HAZELWOOD: Understanding both sides of the Cleveland name change

·10 min read

Jul. 27—We've all heard the countless sayings.

There are two sides to every story. And two sides of the same coin.

We've also heard and said the childish rebuttal to teasing or harsh words, "sticks and stones."

Isn't it funny how things you often say and hear as a kid find themselves in your everyday adult life?

This of course brings me to the inevitable hot-button topic of the changing of the nickname for Cleveland's Major League Baseball team from Indians to Guardians, beginning next year for the 2022 season.

One thing I learned long ago, probably sometime during or shortly after high school, was never tell someone how they should feel. Just because someone has a completely different belief point than you doesn't make them wrong — it's simply a different view on that subject.

There was always going to be a strong reaction to what has felt like an inevitable nickname change when it did happen, and here we are.

After taking the weekend by spending three straight days in Cleveland to get a pulse — twice at the baseball games vs. Tampa Bay at Progressive Field — I figured it was time to put some thoughts together.

Why Guardians?

The new name has certainly brought many questions, which have answers that frankly I'm surprised we didn't see immediately used by the team or those who were on that side of the choice.

The name is a nod to the eight Guardians of Traffic statues that stand 32-feet tall — holding a different mode of transportation — at each end of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. They've always been right there, just outside the main entrance to Progressive Field.

But did you know it is one of 330 bridges in Cleveland? The white steel trusses that make up the exterior of Progressive Field? Those were influenced by those bridges that span the Cuyahoga River.

Of course many know the structure as Hope Memorial Bridge. Whether that is for legendary stand-up comedian/actor, Bob Hope, or his father, Harry Hope, is up for debate. But either way, the naming of the bridge in 1983 was memorialized for the Hope family.

Harry Hope, Bob's father, worked as a stone mason on the Guardian statues in the family's hometown. And while most know Bob Hope for hosting the Oscars and all of his military performances and shows, few remember he was also a minority owner of the Cleveland Indians during those glory years from 1946-54 — and beyond.

Hope was able to purchase a small stake in the team from World War II veteran Bill Veeck, the majority owner who made many headlines. None were as important though as the signings of African-American players and promotions focused on the middle class fan.

Also as a fun note, Hope grew up selling newspapers for two cents (ironic) with his three brothers on different street corners in Cleveland. One of his regular buyers was John D. Rockefeller — the oil billionaire who is widely considered the wealthiest American to ever live.

Where did Rockefeller live? Just beyond left field near League Park, the original home of the Cleveland Indians. Hope, who famously was also on the cover of the June 3, 1963 Sports Illustrated issue dressed in a Cleveland Indians uniform — kept a small share of ownership in the team for about forty years.

He later sang his popular "Thanks for the memories" song at the closing of Municipal Stadium in 1993 — a stadium that opened in 1932, the same year as the Lorain-Carnegie bridge.

And of course it should be mentioned the opening shot to the popular 1989 movie "Major League" also features the Guardian statues.

City connection

Though the Indians name goes back over 100 years, this will actually be the sixth change for the franchise.

The Indians name itself has been controversial for many years. I'm 41 years of age, and can never remember a season where there wasn't an organized protest or various outcries about what it represented.

There is also a misconception about how it all started. Most die-hard fans of the team believe the team is named in honor of Louis Sockalexis, believed by some to be the first player of Native American ancestry to play in the majors, though even that story has holes in it.

When the name was being changed from Cleveland Naps — after Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie no longer played for the team — in 1915, the club went with Indians. The name was chosen by sportswriters to allegedly honor Sockalexis, who played for the Cleveland Spiders and died two years earlier at the age of 42.

The story goes that a young fan wrote and suggested the team be called the Cleveland Indians in his honor. The team itself stuck with that story for many decades, but there is almost no evidence that suggests a contest ever happened.

The newspapers did take ideas from fans, but it was team owner Charles Somers who tasked the sportswriters from four newspapers to come up with a name. Once decided, there was no mention of Sockalexis — who is also documented to have endured many of his own racial slurs during games — at all.

Like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Sockalexis played for some Spiders teams that in 1897 was called the Indians by some people, because he was on the team. But is it how the name came about in 1915? All signs point to no.

In 2014, sports journalist Joe Posnaski did a search of more than 300 national newspapers in 1915, and he did not find a single mention of Sockalexis for the entire year.

