Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Allen Saunders and Chief Wahoo

The World Series begins a week from today, on October 27, 2015. Time was when the Fall Classic would be ending about now. These days it goes on into November unless one team knocks out the other in four games straight. Even if that happens, the baseball season will overlap week eight of the NFL season, which begins on October 29. So there are overlapping seasons in our two biggest sports. There are also overlapping controversies. The controversy over the Washington Redskins' name is the bigger of the two. That's understandable, as the name is troubling to many people. But there is a controversy in baseball, too, and it involves not the name of a team but its logo and mascot. The team is the Cleveland Indians, and the logo and mascot together are called Chief Wahoo. Thereby hangs a tale.

John Allen Saunders was born on March 24, 1899, in Lebanon, a town located in Boone County, northwest of Indianapolis. He graduated from, then taught at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. In 1927, he moved to Toledo, Ohio, to become a journalist. Saunders was a cartoonist himself, but his real talent was as a writer. In the 1930s, he began working with a stable of cartoonists in Toledo. Eventually his collaborators would include Elmer Woggan (1898-1978) on Big Chief Wahoo, Ken Ernst (1918-1985) on Mary Worth, William Overgard (1926-1990) on Steve Roper and Mike Nomad, and Alfred Andriola (1912-1983) on Kerry Drake. He also advised Nick Dallis (1911-1991), co-creator of Rex Morgan, M.D., Judge Parker, and Apartment 3-G. If there was any one person responsible for the creation of the soap opera comic strip, it was probably Allen Saunders.

In an article called "Changing World of the Comic Page," co-written with Elmer Woggan and published in The Federal Illustrator in Summer 1941, Saunders went into the origins of the comic strip Chief Wahoo. Rather than quote it at length, I'll just show it in its entirety below.




Big Chief Wahoo began in the comics page on November 23, 1936, as The Great Gusto. The name was changed on January 17, 1937. In June 1940, Big Chief Wahoo became just Chief Wahoo. From there, the strip evolved into Chief Wahoo and Steve Roper (1945), then Steve Roper and Wahoo (1946), Steve Roper (1948), and finally Steve Roper and Mike Nomad (1984). Elmer Woggan got credit for drawing Chief Wahoo from its inception until 1954, when William Overgard took over. Allen Saunders was the writer until 1983. He died on January 28, 1986, at age eighty-six.

The Cleveland Indians baseball club was founded in the misty dawn days of the American League and gained its current name in 1915, making this year the team's centennial. (This centennial season didn't turn out very well for the Indians. With a record barely above .500, they finished in the middle of their division.) The logo and mascot of the team are a good deal younger than one hundred years. According to an article called "The Secret History of Chief Wahoo" by Brad Ricca, dated June 19, 2014, the character that became the current logo and mascot first appeared on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 3, 1932. Drawn by Cleveland cartoonist Fred George Leinert (1895-1974), the Plain Dealer's "Little Indian" became wildly popular among fans. The Indian logo didn't become official until 1947 when owner Bill Veeck hired the J.F. Novak Company to come up with something that "would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm" in regards to his team. (1, 2) The job of designing the logo fell on seventeen-year-old Walter Goldbach. Through various modifications, the image he created has come down to us as the character we now call Chief Wahoo. However, Mr. Goldbach's new Cleveland Indian wasn't called Chief Wahoo until 1950 or so. There are various theories as to how he acquired that moniker. It could have come from an old cheer. The simplest explanation might be that Cleveland fans took the name right out of the comics page, in which case Allen Saunders, a native of the land of Indians, provided it, though in an indirect way. Whether that's something to be proud of or ashamed of, I can't say.

The controversy and the cartoonist connection continue. An article called "Cartoon Predicted Encounter Between Indians Fan and Chief Wahoo Protester" by Mike Oz (Yahoo Sports, Apr. 7, 2014) shows a photographic image of a Cleveland Indians fan in full regalia facing Robert Roche, executive director of the American Indian Education Center in Parma, Ohio, on opening day in Cleveland. Below that is a cartoon of the same situation, drawn by Lalo Alcaraz twelve years before. The juxtaposition of these two images--the photograph and the cartoon--is a good example of how the cartoonist functions as a canary in the coal mine of society.

Notes
(1) Quoted in "The Curse of Chief Wahoo" by Peter Pattakos from the website Scene, April 25, 2012, here.
(2) Also in 1947, Veeck hired Larry Doby for his club. Doby was the first black player in the American League.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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