Cleveland Indians to drop controversial nickname affiliated with player from Maine’s Penobscot Nation
by Larry Mahoney, Bangor Daily News
December 15, 2020
Ed Rice’s phone was ringing off the hook on Monday.
People wanted to talk about the news that Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians intend to abandon their longstanding name, one that is considered by many to be offensive.
“I am stunned,” said an elated Rice, who has spent nearly 40 years researching and telling the story of Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Nation from Indian Island, and the racism that he experienced playing in Cleveland.
Sources including “Baseball Almanac” list Sockalexis as the first Native American (in 1897) to play major league baseball and the first minority to compete in the National League.
In 2003 Rice, a Bangor native, wrote a book on Sockalexis entitled, “Baseball’s First Indian: The Story of Penobscot Legend Louis Sockalexis.”
Sockalexis, who played for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897-99, has been linked to Cleveland’s American League team being nicknamed the Indians by baseball writers in 1915.
But the nickname and the mascot — a grinning, red-faced cartoon character that came to be known as “Chief Wahoo” — became symbols of racism that Rice campaigned to eradicate.
The image finally was removed from team uniforms and hats in 2019.
Maulian Dana, an ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, applauded the change, saying that removing the name is perhaps the most important step when it comes to removing American Indian mascots.
“It’s great to get that racist, offensive and ugly Chief Wahoo off their logo, but as long as they have the name, it leaves the door open for people to partake in ugly behavior,” she said.
Dana pointed specifically to crowd actions like the “tomahawk chop” and “war chants” fans of teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves have used.
Rice speculated that the decision earlier this year by the National Football League’s Washington Football Team to drop their former nickname accelerated the process in Cleveland.
Rice said Cleveland for decades refused to address the racial issues, but that sympathetic members of the organization including senior vice president for public affairs Bob DiBiasio and Curtis Danburg, the vice president for the communications and community impact, opened the door for more discussion.
Rice was asked to rewrite Sockalexis’ biography for the team media guide.
Rice has been an outspoken advocate of banishing Native American nicknames from Maine high school teams.
Maine in 2019 became the first state in the country to ban the use of American Indian mascots, names or imagery in public schools as part of Gov. Janet Mills’ efforts to repair the state’s rocky relationship with its tribes.
Removing those elements from public institutions is critical for racial equity movements, Dana said, because they create environments where indigenous people can be “mocked and marginalized” while maintaining a stereotype. Those perceptions “lock us away in history” and make people less likely to listen to current American Indians, she said.
Rice said Cleveland’s decision provides “a perfect opportunity” for the organization to honor Sockalexis by erecting a statue in his honor as it did for Larry Doby. In 1947, Doby became the first Black player in the American League, three months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers.
“That would help bridge a gap. The entire fan base would know who the team was named after,” Rice said of a Sockalexis statue.
“Not only would this give them a chance to divorce themselves [from racism], it would also give them the opportunity to embrace their history.”
Sockalexis played only 94 games for the Spiders, but Rice said he also should be remembered for enduring and overcoming “horrible racism.” He said the team was treated like a “freak show” when it visited other ballparks because of Sockalexis.
At the time, white players wouldn’t take the field with Black athletes.
Rice became aware of Louis Sockalexis as a youngster through his father Albert, who showed his son a plaque on Indian Island honoring Sockalexis.
Later, as a newspaper editor, Ed Rice decided to pursue the story. Through research, he discovered many conflicting reports about Sockalexis and his affiliation with the Indians.
“I wanted to discover the truth,” said Rice, whose research convinced him the Indians were named after Sockalexis.
Rice and members of the Penobscot Tribe, David Slagger and John Bear Mitchell, have for several years been working on plans for a statue honoring Sockalexis. They have hired a sculptor.
A site has not been determined, but the group hopes to increase its fundraising efforts for the state once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
“I would love to see it come to fruition in my lifetime,” he said.
BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.