip, just as Chief Wahoo is nothing more than a logo on a major league baseball uniform.
That’s all it is, nothing more. But because of a few, The Chief—an image so many of us came to like and appreciate—comes to an ignoble end, and somehow, there is a sad symmetry about it all.