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Dan Shaughnessy

They've had some chief concerns

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox superstar in the making, is a polite young man. He is also the first player of Navajo descent to make it to the big leagues.

So how does he feel about the hideous image of Chief Wahoo, which adorns the cap of the Cleveland Indians? Is the 24-year-old outfielder offended by the caricature of the grinning, big-nosed, crimson-faced Native American with the gigantic teeth?

"Not too many things offend me," Ellsbury said in the Sox clubhouse yesterday morning. "I'm not offended. You can look at it two different ways. You can look at it that it's offensive or you can look at it that they are representing Native Americans. Usually I'll try to take the positive out of it."

That's generous of him, especially since a member of the Cleveland organization asked him about the logo when the team was thinking of drafting the Oregon State product in the first round two years ago.

"They asked me if I would be offended or anything like that if they had taken me," said the quiet Ellsbury, a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. "I said it was fine, but I thought that was nice on their part."

Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro said, "I met with Jacoby when we were thinking of drafting him, but that was not part of our conversation. But I know that our West Coast supervisor is a sensitive guy and it would not surprise me if someone from our organization asked him that. I think that's a good thing, to be sensitive to his ethnicity and culture."

People who work for the Indians are in an awkward position on this one. The team became the "Indians" in 1915 in honor of Louis Sockalexis (former Holy Cross man), the first Native American to play in the majors. Now they are stuck with a logo that plays to an unflattering stereotype of the Indian.

The Cleveland baseball team is not the only big league franchise with a nickname that could be considered offensive. We are a country with professional Blackhawks, Braves, Chiefs, Redskins, and Warriors, and there are hundreds of Seminoles, Mohawks, and Chieftains on the college and high school level. Some people could be bothered by the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, and "Crusaders" is offensive to many religious groups. Dartmouth and Stanford dropped "Indians" about the same time UMass got rid of the Redmen. For all I know, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are offended by the Minnesota Twins.

Indians vice president of public relations Bob DiBiasio yesterday said, "Our name is steeped in history in honor of the first Native American to play Major League Baseball."

Cleveland's team name is easily defended. The image of Chief Wahoo is another thing altogether. The preposterous cartoon was designed by 17-year-old emblem maker Walter Goldbach in the mid-1940s, when our nation was far less sensitive to racial stereotype. Chief Wahoo was created when "Negro" and "colored" were part of our language. Chief Wahoo was designed when "The Amos 'n Andy Show" was OK for prime time, when minorities were mocked in every American medium.

"It is absolutely racist," said Peter Roby, athletic director at Northeastern and former director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Society, of the logo. "Does Jacoby Ellsbury look like that? He's a Native American. That's the problem with the issue and with those kinds of caricatures. They are not in any way representative of that culture and the people and they send a message that is disrespectful and stereotypical of a race of people that deserve better. I think it says something that they felt a need to ask him about it."

There are protests of Chief Wahoo every year when the Indians play their home opener, and the mascot was a topic of discussion when the Indians played the Atlanta Braves in the 1995 World Series. In August 2000, former mayor of Cleveland Michael R. White denounced Chief Wahoo as "a racist caricature."

When Larry Dolan bought the Indians in 2000, he said, "I have no problem with Chief Wahoo. I don't think there is any disrespect meant. If I did, I would consider a change."

Clearly uncomfortable with the topic, but powerless to change things, Shapiro yesterday said, "It's not an area I have control over or choose to focus."

DiBiasio, who has worked for the Indians for 28 years, said, "We believe this is an issue of perception. We think people look at the logo and they think about baseball - they think about C.C. Sabathia, Bob Feller, Larry Doby, and Omar Vizquel. The Wall Street Journal did an editorial about the Jeep Cherokee and concluded that something cannot be demeaned if there is no intent to demean. We still believe the vast majority of our fans like Chief Wahoo."

"I'm not offended by it, but I can see both sides of it," said Ellsbury.

For most baseball fans it's not a big deal. Sabathia vs. Josh Beckett is a big deal. But it's got to be a little weird for Ellsbury to watch the Indians. They thought about drafting him. And they were sensitive enough to know that he might be offended wearing the hat with the ridiculous cartoon.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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