Last month, in the wake of nationwide anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, the Quaker Oats company announced that it would retire the name and logo of its Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mixes and other breakfast foods, acknowledging that its origins are “based upon a racial stereotype.” Other corporations quickly followed suit as the branding for products such as Uncle Ben’s rice, Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup, Cream of Wheat cereal, Dixie Beer, and Eskimo Pie ice cream bars came under closer scrutiny. This remarkable, long overdue reckoning on branding and symbolism, on who we honor and how, had already spilled over into the sporting arena with NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its events and the Minnesota Twins’ removal of a Target Field statue of former owner Calvin Griffith over racist remarks he made in 1978, but last week it advanced on several fronts. The NFL’s Washington Redskins and MLB’s Cleveland Indians (hereafter referred to by the team’s respective city names) both announced that they would consider name changes, while the Baseball Writers Association of America has begun an internal discussion to change the names of two awards on which its members vote.
On the NFL front, in the latest turn of a decades-old battle, Washington announced that the team “will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name.” That came after FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the team’s stadium, requested it do so. Within hours, Cleveland followed suit with a statement saying that the club is “committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regards to the team name.”
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) July 4, 2020
The statement arrived nearly a year and a half after the franchise announced a phaseout of its Chief Wahoo logo, a grotesque and demeaning caricature that in various incarnations had been in use since 1948, the same year that Cleveland won its last World Series. The logo made its last lap around the league in 2018, and did not appear on any of the team’s 2019 uniforms.
None of this has happened without outcry or opposition, and there are no guarantees that either Washington or Cleveland will follow through. Washington owner Daniel Snyder has previously treated the prospect of a name change with disdain, saying in 2013, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” The statement announcing the team’s review of the matter uses the word “Redskins” no less than 11 times (six outside the masthead logo), as if pressing on a sore spot. As for Cleveland, owner Paul Dolan not only said he was “adamant about keeping the name” in January 2018, when the Wahoo phaseout was announced, but that commissioner Rob Manfred “is similarly supportive of the name.”
We find ourselves in a different moment than we did in 2013 or 2018, however. Per the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto, in the wake of the protests against police brutality, general manager Chris Antonetti was involved in MLB’s somewhat belated response, which included donations to five charities as well as club executives holding up placards that read, “Black Lives Matter. United for Change.” during the first round of this year’s amateur draft on June 10. Dolan, Antonetti, and the rest of organization did some soul-searching with regards to its diversity, and according to Pluto, “heard from some of their people that the name was ‘offensive’ or at least politically out-of-touch with 2020 America.”
The team’s statement bought it some time and took some of the heat off its corporate sponsors. The club will play out the 2020 season (if indeed one can be played) under its current moniker while considering their next move. The name has been around for just over a century — Joe Posnanski can give you the history lesson while preventing this from turning into a novella — but it’s a relic from another era. The word “Indians” to describe the Indigenous people of North America is based on a misnomer (Christopher Columbus thought he had reached India when in fact he had only reached the Bahamas), and those people themselves have been subject to all kinds of brutality, discrimination, and marginalization since European colonists arrived. Even when well-intentioned, the used of Native American names and imagery by sports teams that have no connection to those people is exploitative. The name change is overdue; even before the recent protests, there would have been significant pushback if a league had allowed a new entrant to call itself the Indians — or for that matter, the Braves.
Alas, Atlanta is not yet considering a name change. In a statement to media outlets, the team said, “The Atlanta Braves honor, support and value the Native American community. That will never change.” Per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, discussions about the team’s use of the “Tomahawk Chop” cheer are underway; during last year’s Division Series, Cardinals pitcher and Cherokee Nation member Ryan Helsley called the chop “a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general.” The team did not distribute their traditional red foam tomahawks to fans before Game 5 of the series, during which they were eliminated. The discussion of the chop’s propriety is a start, at least, and if Washington and Cleveland follow through with their name changes, Atlanta will be under more pressure to follow suit.
