Today we have something different: a thought piece by one of our contributors. Longtime readers will be familiar with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental historical novel about WWII, of which we’ve run excerpts here quite often (if you haven’t seen those yet, just search for her name in the little box on the top right. Trust me on this one). In this post, she brings together two very disparate elements: baseball and Nazi segregation of Jews. It should make you think.
Is this couple offended by those stars they’re wearing? Of course not. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, no Jew on earth was so far removed from Tsarist pogroms or from Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies” as to assume the privilege of being personally offended by anything an otherwise polite and civilized society might arbitrarily inflict upon them. So, these stars they’re wearing–are they offensive? Yes, of course they are.
Upon pronouncement of that word, “offensive” Libertarians in particular like to throw up their hands in mock horror, and shriek in a sort of Mickey-Mouse-impression voice, “Heavens to Betsy! We can’t have anyone being offended.” And even your average conservative likes to downplay the subtextual attack quietly yet forcefully contained in offensive terms, symbols, or statements by immediately repackaging incidents surrounding them as public instances of a personal offense which the offended party ought to keep to themselves.
But what made those stars offensive was not any personal feeling of the people required by law to wear them; rather, it was the harmful attack not merely symbolized by those stars, but carried out through them. And the impact of that attack was further compounded by the complacency of a society willing to construe them as small, inoffensive details in the natural order of everyday life. Who, after all, was hurt by a simple star bearing a single simple and absolutely true word? Where is the harm in an accurate label, Jew, being applied to a Jew? The harm of it, of course, was not in the label itself, but in the fact of it being applied.
Now there are a few things I should tell you about myself. First, I hope to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature one day. And once I do, my childhood hero, Mister Peabody, is sure to visit me. Then I can borrow the WABAC and start going places.
Well, alright, he’s a cartoon character, so I’d better plan on building my own time machine, unless I can rent one. Either way, the first place (and time) I’d go to is Frankfurt, Germany, in June of 1936, so I could book a trans-Atlantic flight on the Hindenburg the year before it exploded.
And then I would go to Cleveland, Ohio, in October, 1948, to see them win two world series games at home the last time they won the series. Because I’ve been a Cleveland Indians fan for most of my life. Why? Chief Wahoo. He won my heart at an early age, in much the same way Tony the Tiger convinced me that Sugar Frosted Flakes were GR-R-REAT! He did exactly what a logo was supposed to do, and he did it perfectly well. I’m telling you this because I want you to understand that I’m not a Social Justice Warrior, whose only angst is meticulously striking that razor’s-edge balance between a Draconian principle and its Procrustean application. Although when I heard that this season will be the last in which Chief Wahoo will be appearing on the team uniforms, I did not hammer out an impassioned letter imploring the front office to rethink their decision, which, after all, was a carefully considered action by a professional corporation, fully aware of their club’s historical significance in both their league and their city. They have been an important part of each for more than a century. The franchise not only predates the Cleveland Orchestra, it predates the New York Yankees. When the franchise owner wanted to change the team name, Naps, to something else, a poll of local sportswriters settled on “Indians” which went into effect with the 1915 season. The name was allegedly chosen as an homage to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian, and popular outfielder for Cleveland’s long-defunct National League team, the Spiders. He had passed away on Christmas Eve 1913. Chief Wahoo first appeared as a logo in 1947, later taking on his more stylized, cartoonish features. Neither the name nor the logo were intended to be disparaging of Native Americans any more than the St Louis Cardinals intended to disparage either the Catholic Church or the Audubon Society. Other than a lawsuit in Canada, whose courts have limited jurisdiction because the Indians play a few of their games in Toronto each year, there has been no legal action against Chief Wahoo, and the only organized protest is a relatively small annual event on Opening Day. There has never been an organized boycott, nor a denunciation from a guilt-ridden white celebrity. And, to be honest, no member of the Cleveland Tribe has ever come forward to complain about Chief Wahoo. So what has compelled the front office to make such a decision? Why remove this popular logo from the team uniform?
Because it’s the right thing to do. Duh.
I realize, as I’m sure you do, that there’s no more of a parallel between a caricature on a ballplayer’s jersey and a star on a Jewish woman’s overcoat than there would be between a training camp and a concentration camp. Obviously, the two things are very different, even though they have an identical formal operation; that is, each is a patch sewn onto a garment to visibly communicate a simple fact, but more than this, to also create a vivid impression at a preconscious level. Chief Wahoo tells us the wearer is a Cleveland team member in exactly the same way the yellow star tells us the wearer is Jewish. However, the impression each creates is created by an operation which is the inverse of the other. Without that star, our impression of the Jewish couple would be very different from what it is. But a simple geometric figure with a single short word inscribed upon it forces us to wonder if that couple were still alive a year after the picture was taken. Without Chief Wahoo on his uniform, we only wonder which team the man is playing for. This is the profound, inescapable power of a simple logo attached to a human being, that it can create such widely dissimilar feelings while doing nothing at all, purely in the nonverbal impressions it prompts, the subtle feelings it engenders through a graphic depiction of a particular image. And it does that regardless not only of what its designer may have intended it to depict, but with very little regard for what we might have supposed it depicts. When we think of a star of David on an Israeli flag, or cast in silver suspended on a small chain and hanging just below a person’s collarbone, our associations are not at all what they are when we see that picture. We might insist that it represents pride or devotion, rather than condemnation, but when we see it sewn on a person’s coat, we know better than to argue that it represents anything else.
