Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Cleveland Spiders and "Tebeau's Indians" - why Cleveland's Baseball Team are the "Indians"

With the Cleveland Indians poised to get back to the World Series for the first time in twenty years, and perhaps the opportunity to compete for their first World Series title in nearly seventy years, the controversy surrounding the team’s name and logo is bound to receive more national attention than usual.  

No, it’s not the “Cleveland” part that is problematic (they have recovered well since the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969), it’s the nickname, “Indians.”  Critics suggest that it is racist, insensitive, or improper cultural appropriation.  Proponents contend that the name honors its namesakes and carries more than a century’s worth of tradition of innocent goodwill.

Some people refer back to how the name was chosen to justify their position on the issue.  The Cliff’s Notes version of the origin story is that in 1915 the team needed a new name after the departure of its longtime star player and manager, Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie.  They had been primarily known as the “Cleveland Naps” during his tenure.  As the result of a contest to find the best name, they settled on the name, “Indians,” in honor of a former star player who was believed to have been the first Native American to play in the major leagues.  

The actual origin, however, may not be determinative in judging the continued appropriateness of the name.  An innocent beginning might have negative consequences and a negative start may be forgotten or forgiven over time, or lose its original negativity as circumstances change.  But in either case, it is necessary to know the facts in order to have (educated) opinions about the facts.

Joe Posnanski’s article, Cleveland Indians: The Name is a good place to start.  Posnanski, a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan and a national columnist for NBC Sports, went into his assignment assuming that the origin-story was mostly hooey, but came out of it believing that contained more than a kernel of truth.  There was no contest, and the announcement of the new name did not set out their reasons for selecting the name, but it turns out that Cleveland’s National League team had actually been called the “Indians” in 1897, the same year in which they signed a highly touted Native-American player.  It therefore seemed plausible that the name “Indians” could have been (at least in part) an effort to honor a former star player, or at least to a team that may have been named in his honor. 
Boston Post, May 19, 1895, page 13.

Posnanski, however, may have missed something. 

There is strong circumstantial evidence that the decision to name the team the “Indians” in 1915 was in fact an intentional nostalgic nod to the name of the city’s earlier team.  There is also clear evidence that Cleveland’s earlier team were called “Indians” as early as 1895 – two years before they signed their first Indian player, which opens a whole new can of worms. 

Tebeau’s Indians

On March 10, 1897, Cleveland’s National League baseball team, the Spiders, caught a hot young prospect in its web; Louis Francis Sockalexis, a highly touted college phenom who batted .444, while scoring 38 runs in 26 games, for Holy Cross in 1896, and who famously threw a baseball 379 feet during Field Day at Holy Cross in October 1896. 

Sockalexis was a Penobscot Indian from Maine and was believed at the time to be the first American-Indian player to be sign to a major league contract:

Indian Outfielder.

Cleveland, O., March 10. – Manager Tebeau, of the Cleveland team, went to South Bend, Ind., yesterday on a little scouting expedition, and the result was that he signed Sockalexis, to the player whom several teams have been trying to land for some time. . . . Sockalexis is said to be a fine outfielder and a wonderful batter.  He is a full blooded Indian.

St. Paul Globe (Minnesota), March 11, 1897, page 7.

Two days later, the Spiders’ President, Frank De Haas Robinson, renamed his team “Tebeau’s Indians” (Oliver “Patsy” Tebeau was Cleveland’s first-baseman and manager): 

New York, March 12. – . . . “In the future,” said Mr. Robinson, “the Clevelands will be known as Tebeau’s Indians.  For the life of me I do not see how they were ever called the ‘Spiders,’ for certain it is they never crept.”

The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (West Virginia), March 13, 1897, page 3.

Sockalexis enjoyed immediate success in the major leagues.  He hit well and was a great fielder, particularly known for his long, accurate throws from the outfield:

 Red Man Sockalexis, of the Cleveland Club.

This is bounding Sockalexis, Fielder of the Mighty Clevelands.

Like the catapult in action,
For the plate he throws the baseball,
Till the rooters, blithely rooting,
Shout until they shake the bleachers.
“Sockalexis, Sockalexis,
Sock it to them, Sockalexis!” 

R. K. Munkittick, New York Journal, May 5, 1897, page 10.

The crowd here is wild over Sockalexis.  His every move is the signal for a mighty whoop and his appearance at the plate is heralded with a wider applause than ever Buffalo Bill received, even when he was recounting some of his most thrilling exploits against the redskins on the plains.

Sockalexis! Sockalexis!
Lo, the mighty Sockalexis,
Every time he hits the ball
There’s a cyclone down in Texas.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 12, 1897, page 4.

