The Cleveland Spiders.
By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
It was an inevitability. And yet, as a lifelong Clevelander and someone who has spent an extraordinary amount of his adult life thinking about, talking about and writing about the Cleveland Indians, it was still sort of stunning to see it in print:
“We are committed to making a positive impact in our community and embrace our responsibility to advance social justice and equality. Our organization fully recognizes our team name is among the most visible ways in which we connect with the community.
“We have had ongoing discussions organizationally on these issues. The recent social unrest in our community and our country has only underscored the need for us to keep improving as an organization on issues of social justice.
“With that in mind, we are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.
“While the focus of the baseball world shifts to the excitement of an unprecedented 2020 season, we recognize our unique place in the community and are committed to listening, learning and acting in the manner that can best unite and inspire our city and all those who support our team.”
So there it is. The potential beginning of the end of the Indians nickname. The name ascribed to Ray Chapman when he lay dying in the dirt and to his teammates, led by their sterling center fielder and shrewd skipper Tris Speaker, as they rallied in his memory en route to the franchise’s first World Series title, 100 years ago. The name donned by Bob Feller when he no-hit the White Sox on Opening Day, by Larry Doby when he broke the AL color barrier and by Rocky Colavito when he went deep in four consecutive at-bats in Baltimore. The name blared in bold across the huge — and missing! — 1948 world championship pennant. The name in white print on eye-gouging fire-engine red uniforms of the 1970s — the uniform Frank Robinson was wearing when he homered on his first day as baseball’s first black manager. The name Cory Snyder wore while indoctrinating me into baseball fandom with his all-or-nothing-at-all 33-homer, 166-strikeout season in ’87. The name Roger Dorn and Ricky Vaughn and Co. wore when they had “real uniforms and everything.” The name written in script lettering atop the gigantic scoreboard at Jacobs Field, where Cleveland baseball had its 1990s renaissance. The name on the lips of a distraught 4-year-old named Victor Jose Martinez when his father was traded and the boy asked, “Daddy, are we still an Indian?” The name worn by two Franconas, the latter of whom could have gotten a job just about anywhere in 2013 but was drawn back to his baseball “family.”
Our sports teams feel like family. They can frustrate and stimulate in equal turns. They can simultaneously take your money and enrichen you. They are providers of pride, pattern and pleasure. They are very much in our blood.
So even if you saw this coming (and at this point, how could you not?), for many members of this family, comprehending and embracing the possibility of a late-life surname change is difficult.
One hundred and five years of history does not go away easily.
But if the Indians are serious about engaging the “community” as much as “the appropriate stakeholders” (and make no mistake that the pressure placed upon the Washington Redskins by FedEx at an important cultural turning point in our nation is what finally forced this particular issue to the forefront), then consider this one community member’s contribution to the conversation.
This is why I think the Cleveland Indians should become the Cleveland Spiders.
1. “Indians” is a complicated term.
The people that Christopher Columbus encountered in 1492 were Cherokee, Seminole, Wampanoag, Navajo, Hopi, etc. They were referred to as “Indians” purportedly because Columbus had thought he had reached the East Indies.
(Beyond any conversation about the problematic nature of the term and how we stumbled into it, it is linguistically laughable that we use the same word to describe two completely different subsets of people. It’s one thing to have ambiguity with the naming of New York City pizza joints. Such ambiguity has no place in the realm of race and ethnicity.)
Of course, “Indians” has survived long enough to have been written into law and even embraced by many Indigenous people. I personally don’t think it’s as blatantly objectionable as the name “Redskins” or the red-faced Chief Wahoo logo. But my place, as a white male age 18–49, is to come up with dumb stuff like “Nuts and Gum,” not to decide what is or what is not offensive to Native Americans. That is their decision. The point is that some do find it offensive, and their voices deserve to be heard.
I would just add that, no matter how you, personally, interpret the term and hold it in your heart, it does have a long history of being used as a pejorative. And that was certainly the case in the late 1800s, when Cleveland’s professional baseball team briefly had a right fielder named Louis Sockalexis.
2. The “Indians” nickname is NOT a deliberate homage to Louis Sockalexis.
I’ll point you to Joe Posnanski’s terrific and thorough dive into this topic rather than rehash all of it here. But an important takeaway is that, when the Cleveland baseball club, then known as the Naps, needed a new name in 1915 because Nap Lajoie had been sold to Philadelphia, the primary driver of the change to Indians was the Miracle Braves’ run to World Series glory a year earlier.
