Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz saw fan protests during the biggest moments of his career. When his Atlanta Braves met the Cleveland Indians in the World Series in 1995, Smoltz remembers cries for both teams to change how they portrayed Native Americans.
At the urging of commissioner Rob Manfred, Cleveland took a step toward that Monday, announcing it would phase out the Chief Wahoo mascot by 2019. The team will be allowed to wear the mascot in 2018, but it will not appear on their uniforms in 2019.
Smoltz — who’s been an analyst at MLB Network since retiring — discussed that issue with Yahoo Sports on Monday, and touched on some parallels between the Chief Wahoo situation and the Braves protests he experienced throughout his playing career.
“This has been a discussion,” he said. “I look back ever since ’95 when we, ironically, played the Indians in the World Series. There were protests. I think that’s really kind of the start.”
It might take the Braves being good again to kickstart that conversation, though. While Smoltz says he saw protests a couple times during his career, they got much louder once the team started winning games.
“We never saw that when we were losing 100-some games,” he said. “It just wasn’t part of the deal. But as soon as it got to a higher visibility … that’s when we started seeing it.”
That mirrors what happened with Cleveland. There had been protests around Chief Wahoo for many years. As Smoltz noted, you can find instances of fan protests during the 1995 World Series between both clubs.
People continued protesting, but the issue once again took on greater significance during the club’s 2016 World Series appearance against the Chicago Cubs. That seemed to be the impetus for Manfred to re-visit the topic.
Throughout the process, Cleveland has been willing to make minor changes, but was always hesitant to completely get rid of Chief Wahoo. The team transitioned to the Block C logo in 2014, and scaled back using Wahoo on their uniforms in recent years. It wasn’t until Monday that they finally agreed to finally stop using the logo in 2019.
As Smoltz mentioned, the 1995 World Series protests weren’t new for the Braves. During the 1991 World Series, protesters gathered outside the Metrodome to urge Braves fans to stop doing the tomahawk chop and the chant that goes along with it. They also wanted fans to stop dressing up in “war paint” and wearing headdresses.
The similarities end there. Braves fans don’t dress up as much today, but the tomahawk chop and chant still happen.
That’s the type of activity Manfred has tried to put an end to the past couple years. He started to crack down on Chief Wahoo after Cleveland’s World Series run in 2016. He issued a harsh statement on “inexcusable behavior” after Adam Jones heard a racial slur at Fenway Park in May. And he handed down a five-game suspension to Yulieski Gurriel after he made a racist gesture toward Yu Darvish in the World Series.
You can debate the effectiveness of his policies in each case, but they were all done with the intention of making baseball more tolerant. With that reasoning, it’s plausible to wonder if Manfred will turn his eye toward that type of behavior next. That’s a bit more complicated, as it deals with fans, an area Manfred hasn’t waded into yet.
Just like with Chief Wahoo, it might take the Braves getting back into the national spotlight to compel Manfred to take action.
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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik