Take This Out of the Ballgame

Spring is just around the corner. And, like the dormant grass it is played on, America’s pastime is primed for another season of re-birth. The overwrought, overbuilt steroid era…is over. The pure game is re-emerging, with slightly-built pitchers relying on nothing more than guile and skill to blow past appropriately proportioned sluggers. Homerun totals are down. Defense and pitching and strategy…are back.

Baseball is back.

And while football grapples with a concussion epidemic, equipment advances that weaponize its players and, sadly, a potential lockout born of owners’ greed, baseball is perfectly positioned to re-establish a bit more of the grace and sportsmanship that once made it king.

But first it must revive a little bit of the grace and sportsmanship that set the table for Martin Luther King. It did so because baseball, once considered a reflection of our national character, has often asked the question: “What are we unwilling to tolerate?”

And the game did just that, boldly asking it during the height of segregation. From Jackie Robinson’s appearance on the field to Frank Robinson’s appearance as a manager in the dugout, baseball determined that racism is intolerable.

From Shoeless Joe Jackson’s tragic acquiescence to Pete Rose’s Shakespearean obsession with betting on himself to win, baseball determined that gambling is intolerable.

And, as we see now in the tenuous Hall of Fame candidacies of the first wave of steroid era players, baseball has finally determined that “chemical cheating” is intolerable. Or, at least, punishable.

Sometimes, though, it’s more revealing to determine what society considers tolerable than it is to identify what it considers intolerable. What we willingly accept…says a lot about us.

Right now, what baseball tolerates is, quite frankly, a sad and outdated racial caricature rooted in a tragic past. It is an image that belies the great tradition of “42,” the foresight of Branch Rickey and the multinational, multiracial mix of every Major League roster.

It’s the persistence of Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians.

The very existence of this logo and mascot makes it almost impossible for this devotee of the great American pastime to watch highlights, read box-scores or attend games when that bizarre relic is in play. This diehard baseball fan boycotts Cleveland’s team.

Obviously, American Indians and the American Indian Movement, among many other Native American groups, have worked hard to banish this imagery to the dustbin of history. But they are often ridiculed by those who cling too hard to old “traditions” and outdated ideas. Despite “tradition,” many fans, even in Cleveland, find the mascot disconcerting.

In fact, officials at Major League Baseball exhibited some of the same squeamishness with Chief Wahoo when, in 2008, they ordered a change to Cleveland’s version of the “Stars and Stripes” cap used to commemorate Memorial Day. In an annual show of national pride, each team’s logo is emblazoned with the American flag.

But someone in the League office found it distasteful to have that “Indian Head” cut from the same cloth as Old Glory. They must’ve thought it was “bad PR.” And…you know what? It was. Now, the team must wear a red, white and blue “C” during the Memorial Day weekend.

The fact remains, though, that little else has changed and we still tolerate what, in other cases, would be intolerable. Can you imagine a three-game series pitting the Oakland Blacks against the New York Jews? How long would we tolerate the Los Angeles Mexicans? Or…how about the San Francisco Chinese?

More directly, how long would we tolerate a logo and mascot exactly like Chief Wahoo, but altered to represent the cartoonish ethnic characteristics of each of those teams? Take the Chief’s face and make it brown instead of red, then add an afro. Or put a yarmulke and long, curly sideburns on it. Or a sombrero and moustache. Or make the face yellow.

Well, you get the picture.

Baseball, by finally retiring Chief Wahoo, could make an end-run around football and their atrociously-named Redskins. It can show that it still exemplifies what is best about the game and its history. And Cleveland, in embracing what was best about baseball in the 20th Century, might even break the perceived “curse” afflicting their championship-starved fans in the 21st Century. Baseball is famously superstitious, and if there is such a thing as bad karma it would surely come from that logo and its incredibly disgusting predecessor.

Is it that hard to make this change?

Look, this is not political correctness run amok. No. This is not an argument against the Atlanta “Braves.” Or the Kansas City “Chiefs.” Those are honorific names. Names that mean excellence and vitality and prowess. Like Vikings or Cavaliers or Matadors, they have a cultural source, but do not necessarily imply race. Any variation on “warrior” is an obvious name for athletic team. But using a specific “race” as a name is, at best, tricky and, at least, myopic. Racially caricatured logos are simply stupid. And unnecessary.

Of course, we do find Trojans and Spartans and even Aztecs used as the mascots of colleges and schools. Those, too, are races and, logic implies, potentially as offensive as the term “Indian.” The difference is those races are distant memories, long since extinct and now the subject of history. They cannot object to their objectification. Perhaps our willingness to accept “Indian” and Chief Wahoo tells us a little more about our own past than we’d like to admit…and about the relative ease with which we treat our Native Americans as if they, too, are extinct.

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'Take This Out of the Ballgame' have 5 comments

  1. February 11, 2011 @ 6:40 pm Tom O'Neill

    It’s good to see J.P. talking about Indians. We non-Indian Americans have a lot of unfinished psychic business about Indians. I talk about Indians all the time. One of the most outrageous comments I ever made– thunderously as I recall–was: “We have destroyed the American Indians!” That was before the full weight of Chief Joseph, and so many other Indians of similar dignity, began to come home to me. NOBODY HAS EVER DESTROYED THE AMERICAN INDIANS!

    What I should have said in the place of my stupid statement is: “We attempted to destroy the American Indians.” That’s why J.P.’s reflections are relevant. We ATTEMPTED A GENOCIDE with a shameless tenacity that has few rivals in the annals of history. And our Indians stood up to that attempt with a poignant courage that also has few rivals. Someday, when we’ve actually taken the measure of our insensitivity and crime, and felt in our very bones the nobility of those we tried so hard to destroy, then perhaps we’ll be in a position to playfully tease our new-found brothers. But that day is still a long way off.

  2. February 12, 2011 @ 11:18 pm Thomas Izaguirre

    I have often wondered about the logo because to my mind it looks suspiciously like someone retooled a racist Afro-American caricature by simply putting stereotypical indigenous trappings on it.

  3. February 14, 2011 @ 1:47 pm Thomas Beck

    Well, the Washington “Redskins” are even worse, and not even mentioned in this otherwise acceptable article.

  4. February 14, 2011 @ 2:35 pm admin

    Mr. Beck,

    I respectfully ask that you re-read the article.

    I do mention the “atrociously named” Redskins and suggest that baseball can do what football has failed to do by making this long overdue change.


  5. July 1, 2011 @ 10:25 am Lolli

    This is a great piece.

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