For 70 years, the Cleveland Indians have played baseball while sporting the image of Chief Wahoo, the team’s racist logo depicting a red-faced caricature of a Native American.
But on Monday, Major League Baseball announced that the 2018 season would be Chief Wahoo’s last. According to the New York Times, the league now considers the logo inappropriate for use in any official capacity, and pressed the team to do away with it once and for all.
The logo has been a point of contention from nearly the moment it was introduced in 1948. Though it has been redesigned several times in the intervening decades, Native American groups and activists have consistently fought for the logo’s discontinuation.
That fight was given fresh legs in recent years, coinciding with the team’s return to competitiveness and a parallel effort to get the other major professional sports team that still uses a deeply racist logo and nickname — Washington, D.C.’s professional football franchise — to change its name.
In 2016, when Cleveland was facing the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, activists in Canada sought an emergency court order barring Cleveland from using its team name and logo while playing games in Toronto, arguing that their usage violated Canadian human rights laws. The initial lawsuit was dismissed, but a local architect and baseball fan refiled his suit last year. As recently as last month, Major League Baseball was in court in Ontario to try and get the new suit dismissed.
Internally, Major League Baseball had begun to apply pressure to the team’s ownership as well. At the start of the 2017 season, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred publicly commented on the team logo for the first time, stating his desire for the team to move away from the insignia.
In a statement to the New York Times, Manfred said Cleveland’s front office “ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball, and I appreciate [team owner and CEO Paul] Dolan’s acknowledgment that removing it from the on-field uniform by the start of the 2019 season is the right course.”
Though the team’s ownership long resisted calls to end their use of the logo, the franchise nevertheless had taken steps in recent years to prepare for the possibility that Major League Baseball would make the decision for them. In 2013, the team began emphasizing an alternative logo in spring training, one that featured a simple block-lettered C in place of the Chief Wahoo logo. At the time, the team’s communications manager noted that the decision was made in part because the Indians’ spring training location is in Arizona — a part of the country, unlike Cleveland, Ohio, with a sizable Native American population.
The block-C logo became the team’s primary logo beginning in the 2014 season, but Chief Wahoo lingered on, both as an official secondary logo used by the team on uniforms, signage, and more, and on official, team-licensed fan apparel.
As sports logo expert Chris Creamer noted on Twitter, the timing of the announcement doesn’t come as much of a surprise: it’s no coincidence that the first year Cleveland will be without Chief Wahoo is also the year Cleveland will host Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.
As news of the logo’s demise spread on social media on Monday, fans of the team predictably fell into one of two camps: those who applauded the team for making the right decision, and those who defended racist imagery, citing the team’s “heritage.” One detail from Monday’s announcement will surely fail to satisfy both groups: though the team will no longer use Chief Wahoo on uniforms or official banners and signs within Progressive Field, the logo will still be made available on officially-licensed apparel sold in team stores and licensed merchants around the Cleveland area.
Update, 2:30 PM: Change the Mascot, the leading organization pushing for Washington, DC’s professional football team to change its own racist name and logo, released a statement lauding Major League Baseball following Monday’s announcement about the Cleveland Indians.
The Change the Mascot campaign today is applauding Major League Baseball and its Cleveland franchise for their decision to eliminate the team’s offensive Chief Wahoo logo and mascot, beginning in 2019. The grassroots group is also calling on the NFL and its Washington team to heed the growing calls for change and similarly remove the team’s derogatory R-word name and mascot.
“The Cleveland baseball team has rightly recognized that Native Americans do not deserve to be denigrated as cartoon mascots, and the team’s move is a reflection of a grassroots movement that has pressed sports franchises to respect Native people,” said Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, leader of the Change the Mascot campaign.
“Cleveland’s decision should finally compel the Washington football team to make the same honorable decision. For too long, people of color have been stereotyped with these kinds of hurtful symbols — and no symbol is more hurtful than the football team in the nation’s capital using a dictionary- defined racial slur as its team name. Washington Owner Dan Snyder needs to look at Cleveland’s move and then look in the mirror and ask whether he wants to be forever known as the most famous purveyor of bigotry in modern sports, or if he wants to finally stand on the right side of history and change his team’s name. We hope he chooses the latter.”