Indians facing curse?

Posted Dec. 25, 2009, at 8:51 p.m.

Perhaps the city of Cleveland and fans of the Indians should be asking the question: Are we in the presence of a baseball curse, one that may be beginning to approach the magnitude of the one that allegedly faced the Red Sox for 86 years and is steadily creeping toward the magnitude of the one that still, allegedly, plagues the Cubs for more than 100 years now?

If there is a curse, it’s deserved.

Already, around the country and here in Maine, people are beginning to talk about the “Curse of Sockalexis” upon the Cleveland Major League franchise.

You see, the team began associating itself with the mascot/logo Chief Wahoo in the late 1940s. The team won its last “grinning-idiot” caricature in the early 1950s…and, of course, World Series in 1948. The team began wearing the insidious, have failed to capture a championship since, in spite of several more appearances in the postseason over the 61-year period.

Shame on Cleveland, the city to have the first black player to perform in the American League (Larry Doby), the first city in America to elect a black mayor…and, yes, the city to have the first Native American to play Major League baseball.

Penobscot Indian Louis Sockalexis of Indian Island, Maine, by virtue of his mere presence in 1897, inspired the nickname “Indians.” And, as arguably the first known Native American to play Major League baseball, he endured horrendous racist treatment from peers, fans and the press, comparable to that suffered by Jackie Robinson 50 years later.

Yet, over the years the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Society for American Baseball Research have touted several candidates to supplant Sockalexis, arguing for the likes of James Madison Toy (1889-91), Joe Visner (1887-1890) and Tom Oran (1876).

Some of you may remember it was this writer, obtaining a death certificate for Toy a few years ago, who debunked the myth that he had a Native American heritage. Similar to Toy, Visner doesn’t look the least bit Native American (like Toy, his portrait features significant facial hair, something early Native Americans did not possess) and there is no available proof that any of his peers knew he was Native American (if, indeed, he was). Oran, who played just 19 games in 1876, is the new SABR candidate to replace Sockalexis, but in this instance there is no known photograph of the man and no actual evidence that anyone knew he claimed a Native American background at the time he played.

Ay, there’s the rub: No one should be offered as the first Native American to play Major League baseball, replacing Louis Sockalexis, unless that individual claimed such a status, was registered with his tribe, and was known to be a Native American player by his peers, the fans and the media. Using that set of criteria, Louis Sockalexis is really the only man known to be a Native American at the time he played in the 19th century and thus is entitled to the title of “the first.” Cleveland should be very proud of that fact and continue to celebrate it.

Yet, Cleveland keeps maintaining it’s “honoring” the legacy of Sockalexis through the use of its nickname and symbol.

Really?

Then why do they make players of color wear a symbol they would never consider wearing if it represented a person of their own race? Why do they make any player with a conscience wear something he can’t possibly be comfortable about appearing in public wearing? My own personal “Field of Dreams” moment for the Cleveland franchise would be the arrival of a player with conscience who refuses to wear that symbol on his uniform — whether he’s a Native American player, like Jacoby Ellsbury, Joba Chamberlain or Kyle Lohse, or just a player with integrity.

And it’s not like the Penobscot tribe itself hasn’t raised a protest. It has.

Today, clearly, more and more Maine citizens are ready to stand with the tribe and express displeasure at the arrogant behavior of the Cleveland Indians baseball team in ignoring the Penobscot resolution, first sent in the Year 2000, to “cease and desist” from using the caricature Chief Wahoo.

My own involvement with the issue probably requires context: In 1999 I rewrote the Cleveland team’s media guide biography of Sockalexis, then riddled with historical and factual errors. On a trip to Cleveland to promote my book “Baseball’s First Indian” in August of 2003, I hand-delivered a copy of the Penobscot resolution to the team’s vice president of public relations, Bob DiBiasio, just to “ensure” that the team had received it.

It is now 2009 and the Cleveland franchise still has not acknowledged that tribal resolution. In the meantime, DiBiasio, in attempting to defend the team’s use of Chief Wahoo, has uttered the mind-boggling logic that since the team uses the mascot with “no intent to be demeaning” then the use of that symbol, thus, can’t be “considered demeaning.”

Isn’t it interesting that even Major League Baseball itself is embarrassed by the Cleveland logo/mascot? In its recent All-Star campaign, using the logos for each Major League team, it offered a “Stars and Stripes” version for all caps – except Cleveland’s where it deliberately switched from Chief Wahoo to the Feather “I” symbol!

Mr. DiBiasio and the Cleveland team have also taught me that there is, indeed, something a lot worse than being told “No.” Worse than that…is being ignored.

Ignoring this issue is something Maine, unfortunately, has done for years. While the laudable Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, in Cleveland, has fought year after year for the abolishment of racist mascots, Maine has, recently, had some moments of clarity, including schools like Scarborough and Old Town scrapping insensitive mascots.

But, even starting at the very top of the chain, with the governor of the state, we can do much better. When the Maine Legislature recently joined the fray, by supporting Rep. Wayne Mitchell’s resolutions to demand respect for Penobscot Indian athlete-cousins Louis and Andrew Sockalexis, Gov. John Baldacci couldn’t be bothered to walk the handful of steps across the passageway of the Capitol building to offer his support.

Interesting behavior from a self-proclaimed baseball fan whom once, at taxpayer expense, sent 42 Maine lobsters to a popular Red Sox player from the Dominican Republic who probably can’t find Maine on a map.

C’mon, Gov. Baldacci, this campaign costs you and the state nothing…nothing except the effort to show respect and demand appropriate respect from others.

When I spoke to a room full of students and faculty from junior high and high schools from around the state, at a civil rights symposium held at the Augusta Civic Center last June, I was delighted to find the wholesale condemnation for the communities of Sanford and Wiscasset for their continuing use of the insidious nickname “Redskins,” and the urging of action to coerce these communities to change a nickname now that they undoubtedly will change sometime in the future.

C’mon, Sanford and Wiscasset, do the right thing…now!

Native American storyteller and University of Maine Native American Studies program direction John Bear Mitchell once noted to me that I should not focus so much of my energy on national targets — like Sports Illustrated magazine, the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Indians — and work to make our state more aware and more proactive on these matters. “It starts from the center of the circle, Ed, not outside it,” he explained.

I agree. It must start with us, here in Maine. And we can do this.

You see, I’m not surprised the Cleveland public relations representative DiBiasio apparently hid out for a couple of days and refused to return calls to any of the media who called for response to the Penobscot resolution. Please, media representatives and citizens of Maine, don’t let him get away with this: Keep calling, until he and the team finally do respond! You can reach the team at 216-420-4200.

College adjunct instructor and journalist Ed Rice of Orono is author of “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis” (2003) and “Native Trailblazer, Andrew Sockalexis” (2008). He has a Web site at www.sockalexis.info.

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