But his success was short-lived, fizzling out after three seasons, hampered by alcoholism, injury and illness.

The Spiders’ fortunes followed their young star’s fate.  Although they had been perennial contenders for several years with a line-up that included Denton “Cyclone” Young – “Cy” Young (the namesake of the annual award for best pitcher in the league), the team folded at the end of the 1899 season after setting records for futility that may never be broken.  In a maneuver lifted straight from the Cleveland Indians movie Major League, the owners, who had recently purchased the National League’s St. Louis franchise, sent all of their best players to St. Louis, leaving the faltering Sockalexis and other cast-offs to wither on the vine.  They didn’t disappoint.  They finished with 20 wins and 134 losses – including an unbelievable 101 losses on the road. 

With the passing of Cleveland’s National League team, the names “Spiders” and “Indians” fell largely (but not entirely) into disuse until they were both resurrected in 1915.  Following a meeting of baseball writers and team officials of Cleveland’s two professional baseball teams (American League and American Association), they announced new-old names for both teams – the “Spiders” and the “Indians”:

Cleveland “Indians.”

Cleveland, January 17. – The Cleveland American league baseball team will hereafter be known as the “Indians” . . . .  It was also decided at the meeting to agree on “Spiders” as a name for the Cleveland American association team.

Altoona Tribune (Pennsylvania), January 18, 1915, page 6.

If the original Spiders were renamed “Indians” in honor of Sockalexis, and the Naps were renamed “Indians,” in honor of Sockalexis (or at least in honor of a team named in his honor), then it would seem clear that the Cleveland Indians were named (ultimately) in honor of the Native-American player Louis Sockalexis. 

But truth is stranger than fiction.

The timing of Frank Robinson’s decision in 1897 to formally dub his team “Tebeau’s Indians,” coming two days after signing the first Native-American player in the league, strongly suggests that the name change was in his honor.  But it does seem odd that a major league team would change its identity for a new player before he had even practiced with the team, no matter how successful he had been in college and in various local leagues in New England.  However, it makes more sense when you realize that two years earlier, the team had already been known (at least on occasion) as “Tebeau’s Indians”:
The Orioles have played good, steady ball, and as their pitchers were in good shape until the shank of the season, they have gained the honor, though not without having a close finish with “Patsy” Tebeau’s Indians.

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), September 30, 1895, page 6.

“Patsy” Tebeau’s Indians appear to be able to give the Orioles a game for the Temple Cup.

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), October 3, 1895, page 4.

Perhaps Robinson always liked the name “Indians” and disliked Spiders.  Perhaps he took advantage of the recent signing an Indian player to advocate for a name change, at a time when the name would have taken on a whole new meaning.  Perhaps the name change – or new emphasis – was in honor of Sockalexis at some level, even if it was not the only reason.

It’s a whole ‘nuther question as to why they were called “Tebeau’s Indians” in 1895.  Although I have not been able to find an explanation for the name, there may be a clue in the personal nickname of one of their star players – “Chief” Zimmer.

A Chief and His Indians

Charles Louis Zimmer was baseball’s original “Iron Man.”  Zimmer caught 125 straight games in his first season with Cleveland, and in 1897 caught Cy Young’s first career no-hitter.  Zimmer was Young’s catcher in Cleveland for eight years, and they even played amateur baseball and indoor baseball together on occasion during the off-season. 

As he told the story, “Chief” Zimmer received the nickname “Chief” while playing for the Poughkeepsie Indians in 1886, based on his position as manager of a particularly fast team:

In 1886, he joined Poughkeepsie as captain and manager.  Here he got his lifetime nickname “Chief.”  He always explained, “Since we were fleet of foot, we were called the Indians.  As I was the head man of the Indians somebody began to call me ‘Chief.’ It stuck.”

The Sporting News, 1949 (photocopy displayed on thedeadballera.com).

Was Tebeau, the head man of the Spiders, considered a “Chief” – and his players “Indians?  It is speculative, perhaps, but not impossible.  The manager-Chief/players-Indians metaphor was used on several occasions with several teams.

In 1891, perhaps inspired by the nickname of one of baseball’s bigger-than-life characters, George “Chief” Borchers [i], a writer in San Francisco strung together a series of Indian-related metaphors:

Colonel Thomas Posthumous Robinson, B. B. D., has been struggling all season to collect together a tribe of Indians competent to suitably enjoy the Oakland reservation.  To do so he has already imported nearly half a hundred from the various preserves of the country, and completed the list last week with Shea from the Seattle tribe and Chief Borchers of the Spokanes.  The chief was looked upon as the prize catch of the year, but his work at present has not been up to the winning standard.

