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January 25, 2013

BP Unfiltered

Why Wahoo's Gotta Go

by Ben Lindbergh

Earlier this week, I came across a link from Craig Robinson at Flip Flop Fly Ballin’ to a cache of 14 radio broadcasts of baseball games from 1948-1967. If you like history or listening to baseball on the radio, this is a treasure trove, and you’ll want to spend a while absorbing the sounds of the game in the time of fast talk and high trousers: Boudreau, Berra, and Ballantine Beer.

One of the broadcasts is from the fifth game of the 1948 World Series and features Mel Allen (in the third of what would be 18 consecutive World Series assignments) and Jim Britt calling the Boston Braves’ 11-5 win over the series’ eventual victors, the Indians. It starts out innocently enough—a friendly greeting from Allen, a word from our sponsor (Gillette, not yet bragging about its blade counts), and a reminder that we’re listening to a relic of a time when someone still watched boxing. So far, so good. But it’s 1948, and it’s Indians vs. Braves. If you’re thinking, “That sounds like a recipe for some casual cultural insensitivity,” you’re right!

I’ve embedded the relevant bit below. Prepare to be snapped out of your nostalgia around the 30-second mark.

It’s not surprising that this would have been considered kosher on a national baseball broadcast in 1948. One need only look at that game’s lily-white lineups to be reminded of what passed for acceptable at the time: the Braves, the fifth major-league team to integrate, wouldn’t do so until 1950, and even the progressive, Bill Veeck-owned Indians fielded only two non-white players. What does seem a little surprising, in light of how long it's been since we left those lily-white lineups behind, is that some remnants of Allen’s attitude remain.

This was the Indians’ primary logo in 1948 (courtesy of SportsLogos.net):

By 1951, "Chief Wahoo" had evolved (if you can call it that) into this:

Since then, though, Wahoo hasn't aged a day:


Wahoo isn’t as easy to find as he once was, but the logo has shown surprising staying power. Earlier this month, the Braves’ so-called “Screaming Indian” made an ill-considered comeback (at least until the predictable  backlash), and Atlanta’s tomahawk chop is alive and well. Allen’s intro seems almost impossibly archaic, but at some point, won’t we look back and say the same about Wahoo?

While Wahoo’s silent grin might not set off the same alarm bells as Allen’s references to reservations, medicine men, and peace pipes (if only because we’re so used to seeing it), it comes from the same cultural lineage—one we shouldn’t be particularly proud of. As Emma Span once put it:

Look: I know it’s a tradition; I know the vast majority of people who do that chant, or wear caricatured Cleveland Indians mascot gear, are not racist and have no actual problem with Native Americans. But it’s well past time for those fans, and those teams, to demonstrate that by knocking this stuff off. Even if no great harm is being done now, these are the vestigial remains of a very real racism which has done plenty of harm, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to associate themselves with it. Does that pleasure of tradition really outweigh the ickiness of taking part, however briefly, in that kind of creaky, ugly, outdated world view?

We’ve come a long way in the last 65 years. Why not take one more step and make Wahoo go away for good?

 

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Indians,  Braves,  Chief Wahoo

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