Then, as now, baseball was a copycat business.
It is true that “Indians” had been used colloquially to refer to Sockalexis’ squads in 1897–99, because the presence of an Indigenous person on a professional team was such a novelty. And we can speculate that this use is what compelled the sportswriters who rebranded the ballclub in 1915 to consider “Indians” an option. But sportswriters in the 1800s had also described Sockalexis as a “noble savage,” a “red man” and, by the end of a short career ruined by alcoholism, “an ordinary, fat, lazy, smoky Indian.” And as you can see from this cartoon that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the day after the formal name change to “Indians,” attitudes toward Indigenous people hadn’t exactly evolved by 1915. These people were still painted in an entirely cartoonish light:
“Indians” became the franchise’s fourth name since its 1901 inception, following Blues, Bronchos and Naps. So why did the Indians name stick? Simple: Because the team won it all in 1920. If they hadn’t, who knows what the name would be now? And had, for instance, the 90-win team of 1908 not finished half a game back of the Tigers in the American League and defeated the Cubs in the World Series, I would venture to guess we would still be honoring the memory of a second baseman named Lajoie and rooting for the Naps, just as the local football team still honors the memory of Paul Brown.
3. It’s time to change the name.
That’s not a sentence I write flippantly. I have as much sentimental attachment to the team name as anybody. When I was 8 years old, I’d stage solo wiffle ball games in my front yard, pretending I had been invited to join an unusual and remarkably relevant youth team made up entirely of the children of Cleveland Indians players. It was me and the sons of Snyder and Joe Carter and Andy Allanson and all the others taking on the baseball world in front of adoring audiences (I was a pretty lonely kid). I drew Chief Wahoo on every notebook. I collected every card.
When, in adulthood, I found myself in the wildly fortunate position of covering the team I had once revered. I dove in completely and poured myself into documentation of both the present and the past. I wrote every word of the Game Face magazine that I had once read in my general admission seat in right field. I published an extensive series of stories on the life and legacy of Doby to remind people that his experience was every bit as important as that of Jackie Robinson. I visited Bob Feller’s Van Meter farm… with Feller as my tour guide! When relatively minor old-timers like Hal Naragon or Max Alvis visited the ballpark, I’d sit with them, listen to their stories and do my best to relay those tales to the world. And before each game of even the most irrelevant Indians seasons, I wrote way too many words about way too many topics in a blog post called “Excruciating Minutiae of the Day.” I knew that, when a team is in your blood, no memory, no moment, no minutia is too ridiculous to record. You want it all. And that’s what I tried to give the fans of the Indians, even at the times when it seemed there were more of us in the press box than there were of them in the stands.
(And even if I weren’t a Clevelander, I am an obsessive Bruce Springsteen fan who can tell you the Boss’ Little League team was named the Indians, hence the line, “Madmen drummers, bummers and Indians in the summer…” in “Blinded by the Light.”)
I bring all this up only as a means to demonstrate that when I say “It’s time to change the name,” it’s not coming from some woke outsider with no emotional stake in the game. If the Indians were to change their name tomorrow, a lot of people, rightly or wrongly, would consider 115 years of history a closed book. Some, no doubt, would swear off ever supporting the ballclub again… and Lord knows this is not a franchise with fans to spare.
Look again at that above cartoon , though, and think about the history of how the term “Indians” has been used and what it represents to some. I’m not suggesting that the alteration of a Cleveland baseball team’s nickname is going to advance equality by some significant margin. But I do think that, in the year 2020, a race-based nickname is significantly out of step with what a professional organization should seek to represent.
“Indians” is at worst offensive and at best complicated. Our world — and our country, in particular — is complicated enough. Sports teams, at their best, are a blissful diversion from all of that. We don’t need their names to be flash points in the culture wars. When I look at the name and logo of the Rocket City Trash Pandas, I have many, many questions. But none of them are, “Is this racist?” So that’s comforting.
4. Most of the public’s suggestions for a replacement name are terrible.
No disrespect intended whatsoever. But… Walleyes? Pierogies? Guardians? Lake Erie Shoremen? Commodores? … Midges?! These are just some of the many ideas I’ve seen proposed on the bastion of respectful civil discourse known as Twitter, and — again, I am saying this as courteously as I can — these are horrible, these ideas.