As for the Cleveland team’s new name, my knee-jerk instinct is to call it the Spiders, after the short-lived 19th-century franchise that finished second in the National League three times during its 1889-99 run but in the last of those years was stripped for parts by syndicate owners, who sent future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Bobby Wallace, and Jesse Burkett and just about every other player of significance to the St. Louis Perfectos. What had been an 81-68 team plummeted to 20-134, a standard of futility that has never been approached by a major league team. Others have suggested the Cleveland Rocks or Rockers, tapping into the city’s musical history. CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry offered an assortment of ideas, including the Buckeyes (after a Negro Leagues team) and the Burning River (after the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire).
Elsewhere within baseball, ahead of Cleveland’s announcement last week, two potential moves connected to the BBWAA (of which this scribe is a member) took hold, both of which appear to have some momentum. One pertains to the annual Most Valuable Player awards, which bear the name of former commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the other to the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, a lifetime achievement award “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing” which is presented during Hall of Fame induction weekends, and which bears the name of the former publisher of The Sporting News.
On June 30, the Associated Press’ Ben Walker quoted multiple former MVPs — namely Barry Larkin and Terry Pendleton, who are Black, and Mike Schmidt, who is white — about the use of Landis’ name on the plaques. As baseball’s first commissioner, from 1920 to 1944, Landis succeeded in cleaning up the game and restoring public confidence in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, during which the 1919 World Series was fixed in favor of the Reds. While the AL and NL had previously issued MVP awards (some of which made past winners ineligible), it was Landis who in 1931 formalized the system of having BBWAA members vote on the award. During the 1944 World Series, just weeks before the commissioner died at the age of 78, the writers voted to add his name to the plaque.
For as impactful as Landis was, baseball remained segregated during his tenure even as the chorus to integrate grew. Because of that association, the use of his name, even if it’s rarely included in the coverage of the award, clearly makes some winners uncomfortable:
- “I was always aware of his name and what that meant to slowing the color line in Major League Baseball, of the racial injustice and inequality that Black players had to go through,” said Larkin, the 1995 NL MVP and now a member of the Hall of Fame. Larkin additionally cited conversations about the use of Landis’ name with two-time MVP and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan: “[H]e said it never sat well with him, having that name on there.”
- “If you’re looking to expose individuals in baseball’s history who promoted racism by continuing to close baseball’s doors to men of color, Kenesaw Landis would be a candidate,” said Schmidt, a three-time winner and Hall of Famer. He added, “Looking back to baseball in the early 1900s, this was the norm. It doesn’t make it right, though. Removing his name from the MVP trophy would expose the injustice of that era. I’d gladly replace the engraving on my trophies.”
- “Statues are coming down, people are looking at monuments and memorials. We need to get to the bottom of things, to do what’s right. Yes, maybe it is time to change the name,” said Pendleton, the 1991 NL MVP.
Walker received input for his article from MLB’s official historian, John Thorn, who said that Landis and his legacy are “always a complicated story” that includes “documented racism.” He added, “Landis is who he is. He was who he was. I absolutely support the movement to remove Confederate monuments, and Landis was pretty damn near Confederate.” Walker did point out that Landis’ father was actually a Union Army surgeon who was wounded in the Civil War at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, an event that inspired the naming of his son, who was born in Ohio in 1866.
Historians still debate the extent to which Landis was responsible for the maintenance of the color line, and whether he harbored racist views. For Thorn, the latter is something of a red herring: “In sum, my view is that it doesn’t matter to me, nor should it matter to anyone, whether Landis harbored racist thoughts or feelings, or uttered a demonstrably racist sentence,” he wrote at his Our Game blog. “What matters is what he did or did not do, in an office in which for a long time he held unfettered sway. Racism is as racism does.” [Emphasis in original]
Landis’ defenders cite his 1942 comments in the wake of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher’s stated desire to sign Black players “if there were no rules against it.” Said Landis in a statement:
Certain managers in organized baseball have been quoted as saying the reason Negroes are not playing in organized baseball is that the commissioner would not permit them to do so. I have come to the conclusion that it is time for me to express myself on this important issue. Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been during the 21 years I have served. There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been to my knowledge. If Durocher, any other manager, or all of them, want to sign one, or 25 Negro players, it is all right with me. That is the business of the managers and the club owners. The business of the commissioner is to interpret the rules of baseball and enforce them.
