22 Ways of Looking at Chief Wahoo, Baseball's Biggest Shame

The Cleveland baseball team just finished a historic, incandescent winning streak. How do you reconcile joyous baseball with a mascot that...looks like this?

by Pete Beatty
Sep 18 2017, 3:03pm


Let's start with an easy one: Chief Wahoo is the logo of Cleveland's baseball team, and he is your very bad uncle. He comes to family gatherings and spews intolerance at the dinner table between belches scented with unjustified confidence and supermarket scotch. You permit this because Chief Wahoo is related to you.


Chief Wahoo is dying. Cleveland's baseball team has been quietly razoring Wahoo off their hats, media kits, and ballpark signage for years. The team will officially discard him soon. What took so long? What is taking so long?


The team that wears Chief Wahoo just played three weeks of incandescent, joyous baseball. They won 22 games in a row, the longest streak in a century. Cleveland's baseball team hustles, smiles, dominates, delights. In 2016, they improbably came up one single run short of winning the World Series. The 2017 club seems cheerfully obsessed with atoning for that defeat and ending a 69-year title drought. That's exciting!


But how hard can you root for a team that wears Chief Wahoo? How bad would the other team's karma have to be?


Chief Wahoo will never die. Every single time anyone watches the delirious Rajai Davis home run from Game 7 of last year's World Series, they will see Chief Wahoo on Davis' right shoulder, staring out at Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman and the rest of the world. Chief Wahoo attended every game of 2017's historic winning streak, always in the front row, always smiling. Bad uncles never skip a holiday gathering.


Chief Wahoo is a disgrace, but not a unique one. His relations (besides all of us) include the tomahawk chop, the Redskins' name, the skirting of the Rooney Rule. He is a very bad uncle, but he is not the biggest or worst bad uncle. He is only a mascot of a refusal to acknowledge our bad behavior. On a 1-10 scale of toxic American ideas, Wahoo is what, a 3? 7? Higher?


Chief Wahoo is an antique of white supremacy, from a time when that supremacy went so unchallenged that it could pass for indifference. White supremacy was so secure that it could reside in cartoons and sports logos, and did not need torchlit parades of rejects to sings its praises.


We only talk about Chief Wahoo when Cleveland's baseball team does something worth talking about. This is to say, we do not talk about Chief Wahoo often. He keeps to himself, or we keep him to himself. We only confront bad uncles periodically, most always on designated holidays, at Thanksgiving tables or through the secular liturgy of sports. We are not required to address the plight of the bad uncle every day, unless the largest, worst uncle somehow becomes president. Then what do we do?


But Chief Wahoo exists even if we're not talking about him. In fact, Chief Wahoo exists because we don't talk about him.

Francisco Lindor deserves better than to wear this racist logo. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


Why is there not a line between Chief Wahoo's top and bottom teeth? He is a caricature and caricatures do not need to open their mouths; but Chief Wahoo is speaking and subsisting on something. What does Chief Wahoo eat, how do sounds escape from him?


Cleveland's 22-game streak only resonated once it was long and taut. For most of the run, supremacy was unchallenged, unconsidered. The other teams were ghosts, and conquering ghosts is easy if you don't believe in them.


Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Corey Kluber wear Chief Wahoo. Does this mean we can't enjoy them?


The spade-work of turning Chief Wahoo into a hill-for-dying-on is not especially rewarding, no matter what you want your hill-death to signify. Beefing over Wahoo is worrying about a broken taillight when your car is actually just an old cardboard box. Your car does not need that turn signal. Yelling about Chief Wahoo mostly serves to make those who detest Wahoo feel good, and those who love Wahoo feel justified. Arguing with bad uncles is not going to fix them, or us.


Towards a theory of bad uncles: Being a bad uncle means talking more than you listen. Bad uncles believe that because there have been lousy aspects of the world, there should always be lousy aspects of the world. Bad uncles are Archie Bunkers without laugh tracks, without jokes at all. Like all bad uncles, Chief Wahoo has a big mouth and tiny ears. Who else is a bad uncle?


Famous bad uncles: Creon from Antigone, Vernon Dursley from Harry Potter, Richard III, Scar from The Lion King. One of the problems is that we can't just tell a bad uncle that he is no longer invited to family dinner. All of us are bad uncles, in our way. We can't disown ourselves; that would be a cop-out. Retiring Wahoo won't erase him.


Counter-argument: If you don't like Chief Wahoo, why don't you change the channel?


Counter-counter-argument: Chief Wahoo, or something like him, is on every channel.


Chief Wahoo is sports. Sports have the power to make us better and worse, because sports are made of us. The reflection that sports sends back is oddly flattened and stretched out, but it's still us. So should we get rid of sports?


Cleveland fans aren't any more or any less racist than any other random sampling of sports consumers. They are stuck in a trap: A symbol of their affinities, their memories, their home also happens to be a rancid icon of intolerance.


When you make corporately owned entertainment (like a baseball team) a stakeholder in your heart, you open yourself up to some weird situations. There is a passive evil in fandom. This is the risk we run by letting our consumption define our character. But we're fans. Is Wahoo our fault?


Imagine the end of Chief Wahoo. There would be months of churlish resentment on AM radio, oaths to never root for the team again. President Worst Uncle might tweet his disapproval of the move. There would be years of backwash—mountains of cheap souvenir Wahoos, their smiles not dimmed a single watt by retirement. There are t-shirts, tattoos, flags, 70 years of highlights. The entire movie Major League. Millions of memories.


Chief Wahoo can't die. But what if we buried him anyway?

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