So in evaluating this decision by Cleveland’s front office, we must also evaluate the impressions Chief Wahoo creates, and not simply the impression the ball club wishes him to create, or the impression of him so many fans, myself among them, have cherished. For most, throughout a lifetime. For many, across three generations.
We will ask, reasonably, what harm is done by a cartoon Indian. In considering a similar question in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that we have to look beyond tangibles in measuring damage done when vestiges of racism are enforced as if they were valid realities. Even so, we must begin the assessment with something tangible, like a yellow star, to establish context for the very consequential impact of intangibles.
In this case, we must examine Major League Baseball team names and logos.
In listing and categorizing them, I find twelve are Mythic or Legendary characterizations. (Angels, Braves, Brewers, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Padres, Phillies, Pirates, Rangers, Twins, and Yankees) Of these, only the Braves have a blatant ethnic connotation, visibly reinforced by their Tomahawk logo. The Padres and Yankees each have a fairly clear ethnic connotation, and the Brewers a very subtle one. These teams’ logos avoid any ethnic associations. I find seven teams are named after abstractions. (Astros, Athletics, Mets, Nationals, Reds, Rockies, Royals) Among these, the Royals might be thought to have racial associations, since Kansas City was home to the Negro League Monarchs. Such association, if it exists, has never evinced any negative expression. I find three teams are named for birds, (Blue Jays, Cardinals, Orioles), two for mammals (Cubs, Tigers) two for fish (Marlins, Rays) two for sox (Red Sox, White Sox), one for a reptile (Diamond Backs) and one–the Indians–for an ethnic group.
As an aside, two points must be mentioned. First, that Cleveland alone carries the name of an ethnic group validates Commissioner Manfred’s insistence “that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball”. Second, the Braves, although essentially the same issue, are another discussion entirely. I’m not a fan, and leave it to those who are to work that problem. So it would appear that we have reached a dead end. Other than pirates, Major League Baseball offers us no semblance of an equivalent group of human beings for comparison. There’s no avoiding the fact that Chief Wahoo places real live people on a par with fish, birds, snakes, and sox.
“So,” you may ask, “a team that celebrates Native-American heritage with a cartoon character featuring a big smile has to discontinue using its mascot?” Rather than answer this rhetorical question, I will suggest a pair of thought experiments. First, let us suppose you commemorate New Year’s Eve by firing a pistol into the air. If, when that bullet returns to earth, it strikes someone, they will be harmed by it, and no argument based on your intention to celebrate something, anything, will undo that harm. You cannot reasonably expect anyone who might be struck by such a bullet to have a greater respect for the innocence of your intentions than you have for their well-being.
Or imagine the Cleveland Argentines, with this caricature of Evita as their mascot. Now perhaps you can tell me how well this celebrates Argentine heritage. Honestly, with the possible exception of Donald J Trump, I doubt that anyone would want to explain how an exaggerated depiction of a former prostitute married to a dictator is a celebration of Argentine heritage, or an image which will innately foster a positive, charitable opinion of Argentina or anyone from Argentina. So if the question here is whether Chief Wahoo represents affectionate and respectful celebration, or bigoted derision, the answer can only be that, at best, he encapsulates a misplaced affection without respect for the human dignity of a very large number of people. Just as this unflattering presentation of Evita Peron imparts to you a negative perception of the archetypical Argentine, so Chief Wahoo tacitly inclines you to a narrow and unkind view of the average Native-American.
Having demonstrated that Chief Wahoo doesn’t merely offend a few people, but is the embodiment of a harmful insult characteristic of attack, I hope you will not be disappointed by my forbearance in refraining from what might appear to be the next logical step, but I have no intention of discussing whether the franchise name, “Indians”, is also offensive, although stopping short of that will surely seem to be a case of hacking at the branches of an evil while leaving the root to flourish. I will say that whenever the front office discards and replaces that name, I intend to express my support for their decision just as I am doing now for their first step, at once both abysmally small and abhorrently huge, finally taken. It is, of course, long overdue for those to whom it is due, and yet seems much too soon for far too many of us.