Wahooism Revisited: Louis Sockalexis

By David Nevard
with Janice Forsyth, Jerry Strothers, James Floto & David Marasco

(c) 1999 Buffalo Head Society

"Wahooism in America", a story about the naming of the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and other franchises, originally appeared in BHS/ARSJ in 1995, vol xi, number 3. Nowadays the original story can be found here on the Archive page.

"Wahooism" is by far the most-read story we've ever done. It has links on many Native American web sites, and I receive frequent inquiries from academics doing research.

What follows is a sort of roundtable discussion about Wahooism

Janice Forsyth: About Wahooism...

Good Afternoon Mr. Nevard,

I found your article "Wahooism in the USA" to be enlightening and well developed. You certainly touched on some major issues in Native American sport history.

I was wondering if your article was published in any journal or magazine? If so, which ones?

Also, I am trying to find more information on the 1915 decision to change the team name. Did the Indians have a Board of Directors at that time - or was the manager totally responsible for all the team's major decisions?) Thus, I am trying to find the executive orders for this change - which may/may not exist. Do you have any idea if this information exists, and where I might be able to find it. I've already sent email directly to the Cleveland Team with the hope that they have the relevant information.

I am currently doing some work on the Sockalexis story - trying to examine more closely the executive decision to change the team's name, and how this initiative was played out in Cleveland's press.

If you have any ideas or comments, I would certainly welcome your input.


Janice Forsyth The International Centre for Olympic Studies, The University of Western Ontario. London, Ontario. Canada. email: jmforsyt@julian.uwo.ca

David Nevard:

The owner of the Cleveland team at the time of the change was Charles W. Somers, but he is not the person you are looking for. In those days, team nicknames were a very informal matter; they were usually made up by sportswriters. The writers would try out different nicknames until one struck the popular imagination. Names might be inspired by uniform colors (White Sox, Cardinals, Tigers), local references (Phillies, Highlanders, Pilgrims, Trolley Dodgers) or a manager's name (Wilbert Robinson's team was called the Robins).

The Cleveland team had been called the Naps, after their star player Napoleon Lajoie, but Lajoie left the team in 1914, bringing about the need for a new nickname. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (newspaper) held a contest. The winning entry, chosen by a committee of sportswriters, was "Indians". According to the ballclub's official account, the name was "suggested by a fan who said he was doing it in honor of an Indians ballplayer named Louis Francis Sockalexis". Sockalexis had died in 1913.

The official Sockalexis story is hotly disputed by many, and you can find a great deal of information (including original documents _ newspaper stories) at the following Web Site:


Jerry Strothers: Cleveland Indians Not Named After Sockalexis

Your web site is fantastic, however you list that the Cleveland Indians were named after Louis Sockalexis. That is incorrect! After digging through all of the dailies of that time, there is no mention of the team being named after Sockalexis.

There appears to have been a contest to name the team, and some person came up with this name. When Sockalexis played here, the opposing and home fans threw garbage and crap at him like he was dirt. He had a very tough time in this city playing the game, and in typical Cleveland Style none of his team members supported him, that is why his career was so short. http://www.JerryDJ.com/racism.html

Also you might be interested in downloading some of the material off the site. I should have the rest of the newspaper clippings scanned by next week.

JerryDJ.com Strothers can be reached at: 216.941.7084

Cartoon and story from the Cleveland Plain Dealer January 17, 1915, the day the name change was announced. There is no mention of Sockalexis. But note the face of the caricature Indian in the center of the cartoon and the word “Wahoo” at  top right.

Cleveland Plain Dealer: Baseball writers select “Indians” as the best name to apply to the former Naps

With the going of Nap Lajoie to the Athletics, a new name had to be selected for the Cleveland American league club. President Somers invited the Cleveland baseball writers to make the selection. The title of Indians was their choice, it having been one of the names applied to the old National league club of Cleveland many years ago.
The nickname, however, is but temporarily bestowed, as the club may so conduct itself during the present season as to earn some other cognomon, which may be more appropriate. The choice of a name that would be significant just now was rather difficult with the club itself anchored in last place.
While picking a name for the Cleveland A.L. team, the committee also agreed that the Cleveland A.A. team owned too many names, and that while they were at it, it might be well to agree on just one name for the erstwhile Bearcats. Consequently, the other old nickname of the Cleveland National leaguers was adopted and henceforth all the local papers will call the A.A. club the Spiders.
So there you are -- Indians and Spiders. [Jan. 17, 1915]

James Floto:

If this guy who is looking for 'tudes among the Native community about this topic wants to get in touch with me, I'd be glad to "talk" with him. I'll tell you right now, Clinton's "economic miracle' has not only not hit most of the middle and working class, it sure as hell hasn't hit the Res Most people I know are more concerned about their people's day-to-day survival, the heavy influx of drugs and guns into their communities (I mean assault guns, pistols, etc. People have always had rifles for hunting but this is different), and the massive health problems Native peoples experience. IN other words, they are more concerned about those sorts of things than about baseball teams. Among those who do, I find very few who like the Indian symbol. I do have a friend who visited me over here a couple years ago who said he personally would be proud to have a team named the Indians if they just lost that damn cartoon. It is so stupid.

Aloha, Flow
The Diamond Angle Quarterly - Baseball Publication
Visit our website at http://www.aloha.net/~tdaflow/


Jerry Strothers

I really feel after seeing years of newspapers, that the sportswriters simply copied the Braves in hopes that this would get the team off the bottom of the standings. The Indigenous population circa 1915 was invisible.

The claim at first said the team would have a live Indian travel with them along with drums and dances. I don't think the sportswriters really gave a care about what could happen down the road, and if the hot team was Negroes, they would have most likely copied some type of name close to that.