The Morning Call (San Francisco, California), October 24, 1891, page 2.

George “Chief” Borchers, San Francisco Call, September 4, 1898, page 10.

In 1896, Cleveland’s “Patsy” Tebeau was described as the “Chief Spider” or “Chief”: 

After winning two creditable victories from Brooklyn, Washington yesterday floated westward to Spiderville and bumped plumb against a thirteen-strand web, which had been erected for that express purpose by Chief Spider Tebeau and his horde of hustling insects. . . . Spider Wilson was delegated by Chief Tebeau to weave a special assortment of curved strands about the struggling Senators, while Jake Boyd endeavored to counteract the effort.

Evening Star (Washington DC), May 5, 1896, page 8.

Also in 1896, “Patsy” Tebeau’s brother George (the manager of Cleveland’s farm team in Fort Wayne, Indiana) was also portrayed as a “Chief” in a in a prosaic account of a game between Fort Wayne and Newcastle that pushed the Chief/Indian metaphor to its logical limits:

[I]t was Big Chief Ganzel, of the Newcastle tribe, and behind him, in single file, trudged his little and silent band of braves.  The big chief did not stop until he had reached the open ground then, as he shaded his eyes with his ponderous hands, he silently surveyed the horizon.  Seemingly satisfied, he uttered a guttural “ugh,” and the rest of the band came from the forest into the bright sunlight of the prairie and silently, as before, followed their chief across the dead and seared turf towards the setting sun.

Away off to the west, unobserved by the painted warriors, a brave, with feathers in his hair, his battle ax in his hand and bow and arrow slung across his broad shoulders, stood scanning the eastern slopes. . . . With a low whistle, as the cooing of a dove, there arose, as from the earth, eight warriors, dressed as their chief, and sprang to his side.  With a few words of command the chief sprang to the front, and, silently as the wind and as swiftly as a frightened deer, the band approached the coming marauders.  It was Chief Tebeau and those that followed were his braves, tried and true. . . .

Big Chief Ganzel’s eagle eye discovered the approaching Colts and with the eagerness of a panther he and his associates sprang forward.  The two bands met on the shady banks of the historic Maumee.  The battle lasted one hour and fifty minutes, and then Big Chief Ganzel withdrew his men from the field. . . . [F]rom present appearances the big chief will be driven back to his eastern hunting grounds with his brow broken and his scalp left dangling on the centre pole of Chief Tebeau’s tepee.

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (Indiana), September 4, 1896, page 1.

Fort Wayne won the game 16-2.

Interestingly, the name “Tebeau’s Indians” followed “Patsy” Tebeau and his “Indians” to St. Louis in 1899, even though Sockalexis stayed in Cleveland and “Chief” Zimmer moved on to the Louisville Colonels:

The Times (Richmond, Virginia), May 6, 1899, page 2.

The Evening Times (Washington DC), September 26, 1899, page 6.

The Evening Times (Washington DC), June 23, 1900, page 6.

It is unclear whether sportswriters simply continued calling Tebeau’s team “Indians” out of habit, or whether the Tebeau or his owner actively encouraged writers to use the same name.

Cleveland Americans

With “Tebeau’s Indians” finding new life in St. Louis, Cleveland filled the void with a franchise in the newly-formed American League.  The new team was commonly referred to in the press as, “the Cleveland American League team” or simply, “the Clevelands,” as was typical for many teams during the period.  They also went by a series of nicknames; the “Lake Shores,” the “Blue Birds” and the “Blues”:

Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana), March 23, 1902, page 14.

St. Louis Republic (Missouri), April 23, 1902, page 7.

During the early years of the new franchise, they were also regularly referred to as the “Spiders,” in a nod to the name previously closely associated with Cleveland baseball:

Minneapolis Journal, June 25, 1901, page 12.

Washington Times (Washington DC), June 20, 1902, page 4.

During the long tenure of their manager Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, who joined the team in 1902, the Cleveland Americans were most commonly known as the Cleveland “Naps”, until he left the team following the 1914 season. 

During spring training of 1907, however, some writer (or writers) called them the “Indians”:

Hot Springs, Ark., March 3. – . . . Bernhard, Joss, Hess and Rhoades, of the Cleveland Indians, are expected to arrive tomorrow.

Detroit Free Press, March 4, 1907, page 6.

Big Ball Players Arrive.