In his blog entry, Thorn noted that Dodgers president Larry MacPhail responded to Landis’ statement by saying, “Judge Landis was not speaking for baseball when he said there is no barrier: there has been an unwritten law tantamount to an agreement between major league clubs on the subject of avoiding the racial issue.” Additionally, Thorn offered documentation of what he called Landis’ “art of deception” — maintaining the “Gentleman’s Agreement” that was nowhere codified but that kept baseball segregated since 1883 — in the minutes of a December 1943 meeting during which Paul Robeson, a Black actor and athlete who had played baseball against the likes of Frankie Frisch while at Rutgers University, and coached Lou Gehrig at Columbia University, spoke to the commissioner and club executives to advocate for the signing of Black ballplayers. In the aftermath of Robeson’s presentation, Landis, as he had done before, claimed that no rule was in place, and all but dared teams to cross him. From the minutes:
MR. RICKEY [Brooklyn]: Mr. Commissioner, are we to understand that the report from this meeting, in response to the delegation that came in here today, is to be simply that the matter was not considered?
COMM. LANDIS: No, no. The announcement will have to be that it was considered — and my recollection now is that it was considered, and you gentlemen all remember that it was considered; you each participated in the consideration of it — and that no action was taken on it; that the matter is a matter for each club to determine in getting together its baseball team; that no other solution than that, in view of the nature of our operations, is possible.
Do I state what you have in mind?
MR. BREADON [St. Louis NL]: Yes, sir.
MR. RICKEY: I thought that we should all have in mind the same thing.
COMM. LANDIS: Yes. Is there anything more, Mr. O’Connor [Landis’s assistant]?
MR. O’CONNOR: No.
Mr. Rickey is of course Branch Rickey, the only owner at the meeting who had anything to say on the matter of race, and the one who would bring Jackie Robinson to the majors three and a half years later. The two-and-a-half year delay between Landis’ death and Robinson’s arrival has been cited as evidence that the commissioner was not the obstacle to integration, but Rickey had sent his scouts to cover the Negro Leagues as early as 1943, and signed Robinson to his first professional contract on August 28, 1945, believing that he had finally found a player with not only the talent but also the temperament to withstand the pressures of breaking the color line.
Thorn’s whole entry is worth a read, and indeed the topic is ripe for deeper exploration. One needn’t find a smoking gun, however, to conclude that Landis’ inclusion in the Hall of Fame — he was elected by a special vote two weeks after his death — is ample enough recognition for his service to baseball. He’s in no danger of being erased from history, but there’s no need to venerate him further. Jack O’Connell, who has served as the BBWAA’s secretary/treasurer since 1994, told Walker that no past winner had ever voiced a complaint to him about Landis’ name, but those were different times, and such players may have felt that their complaints weren’t worth the trouble. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have emboldened people to speak up about all manner of injustices, and if past MVPs are expressing the discomfort that his name brings them even in association with one of the game’s highest honors, it’s time to move on.
O’Connell told Walker that any BBWAA member could raise an objection to the use of Landis’ name and initiate a discussion within the organization. Under normal circumstances, the matter would be considered and voted upon at the annual Winter Meetings, which this year are slated for Dallas. That wouldn’t be until after the next winner is announced, which isn’t ideal, but with the possibility that the Winter Meetings will be scrubbed (also not ideal), the discussion has been initiated and has gone digital within the members-only section of the organization’s web site. It’s my understanding as a member that the matter will be put to an online vote at the individual chapter level, with the results aggregated. If Landis’ name is removed, a discussion will ensue over whether to name the awards after another figure, but they may simply become the BBWAA AL and NL MVP awards.
A parallel process appears likely to happen with regards to the Spink Award, that after USA Today’s Bob Nightengale wrote about it on July 1:
We are tearing down statues and monuments for what they represent.
