Coming to terms with Chief Wahoo, the Indians and history

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo logo will be going away starting in the 2019 season. (AP)

I’m not sure where my Chief Wahoo hat is these days. Probably at the bottom of a bin in the basement that overflows with Little League snapbacks, promotional giveaways from the ballpark, third-place prizes from trivia night. There’s a baseball cap for every juncture of life, it seems, each with a story of its own.

For a long time, Chief Wahoo was my go-to hat, old reliable. It survived multiple trips through the dishwasher, never lost its shape, adjusted reliably depending on the haircut. Its brim curled like a perfectly manicured eyebrow, the arch just so. It was so well-used it earned a spot on the two-pronged hook near the front door. I thought I’d wear it forever.

I’m not sure when I realized my perfect hat had a glaring imperfection. It wasn’t soon enough. For far too long, people who saw Chief Wahoo for what he is – a caricature whose exaggerated features demean the Native American heritage he is supposed to celebrate – argued the Cleveland Indians’ continued use of him as a logo was unnecessary and offensive. I didn’t disagree. I also didn’t stop wearing the hat.

Over time, as I tried to rationalize why, the excuses grew less compelling. The hat fit well? So would others. Great memories accompanied it? I could make new ones with another cap. I grew up in Cleveland and this symbolized the team that inspired my love of the game? It was just a piece of fabric. Chief Wahoo represented history? Relics are consigned to history’s dustbin for a reason. So three or four years ago, there it went, out of circulation.

Finally, after years of protests, after the voices and logic of activists grew too strong to ignore, the Indians and Major League Baseball have chosen to do the same. They announced Monday that Chief Wahoo would be phased out of the team’s uniform by the 2019 season. It was far too late, and it comes with a ridiculous caveat that Chief Wahoo apparel will continue to be sold in Indians team stores, as if placating those who hold onto a logo with the child-like fervor of a binky deserve such pandering.

All it does is validate the flawed premises onto which fans of Chief Wahoo cling. This isn’t about political correctness run amok. It’s about right and wrong. It’s a clear moral choice. There are ways to honor Native American culture without trafficking in stereotypes so many have worked tirelessly to dispel. This isn’t about respecting the past, either, because distilling it down to that ignores the rich record of players on a team that is so much more than a logo.

At some point, every sports organization with a nickname that intended to pay homage to Native Americans understands the world changed and with it nicknames can, too. St. John’s got over it. Miami of Ohio got over it. Cleveland will get over it. Eventually, the Redskins will as well, sacrilegious to some Washington fans though that may sound. Because for every team, it comes down to a value proposition, and it pits the group of people who empathize with the damage of hard and soft bigotry against those who care to romanticize life in a time when a giant-nosed, huge-grinned cartoon represented something … good?

MLB understood the insincerity of Chief Wahoo – that it couldn’t in good conscience employ a vice president for inclusion while simultaneously selling something so blatantly exclusionary. The league pressured the Indians enough that they relented, knowing there was no other choice and that fighting the league could possibly endanger the franchise’s nickname.

Perhaps that changes in the future. This is a good first step, one that in reality will be more a Band-Aid rip than some sort of fundamental change. The logo will exist, tangentially, in people’s memories. I’ll remember it because I wore it when I started dating my wife and when I slogged through my first days as a father, when it shielded my head from driving rain and blinding sun, when I had days good and bad.

Sometime this spring, when we take inventory around the house and rid it of old toys and extra clothes and the rest of the detritus that adds up, we’ll come upon that bin. I’ll look at my Chief Wahoo hat and drop it in the trashcan with all of the other things we’ve outgrown. And I won’t miss it.

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