When the Cleveland club initially entered the American League, they were known as the Cleveland Bluebirds. In 1903, after acquiring star second baseman Napoleon Lajoie, the team became known as the Cleveland Naps. After the 1915 season, with Lajoie having been gone for several years, the team re-branded as the Cleveland Indians.
It has become part of baseball lore that the club adopted that name to honor Lou Sockalexis, a Native American who played parts of the 1897-99 seasons for the Cleveland Spiders (a National League team that was contracted after their infamous 20-134 season in 1899), and who died in 1913. Joe Posnanski, a native of Cleveland who grew up an Indians fan, has written about this multiple times and at length, and has pretty well debunked the notion that the name had anything to do with Sockaklexis — he notes that the newspapers at the time of the change made no such connection.
Posnanski also shares the below cartoon, which ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the day after the announcement was made:
As Posnanski explains:
Here you can see pretty clearly why the Indians were named. One: A year earlier, the Boston Braves had a miraculous season — coming from last place on July 4 to win the pennant — and so Native American names were in. Two: It was a glorious opportunity for HI-larious Native American jokes and race-specific cliches and insults that fit well in headlines.
There has been pushback on both the use of Native American nicknames and mascots for sports teams for years, and the Indians, in particular, have received a significant amount of criticism for their longtime Chief Wahoo logo. An example of the criticism, in context, can be seen below:
The Indians, just a couple of years ago, indicated they would be phasing out Chief Wahoo, while seeming to leave open the possibility of a name change, as well. In the meantime, the Washington Redskins — a team that has been using an actual racial slur for a nickname for decades — opted this summer, after much pressure, to get rid of the name; they have been known as the Washington Football Team in 2020, and are expected to adopt a permanent nickname in the offseason.
There will be, no doubt, cries from some that this is political correctness run amok. When we did a poll on this very subject this summer, there was a split between those against and those in favor, and I have no doubt there will be those in the comments to this post expressing their unhappiness over this decision. What is next, it will be asked — will the Fighting Irish and the Celtics need to change their names, too? Will Michigan State and USC have to stop being the Spartans and the Trojans, respectively?
When you look at it, though, sports teams that adopt nicknames based on race or ethnicity generally do so because of a connection between the entity or locality and the race or ethnicity in question. Notre Dame was a Catholic school with a significant portion of its student body being Irish Catholic. The Celtics were named as a nod towards the large Irish population in Boston. Sparta and Troy are cities, now long extinct, with the schools in question adopting their reputation that has come down over the years as an avatar. Ethnic or racial groups whose names are used as nicknames generally fall in one of those two categories — it is a self-referential synecdoche, either references a significant subset of the population or due to some other significant connection with the locality, or else it is referring to a group that no longer exists.
The one exception, of course, is with Native Americans — a marginalized group here in the United States that sports teams have, historically, seemed to be comfortable lampooning. For years we have chosen to caricaturize them as a mascot, though the idea of a team calling itself the Atlanta Jews or the Washington Negros or the Cleveland Arabs would seem absurd.
That appears to be changing.