The Cleveland Indians have changed their team name – what’s holding the Atlanta Braves back?

In October 1995, as the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves prepared to face each other in the World Series, a group of Native Americans gathered outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to protest the which they called the racist names and mascots of both teams. Some protesters carried signs, including one that read, “Human beings as mascots are not politically incorrect. It is morally reprehensible. »

They walked outside the ballpark, where some vendors were selling the foam tomahawks that Braves fans wave during the “tomahawk chop” — a cheer in which they imitate a Native American war song while doing a swaying motion. pounding with their arms.

It wasn’t until 2018 that the Indians officially removed their logo, a cartoonish Native American named Chief Wahoo, from their merchandise, banners and baseball stadium. In 2020, the owners agreed to change the name to Indians itself. For the 2022 season, they would start using the new name, the Guardians.

The owners of the Atlanta Braves, however, dug in their heels, refusing to replace a name that many Americans — including Native Americans — find offensive and derogatory.

In July 2020 — amid nationwide anti-racism protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — some Atlanta fans again urged the team to change its name. In response, the brass of the Braves sent a letter to season ticket holders, insisting, “We’ll always be the Atlanta Braves.”

The insistence on preserving the team’s name — as well as fan traditions like the tomahawk chop — is even more blatant given the city’s ties to the civil rights movement.

The road to Atlanta

For many years, NFL football team owner Dan Snyder refused to change the name of his Washington Redskins – perhaps one of the most racist team names in all of sport . But in 2020, he finally gave in, bowing to pressure from investors and corporate sponsors. The team played on the Washington Football Team for two seasons before becoming Commanders this year.

However, when professional sports teams change names, it is usually for marketing rather than social reasons.

The NFL’s Tennessee Oilers renamed themselves the Tennessee Titans in 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, and the New Orleans Hornets became the Pelicans in 2013.

The Braves had their own arena with team names.

The story begins in 1876, when Boston’s professional baseball team was known as the Red Stockings. In 1883 they became the Beaneaters and kept that name until 1907, when new owner George Dovey changed it to the Doves, a tribute to himself. In 1911 William Russell purchased the team and renamed it the Rustlers, also after himself. But a year later, James Gaffney, a New York City Councilman, bought the team.

Gaffney was part of Tammany Hall, a New York political club named after Tamanend, an Indian chief from Delaware. Tammany Hall used a Native American wearing a headdress as its emblem and called its members “brave”. So Gaffney gave his team a new nickname. From now on, they will be known as the Boston Braves.

In 1935, Bob Quinn bought the Braves after a season in which they posted the worst record in baseball: 38 wins and 115 losses. Hoping to give the team a fresh start, he renamed it the Boston Bees, but the team continued to perform poorly. In 1940, construction magnate Lou Perini bought the team and changed the name to Braves.

In 1953, Perini moved the Braves to Milwaukee – the first team relocation since 1903. Nine years later, he sold the Braves to Chicago investors led by William Bartholomay, who soon began looking to relocate the team towards a wider television market.

A commitment to improving race relations

Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. wooed Bartholomay. To attract the team, he persuaded Fulton County to build the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for $18 million, or $161 million today.

But Hank Aaron, the Braves’ biggest star, was hesitant to move to Atlanta.

Despite billing itself as an enlightened place — the city recently rebranded itself as “The City Too Busy to Hate” — Atlanta was still heavily segregated. It was the capital of a state represented by segregationist politicians such as longtime senators Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge. Aaron, a native of Mobile, Alabama, had no interest in returning to the racism of the Deep South in his hometown.

The NAACP and Urban League asked Aaron to give the South a second chance. Aaron met Martin Luther King Jr., who convinced him that bringing the Braves to Atlanta would help the civil rights cause.

Before agreeing to join the Braves in Atlanta, however, Aaron insisted that the Fulton County stadium seats and facilities be desegregated. Mayor Allen shared this view. The city and the Braves complied.

Slugger Hank Aaron only accompanied the team to Atlanta after lobbying by Martin Luther King Jr.
Sports Focus via Getty Images

Jimmy Carter, who served as Georgia governor from 1971 to 1975 before being elected president, recalled that having a major league team in Atlanta “gave us the opportunity to be known for something that was wrong. not be a national embarrassment”. Carter said Aaron “was the first black man that white Southern fans cheered on.”

The chef and the chop

As the Braves worked to mend relations with the city’s black community, they seemed unconcerned about how their marketing efforts might offend Native Americans.

In 1966, the year the Braves moved to Atlanta, the team adopted a mascot, Chief Noc-A-Homa, who danced around a teepee behind the left field fence dressed in Native American attire and occasionally occurred in the field.

The man in the Native American costume spreads his arms.
The Atlanta Braves retired mascot Chief Noc-a-Homa in 1985.
Denver Post via Getty Images

Under public pressure, the team dropped leader Noc-A-Homa in 1985. But a few years later, Braves organist Carolyn King began playing the “tomahawk song” before the Braves hitters failed. take over. By 1991, fans had fully embraced the chop.

Today, many fans — not to mention many Native Americans — cringe at the music and the chop. For them, it reflects a stereotypical image of violent and uncivilized Native Americans, similar to those that have appeared on television and in movies for many years.

In 2019, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and Cherokee Nation member Ryan Helsley challenged the tomahawk chop after pitching against the Braves.

“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general. Just portrays them in this kind of caveman type people who aren’t intellectual,” Helsley told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“They are so much more than that,” he said. “It devalues ​​us and how we are perceived that way, or used as mascots.”

A name that honors the history of the region

The Braves are now owned by Liberty Media Corp., a $17 billion conglomerate controlled by Chairman John C. Malone who is personally worth $7.5 billion. Only pressure from Braves corporate sponsors, fans, other teams and even individual players will likely push Malone to make a switch.

After Aaron’s death last year, some Braves fans urged owners to change the name to “Hammers” to honor the slugger nicknamed “Hammerin’ Hank” or simply “The Hammer.” His boosters pointed out that it would be simple to put on a hammer instead of the tomahawk, which now adorns all Braves uniforms and the team logo. A version of the cheer might even stick around, but with hammers, not tomahawks.

But I would like to suggest a team name that would make an even bigger statement: the Atlanta Kings, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. King grew up in Atlanta, attended Morehouse College and spent his most of his adult life. His childhood home, the church he served as pastor, and the King Center, a nonprofit educational organization, are all located in Atlanta.

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King understood the importance of baseball in American culture. He befriended and worked closely with Jackie Robinson during the civil rights movement. And he helped bring the team to Atlanta.

I think it would be appropriate for the Braves to become the Kings and replace the tomahawk with a crown. Or, in the spirit of inclusion, the team could be renamed the Atlanta Hammer Kings. And the team could adopt Pete Seeger’s easy-to-sing “If I Had a Hammer” as their theme song.

All it takes is a little political courage.

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