Owner To Decide Fate of Chief Wahoo
CLEVELAND (AP) _ Walter Goldbach didn’t mean to anger anyone when he first sketched out the caricature of a grinning, big-nosed Indian brave.
It was 1946. Goldbach was a 17-year-old working at his uncle’s emblem company, trying to come up with a snazzy logo for the Cleveland Indians baseball team.
But more than 50 years since Goldbach’s handiwork became Chief Wahoo _ the face stitched in to every Cleveland player’s cap _ the symbol has become a source of tension, loved by fans but reviled by American Indian activists who consider it degrading and racist.
Sports marketers believe the logo will present a tough problem if Indians owner Richard Jacobs follows through on his plan to sell the team.
The owner will face this choice: give in to protesters’ demands and change the team logo _ even its name _ and take the resulting heat from fans, or keep the logo and be seen in some circles as insensitive.
``The new owner will be in a huge pressure cooker with regard to how loud people will scream about this,″ said Brandon Steiner, who heads a sports marketing company in New York.
Goldbach, now a retired sign designer who lives in the outer Cleveland suburbs, said he probably was influenced by the cartoon style of the day when he first drew Wahoo for then-new Indians owner Bill Veeck.
``The last thing on my mind was trying to offend anybody,″ Goldbach said.
Through the years, his original design has been fine-tuned.
Wahoo’s face _ originally a sort of orange-brown _ is now red. A pony tail has been shorn, and Wahoo’s nose has been shortened and straightened. The Indians use just the Wahoo head in promotional material now, not a full-body figure that was sometimes shown through the years.
Goldbach said he never heard any complaints about the logo until about 15 years ago.
More recently, anti-Wahoo protests have become a fixture outside Jacobs Field on opening day and during the playoffs.
Last year and in 1997, demonstrators were arrested for burning Wahoo in effigy. Protesters have sued the city, charging that police harassed them and violated their right to free speech.
Jacobs has consistently said he won’t change the logo, but a new owner might have a harder time holding that position.
Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media and one of those who has been arrested, said the ownership change would be a perfect time ``to cleanse the national pastime of institutional racism.″
Bellecourt wants major league baseball to hold a nationwide contest to give the Cleveland team a new nickname and logo. He thinks the interest from that would increase sales of clothing and other items with the Cleveland logo, while making Wahoo a collectors’ item.
But the profits from apparel sales are split among all the major league clubs, and right now the Indians rank fifth among baseball’s 30 teams. Only the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs sell more.
``You have a hot market in Cleveland,″ Steiner said.
Complicating matters further, the Indians also are performing well on the field. They have the best record in baseball, and sales of Wahoo-related gear probably would get even better if Cleveland won its first World Series since 1948, shortly after it adopted the logo.
``From a sports marketing standpoint, this is what you live and die for,″ Steiner said. ``You wait for the big win, then you take that logo and you go crazy with it.″
Steiner has a hard time imagining major league baseball allowing the Indians to change logos even for a few years.
Fans also would be unhappy.
Louis Colombo, a local attorney, might have stated their position best in a letter he wrote in The Plain Dealer.
``The beauty of the game of baseball is its timelessness and tradition, and the way those elements connect generations,″ he said. ``The name and the logo are at the heart of that tradition in Cleveland.″
But Lee Berke, a Cleveland native and the senior vice president of marketing for The Marquee Group, said he can still imagine a new owner using the script ``Indians″ exclusively and dumping Wahoo.
He noted the influence of a trademark panel’s recent decision to revoke the Washington Redskins’ federal trademark protection, and schools dropping their Indians-related nicknames.
``It’s an issue that’s not going away,″ he said.
Meanwhile, Wahoo’s creator says he doesn’t care if the logo stays or goes. To Goldbach, it’s just a drawing he made as a teen-ager.
``If they have a problem with it, why don’t they get a bunch of Native American artists and have a contest between them to come up with a new logo?″ he asked. ``Does that sound fair?″