Legacy of Shame
July 5, 2008

Scoring in every inning except two, the Minnesota Twins romped 12-3 over the Cleveland Indians on Fourth of July at the Metrodome. The Indians have now lost three straight at the Metrodome, scoring a total of four runs in those three games. Cleveland (37-49) has lost six straight and 12 of the team’s last 16 games. The Indians are 13-20 against AL Central opponents. The Twins, meanwhile, have won 16 of their last 19 games and are 30-18 at the Metrodome.

Karma, the law of retribution, states that whatever goes around comes around. Cleveland’s first American League team was nicknamed the Blues, a perfectly honorable name for the times considering the presence of the St. Louis Browns and Cincinnati Reds. In the American Association, Kansas City was never ashamed of being known as the Blues, and, today, the St. Louis entry in the National Hockey League carries on the tradition of pro sports teams sporting that nickname.

Yet, in 1915, Cleveland selected Indians as the team’s official nickname. Team officials indicated it was “an honorable name” and cited the exploits of a Native American a player, Alex Sockalexis. Never mind the fact that Sockalexis had competed in only one full season in Cleveland and that was in 1897 before the American League was established.

As for honoring Indians, when Sockalexis was growing up, the official policy of the U.S. government, according to Tom Swift in his book Chief Bender’s Burden, was instead to rob them of their cultural heritage. The policy, simply stated, was to “strip people of their resources and then require them to adapt” to the ways of the white man. “Policymakers,” Swift writes, “were able to turn land over to private white interests and still sleep at night.”

It is not recorded whether any or all of the Cleveland Indians’ American League home parks (League Park, Cleveland Stadium, and Progressive Field) were built on old Indian burial grounds, but all might have been if one chooses to look at the team’s record on the playing field. The Indians aren’t the first major league baseball team to be considered “cursed” as fans in Boston and Chicago know full well. Indeed, the Cleveland franchise surpasses the Cubs’ record since 1920 with four World Series appearances and two national championships (1920 and 1948). Still, that’s not much to show for 108 years of AL existence. It is no badge of honor to have to look to the woeful Cubs to find a worse team.

The entire city of Cleveland, itself, may have well been constructed atop a mammoth Indian graveyard. Founded in 1796, the community was named for General Moses Cleaveland. By 1814 residents simultaneously forgot how to spell the good general’s name, and the city became Cleveland. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. By 1978, things were so bad that Cleveland became the first major U.S. city to default on its loans since the Great Depression. Many outsiders still to refer to Cleveland as “the mistake by the lake (Erie).”

Given the city’s history, its no wonder that the baseball team moves about under a dark cloud, one that first appeared on April 11, 1911, when star pitcher (and future Hall of Famer) Addie Joss died from spinal meningitis at the age of 31. In 1915, Cleveland celebrated its new nickname by trading outfielder (and should-be Hall of Famer) Joe Jackson to the Chicago White Sox. In 1920, Ray Chapman of the Indians became the first and only major league baseball player to die from a beanball. Chapman was killed by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays. Twenty years later, the team scored another dubious first when the Indians became the first and only team to pull off a mutiny against a manager (Ossie Vitt).

In 1954, Cleveland was able to assemble one of the best major league teams of all time and dethroned the New York Yankees, which had won the AL pennant in the years 1949 through 1953. Those Indians won a remarkable 111 regular-season games that year but lost the World Series in four games straight to the New York Giants. Cleveland failed to repeat in 1955 and, in 1957, made one of the most disastrous decisions in baseball history when team management hired Frank Lane as general manager. Lane traded away Roger Maris and fan-favorite Rocky Colavito. He even traded managers with the Detroit Tigers, an unprecedented move.

In 1975, the Indians went through their clown phase, introducing all-red uniforms (jerseys and pants). Not even the Reds could top this fashion offense. How demeaning it must have been for the great Frank Robinson to go to work looking like a softball player. Cleveland’s drift toward laughingstocks culminated in 1989 with production of the movie Major League. The fact that the initially inept team portrayed in the movie closely resembled the real thing could not be overlooked. Further, the majority of ballpark scenes were filmed in Milwaukee’s County Stadium. This anomaly reappeared last season when snow-outs caused the Indians to transfer home games to Milwaukee’s Miller Park. Perhaps the team should consider permanent relocation to Milwaukee.

Tragedy returned to the Indians on March 22, 1993, when a Florida boating accident took the lives of Steve Olin and Tim Crews and seriously injured Bobby Ojeda. But, a change in fortune took place the following year when the Indians moved from Cleveland Stadium to what was then known as Jacobs Field. Perhaps, Indian fans thought, Cleveland Stadium was haunted after all. However, the fates intervened at Jacobs Field that year. After the Indians and White Sox battled for first place in the new AL Central Division, a player-owner dispute wiped out the rest of the season.

Cleveland did capture the American League pennant the following year and faced the Atlanta Braves in the World Series’ battle of teams with offensive nicknames. During one stretch through the 90s and into the next century, the Braves made 11 consecutive playoff appearances. During that period Atlanta, however, was able to come away with only one World Series crown. The Braves’ lone win came, of course, against the Indians.

Throughout the history of this sorry team, no move was more odious than the introduction of the cartoon Indian, Chief Wahoo, who conspicuously adorns the caps and jerseys of today’s team. In 1947, owner Bill Veeck specified placement of the “wahoo patch” to the team’s jerseys. If one looks closely at the photos of Louis Sockalexis, it is not to far a jump to see that Chief Wahoo is a characterization of Sockalexis. Shame on Bill Veeck.

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