By Will Irwin
Names. While so simple they can carry what seems like the weight of the world in meaning to a person or an organization. They can provide an identity, a brand, and sense of pride to the entity that carries that name. But in the case of my beloved Cleveland Indians and the soon to be former Washington Redskins, they can also provide a fair share of controversy. And with protests and cries for social change surging across the country, there has never been more pressure on these organizations to change their names than now. The Redskins have already stated that they will be retiring their name and logo (for more information on the Redskins name change check out L.A.’s masterfully written article on the topic here if you haven't already), but my Cleveland Indians have yet to make an official statement on whether they will be making a change. The closest thing the team has come to a statement has been Terry Francona saying on a July 5th Zoom call that he thinks, “It’s time to move forward," and after a rich 105 years as the Indians being the franchises name, Francona may be right. But before we get too far into if they should change their name or what they should change it to, let's look at how they came to be the "Cleveland Indians."
The year was 1899, and the Cleveland Spiders have just set a record that has still yet to be broken to this day, they posted the worst winning percentage in all of baseball history with a .130 win percentage and a 20-134 record. The record was so bad that the team was totally dissolved after that season… how Cleveland of them. Even in the midst of doing what Cleveland does best, losing, the Indians origin story begins here with Louis Sockalexis. Sockalexis was an outfielder for the Spiders and the first Native American professional baseball player, and being the first Native American ball player, he drew (some good but mostly racist) attention from writers and fans wherever he went. So much so that people would reference the Spiders as the Indians because of Sockalexis, a .317 hitter in his 3 years in the majors, who retired along with the dissolving of Spiders organization as a whole after the 20 -134 season left the city of Cleveland without a team. But as Clevelanders have proven over the years, it's gonna take more than just a terrible record to shake our fandom, and the city charted what is now their current franchise into the American League under the name of “The Cleveland Blues” in 1901. After a year under the unpopular name Cleveland rebranded themselves as the Bronchos and traded for all-time great second basemen Napoleon Lajoie. Lajoie was such a spectacular and rejuvenating presence for the Cleveland fanbase, the organization changed the team name to the Cleveland Naps after their star player in 1903. The Naps lasted for 12 years until Lajoie left the team in 1915 leaving Cleveland without their star player and in need of a new name. After some tribulation with fans on what the new name should be, writers decided that they should hark back to the nickname of the team when Sockalexis roamed the field and the Cleveland Indians were born. Under the name “Indians,” the team would celebrate two World Series titles, their first in 1920 and their most recent title coming in 1948, meaning Cleveland (like so do in another sport) has the longest active title drought at 71 years. The Indians have made four other world series appearances since 1948 (1954, 1995, 1997, and 2016), losing in heartbreaking fashion in both 1997 to the Marlins (thanks, Jose Mesa), and 2016 where they lost to the Cubs in 7 games after blowing a 3-1 series lead. While they may not have had World Series success, the Indians are still a storied franchise. The Indians are one of four teams to still hold their original charter and while having the fifth most players (13) enshrined in Cooperstown. Their most recent addition to Cooperstown came in the form of the 8th member of the 600 home run club and my all time favorite player, Jim Thome in 2018. Cleveland was also the second team league-wide to break baseball's color barrier, debuting Hall of Famer Larry Doby, two months after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. With such a deep baseball history under the name “Indians”, any thought of changing their name would be crazy… Right?
There are very few Cleveland bandwagons out there, we aren't good enough, all of us were born into this fandom which makes our connection to the teams that much stronger. For example, I am a 4th generation Indians fan, rooting for the Indians is baked into my family’s and all other Cleveland Indians fans' blood. We know nothing else other than cheering for our Indians and then crying 3 hours later after they break our hearts in dramatic fashion. I wish I were kidding when I tell you that a third of my wardrobe consists of Indians gear (the other two thirds is Browns and Cavaliers gear if you're wondering). Which is why the thought of rooting for a team with a new name seems almost wrong, and why I totally understand how people would be upset if the name were to change from the Indians. Yet the more I think about it the more I agree with Francona that it might be time to move on. First off, the Indians might be in need of a rebrand anyway after the removal of Chief Wahoo from all jerseys and the stadium in 2019. For those of you who do not know who or what Chief Wahoo is, he is the controversial red and blue caricature of a Native American the organization used as their primary logo from 1947 - 2014 (moving to a block C as the primary logo) until being totally removed from the organization before the 2019 season. With Chief Wahoo being removed after Native American tribes petitioned for decades for his removal, there is not much the team can use as imagery to connect to the name. Indians merchandise is kind of boring nowadays as it only consists of either the bland block letter “C” or “Indians” in their classic script. While it has a nice simplicity to it, it's missing that image that would take their merchandise to the next level and give their fans an image to connect with whenever they think of their favorite baseball team. Without Chief Wahoo, the name Indians has little meaning behind it, which is why a name change more meaningful to the city might be a step in the right direction for the franchise. However the main reason I would be okay with a name change if it happened is they would be the same team, in the same city, just with a different name. And it was hard for me to wrap my head around it at first too but, I know that if any of the names I list below had been the team’s name since 1915, I would have loved the team just the same as I do now. Even though I was born and raised in the D.C. area, I love the city of Cleveland and their sports teams with all of my heart and soul, and a new name won't change that for me. Things may be different at first and there will be some adjustments, for one I would have to replace a third of my wardrobe with the new teams merchandise, but the sentiment will come back, and all my fondest memories of cheering for my favorite team when they were “The Indians” will never be lost and most certainly never be forgotten. But for now I will finally step off my soapbox and give you what you came here for, my top 5 possible name changes for the Indians. Just as L.A. did for his Redskin’s article, and how he and Chris Blake do their top 5 segment on the almighty podcast that is the Moecast, I’m gonna give my top 5 names starting with number 5 and going down to my favorite at number 1.
