Political Matters – April 2024


By Mordecai Specktor

Take me out to the ballgame
The 2024 Major League Baseball season is underway and I was just perusing the Twins schedule. I have a question: Any protests planned for Aug. 26-28, when the Twins host the Atlanta Braves?

The Atlanta MLB franchise has become notorious for its racist shenanigans attendant to appropriating Native names and symbols. When the Twins traveled to Fulton County Stadium during the 1991 World Series, a national viewing audience saw the Braves fans performing the “tomahawk chop” while chanting a faux-Native dirge. When sports teams adopt Native names and symbols there usually are ancillary racist behaviors in the mix. Young Indigenous folks, or any Native people, should not be exposed to such demeaning conduct in the sports-entertainment complex.

I’ve been writing about this topic, which is now under the rubric of “cultural appropriation,” for several decades. I recall a trip to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, when the Twins were playing the Cleveland Indians. I interviewed players from both teams about the “Indians” name and logo. At least one of the Cleveland players ran in the other direction when I asked a question.

On the other hand, Gene Larkin, whose game seven single won the 1991 World Series for the Twins, offered some thoughtful reflections, along the lines of “if the shoes was on the other foot” — if he was a Native person, he could imagine being upset about the situation. Prior to his uptake into the big leagues, Larkin attended Columbia University, where he broke most of Lou Gehrig’s baseball records, and likely was exposed to liberal thinking in the vast, cultural melting pot of New York City.

Getting back to the Atlanta MLB franchise, I wrote in my October 2014 “Political Matters” column that Atlanta “still encourages its fans to do the tomahawk chop shtick. This is the team that had a mascot dubbed Chief Noc-A-Homa. The tradition started in Milwaukee, and continued when the franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. The most famous mascot was Levi Walker, Jr. (Odawa), who portrayed the ‘chief’ from 1969-1985.”

According to a story on the ESPN website: “Before each home game, Chief Noc-A-Homa, dressed in Native American costume, would do a dance on the pitcher’s mound and then head out to left field where he would watch the game from a tepee set on a platform in the bleachers. When a Braves player homered, he’d set off smoke signals and come out of the tepee to do a celebration dance.”

Also from my 2014 column: “Walker reportedly didn’t understand why the American Indian Movement (AIM) objected to Chief Noc-A-Homa; but the team shelved the mascot prior to the 1991 season.” They’re still the Atlanta Braves.

Following the 2021 baseball season, Cleveland dropped its “Indians” name. They are now the Cleveland Guardians. In 2023, they finished 11 games back of the Twins, the AL Central champs. Likewise, over the past 20 years or so, numerous prep and college teams have dropped their Native monikers and rebranded.

One of the prime offenders, the NFL’s Washington franchise was once was known by a name that the dictionary defines as a racial slur. The former team owner, Daniel Snyder, had vowed that Washington would always be the “R”-word; but when FedEx, which won naming rights for the Washington football stadium, threatened to withdraw its sponsorship, Snyder’s determination crumbled. Also, Nike, Amazon and other companies said they would no longer sell Washington-branded merchandise. Money talks, as they say. The “R”-word was dropped in 2020, and on Feb. 2, 2022, the Washington Commanders unveiled the team’s new name.

Shifting from football to a baseball, as far as metaphors, Yogi Berra, the famous American philosopher and Yankees catcher, once said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” However, I was sort of prescient about the Washington name change in my October 2014 “Political Matters” column: “One of these days, Daniel Snyder, or whoever happens to own the Washington NFL franchise, will change the demeaning team name. And the world will keep on spinning; and we could move on to issues of greater import, as far as our continued survival on Mother Earth.” (Okay, the “continued survival” part has not been nailed down completely.)

Thinking about the Twins-Atlanta series here in August, I have a positive suggestion. Atlanta has an ornithological approach to team names: the NFL franchise is the Falcons and the NBA team is the Hawks. The Fernbank Science Center (fernbank.edu) has a directory of “Birds of Atlanta” on its website. Among the winged summer residents of the Atlanta area is the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which also can be seen commonly during spring and fall migration.

How about the city’s MLB team rebrand as the Atlanta Cuckoos?

By the way, a few days after the Atlanta series, on Aug. 31, it will be Native American Heritage Night at Target Field — the Twins will host the Toronto Blue Jays.