I grew up rooting for the Cleveland Indians, a bit too late for Bob Feller and Al Rosen but in time for “Sudden” Sam McDowell, Vic Davalillo, and slugger Rocky Colavito. When I traded baseball cards, Indians had double value. So I’m admittedly being sentimental in lamenting the replacement of the Indians moniker, and the inimitable mascot Chief Wahoo, with the team’s new name: the Cleveland Guardians. Two Cleveland sports teams now have names that would seem to have no relationship to the gritty city of my birth: the basketball Cavaliers and the baseball Guardians.
Surely the team could have done better. Yes, “Guardians of Traffic” Art Deco statues bestride the Hope Memorial Bridge that connects the city’s west and east sides. But to say that most Clevelanders were unaware of these treasures would be an overstatement, and it can’t be overlooked that the team announced its decision to abandon Chief Wahoo amid the cultural cascade that followed George Floyd’s death.
A better approach would have preserved a proud sports tradition: team names that reflect the industry and character of their cities. Think here of the Green Bay Packers, reflecting a meatpacking past; the Pittsburgh Steelers, recalling Andrew Carnegie and the industry that built the city; the San Francisco 49ers, providing a history lesson for those who have forgotten the gold standard; and the Boston Celtics, their leprechaun mascot tipping a hat to the city’s many emigrants from County Cork. Going ethnic is tricky, though: the Cleveland Hungarians would not do. And not all good names require an industrial connection: Philadelphia’s 76ers don’t reflect the city’s economic past, but celebrating the Declaration of Independence ain’t bad.
The Guardians don’t compare favorably, and superior alternatives existed. From 1887 to 1899, the Cleveland Spiders competed in the American Association and the National League; among modern-day fans, the unique name was a much-discussed possibility. But another option would have followed the local-industry theme. In 1961, George Steinbrenner, before he became the owner of the New York Yankees, bought a franchise in the short-lived American Basketball League and named it the Cleveland Pipers after an area amateur team owned by a local plumbing and heating contractor. It was the perfect name for a team from Cleveland, a city of widely varied manufacturers of all sorts—whether tool-and-die makers, auto assembly, or steel making.
I rooted for the Pipers, and they’re well worth rediscovering. In the ABL’s only full season—1961–62—the team won the league championship, having lured an NBA star (Dick Barnett of the Syracuse Nationals) to join the upstart league. The Pipers were led by the first black coach in professional basketball, John McClendon, who would go on to become a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. McClendon had been an extremely successful coach for historically black colleges in the South and was famous for having coached what was then called the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central) in the famous “Secret Game” against all-white Duke—said to be the first time black and white college basketball players competed on the same floor. And McClendon was also part Delaware Indian, having learned basketball directly from its inventor, James Naismith, while remaining forbidden to play collegiate ball in the still-segregated late 1940s. This is a hidden history the city could have chosen to celebrate. It would certainly yield a far better name than the focus-grouped “Guardians.”
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