Baseball Team Nicknames
These days the nicknames of major league baseball teams are just about set in stone. It causes consternation among announcers and fans when it is forgotten that the Marlins have surrendered representation of the entire Sunshine State and go by “Miami” now instead of “Florida.” Of course most fans have given up ever getting the Angels straight – the franchise started as “Los Angeles” and then went to “California” and then “Anaheim” and for this week anyway are the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.”
Nicknames are even more frozen on the front of uniforms. The only recent case of a team fiddling with its nickname was in 2008 when Tampa Bay sent its cartilaginous fish mascot back into the sea and shortened its name from “Devil Rays” to the less Satanic-sounding “Rays.” The name change was part of a complete overhaul of the ten-year old franchise that included new team colors and new uniforms. The official explanation of the indeterminate new name was that it connotes “a beacon that radiates throughout Tampa Bay and across the entire state of Florida.”
But these recent decades of nomenclature stability in major league baseball are in stark contrast to the early days of the game. In those innocent times when marketing departments and focus groups did not lord over baseball some teams sported no nicknames at all. Others were just called by the uniforms they wore (Reds, Browns, Blues, White Sox, etc.). Some took the name of their manager or star player or owner who covered the payroll. Let’s look at three teams who were a good while coming to their now familiar nicknames.
New York Yankees. The Yankee brand is literally worth billions of dollars but there was no great plan to develop it. The New York American League nine did not start playing ball as the Yankees. For that matter the franchise did not even play its first games in New York – the team started as the Baltimore Orioles in 1901. In 1903 the franchise came to New York City and started playing its games in Hilltop Park, which got its name because it was literally on one of the highest points of ground on Manhattan Island. The team became known as the Highlanders, not that many fans noticed one way or another. Attendance for the year was the second-worst in the league with only 211,808 customers showing up all season.
After awhile it was the New York press corps that forced a name change. Highlanders was not such a bad name but it was nigh impossible to squeeze into headlines on the eight-column broadsheets of the day. Headline writers began referring to the team as “Yankees” and in 1913 it became the official team nickname. Somewhere there is the ghost of an ink-stained newspaperman lamenting the fact that the name was never trademarked.
Boston Red Sox. For the first decade of its existence, the heated Yankees-Red Sox rivalry would have been known by the less fiery clash of the Highlanders and Americans. The Boston team was a charter member of the American League in 1901 and they were one of those franchises that did not bother with an official nickname; they were just known as the “Americans” to differentiate them from Boston’s National League team at the time (now the Atlanta Braves). Naturally the sportswriters of the day jumped in to fill the void and the Boston nine was sometimes called the “Pilgrims” and some times the “Plymouth Rocks.”
The original Boston team did not even wear red stockings – they donned dark blue socks. The Boston National League team wore the red hose and had started out as the Boston Red Stockings in 1876. In the 1880s their nickname was ominously changed to the “Beaneaters” but they kept the red socks. In 1907 the elder franchise ditched everything and showed up on the field in all-white uniforms as the less-than-imposing Boston Doves. The American League team, which had apparently been coveting the scarlet hues for years, immediately snapped up the red trim and became the Boston Red Sox.
Cleveland Indians. It must have been an era of good feeling in baseball because the Cleveland franchise joined the American League as the peace-loving “Bluebirds” in 1901. That did not make it to Opening Day 1902. Then they were the Bronchos but that did not take either. Cleveland then took the name of its best player, second baseman Napoleon Lajoie, and were the Naps until he left the team after the 1914 season. Owner Charles Somers then turned the naming job over to the newspaper guys and the Lake Erie squad has been the Indians for the last century.