A different examination of the team's history showed the name's origin is murkier. Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University professor who has researched the role of race in sports, wrote about the team's naming origins in a 1998 journal article for "The Sociology of Sport." Her examination of local newspaper articles printed around the time of the 1915 renaming cast doubt on whether honoring Sockalexis was ever part of the discussion.
"Sockalexis is not mentioned... the Plain Dealer (newspaper) reported that the nickname was 'but temporarily bestowed until such time as the team could earn some other cognomen which may have been more appropriate,'" Staurowsky wrote. "This statement does not support the notion that the name was intended to permanently pertain to the team, let alone permanently honor a figure who did not warrant mention at the time the selection was announced."
Staurowsky said it's more likely that the loosely organized committee of sportswriters choosing the name wanted to piggyback off the success of the Boston Braves, which had won the World Series the year before. And naming the team the Indians lent itself to the sort of colorful war metaphors favored by such writers at the time.
Sockalexis had played for an even earlier incarnation of the team, the Cleveland Spiders. He was one of, if not the, first Native American to play for the Major Leagues. Sockalexis, an outfielder who was renowned for his distance throwing and hitting skills, was one of a handful of professional players at the time who had played for a college team -- for Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and Notre Dame in Indiana -- before being recruited to Cleveland.
The tall, muscular fielder played for just two years. Months after signing with the Spiders in 1897, he severely injured an ankle after jumping or falling from a second-story window while drunk. The man hailed as one of the greatest natural talents of his time saw his batting average go from .338 to .273, and his apparent instability led him to be let go from the team in 1899. He died in 1913 of heart failure, at 42 years old.
According to an 1897 article by Elmer Bates in the "Sporting Life" newspaper, Sockalexis was sometimes taunted by fans because of his heritage. "In many cases these demonstrations border on extreme rudeness," Bates wrote. "In almost every instance they are calculated to disconcert the player."
The bigotry displayed by those fans seeps through to the behavior of fans today, said Staurowsky, the Drexel professor, who said she occasionally travels to attend the yearly protests.
"I've always found it compelling that the club has claimed that the whole purpose of the naming is to honor an American Indian, and the behavior of the fans when they're confronted with actual American Indians protesting is quite contrary to honor," Staurowsky says. "The fact that this has been going on for years and the behavior essentially hasn't changed speaks to a level of racism that is so very difficult to eradicate."
It's a fact that makes the fans in Wahoo caps' heckling of the protesters even more galling, said protest organizer Sundance, a Muskogee tribal member and director of Cleveland's chapter of the American Indian Movement.
"People know what they've been taught," said Sundance, who goes by only one name. "In the United States, we have propaganda that allows this to go unchecked because it's convenient to subjugate Native Americans to sell merchandise."