Hot Springs, March 4. – (Special.) – League ball players are arriving from the North and East almost daily to go into training. . . . Several members of the Cleveland Indians are due to reach here this afternoon.

Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock, Arkansas), March 4, 1907, page 1.

Coincidentally (or not, perhaps), one of Cleveland’s catchers that year was a Wyandotte Indian from Ontario:

Clarke, the Cleveland catcher, is a Wyandotte Indian, and Phyle, who has just joined the Giants, is of Sioux descent.  Bruce, a clever pitcher formerly with the Athletics, is an Indian. 

The Marion Daily Mirror (Marion, Ohio), August 22, 1907, page 6.

“Nig” Clarke

Jay Justin “Nig” Clarke played six seasons in Cleveland (1905-1911).  He also claimed to have hit eight of the nineteen homeruns hit in a wild Texas minor league game between Corsicanna and Texarkana, on July 14, 1902.  But although he was known to be an Indian, or at least part-Indian, there was much hype about his heritage as there had been for Sockalexis a decade earlier.  It is unclear whether his presence on the team had any direct connection to the renewed use of “Indians” that spring.
Baseball was not the only sport associated with the name “Indians” in Cleveland:

Amherst, O., Nov. 24. – Seven hundred fans, the largest number that ever attended a football game in Amherst, saw the Lorain Crescents literally mop Brandt’s park with the Cleveland Indians, Sunday afternoon.  The final score was: Lorain Crescents 34, Cleveland 0.

The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), November 24, 1913, page 5.

(Wow, Cleveland loses 34-0 – the name changes, but the score remains the same (ouch!).)

In 1911, a cryptic comment in a report about negotiations to host the following year’s convention of the International Typographer’s Union uses the name “Indians” to refer to negotiators from Cleveland, although the intent of the allusion, or its relevance to Cleveland’s team names, is unclear:

The Ottawa boosters went to ‘Frisco via U. S. lines in order to head off the Cleveland Indians who are after the Houston scouts for the 1912 convention.

Vancouver Daily World (British Columbia, Canada), August 12, 1911, page 15.

The “Naps” were once again called “Indians” during spring training in 1914, just nine months before the formal announcement of the team’s new name:

Last Year [Walter] Johnson pitched 12 shutout games, blanking every club in the league except the Cleveland Indians.

Wichita Daily Eagle (Kansas), March 15, 1914 page 7.

The Cleveland Indians will have a field day in Athens, Ga., just before they break camp.

Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, Connecticut), March 17, 1914, page 3.

 There seems to be a straight line between the signing of Sockalexis, the decision to emphasize the name “Tebeau’s Indians,” and the nostalgic reminiscence of the old Spiders’ two nicknames which resulted in a new emphasis on the name “Indians” in 1915.  The connection is not perfect or exclusive, however, as “Tebeau’s Indians” pre-dates Sockalexis’ signing and “Indians” disappears from the printed record for big chunks of time. 

There may have been other factors.  One theory, for example, suggests that Cleveland selected the name “Indians” in imitation of the Boston Braves, in the afterglow of their miracle turnaround and World Series victory in 1914.  After sitting in last place on July 4th, Boston turned things around to win the pennant by more than 10 games, before beating the Philadelphia Athletics 4 games to 0 in the World Series. 

The theory is that they wanted a name associated with winning and “Indians” was the next best thing after the “Braves.”  I do not know who first espoused the theory, but it may have been influenced by a cartoon that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the day after announcing the name change in 1915.  A Native-American character carrying a large baseball bat – a “Heap Big Stick” – appears next to text suggesting that:

If the nature of the name has anything to do with pennant chances they should cop the flag [(win the pennant)] – for instance, look at the Boston “Braves.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 1915 (as displayed on joeposnanski.com).

But Cleveland was referred to as the “Cleveland Indians” during spring training in 1914 and 1907, and were “Tebeau’s Indians” a decade or more before then.  So while Boston’s miracle season may have been one final factor in renaming the team, the fact that they resurrected the old “Spiders” name the same day suggests that the primary impulse was nostalgia and not imitation. 

And, in any case, even if the Braves’ example associated winning with Indians, there were other, perhaps more compelling reasons in 1915 to associate the name “Indians” with athleticism, good baseball and winning.

American-Indians in Sport

Although American-Indians in high-profile sports were a novelty when Louis Sockalexis broke into the league, they were prominent, highly visible, and wildly popular by 1915:

No nation since the gaseous nebula became a planet called earth has produced, in proportion to his percentage of people, more famed and gallant athletes than the American Indian and he is not confined to any one realm of sport.

The Washington Times (Washington DC), November 2, 1910, page 16.

