The first signs of spring in Arizona tell us it’s time to wake from our long winter’s nap: The snowbirds have landed with their pockets full of diminished Canadian dollars, and tractor-trailer trucks stuffed with bats, gloves, balls, and overpriced souvenir merchandise are speeding toward the desert for another season of play in the Cactus League.
Pitchers and catchers begin reporting for workouts on Valentine’s Day, when America renews its love affair with baseball.
This spring will be extra-special here in the Valley for people who believe that denigrating Native Americans is an essential part of our national pastime. It’s the last time that you will see players performing for the Cleveland Indians wearing the most racist symbol in all of sports, Chief Wahoo, on their uniforms or caps.
And if an Arizona legislator gets his way, which isn’t likely because he’s a Democrat and a minority, it also will be the last time the team is referred to as Indians on the scoreboards of any publicly funded sports facility in this state. The team would simply be called the Clevelands, I suppose.
Last week, the Indians, who play their spring games in Goodyear, announced that Wahoo will vanish from any team-sanctioned items beginning in 2019.
Never mind that fans can still wear their Wahoo shirts and caps, and can still wave their Wahoo signs at the ballpark. They can even have Wahoo tattooed on their asses, if they so desire. Yet many believe removing the Wahoo patch from the players’ sleeves is further proof that liberals are destroying America.
“It's one more example of the reordering of our lives by people who took something joyous and fun, and redefined it as something ugly,” Ted Diadiun, the nation’s chief Wahoo defender, wrote in a column for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
He calls it “a triumph of liberal zealotry, capping decades of unrelenting caterwauling by people who are pleased to decide for us what we should do and how we should do it – and what we are if we don't.”
And I didn’t think we were in charge anymore.
Of course, you know what’s next: sports’ equivalent of the they’re-coming-for-your-guns argument.
“Now that the Chief is gone, our guardians of propriety will undoubtedly focus their attention on a bigger target: the name of the team,” Diadiun concludes.
Ted, meet Eric Descheenie, a Native American and a state representative in Arizona whose district includes the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Nation. You may have read about Descheenie. Recently, he told the Capitol Times that he was confronted by Trump supporters who questioned whether he is in this country legally.
Now that’s funny.
But Wahoo believers won’t think the bill he has proposed in the legislature is so humorous. He wants to make it illegal for stadiums in Arizona to display the names of sports teams that are offensive to Native Americans.
The bill was aimed at the uber-racist name of Washington’s National Football League team, but I’m sure Indians could be on the chopping block, too.
The Arizona Republic reacted with the same sort of hysterical screech we heard in Cleveland over the demise of Wahoo.
“Arizona bill would make it illegal to say ‘Redskins,’" according to a headline on a column by the Republic’s Laurie Roberts.
The one-page House Bill 2499 says nothing of the kind.
"Fans can continue to wear, display, and say what they want, regardless of HB 2499," Descheenie told Phoenix New Times.
The teams would just be listed as Washington and Cleveland on the scoreboards or any other taxpayer-funded signage. And given the clout Native American politicians have in this state, even that’s about as likely to happen as Joe Arpaio receiving a humanitarian award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
What’s really at stake here is a whole bunch of misguided nostalgia by white people who justify these names and symbols as a tribute to Native Americans. It’s a load of crap.
Yes, the Indians probably were named after Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe who broke baseball’s color line in 1897, 50 years ahead of Jackie Robinson. But don’t think Sockalexis was ever welcomed warmly by the fans or the media back in the hardly gay ‘90s.
“If you read the writing, it shows how racism was so acceptable in the American press in the 1890s,” biographer Ed Rice, author of Baseball’s First Indian, told USA Today. “It’s just horrible — suggesting he’s a savage, and he’ll be scalping people. They had an awful lot of fun with all the metaphors.”
Wahoo himself didn’t become the team’s logo until 1947, ironically, Robinson’s rookie season. And there’s nothing to suggest the hideous caricature was a tribute to Sockalexis, who was long dead from alcoholism by then.
I suspect the chief was such a hit because the Indians won the World Series the next year – something they’ve never done again. Call it Sockalexis' Revenge.
And many northeast Ohioans will tell you that the name Indians is an appreciation of the region’s Native American heritage – forgetting that that heritage included the forced removal of the Wyandot from their prosperous land near Lake Erie and transplanting them to godforsaken Kansas.
The story behind the use of the name Redskins is laced with even more racial undertones.
According to the Washington Post, after owner George P. Marshall moved the Boston Redskins to Washington in 1937, he had his wife write the team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins.”
The enlightened lyrics included:
Scalp ’um, swamp ’um — We will/ Take ’um big score. / Read ’um, weep ’um, touchdown, / We want heap more.
Probably not surprising that the Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate, and that didn’t happen until President John F. Kennedy pressured them in 1961.
The words to the song weren’t altered until 1967.
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The team survived and prospered without those musical slurs.
So, too, will the Indians, minus their toothy little chief.
That leaves just one thing to say: