In July, the baseball world will focus on Cleveland for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. That global spotlight won’t show a trace of Chief Wahoo on the field as the controversial Indians logo was dropped from team uniforms last fall. But the familiar character with the red face and big-toothed grin is still for sale at the ballpark. There are legal reasons to keep Wahoo in play.
Before a recent game, Chantice Thomas sat under a sun umbrella, across the road from Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland,
“Ice-cold water, one dollar,” she called to passing pedestrians.
But, selling even better than water on a hot summer’s day?
“Wahoo hats,” she said. “People say they can’t get it anymore.”
A block away, Chase Singleton confirmed Wahoo is his biggest seller.
“A lot of people like to stock up on the Chief Wahoo before he goes away, because the Cleveland Indians are taking him out,” Singleton said. “People want to just be able to have it, so they can remember from their childhood and all that stuff.”
In recent years, Native American protests calling the logo racist challenged a long tradition. In January of 2018, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the Cleveland team had agreed to remove Chief Wahoo from all uniforms and banners in and around Progressive Field.
The Indians wouldn’t comment for this story beyond owner Paul Dolan’s prior statement that Chief Wahoo would be gone from the playing field at the start of the 2019 season. But, the caricature hasn’t vanished from the stadium entirely. The team gift shop still maintains a selection of Wahoo merchandise, everything from bobble-heads and T-shirts to children’s caps and foam hands.
“To continue to have trademark rights over a logo or a word mark, you must continue to use it,” said intellectual property rights attorney Mark Avsec. He added that, by maintaining Wahoo’s presence in the store, the Indians are keeping it out of the hands of manufacturers who could flood the market with every kind of tchotchke imaginable.
“So, nobody should believe that Chief Wahoo would simply go away if the Cleveland Indians stop using it,” said Avsec. “In fact, there is an argument to be made that by the Cleveland Indians continuing to use Chief Wahoo in a more limited way, with the ability to effectively police and enforce its intellectual property, that there will be actually less merchandise out there with Chief Wahoo on it.”
Just down the street from the ballpark, Mike and Laura Kubinski are selling Cleveland-oriented T-shirts. Their Cleveland Clothing Company sells a variety of apparel and gift items in six brick-and-mortar stores across Northeast Ohio. Since they aren’t MLB sanctioned, their merchandise steers clear of certain words and images.
“’Tribe’ is actually trademarked,” said Mike Kubinski. “’Wahoo’ is trademarked, among some other things.”
But, what if the Indians would let their Wahoo rights lapse? That could be a major money-maker. Kubinski shook his head.
“I think it's kind of it's a hot topic, if you will, and that's not really the avenue we would go down,” he said. “We'd like to be creative on our own.”
In anticipation of the All-Star Game, which is also a trademarked phrase, the Cleveland Clothing Company just unveiled a new shirt that proclaims Cleveland as an “All Star City”.
Meanwhile, back at Progressive Field, Bob Kehnast from Defiance, Ohio, walks out of the Indians' team shop with a bag of merchandise. For over seven decades, Indians fans like Kehnast have grown-up with Chief Wahoo. So, he feels torn about the change, and he wishes there were more options than the letter "C" on the front of the players’ caps.
“You know, I like the 'Block C,' but most teams will have a couple of options, in addition to the letter of their city,” he said. “It would just be nice if the Indians came up with something like that.”
For the time being, people in this all-star city and elsewhere will still see fans wearing a familiar face with a lot of baggage.