The End of Cleveland's 'Temporarily Bestowed' Nickname

Cleveland's moniker was never meant to last 105 years.
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Cleveland’s baseball team got its name in 1915. It was the franchise’s fifth nickname in 15 years, and the new name was not news to lead the front page, or even to lead the first page of the sports section. The Cleveland Plain Dealer gave it just a few short paragraphs in the middle of the paper:

… 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 cognomen 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.

The note that the name was only temporary would have seemed logical at the time—Cleveland’s team had spent its brief existence to date bouncing between nicknames, none that showed the potential to really stick, which was not unusual for clubs in this era. There was no reason to believe that this name would be different. But “temporarily bestowed” was not quite right. This name was the one that would stick—for 105 years, but finally, no more.

The team’s decision to shed the nickname, first reported Sunday night by the New York Times, comes after years of resistance in the face of protest. It had seemed clear that the name was living on borrowed time after the team began to phase out its use of the associated Chief Wahoo logo in 2019, and again after it committed to a “thorough review” of the name back in July, prompted by a similar name change from the Washington Football Team. And now the team will retire it—a rejection of a name that was chosen without much ceremony to begin with, a quick replacement selected less than two weeks after the club decided to seek a new name in January of 1915, almost immediately wrapped in a mythology that later proved false.

If a team name now seems like an integral piece of franchise identity—not to mention a massive commercial endeavor, with merchandise and branded content and advertising campaigns—it was not so at the birth of MLB. The Cleveland franchise cycled through several nicknames in its early years. They were the Lake Shores, Bluebirds, Blues, and Bronchos, but they were often instead called simply the Clevelanders or the Cleveland Americans, a nod to their spot in the AL. (An earlier franchise, the Cleveland Spiders, had been in the National League before it moved to St. Louis in 1899.) The team was Cleveland first and whatever nickname it happened to have at the time second.

In 1902 the team finally got a few years of nomenclature stability. Star player Nap Lajoie came to town and was honored accordingly by having the team named after him in 1903. They became the Cleveland Napoleons, typically shortened to the Naps, which worked splendidly until it hit the obvious hurdle. In 1915, Lajoie left Cleveland to play for the Philadelphia Athletics. The club couldn’t stick with “Naps” when Nap himself would be playing elsewhere in the American League. So team president Charles Somers asked local baseball writers to choose a new name, and eleven days after Lajoie’s contract had been purchased by Philadelphia, the announcement ran in the Plain Dealer.

Cleveland Plain Dealer clip

Announcement of Cleveland's name change in the Plain Dealer.

But the common narrative around the team name now is not that it was selected by a group of local ballwriters who used their announcement to note that the choice was probably temporary and hope that the team would play well enough to be worthy of a new nickname in the upcoming season. (This last part was wishful thinking; the 1915 team finished in second-to-last place with a record of 57–95.) Instead, the popular narrative now—which has been acknowledged and boosted by the modern-day club—is that the name was chosen to honor former Cleveland Spiders player Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Nation, who had played in the city from 1897 to 1899.

There was no mention of Sockalexis in the original announcement in the Plain Dealer. Just what role Sockalexis may have played in prompting the name has been litigated in team histories and even academic papers. But it’s now generally acknowledged to be at least partially, if not totally, myth.

The move to frame the name as a tribute started quickly. The same week the name was announced, the Plain Dealer ran a brief item that appears to be the first connection of the nickname to Sockalexis:

Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club. As batter, fielder and base runner he was a marvel. Sockalexis so far outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The “fans” throughout the country began to call Clevelanders the “Indians.” It was an honorable name, and while it stuck the team made an excellent record.

Sockalexis was indeed one of the better players on the Spiders. But the rest of this does not stand up to scrutiny. The record of those 1890s Spiders teams being called the Indians after Sockalexis is sparse—a few scattered mentions, but not a generally common practice, or one that would have been recognizable to the average fan more than a decade later. And the idea that the Cleveland baseball writers who’d suggested the name had any deep respect for Sockalexis seems suspect, too. From Sockalexis’s last year in professional baseball in 1899 to his death in 1913, there was just one serious mention of him in the Plain Dealer, a 1912 article headlined “Fat and Lazy is Sockalexis, the Famous Indian Baseball Player.” It crudely detailed his life after retirement from baseball: “He is just a fat, smoky, lazy Indian, who lives with the tribe on the Indian island reservation of the Penobscots.” It’s the same tone that Cleveland media had used to cover Sockalexis in his playing days—references to his heritage were often dismissive and rude, used to belittle everything from errors in the field to the way he spoke.

The idea of the name as a tribute made for a convenient story. But it wasn’t real. There’s just one part of the real origin story that rings true—the fact that the name was “temporarily bestowed” until the team could “earn some other cognomen which may be more appropriate.” “Temporarily” may have been more than a century, but it’s finally time for a cognomen that’s more appropriate.