5. The Blue Socks. This name was proposed by none other than my father, Dan Irwin, who was a semifinalist in an Indians Re-Naming contest the blog Uni-Watch put on in 2012. And for the reasonings behind this name change, I will give the exact same description along with he sent into the contest
“For more than 140 - years Cleveland has played professional baseball under names including the ‘Blues’, ‘Spiders’, ‘Naps’, and finally the ‘Indians’ - who legend has it, are named in tribute of Louis Sockalexis - the first Native American to play professional baseball. So how do you mashup Blues and Spiders, while respectfully celebrating Louis Sockalexis and my beloved Cleveland Indians? (Have you ever tried to mash a ‘Nap’? It’s not easy.) How do you replace Chief Wahoo with a friendly and fun mascot I present to you, the ‘Cleveland Blue Socks’ and a new mascot that just happens to wear a lot of blue socks.” (Dan Irwin). Without trying to sound as biased as possible with it being my dad's submission the reasoning behind it kind of makes perfect sense if you're trying to incorporate all of the past names into the team's new identity. My only problem with it and the main reason it's at number 5 is the fact there are already two other colored sock names in the MLB (The Red Sox and the White Sox), and I personally don't think there is room for anymore.
4. The Flames. This one was proposed by writer Matt Schlichting on SBNATION’s blog “Lets Go Tribe!”, and I think it could be a clean and fun rebrand for the team. While I understand we would share the name with the NHL’s Calgary Flames, this would be a unique name to the MLB as there are no team names surrounding the concept of fire, and oddly enough share historical value to the city of Cleveland. The Cuyahoga River, the river that runs through the city of Cleveland, is a river that is notoriously polluted and pretty gross to the point where it has been known to catch on fire… 13 times to be exact. Because of the rivers uncanny ability to somehow catch on fire, the burning river is oddly enough a source of pride for the city and naming our teams the Flames would be a great way of honoring that. Logos would be easy, something as simple as a baseball with flames on it could easily work and be eye catching. Not only that but the headlines write themselves, I can see it now, “Shane Bieber and the Flames torch the Nationals and Scherzer in game 4 of the World Series completing the sweep for Cleveland!”(Sorry not sorry L.A.).
3. The Rockers/Axe. From this point on I could honestly switch these next three around and I wouldn't mind, they are all deserving of the number 1 spot for their own reasons, but what kind of list would that be if they are all number 1. The Rockers are yet another great name choice with a connection to Cleveland with the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame being located right outside Progressive Field. Merchandising with guitars would be easy and would look great, along with a team name centered around music could create an awesome fan experience for anyone, baseball fan or not, coming into the park. Only problem I have with the name is the fact that it's so close to The Colorado Rockies that people might get them confused. Which is why someone came up with the great alternate solution of the name being the Axe, which is another name for a guitar and it could still hold the same sentiment. Below is a uniform concept that I really liked, also from the same Uni-Watch blog contest, the submission is by Jeffy Bahry.
2. The Spiders. This one is a layup. It's already been the team name and would be an easy transition for the franchise as well. Spiders are notoriously intimidating creatures and provides that Cleveland history that people would love to see be attached to the name. This is another name where branding would be easy with spiders and webs, and it would be easy to give the fans an image to connect to with the right spider logo. It would be especially cool if they could make the netting behind the dugouts and behind the dish look like spiderwebs, but maybe that's just me. Only problem I see the franchise running into would be creating a mascot that is both, not too clunky with the eight legs coming off it, and making sure it doesn't look too intimidating to the point where it scars children when they see it at games. Overall it would be the easiest, and the most likely of the bunch to be chosen as the new name for the franchise, and the uniform concept attached below I found on the Unofficial Athletic would also be a fresh new look for the franchise.
1. The Guardians. If you’re skeptical, hear me out first cause I was too but have warmed up to the name to where it is my favorite option for a name change. This name is the perfect combination of connection to the city and branding out of all of the names mentioned above. First off this name would pay tribute to the four 43 ft tall “Guardians of Traffic” that stand on the ends of the Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland. Anyone who lives in Cleveland knows how much of a staple these are to the city and must see attractions these are when visiting the city. They are one of the few images people think of when you say Cleveland. The branding possibilities are endless. Not only do Guardians and Indians have the same amount of syllables but they also share the same last four letters, so Guardians flows just as well as Indians does out of the mouth. Secondly you could have a lot of fun with the logo, having a knight wielding a sword for a bat, a baseball with a knights helmet on it, two crossed swords under a baseball, and I could go on but I don't wanna give the Indians marketing team anymore ideas without getting paid. Although I do not have a uniform concept to pair with my reasoning I will believe this is the best name change for my team and I can't wait to be first of many to buy the jersey when it comes out.