This is a long way of pointing out the Indians name had no major ties to the city — at least as far as the origin of the name. Why do I mention that? Because nearly every MLB team and many pro sports teams in general do have a connection to their city.

Do you find it odd or foolish they chose a name based off statues on a bridge? Did you also know there is a famous livestock, horse and rodeo show with a barbecue competition held yearly in Kansas City called the American Royal? The Detroit Tigers were named not after the fierce animal, but a local military unit that had the same nickname during the Civil War, and because the team wore striped socks.

According to bridge engineer Wilbur Watson, the Guardian statues were meant to "typify the spirit of progress in transportation," an industry that Cleveland played a huge role in during a time period when the steel mills dominated the job landscape. That is a big part of the city's history and identity.

There are dozens of other examples, but prior to Friday, Cleveland was one of the few MLB teams without a "true" identity to its city — clearly something it was going for with this name decision.

Many are unhappy

Rumblings about a name change took a serious turn during the 2016 World Series in Cleveland. Just a couple years later, the very controversial Chief Wahoo logo was phased out completely from the team's uniforms.

Then in July 2020 the team announced it was considering a name change, and confirmed it five months later in December. Then came Friday's official announcement narrated in a video by Tom Hanks, another famous actor with fandom ties to the team.

The reaction was, not surprisingly, pretty negative. The negative reaction to anything always tends to be louder. We can safely say 2020 in particular was a year that hammered that point home.

No name was ever going to be perfect or universally well-received. You can't change a century of one nickname and expect everyone to be on board.

Here is the thing — that's OK. I have many in my immediate family and friends who are outspoken and do not like or agree with it. They are being told by some to "accept it" and move on. That's not realistic, and it's not fair to them. They feel something was taken away from them, and in a lot of ways, it was.

Many things have become political, or shall we say, politically correct in today's world. This name change certainly strikes those tones, but like the original "Indians" name, it's not that simple.

The use of "cancel culture" is perhaps the most overused phrase by both sides of the political aisle. It's referenced by both to perpetuate how something has changed which doesn't align with their beliefs.

No one likes being told how they should act as a fan. If you're not willing or ready to embrace the future of the Guardians, it doesn't make you any less of a lifelong fan.

At Friday's game, the video received plenty of loud boos and some cheers when it was played. The team did not air the video or acknowledge the name change at Saturday or Sunday's games, but the chatter was certainly out there.

We could hear some openly complain about it, while others interjected "Guardians" into "Take me out to the ballgame" in the seventh inning.

Many tend to find comfort and lean into our past to feel better about anything. Nor do we like big change to something we've known or done forever. My view or respect for anyone not willing to embrace the new nickname doesn't change.

I've heard so many say it will always be "The Jake" for Jacobs Field and they will always be the "Tribe" or Indians. There is nothing wrong with that.

That being said, the reaction also isn't as negative as some of those against it may think.

Triston McKenzie, a pitcher who did quite well on Sunday and who many in the organization and fan base have high hopes for, posted a poll to his Twitter on the name change. He got nearly 5,000 votes and 67 percent of the vote was in favor of the Guardians name. There are plenty of other examples along those lines I've seen since Friday.

It will take time — maybe a very long time for some — but I have faith some sort of a middle ground awaits for the fan base.

How do I feel?

My wife and daughter and I walked a circle around Progressive Field on Saturday. It was our ninth game so far this season. We visited the Topps truck and opened cards — a hobby that first drew me to baseball. We then took a short detour to the Hope Memorial Bridge and checked out the Guardian statues out while taking a few photos.

Did I openly push for a name change? No, not once. But after that 2016 World Series I acknowledged this day was coming. My honest take is not once did I go to the hundreds of baseball games at Municipal Stadium or Progressive Field because of their name.

It was never "I want to go to this game because we're called the Indians." No, it was about wanting to go see a game I loved while watching Joe Carter and Greg Swindell on the lakefront and Albert Belle and Jose Ramirez at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

The three of us did the same traditions we've always done before, during and after the games this weekend. What they were called didn't change anything for us — nor will it moving forward.

Players will still hit, pitch and catch the ball while running bases. They will still win and lose games.

And ultimately for me, it's the game — not a name.

Most importantly, it's also something I'll still reflect on fondly and talk about with those on both sides of this beloved coin. No words or name can ever change my love for that.

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