David Nevard

Yes the Sockalexis story sounds like an Abner Doubleday-type myth made up after the fact. I'm beginning to wonder if there was even a contest, outside the walls of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Jerry says he's going to research the Braves' nickname next. The Braves name originates back to the 1700's and the chain of occurrences is so long I wonder if it falls into the realm of things that just are, without any explanation.

Is there such a thing in physics?


David Marasco:

The conventional wisdom on the Brave's nickname is that one of the owners had connections to Tammany Hall (New York politician owning a Boston team? Not impossible I guess) and they had "Indian rituals" for an initiation. Not sure how much I trust this story either... Braves got their nickname around 1912, I had always thought that Tammany Hall was a 19th century thing. I guess I'll have to check the dates on Tammany Hall.

My spin on the entire Indians names for teams is the following: yeah, I agree with the people who say "Those guys have more important things to protest." But on the other hand, how often does Joe On The Street think about things like conditions on the Reservations, the high alcoholism rates among Native Americans, broken treaties and whatnot? And let's face it, unless they break out the guns and riot, TV cameras ain't going to the reservations. Protesting team names is just about the only peaceful way that these people can get their voices heard in the mass media. Is the team name thing sorta small in terms of their other problems? Yeah, it is, but if they can use it as a lever to bring the rest of their issues to the forefront I don't blame them for playing that card.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that there's plenty of stuff we cannot know. On the other hand, I don't think that a physicist would admit that there are things that he or she couldn't explain :)


David Nevard: Upon further reflection

No, the Cleveland ballclub wasn't directly named in honor of Louis Sockalexis, and he was not mentioned in news stories of the time. But I don't think it's correct to say the name had "nothing to do with Louis Sockalexis".

Cleveland Plain Dealer (1/17/15): "The title of Indians was their choice, it having been one of the names applied to the old National league club of Cleveland many years ago."

There was strong precedent for AL clubs recycling NL names _ it had already been done by the Red Sox, White Sox, Athletics, Browns, and Senators. While most of us know the old Cleveland NL club as the Spiders, they were also called Indians during the brief career of Louis Sockalexis.

The sportswriters chose to give the Spiders name to the town's American Association club (replacing Bearcats and Bruins), while "Indians" went to the AL club (replacing Naps).

Why? Was there still a bad association from the Spiders' horrible final seasons? Certainly the recent success of the Boston Braves made "Indians" more attractive. While no "honor" was intended, the 1915 team was indirectly named after Sockalexis.

A Plain Dealer story dated April 4, 1897 shows a very early use of the name Indians by the Cleveland ballclub, in a preseason intrasquad game, played at Cleveland's League Park before 500 fans. In a baseball intrasquad game, the manager will split up the team and name the two sides after coaches, or temporary captains, or with whimsical monikers like Veterans vs. Yannigans. For this game Manager Patsy Tebeau named one squad the Indians _ they had rightfielder Sockalexis batting cleanup. Tebeau named the other squad the Papooses; their starting pitcher was a rookie named John Pappalau.

The Plain Dealer reported, "Sockalexis was the most observed man on the field, and although he had to stand about as much 'kidding' from the bleachers as the average outsider, he made two two-baggers and a single, and got his base on balls once while facing the pitcher six times... In the field the Indian had only two chances, but on one of them he made a magnificent throw straight to the plate and caught out the runner trying to score."

Playing his first games in front of a home crowd, Sockalexis received the type of "kidding" (taunting) normally reserved for visiting players.

"American Baseball", by David Voigt (U of Oklahoma Press, 1966): "Sometimes in a manner that went far beyond the limits of good taste, a player was forced into notoriety. Such was the case of Cleveland outfielder Lou Sockalexis. Well-educated and a brilliant player, this six-footer in 1897 set a fast pace which attracted fans and reporters. Such raucous publicity would have taxed the emotions of any rookie, and in this case it ruined Sockalexis' career, for he was a Penobscot Indian, a fact that fans and writers never let him forget. Whenever he appeared, he was greeted with derisive war whoops, and Cleveland writers began calling the team the 'Indians'. Thus, whenever Tebeau's rowdy crew stirred up emotions, the most menacing threats were directed at Sockalexis. Although some writers urged fans to lay off the "Ki-Yi's" and war whoops, it is likely that such pleas merely provoked more of the same. As for Sockalexis, two months after he began playing, he was suspended and fined for drunkenness, although he was batting .413 at the time. Although the end of the 1897 season found him too far gone to save, he now proved useful to reporters as an example of the evils of drink."

It seems that Sockalexis was the first victim of Wahooism.

Jerry Strothers: Epilogue

And by the way, the sportswriters for some reasons made up the team names as the season went along. Seems that the team names were subject to change as the writers covering them decided to do so.

From the newspaper stories I have been able to find a ton of different names that Cleveland teams were called, ranging from the color of their uniforms to Spiders, Clevelands, and more.

Yep, Sockalexis was the first victim of Wahooism. For the most part the change of the name from the hundreds of newspapers I have researched, was done to copy the Boston Braves, who changed their name and won the division.

What I found funny was the artwork that has a Chief Headdress on it, yet they made Wahoo a brave and call him Chief. LOL

I have tons of those old newspaper stories, but only selected a few that told the most data. There are also stories from non-sports sections talking about the team. By the way, they stopped calling the team Indians after Sockalexis really became a serious alcoholic.

Sources -- Cleveland Plain Dealer cartoon & articles: Jerry DJ.com Strothers. Evolution of Wahoo: James Watson "Why chief wahoo Can Not be Fixed" in Newsletter: Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance. Cleveland, Ohio. June-July, 1997:pgs.4-5. Sockalexis: Indians media guide. Tebeau: Library of Congress. Gravestone: Jeffrey A. Mack

Return to the Buffalo Head Archives