Salt Lake Tribune (Utah), February 9, 1913, page 32.
Salt Lake Tribune (Utah), February 9, 1913, page 32.

Wilkes-Barre Record (Pennsylvania), June 27, 1914, page 30.

Chief Bender of the Philadelphia Athletics helped lead his team to five American League pennants in ten years from 1905 through 1914.  He pitched three complete games in the 1911 World Series, winning two.  He led the American League in ERA for three seasons, and he finished his career with a .625 winning percentage (212-127) and a career earned run average of 2.46.

Chief Meyers of the New York Giants was the primary catcher for hall-of-fame pitcher Christie Mathews for several years.  In 1912, Meyers batted .358, with an on-base percentage of .441, and placed third in league MVP voting. 

Jim Thorpe was the World’s Greatest Athlete (and may still be), finishing fourth in the high jump and winning the Decathlon and Pentathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games in Sweden.  He was a star football, baseball and track athlete at the Carlisle Indian School, which was then a national power-house under the guidance of coach “Pop” Warner.  He never really “caught his own punt,” as the legend goes, but he did score a touchdown off his own punt in a showdown of undefeateds with Pitt in 1911.  Later, he would become the first President of the NFL and had a higher career major league batting average than another multi-sport phenom, Bo Jackson (although, to be fair, Bo had better on-base and slugging percentages).

“Olympic Games at Stockholm, Sweden, 1912. The three Indians – Sockalexis, Thorpe and Tewanima.” James E. Sullivan, Olympic Games, Stockholm 1912, New York, American Sports Publishing Company, 1912, page 80.

Other athletes of note mentioned in the articles included several track athletes, many football players, and a race-car driver named Tobin de Hymel.  Louis Sockalexis’ cousin, Andrew Sockalexis, won the Boston Marathon in 1912 and finished fourth in the marathon in the 1912 Olympic Games, where he was a teammate of Thorpe's.  Andrew’s father applied for an entry in the 1914 Boston Marathon, but was denied because of advanced age – he was 60 years old at the time.  Louis Sockalexis’ name was also generally mentioned as one of the greatest Native-American athletes and trailblazer for those who followed.

Andrew Sockalexis finishing in fourth place at the 1912 Olympics, Den Femte Olympiaden, Stockholm, Jacob Bagges Soners Aktiebolag, 1912, Page 140.

In early 1915, the Cleveland American League baseball team adopted the new-old name, “Indians” at a time when numerous Native-American athletes were enjoying unprecedented athletic success in baseball, football, track and other sports,, and were widely celebrated in the national press.  The Boston Braves had just capped off one of the most remarkable turnarounds in baseball history with a World Series win.  The name hearkened back to the original Cleveland Spiders alternate name, “Tebeau’s Indians.”  And one of the most exciting players on the old “Tebeau’s Indians” team was a Penobscot Indian whose signing in 1897 may have prompted Cleveland’s management to abandon their old name “Spiders” and emphasize the less-commonly used alternate name. That player, Louis Sockalexis died in late 1913, barely one year before the Cleveland Americans officially became the “Cleveland Indians.”

It may be impossible to unravel all of the threads of history, or to determine precisely what may gone through the heads or influenced the decision making of the sportswriters and baseball executives who made the name change.  But it seems likely that the legacy of Louis Sockalexis specifically, and the success of Indian athletes generally, could easily have played some role, whether consciously or subconsciously. 

Or perhaps, it was simply a nostalgic nod to the name of an earlier team regardless of the origin of the name, as seems to have been the case with renaming Cleveland’s American Association team as “Spiders.”

If Louis Sockalexis played some role in making the “Tebeau’s Indians” name popular, then the name may implicitly be (to some degree) in his honor.  But if “Tebeau’s Indians” were only “Indians” for the reasons similar to those that made “Chief” Zimmer a chief and his Poughkeepsie nine his “Indians,” then perhaps the name’s ultimate origin is not so honorable.

But regardless of its origin, the question remains as to whether its continued use today is honorable or not.  You be the judge.

Or perhaps you agree with Joe Posnanski who wrote,“I don’t believe the Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis, not exactly. But I do believe the Indians name, as long as it exists, could honor him. That choice is ours.”

But regardless of your position on the issue, any name would certainly feel a lot more honorable if they could just win one more World Series.

Oh, and about the logo . . . ???

[i] One researcher believes that "Chief" Borchers may have been the inspiration for the character Burrows in the epic baseball poem, Casey at the Bat (see, “In Search of the Historical Casey,” March 3, 2006, posted at mindmumbling.blogspot.com).