We are changing state flags for what they symbolize.
Finally, we are demanding change in this country.
It’s time for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to step up, too.
It’s time for the BBWAA to remove the name — J.G. Taylor Spink — associated with the greatest honor given annually to a baseball writer.
Spink, whose uncle Alfred founded The Sporting News in 1886, took over as publisher from his father Charles in 1914 and continued in that capacity until his death in 1962, at which point the BBWAA established an award in his honor and made him the first recipient. The so-called “Bible of Baseball” carried great influence within the industry, and so Spink’s defense of the status quo and opposition to integration played a significant role in setting the cause back.
In his column, Nightengale cited author Daryl Russell Grigsby’s book Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball:
“Spink defended segregated baseball with his silence. If need be, he did so in words. In August 1942 he wrote an editorial [titled “No Good From Raising the Race Issue”] saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands. … Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”
Spink was openly critical of Rickey and Indians owner Bill Veeck, writing about the latter’s acquisition of 42-year-old Satchel Paige in 1948, “The Sporting News will make no change to its original editorial, except to express its admiration for any pitcher—white or colored—who at Paige’s age can gain credit for five victories over a period of six weeks in any league, major or minor. But it cannot express any admiration for the present-day standards of major league ball that make such a showing possible.” (h/t to Forbes‘ Dan Schlossberg)
Even in 1961, near the end of his life and after the point where every major league team had finally integrated, Spink was derisive of calls for teams to press for integrated housing in Florida during spring training, a matter that spurred Black stars such as Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson to speak out. Wrote Spink, “Baseball has done its part… we don’t believe that baseball is under any obligation to be a crusader or martyr in this issue. That it seems is the role some people think baseball should play in the racial issue in Florida.”
Such was the stature of Spink within the industry that his obstructionist stance on integration did not impede the effort to honor him, which began just months after Robinson became the first Black player elected to the Hall of Fame and four years before Ted Williams used his induction speech to stump for the elections of Paige and Josh Gibson. Spink’s track record wasn’t spotlighted on the occasions when Black writers received the award (Wendell Smith, posthumously in 1993; Sam Lacy in ’97, Larry Whiteside, posthumously in 2008; and Claire Smith in ’17), though the last of those winners — additionally the first female recipient of the award — told Nightengale, “If Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.”
Other recent winners may not have been aware of Spink stance, either. Peter Gammons, the 2004 honoree, told Nightengale, “I think they should change the name of it. I was never aware of that, but now knowing that, I feel very strongly about it.”
In a statement to FanGraphs, 2019 Spink winner Jayson Stark weighed in:
“As the 2019 winner of the Spink award, I’m profoundly aware of the powerful meaning of this honor. It’s an award that should signify the highest standards in our business. So as an organization, I think it’s time for the Baseball Writers to make a statement that the racist views of J.G. Taylor Spink do not, and should not, represent what we stand for. Not in the way we conduct ourselves in our profession — and certainly not in the highest award we bestow on our members.”
Within the BBWAA, suggestions to rename the award after a more meritorious writer have been received, but as with the MVP, it seems possible if not likely that if Spink’s name is stripped, the award could become something along the lines of “The BBWAA Lifetime Achievement Award” rather than bearing someone else’s name. The Hall itself appears open to a change; vice president of communications and education Jon Shestakofsky told Nightengale, “This is an issue on the baseball’s writer side. We’ll surely have a conversation on it moving forward if they are discussing a change.”
Even if these efforts do come to fruition, the changes won’t be earth-shaking, and for whatever plaudits these organizations may receive, we should also lament that these moves took so long, stalled by some combination of inertia, ignorance, and insensitivity. Retiring these outdated symbols isn’t on par with the toppling of Confederate statues. It doesn’t address the underlying systemic injustices that still prevail against Native Americans, Blacks, and other minorities, nor will it increase minority representation in dugouts and front offices. But even if this isn’t the heaviest lifting, these wrongs are worth righting. Change is better late than never.