I’ve long admired Terry Francona, the manager of the Cleveland Indians who also led the Red Sox to the world championship, twice. The prevalence of dumbed-down politics today argues that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness, but people with brains recognize that as foolishness. A well-considered adjustment in one’s thinking signals dexterity, courage and strength, and that appears to be what has been going on with Francona.
The Indians organization is considering a name change, a renewed emphasis wire reports like to call reckoning. It has the football organization at the nation’s capital mulling the same for the loathsome Redskins nickname.
Cleveland issued a statement, saying it was going to rethink the Indians, and Francona said he’d been thinking about it even before the statement came out.
“I know in the past, when I’ve been asked about, whether it’s our name or the Chief Wahoo, I think I would usually answer and say ‘I know that we’re never trying to be disrespectful,’” he said.
“And I still feel that way. But I don’t think that’s a good enough answer today. I think it’s time to move forward. It’s a very difficult subject. It’s also delicate.”
I have a feeling about how hard it is to make these types of changes. Cleveland is where I am from. My father grew up there. In her 90s, my great-grandmother announced that she was going to try to live another year because she thought the Indians had a chance of winning the pennant.
In 1941, a few years before he was in the Coast Guard patrolling the North Atlantic for German U-boats, my father took the streetcar from the western end of Cleveland to Municipal Stadium and was fortunate enough to be right there when the Indians stopped the greatest sports record of all time anywhere, which was Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
I grew up in and around New York City, and have been a Yankees fan for as long as I can remember. I’m aware it’s easy for a Yankees fan to tell Cleveland to change the name of its team, but I also have more than a passing interest.
I’m now in possession of a book called “Player-Manager,” by Lou Boudreau, who led the Indians to the pennant in 1948. He hit .355 that year, which anyone who knows baseball will tell you is great. An inscription on one of the front pages tells me the book was a gift to my father from my grandmother, on May 4, 1949.
Cleveland was the first American League team to have a Black player, with Larry Doby following Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. Boudreau’s account shows he’s aware that an important step is being taken:
“We talked for a while and I told Larry exactly what my plans were for him,” Boudreau writes. “I pointed out to him that because he was the first player of his race to enter the American League he was bound to be the subject of a great deal of newspaper publicity, and I also said I thought it was a good bet that he would be reading stories saying I would be prejudiced in my dealings with him. I made it plain that he should pay no attention to such sensationalism and just concentrate on the job of playing ball as well as he knew how.
“To the newspapermen covering the club, I said that Doby would be handled just as if he were one of our young minor-league players being tried out for a place on the Cleveland roster. That is exactly how he was handled, with no more and no less consideration than would have been given to any promising minor leaguer.”
In 2016, Larry Doby Jr. told the New York Times his father said he never got booed in Cleveland. “It was a special place for him and my family,” he said, “and whenever we’d go back, I’d see how he was greeted when he wasn’t playing.”
There are small steps and there are big steps, and you don’t get change without them. Cleveland can now take another important one.
It would be very interesting if I could talk to members of my family and ask them what they were feeling about what’s going on today. I can’t say I could guarantee to know how they would respond.
What matters is what I think about it, and what I think is that I agree with Francona, about how some answers are just not good enough today. The name should go, set aside to be put in a museum, where it belongs and where it won’t be forgotten, because you’re not eliminating something, but putting it in a place where it can retain the element of respect it deserves, even though the context of modern times may make that seem unlikely.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com