Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, who go back to 1900, have disappeared. But the team will return next season—under another name. There’s a lesson here.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet in Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” She references Romeo, a member of her family’s archrival House of Montague yet filled with desirable qualities.
How good will Cleveland’s newly named Guardians be? Remains to be seen. But the franchise won big by casting aside Indians, used first in 1915. Previously, they’d been the Bluebirds, Blues and Naps (after star second baseman Napoleon Lajoie).
Naming a sports team after a subjugated people—and adopting the icon of the bright red Chief Wahoo—was acceptable once. Blood-and-soil white supremacists aside, more Americans have been realizing that we are not an ethnic people but rather citizens joined in a political entity.
Of interest, the Indians won their final game of the season last Sunday, 6-0, over the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. Justice? On May 12, 1858, Texas Ranger lawmen participated in a massacre of Comanches that began the Battle of Little Robe Creek.
A different situation involves the National Football League’s Washington franchise, formerly the Redskins. In 2013, owner Dan Snyder declared, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” In July 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, Redskins—which most of the media had stopped using—was dropped. No new name has yet been proposed for what is now known as the Washington Football Team.
Baseball’s Atlanta Braves will not rename. Football’s Kansas City franchise sees Chiefs as honoring native peoples as does hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks. Florida State University remains the Seminoles and states that the Seminole Tribe approves, since the name does not denigrate it or other native peoples.
The University of Notre Dame, founded in part by Irish Catholics, maintains its Fighting Irish nickname and leprechaun mascot despite some controversy. Dana Hunsinger Benbow reported in The Indianapolis Star (8-24-21) that at a football game in 1899, Northwestern students shouted, “Kill the fighting Irish.” Journalists took up the nickname. Notre Dame students followed, turning the taunt on its head.
“Winners” keep their nicknames like baseball’s New York Yankees, and football’s Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys. My undergraduate alma mater, Alfred University, remains the Saxons.
Some names now provoke hostility in American politics. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian; conservative, liberal, progressive, socialist—all arouse someone’s anger. Evolved into labels, they provoke both stereotypes and frozen attitudes. Loyalty to a labeled party or philosophy undermines discussion and foments reckless hyper-partisanship. Rather than reflecting behavior, names define and limit it.
As kids, we said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never harm me.” Yet epithets hurled at minorities, while not causing physical harm, help stoke bigotry and ongoing acts of violence. Personally, I do not pass off as harmless the chant in Charlottesville in 2017, “Jews will not replace us.” Murders in synagogues followed.
I hope that the Cleveland Guardians inspire Americans to consider that extending dignity to all people represents our highest national ideal and reflects more than political correctness (a term presenting another semantic challenge).
This nation is weakened by those who abuse names which, sadly, include “real American.”
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