Rockers belonged to a WNBA team, and it was lame then (seriously, Cleveland, that’s enough with Rock Hall-themed anything).
Barons belonged to an NHL team and, while I don’t hate it, swiping from another sport does not feel like something a nobleman — or a baron, if you will — would do.
Buckeyes salutes Cleveland’s 1945 Negro League World Series champs but creates confusion and potential trademark violation with a certain nearby college that people seem to like a lot.
There are other names from Cleveland’s baseball past that have been bandied about….
Naps: Too sleepy.
Blues: Too somber.
Bronchos: Too John Elway.
Forest Citys: Too many syllables… and show me one person under the age of 135 who uses “Forest City” as a nickname for Cleveland.
Then there’s Tribe, which has the advantage of already being a baked-in alternative nickname for the Indians. William & Mary years ago dealt with the same issue the Indians are dealing with now and ultimately settled on Tribe, so there is precedent for that. You could make the change while still maintaining a genuine tie to all the history cited above.
But there’s an undercurrent to the culture dynamic that we haven’t even mentioned yet:
The Indians are in the peculiar position of not being able to craft a logo around their own nickname. Since the official removal of the Wahoo logo, they have had much internal and external conversation about how to move forward, but the bottom line is that, out of respect to Native-American symbols, they are essentially limited to ideas related to the city itself and not their own particular place within that city. The block “C” is bland and blah and, in this situation, probably not going anywhere anytime soon.
So while “Tribe” keeps “Indians” alive, in a way, it doesn’t make the nickname much easier to market. A “Tribe” can inoffensively mean a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious or blood ties with a common culture and dialect.
But, um, try putting that on a logo.
No, to me, there is only one reasonable choice in all of this. A name that respectfully conjures up Cleveland baseball history while simultaneously stimulating the marketing possibilities.
5. Spiders is the answer.
It is an objectively functional and arguably awesome sports team nickname.
The merchandising and marketing potential sells itself. Progressive Field, which has long been missing the warmness of “The Jake” nickname in official application, becomes “The Web.” Slider could befriend Spider-Man, or some knock-off variation. The scoreboard could show that one scene from “Home Alone” when the Spiders are mounting a rally against their rivals, giving the home club a distinct competitive advantage.
Anyway, I’ll leave all that to the branding experts. All I know is that, while the Cleveland Spiders of the 1800s get a lot of attention for having gone 20–134 in 1899, it’s not as commonly known that they won that era’s answer to the World Series — the Temple Cup — in 1895. So if you’re scoring at home, it’s…
Spiders: 1 championship in 13 years.
Indians: 2 championships in 105 years… and none since 1948.
“Spiders” is looking better already, isn’t it?
It’s also worth remembering (or learning) that the 1899 Spiders were destined to fail. Their owners, the Robison brothers, sold away all their best players to… the other team they owned, in St. Louis, because it was more profitable! They even shifted the Spiders’ home opener to St. Louis. Hell, they played 112 games on the road. Not exactly the kind of thing you could get away with today. Say what you will about trading Frankie Lindor, but at least he wouldn’t be shipped to some other Dolan-owned team for a bag of hermetically sealed bullpen balls.
Bringing the Spiders name back would be a way to right that wrong. And while the name is not regionally distinct, well, neither is Indians.
(I don’t have hard data on this, but I am confident Northeast Ohio has more spiders than Native Americans.)
I’ve received some pushback against Spiders because it’s a different (National League) franchise than the Indians. Unfortunately, that pushback is coming from Cleveland sports fans who cheer the Browns every Sunday while rooting against the Ravens. So I’m not sure that particular point sticks.
(UPDATE: A friend pointed me to this 1901 newspaper entry in which the American League franchise is referred to as the Spiders. The team’s name was remarkably fluid in its first 15 years of existence. But as you can see, Spiders does actually have a direct tie to the Indians we know today.)
Spiders is a great nickname. While it is the nickname of the University of Richmond, it has not been used and abused in our professional sports landscape. In the world of professional baseball, it is unique to Cleveland. So it has history, it has embraceability and it is offensive only, perhaps, to those with arachnophobia.
Oh, there’s also this: Louis Sockalexis played not for the Cleveland Blues/Bronchos/Naps/Indians, but for the Cleveland Spiders. So if we really do want to honor his memory, well, here’s a way to do it.