DECEMBER 14: Owner Paul Dolan confirmed that the franchise plans to change the team name in an interview with Tom Withers of the Associated Press. Cleveland has also released a statement announcing the news. Unlike the NFL’s Washington organization, the club will continue to use the Indians moniker until a permanent replacement is determined. For at least the 2021 season, the franchise will remain known as the Indians. Dolan said the permanent team name will not reference Native American people or cultures in any way, specifically rejecting the possibility of the team being known as the Tribe.
DECEMBER 13: The Cleveland Indians have decided to change their team name, according to David Waldstein and Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times. An announcement from the club could come at some point this week, though the team might retain the name throughout the 2021 season and then officially adopt a new nickname for 2022. The club is also considering adopting a generic name (such as “The Cleveland Baseball Team”) in the interim.
The Cleveland organization announced it was considering a possible name change in a statement last July, not long after the NFL’s Washington franchise indicated it was weighing a move away from its former nickname — hence the creation of the “Washington Football Team” designation for the 2020-21 NFL campaign. Even before July, however, there had been indications that the Cleveland team was slowly laying the groundwork for a name change, such as how the club’s old “Chief Wahoo” mascot was no longer prominently featured on uniforms, and the now-familiar “C” logo had become the primary choice on caps.
This won’t be the first name change for the franchise, as they were first known as the Grand Rapids Rustlers upon their original foundation in 1894 (when based in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and then became known as the Cleveland Lake Shores after moving to Ohio. When the team joined the American League in 1901, the name changed twice in as many seasons, going from the Bluebirds (or Blues) in 1901 and then the Bronchos in 1902, before settling on becoming “the Cleveland Naps” from 1903-1914 in a nod to newly-acquired superstar Napoleon Lajoie.
A new name was obviously required after Lajoie was sold to the Philadelphia A’s following the 1914 season, and it then that Cleveland adopted its current nickname. The proper origin of the “Indians” name has remained unknown, as the popular story that the nickname was chosen in honor of Louis Sockalexis (a Native American and fan favorite for the National League’s Cleveland Spiders in 1897-99) isn’t exactly true, as there are also several indications that Cleveland chose the name to capitalize on the popularity of the 1914 World Series champion Boston Braves.
Cleveland’s team name has remained the same for 106 years, throughout increasing criticism that the nickname and related imagery — such as Chief Wahoo and the alternate “Tribe” nickname — was offensive and stereotypical. As noted by Waldstein and Schmidt, many colleges and high schools across North America that used to carry Native American-related nicknames and mascots have changed their branding in recent years, and the Washington Football Team’s decision was the first such step taken by one of the clubs in the four major team sports. One would imagine that Cleveland’s decision will increase pressure on the Atlanta Braves, the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, though none of those teams has indicated that a name change is under consideration.
The Cleveland franchise’s new name could be decided “in consultation with the public,” according to Waldstein/Schmidt, which could take the form of a public poll (of a shortlist of name choices selected by the organization) or potentially a more extensive approach such as the discussions that went into the naming of Seattle’s new NHL expansion franchise, the Seattle Kraken. Fans have been floating potential alternate names for Cleveland’s team for years, with such throwback choices as the Spiders being a popular favorite, as well as some consideration that the team could go completely old-school and permanently become “the Cleveland Baseball Club.” Certainly these and many more fanciful possibilities will be suggested in the coming months.