April 10, 2007

Chief Wahoo Rides the Pine During MLB Civil Rights Game

April is Black History Month for Major League Baseball. The United States marks Black History in February, orienting the commemoration to the February birthdays of Frederick Douglass, born February 17, and Abraham Lincoln, born February 12. But in February, MLB is still in winter hibernation with spring training games not beginning prior to March 1.

Nope, Black History is April for MLB. Jackie Robinson reintegrated Major League Baseball when he played in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ season opener on April 15, 1947, against the Boston Braves. Born in Jim Crow Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, and a product of Negro League baseball, Robinson was the first ballplayer of color to play in white baseball since the 1880s; he joined the International League’s Montreal Royals for the 1946 season. In 1947, he and the Dodgers reopened the gates of the Major Leagues.

In 1987, Major League Baseball commemorated the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s debut. For example, when the Philadelphia Phillies opened the 1987 season in Atlanta against the Braves, there were pre-game activities and second-base was decorated with a blue number 42 in Robinson’s honor.

Ten years later, in 1997, then-president Bill Clinton, who Toni Morrison would label “the first black president” in The New Yorker in October 1998, presided at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium – the Mets are the historic combined-standard barer of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants – as Major League Baseball announced that uniform number 42 would be retired across all American League and National League clubs in honor of Robinson. Those players who were then wearing the number would continue to wear it until they retired – like National Hockey League players grandfathered to be allowed to skate without helmets in the 1980s after the headgear was made mandatory during the 1979 off-season.

Across Major League Baseball stadiums, the number 42 joined the banners and flags and displays of those uniform numbers previously retired by each individual club. In Philadelphia, this royal-blue 42 joined the scarlet-red numbers 1, 14, 20, 32, and 36 that hung in the outfield backdrop at the Phillies’ Veterans Stadium. In addition, every team wore a sleeve patch during the 1997 season with Robinson’s signature stitched on it along with the words, BREAKING BARRIERS. It was a season long celebration.

This year, 2007, is the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s debut; celebrations and commemorations are planned for this Sunday, April 15. Commissioner Bud Selig has granted a dispensation to allow every player on the Los Angeles Dodgers to wear Robinson’s number 42 on Sunday. It will be an army of Jackie Robinsons. Similar events are planned around the League. Ken Griffey, Jr. will wear 42 for the Reds and Jimmy Rollins will do the same for the Phillies.

This brings us to the subject of this week’s article, MLB’s Civil Rights Game and the Cleveland Indians.

In keeping with its dedication to honoring the legacy of black ballplayers, Major League Baseball added a new annual event to its yearly calendar, the Civil Rights Game. Last December 4, MLB announced the creation of the exhibition game, which was designed, in Selig’s words, as reported on MLB.com on 12/04/2006, "to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most critical and important eras of our social history.”

The city of Memphis was chosen as the site of the game due, in large part, to the location of the National Civil Rights Museum. The Museum was built in 1991 in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. One can view the balcony on which Dr. King stood when he was shot; the museum traces the Civil Rights Movement in almost a day-by-day manner. MLB plans to play the Civil Rights Game the weekend prior to Opening Day which will play it every year in the days prior to the anniversary of Dr. King’s murder.

This year’s game was played on Saturday, March 31. The St Louis Cardinals were a natural choice. Memphis is home to the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA minor-league team of the Cardinals. Memphis is relatively close to St Louis and the Cardinals were playing the following night at home in the season opener.

Cleveland was the second major league team to reintegrate, and the first in the American League, when Larry Doby debuted with the club in July 1947. The following year, Cleveland would win the World Series with both Doby and long-time Negro League phenom Satchel Paige.

For the game, the two teams were outfitted in special uniforms. (Like every piece of special commemorative sports-wear, the caps and jerseys are available for purchase online). The Cardinals were designated the home team and they wore white while Cleveland wore gray. Each team had its city spelled-out across the front in a plain san-serif font (this article appears on your screen as a san-serif font) and wore caps in the team’s primary color – red for the Cardinals and navy for Cleveland – with a white STL for St Louis and C for Cleveland.

Where was Chief Wahoo?

Banished to the back of the proverbial uniform-bus was Cleveland’s American-Indian mascot, Chief Wahoo. Since the 1950s, Cleveland has represented itself with the red skinned, hooked nose, grinning smile of its mascot. He is called Chief Wahoo. Since 1986, when he replaced a red and white full-block C, he has adorned the club’s primary game cap.

If you go to the Indians’ ballpark in Cleveland, Jacob’s Field, you will meet the team’s furry stadium mascot, Slider. Slider is a good guy as far as mascots go, and looks something like a purple love-child of the Phillie Phanatic and a Growth Hormone -Muppet (not that MLB is testing mascots, yet). Slider is no Indian and he does not look like Chief Wahoo – which is a good thing because a life-size version of the chief might scare children, both young and old.

We as a nation have become increasingly conscious of how we label and portray groups and people in this country that we have long marginalized. We might cringe at the capacity for political correctness to overreach itself, and, that being said, it would be hard to argue that we do not do well to be careful about how we speak of or portray people who we have historically used the law to injure or harm.

The Atlanta Braves have consciously fazed out their use of the screaming-Brave logo that you will see on its uniforms, on baseball cards, and official team letterhead going back to the 1950s when the club played in Milwaukee. Sometime in the past few years, the club ceased using it in official capacities. Today, the club’s logo is the team name with a tomahawk. Say what you will about a tomahawk, it is not a screaming Mohawked brave.

I am not suggesting that Atlanta change its nickname nor that even Cleveland does. (Although it would be cool if Cleveland used one of their nicknames from the early part of the twentienth-centory, like the Naps or Blues.)

We need not go that far.

The Civil Rights Movement, as embodied by Martin Luther King, and towards which Malcolm X might have been moving after his pilgrimage to Mecca, was about breaking barriers for everyone in this country, and not only the country’s people of color. It was not a black-nationalist movement – which in contrast, the Black Power movement saw itself to be. It is very peculiar for Major League Baseball to be patting itself on the back celebrating the Civil Rights Movement when one of it’s 30-club members adorns its game uniform with a relic of our collective cultural prejudice.

Cleveland released an alternate game cap a couple years ago, which it now wears for home games with its white jersey-vests. It is a navy cap with a cursive-looping capital-letter I in red and white. Let them wear this for every game and let this be an additional way in which MLB continues to celebrate Jackie Robinson.


Blogger Will said...

Fantastic column, as usual. You are a marvelously articulate baseball analyst, and you are quite right to point up the tension between the civil rights movement and the prejudices that are still acceptable in baseball.

Ivan Rodriguez was one of the players who wore #42 today in honor of Jackie Robinson. The other 4 or 5 Tigers who did so were all African-Americans. So why did Pudge do so? Because he felt that Jackie Robinson opened doors for Latin American players as well.

It would be nice if we could also say that Jackie Robinson ushered in an era in which ethnic minorities were not appropriate sports mascots.

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