The Florida Marlins may have won it on the field but the Cleveland Indians figure to continue to be the big winners off the field.
The expansion Marlins captured the 1997 World Series in seven games over the Tribe in what was considered one of the lowest rated Fall Classics in recent years. The Miami and Cleveland markets were tuned in to every walk, error and base running goof but the rest of the nation was turned off by the Series. Part of it can be attributed back to the theory that unless a high profile city is involved in the game -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta -- the rest of the country will not be as interested in baseball's crown jewel.
However, for collectors of baseball memorabilia, the Marlins-Indians tussle was far more popular. The reason is simple: merchandising featuring the teal blue of the Marlins has been a hot seller even before the team took the field five years ago. And for the Indians, the once moribund franchise has been a gold mine for collectors of baseball paraphanalia surpassing Florida -- and nearly every other Major League Baseball team.
According to Major League Baseball Properties, which is the official licensing agent for all authentic baseball related gear (and which tries to ensure authenticity among collectable items and guards against cheap rip-off artists), the Indians rank second of the 28 teams in terms of popularity. Only the New York Yankees, the long-time standard bearer when it comes to merchandising, rank ahead of the Indians. Still, the pinstripes have been hearing footsteps for several years due to the rising popularity of Cleveland Indians collectables.
Part of the success of the Indians' logo on caps, pennants, baseballs, programs, etc., is due to the recent rise of Cleveland on the field. The Indians have been in -- and lost -- the World Series twice in the past three years but have been one of the more dominant teams in the American League with a team with flash and offensive power that hasn't yet been able to overcome inconsistent pitching.
Last season, they won their division only to lose to Baltimore in the American League Division Series. In 1994, the Indians may have had one of their best clubs but were denied a chance to participate when baseball's player strike wiped out the last month of the regular season and the playoffs and World Series.
But collectors got wind of Chief Wahoo & Co. even before then. The debut of the motion picture, "Major League," in 1989 triggered Indians' mania with collectors. Baseball movies, as a rule, don't fare well at the box office or in subsequent merchandising. There is a long history of poorly made baseball movies -- "The Babe Ruth Story, " with William Bendix, "Safe at Home" with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and William (Fred Mertz) Frawley and "The Winning Team", the factually-abused story of Grover Cleveland Alexander starring Doris Day and an actor by the name of Ronald Reagan.
But Major League hit a home run. It was both funny and accurate -- although at the time the thought the Cleveland Indians would win the American League pennant seemed like a fantasy. Chief Wahoo's face was seen as much as that of the stars, Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Corbin Bernsen, and the success of the film at the box office spurred sales of anything with the Cleveland Indians' insignia on it. So successful was the film and subsequent merchandising that a second -- and less successful film in terms of gate receipts and artistic endeavor -- followed five years later in "Major League II." Part of the reason Major League II didn't fare as well as by the time of its release in 1994, the Indians were in real life serious contenders and hats, gloves, bats, trading cards and baseballs with Chief Wahoo on them were commonplace because of the success of the first movie.'
The last four seasons of Indians' success on the field has fueled the market for Indians' merchandise and it figures to continue to be a bull market for collectors in the wake of the 1997 World Series. Cleveland also should be a contender for at least two or three more seasons with the returning nucleus of hitters and the strong showing in the playoffs by some of their younger players.
The run on Indians' merchandise hasn't come without controversy. Protestors who have considered the smiling Chief Wahoo portrayal insulting to Native Americans have -- for years -- tried to convince Cleveland ownership to change the insignia. Similar sentiments have caused some college athletic teams like Stanford and Miami of Ohio to get rid of their "Indians" nickname and adopt more politically correct nicknames.
But the Indians' braintrust, aware of the popularity of their mechandise among collectors and the amount of money they have invested in publicizing Chief Wahoo, have thus far successfully defused the controversy. They point to the original reason the franchise switched from the Naps -- the name they were known as prior to 1914 -- to the Indians. The decision to change to Indians was to honor Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who was believed to be the first Native American to play in the major leagues. While the toothy grin of the Chief has been toned down over the past 20 years -- collectors' with Indians' materials from the time of their last World Series triumph in 1948 can tell you the difference in the appearance of the chief -- it still is considered offensive to a minority of the public that believes it is a demeaning portrayal.
For now, the Indians may be the hottest thing outside of New York for collectors and Chief Wahoo figures to be a hero for collectors for several years to come.