In 1901, businessmen Charles Somers and Jack Kitoyl purchased a baseball team they named the Cleveland Bluebirds. When the Major League of Baseball formed, the Cleveland team became one of its charter members.
Early Uniform and Logos
At the time, the team had simple logos and uniform designs. The original team uniform of 1901 featured the world “Cleveland” on the front of the team’s home jerseys. The road uniform showed a large letter C on the jersey’s upper left shoulder.
The team’s colors were red and white.
In 1906, the C on the away team jersey became more elaborate and curlicued. There were few other changes until 1928.
Becoming the Indians
In 1915, Somers decided the team needed a new name. He asked local baseball writers to choose a new one. Out of all the suggestions, Somers chose the Indians.
One theory says the name referred to Louis Sockalexis, the first acknowledged Native American to play professional baseball. Sockalexis played for a team named the Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. Sockalexis was a star baseball player, but he suffered racist taunts from fans in the stands and from sports writers.
Some sports historians, however, dispute the idea that Sockalexis was the inspiration for the name. They say the name was chosen after the Boston Braves had a championship season. After their win, names related to Native Americans became popular.
Wherever it came from, the name stuck and remained on the team’s uniforms for over 100 years.
The team changed the uniform design to reflect its new name. The name Indians first appeared on the team’s 1928 uniforms.
On the team’s home jersey, the word “Cleveland” was replaced by an embroidered picture on the left shoulder. This depicted the head of a Native American man in feathered headdress. Rendered in red, this was the team’s official new logo.
Related: Our guide on how to trademark a logo.
The Little Indian
The infamous Chief Wahoo was not originally a team logo. He started life as a popular newspaper cartoon that first appeared in 1932.
Fred George Reinert was a cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and he drew the caricature to illustrate articles about the baseball team.
The original cartoons depicted a furious Native American carrying a tomahawk and a knife while running down a baseball field. The original cartoons appeared under the game’s score with the headline, “Full Details in Today’s Sports Pages.”
Readers responded favorably to the character, and he soon began appearing in regular coverage of the team. Reinert called his character “the little Indian.” Reinert and his character became hugely popular. According to one report, children who toured the Plain Dealer offices routinely asked to see the man who drew the popular character.
Looking for a Logo
In 1947, the Cleveland Indians’ owner Bill Veeck wanted a new logo. He hired 17-year-old artist Walter Goldbach to design it. Goldbach created a design remarkably like Reinert’s “little Indian.”
It showed a small Native American figure with an enormous head, a huge, hooked nose, and a single feather in a headband. The caricatured figure was holding a bat. He had had dark, brick-red skin and a mouth full of oversized, grinning teeth. This is Chief Wahoo, who appeared on Cleveland jerseys and merchandise until very recently.
The Original Big Chief
Nobody is sure where the name Chief Wahoo came from. There was a cartoon called “Big Chief Wahoo” that ran in the papers from 1936 to 1947. Some sports historians note, however, that the name probably referred to Indians player Allie Reynolds.
Reynolds was a Native American and member of the Creek nation. He joined the Indians in 1942 as a rookie.
Reynolds played extremely well for Cleveland and was a fan favorite. The team later traded him to New York, where he pitched six world championships and threw two no-hitters. Fans and sportswriters frequently referred to Reynolds as “Chief Wahoo.”
Making It Official
Chief Wahoo became the official team mascot in 1947. In 1948, when Cleveland won the World Series, the team added a crown to Wahoo’s head.
In 1954, the Indians changed their jerseys to make room for the new logo. Their 1954 uniform showed the name “Indians” in script across the front of the jersey and a picture of Chief Wahoo on the left sleeve.
Controversy and Changes
The mascot has provoked criticism and controversy for decades. Until recently, however, team owners refused to change the name “Indians” or drop the mascot.
In 2009, Chief Wahoo was removed from some of the team’s batting helmets. In 2016, the team announced they would remove Chief Wahoo from their caps, but he remained on the jersey sleeves.
In 2019, the team officially dropped Chief Wahoo as a mascot.
In 2020, the Indians announced they were changing their name. They joined the former Washington Redskins as the second team to change their name that year. The team announced it would continue using the Indians name and logo through the 2021 season.
Owner Paul Dolan said he reached the decision after holding talks with Native American groups, researchers and civic leaders. The change was part of a wave of growing public anger about mascots and team names deemed to be racist.
Ray Halbritter, leader of the Change the Mascot campaign, told CNN, “Sports is such an incredible cultural power in this nation and in the world, and it needs to inclusive. I hope for and look forward to a broader discussion about these mascots that includes the affected people.”
A Long Way
The Cleveland Indians logo history is a story that has come a long way from the days of offensive portrayals of Native Americans. Although it took them almost a century, they finally chose to discard that part of their past. After the 2021 season, the team will have a new name, a new logo, and a chance to start over.