How did the Cleveland Indians get their name? What was intended as a placeholder has lasted 104 years and counting
The Cleveland baseball club is reportedly dropping the nickname that was first attached to the team for the 1915 season and, folks, it’s about damn time.
That nickname was, in fact, originally intended as a placeholder. From the Jan. 21, 1915, issue of The Sporting News: “The choice is but temporary, however, but will be made permanent if no better cognomen is thought of before the season is over, it being the wish that the team would go out and make a name for itself.”
That 1915 squad didn’t make much of a name for itself, winning just 57 games and finishing seventh of eight teams in the American League. But no better names were offered, apparently, and the club got better quickly, reaching .500 in 1916 and winning the World Series in 1920. By then, the name was most definitely permanent
From 1903 to 1914, the franchise was known as the Cleveland Naps, a tribute to their star player, future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie. But Lajoie was sold, at 40 years old, to the Philadelphia Athletics in January 1915, which meant the club needed a new name. Here’s the relative portion of the story from that Jan. 21, 1915, issue of The Sporting News.
Headline: Cleveland scribes rename the Naps
Subhead 1: Birmingham’s hapless band to be known as Indians (editor’s note: Joe Birmingham was the club’s manager)
Subhead 2: They Might Have Made a Deeper Study of Anthropology and Called Them the Cave Dwellers
Well, we have a new name for the Cleveland American League Club, which it is hoped will prove luckier than the old nickname, “Naps.” For the season of 1915, the team will be known as the “Indians,” such being the choice of the local base ball writers, who held a meeting for the purpose. While there is no particular reason why the name Indians should have been adopted, the same name was worn by the Cleveland National League team prior to the entrance of Charley Somers into the national pastime. The choice is but temporary, however, but will be made permanent is no better cognomen is thought of before the season is over, it being the wish that the team would go out and make a name for itself.
At their meeting the scribes also decided that it would be better if all the papers got together on one name for the Cleveland American Association Club. As a result of that decision, the name of Bearcats was cast into the discard and that of Spiders selected.
Thus, both Cleveland teams will be known during the coming year by nicknames that were applied to the old National League Club that was led by Pat Tebeau.
The rest of the column talks about the makeup of the roster — “Should Be a Hitting Team” was a subhead — and where they were heading for training in the spring (San Antonio) and then stops on their barnstorming tour back up north.
I could find no other mentions of “Cave Dwellers” in the story, or in any subsequent issues of TSN, though I will admit that the search tool is far from perfect for old editions of TSN. A quick Google search does show that the state of Ohio is home to hundreds of caves, and those caves did serve as shelters for humans in the area for thousands of years. Somehow, though, I don’t see “Cave Dwellers” appearing on MLB uniforms anytime soon.
But that’s beside the point. Cleveland confirmed the name change, originally reported by the New York Times, with a tweet Monday afternoon.
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) December 14, 2020
The temporary name was a mistake in 1915, compounded by the vile, awful, racist Chief Wahoo mascot — please read this Sporting News piece, originally published in 2016 — that was a fixture for the franchise for too many cringe-worthy decades. The mascot was phased out for the 2019 season (finally).
It’s far past time that the temporary team nickname is given a permanent dismissal. So even though the move is decades late, it’s still better late than never.