“What’s in a Name?”…

…William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)

All the fuss about the Washington football team name “Redskins” is beginning to dominate the American sporting world. I guess it’s fair to question the validity of the name. It’s a football problem; but baseball has its own problem with team names that offend some people. I mean “Indians” and “Braves.”

Before getting there, a note about my terminology. I don’t use “Native American” to describe the guys who had feathers in their hair at Little Big Horn. Heck, guys, I’m a native American, born in Brooklyn, raised in Oklahoma and Texas. I can trace one relative back to 1609. Try getting much more “native” than all that. And I don’t have “Native American” or “Indian” blood in me (at least I don’t think so). Therefore I don’t like using the term to describe one group of “Natives” while ignoring another group of “Natives.” Indians is just incorrect, although I grew up using it (as in playing Cowboys and Indians). I know a number of people who are “Native American” and not a one uses either “Native American” or “Indian” to describe themselves. They use their tribal name. “Hi, there, I’m Frank and I’m Houma (or Apache, or Navajo, or Cherokee, or…pick a tribe).” You see, all the “Native Americans” I know consider themselves members of a particular tribe and are proud of same. So I use “Tribal American” to describe them generically. I don’t expect anyone else to do so, but I do and that’s what you’ll find in this post. Got all that?

First, the Braves. The name comes from way back when the team was in Boston. They’ve been called a lot of things, Red Stockings, Beaneaters, Doves, Bees, Braves (and a few other things by irate Yankees fans). A key to the names is that many of them start with a “B”, giving you Boston Beaneaters, Boston Bees, Boston Braves. It’s a nice bit of alliteration and apparently that was what it was meant to be all along. Braves was a militant sounding “b” word and that worked in Boston. But when you move to Milwaukee and then Atlanta, the “B” alliteration goes by the way. So the original basis for the name has “gone with the wind” (just for Atlanta).

But there’s a problem with the attack on “Braves.” It’s not just Tribal American types who can be brave (besides Brave being an English word and never something any tribe would have called its members). Firemen are brave, soldiers are brave, cops are brave, heck pilots can be brave. So in many ways the problem isn’t the word, it’s the symbols that go with it, the tomahawk and the “tomahawk chop”. You know, if they took the tomahawk off the uniform and inserted a firefighters helmet or a police badge you’d still have “Braves” without an overt symbol of tribal Americanism. The chop on the other hand is something that has to be stopped by fans, not just management. In fact, the quicker they stop the chop the better. I think it’s the most annoying chant in American sports.

Indians is an entirely different issue. According to the story (at least the one I heard), when they decided to put a new team in Cleveland no one wanted to use the old National League name “Spiders” because it was associated with losing, especially the 1899 disaster. So a new name was needed. Someone suggested (apparently in 1901) they name the new team for the Spiders best ever player, Lou Sockalexis. Turns out Sockalexis was a Penobscot  and no one thought the Cleveland Sockalexi or the Cleveland Penobscots would work, so Cleveland Indians was born. OK, maybe. But there are a couple of problems with that. First, Sockalexis only played two years with the Spiders, one good and one awful (he apparently had the stereotypical “drunken Indian” problem) and everyone knew that their early 1890s pitcher, guy named Cy Young, was better. And of course the main problem is that Cleveland joined the American League in 1901 as the Blues, went to Broncos, then to Naps (for manager and best player Napoleon LaJoie) before becoming the Indians in 1915. It seems to have taken a long time to decide that Sockalexis was the best ever Cleveland player. And of course this shoots down the idea that they decided early to go with Indians, making the “no one wanted to use the old name and Sockalexis was immediately brought up” theory ridiculous. If you’re going to name the team after your best player I suggest you should stay with Naps, Cleveland.

Another problem at Cleveland is the logo. It’s ugly, cartoonish, clownish, and frankly if I were a Tribal American I’d be offended. So it needs to go, without reference to the name. But the name is still the major problem. What do you change it to? I dunno. The original Cleveland entry in the old National Association was the Forest City (don’t guess there’s much forest around Cleveland now). The Negro League team was the Buckeyes. There’s Lake Erie for Cleveland Eries. Heck, name it the Fire Rivers for the Cuyahoga fire disaster. My personal choice would be Buckeyes, but I wouldn’t be upset with another name.

I guess all this means I favor leaving Braves alone (but dumping the tomahawk) and getting rid of Indians. I’d be interested to know what Cleveland and Atlanta fans think of this entire mess. On the other hand, I think baseball has a lot bigger problems to deal with than team nicknames. So if they do change the name in Cleveland to Fire Rivers (or River Fires), remember, you heard it here first.

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3 Responses to ““What’s in a Name?”…”

  1. glenrussellslater Says:

    How about the Cleveland Mistakes On The Lake? I say this in jest, as even Cleveland natives that I’ve known have called their city “The Mistake On The Lake” in a self-deprecatory, tongue-in-cheek way.

    But my grandmother (my mother’s mother) and a lot of my other relatives are from Cleveland, and my mother, who is from the Pittsburgh area, LOVED Cleveland. Her family went there often, to visit her relatives.

    Of course, this was the Cleveland of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; she isn’t referring to the Cleveland that came about during its downfall in the 1960s. Although I’ve heard the city is going through somewhat of a renaissance and has gotten a bad rap through the years. The city sure has gone through a lot, so it’s hard for me to laugh at Cleveland. They went through the same kind of thing that the Pittsburgh area, including my mother’s hometown, went through, in terms of the steel mills closing down. So I don’t want to laugh at Cleveland.

    By the way, V, I got a much-needed chuckle out of your calling the plural of “Sockalexis” as “Sockalexi”. Witty!

    By the way, I didn’t know you were born in Brooklyn!

    Altogether, an enjoyable piece.

    Glen

  2. W.k. kortas Says:

    It’s a pretty fine line to tread; frankly, “Braves” is pretty close to the line as far offensive go, and the whole tomahawk chop thing is pretty creepy, and I can’t blame anyone for being offended by that. As far as “Indians” go, I personally don’t have a problem with it, but I wouldn’t have a problem with folks who don’t like it. I guess it depends somewhat on how it’s handled–the grinning Chief Wahoo is kind of a borderline thing. As far I’m concerned, “Redskins” is over the line, and needs to go.

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