Baseball team names are established, trademarked things. New team names are focus-grouped and then established and trademarked. The key thing is that they are immutable. The Yankees are and always will be the Yankees. The Dodgers are and always will be the Dodgers. It’s something you can bank on.
But it’s also something that was not always the case. Not by a long shot. Indeed, from the advent of the game itself there an element of true nicknaming — names being applied informally — has almost always been involved.
The alleged first recorded game of baseball took place between teams called “New York” and “Knickerbocker,” both of which were from New York City, with the latter assuming a distinctive name, likely to keep it being confused with its rival. Many pre-National League amateur or semi-professional teams had names such as “Atlantic,” “Olympic,” and “Forest City,” but they were not formally named pursuant to the current convention such as “The Brooklyn Atlantics” or the “Philadelphia Olympics.” The legal names were “Atlantic Base Ball Club” and “Olympic Base Ball Club,” etc., with the cities just being additional descriptors.
The Cincinnati “Red Stockings,” acknowledged as the first fully-professional team, were given their name by sportswriters due to the actual clothes they happened to wear — uniforms with red stockings — as opposed to having the name applied to them first, and thus was a nickname in the most literal sense of the term. Soon other professional teams, first in the National Association and then in the National League, assumed their own distinctive colors as well. In 1882 the National League passed a rule requiring specific stocking colors, as follows:
- Boston: Red
- Buffalo: Gray
- Chicago: White
- Cleveland: Navy blue
- Detroit: Old Gold
- Providence: Light Blue
- Troy: Green
- Worcester: Brown
Teams would be known as the “Reds” or “Grays” in popular parlance, even if only the colors, not the names, were mandated.
If there were two teams in a city — a bigger consideration when a competing league popped up or, eventually, when the American League went major — some teams would simply be known by their league. Thus the Boston Nationals (later the Braves) and the Boston Americans (later the Red Sox) or the New York Nationals (Giants) and New York Americans (the Highlanders or, eventually, the Yankees). This could lead to some confusion, later, when that convention fell out of favor. The Washington team, for example, was initially called the Washington Senators but, for a long time, was known interchangeably as the “Washington Nationals” despite playing in the American League. We now, of course, have the modern Washington Nationals which have no connection to that old club at all and, in fact, trace their franchise history to a team that was founded in a completely different country.
Any semblance of across-league nicknaming by color or league was out the window by the late 19th and early 20th century thanks to the rise in prominence of sports reporting, with the most notable local sportswriters applying nicknames to local baseball teams seemingly at will.
The Boston team came to be called the Beaneaters, after Boston’s nickname of “Beantown.” The Chicago White Stockings transitioned into the Chicago Colts or, sometimes, “Anson’s Colts,” after their leader, Cap Anson. The New York team had been the “Gothams” and then transitioned into “Giants” through popular usage and a likely apocryphal story about the team’s manager referring to his “big men,” and his “giants” in exuberance after a win. The Spiders got their name, the story goes, because the club had a lot of skinny, gangly players. The Brooklyn team was alternatively known as the Grays, the Bridegrooms, the Superbas and, eventually, the “Trolley Dodgers,” after trolleys in Brooklyn changed over from being horse-pulled to electric, thus becoming more dangerous. It’d change back and forth to other things many times.
The Braves, and all that spun off of them and their name, are one of the more notable examples of how that process worked.
From the Red Stockings to the Beaneaters, Boston’s NL team soon came to be called the Doves due the fact that they switched to all-white jerseys one year. Oh, and due to the fact that the team owner’s last name was Dovey. When he sold the team to a guy named Russell, they became “the Rustlers” for a time. The name “Braves” was applied to the club when James E. Gaffney — a politician from the Tammany Hall political machine, which used Native American iconography to forge its identity — became club president. The “Miracle Braves” were a surprise World Series winner in 1914, capturing the imagination of the nation, and giving rise to a new national fascination with Indian names and symbols. That led to another team being named after them, at least in a sense.
Contrary to the old legend, the Cleveland baseball team was not named after Native American player Louis Sockalexis. For several years they had been named the “Naps” after player-manager Napoleon Lajoie. By 1915 he was gone and so was his name. A big reason the Indians became the Indians was to ride on the popularity of the Miracle Braves and the country’s fascination with Native America stuff. The Sockalexis story was told much later and now most people believe it was the actual reason the team assumed the name.
The Braves, however, fell to the bottom of the NL in the 1930s. Looking for a way to reinvent themselves, they became the Bees following a fan vote. They never put a bee or a hive on their caps or jerseys, though. Just the letter B. By 1941 they had reverted back to the Braves, and for a few years still just had the B, as opposed to the tomahawk and headdress-wearing Indian figure they’d later assume, leading a lot of fans to still call them the Bees/B’s. This back and forth stuff happened with the Dodgers too, who were the Dodgers in 1912, the Subperbas in 1913, and the Robins, after manager Wilbert Robinson, from 1914 through the early 30s, when they went back to being the Dodgers for good.
Almost all of the names of the original sixteen currently-existing major league franchises became standardized between the late teens and the early 30s, with the Bees/Braves and the Cincinnati Reds being later exceptions. The Reds were only an exception by virtue of the name “Reds” being associated with communism during the Red Scare and thus changed to the “Redlegs” between 1953 and 1960. It was back to being the Reds in 1961. Every team that moved cities from the 1950s on — and every expansion team from 1961-on — has had a standardized name from the outset as opposed to a true nickname applied willy-nilly. There’s a lot of merchandising money to be made these days. You can’t allow for confusion in the market, you know.
This feature is called Today in Baseball History, but none of the above refers to anything that happened today. But, on this date in 1902 the an un-bylined column in the Chicago Daily News notes that, Frank Selee, the manager of the Chicago Orphans — formally the Colts, formerly the White Stockings — would “devote his strongest efforts on the team-work of the new cubs” this year.
It was the first time anyone had referred to the Cubs as the Cubs. It would take about four years for that name to stick, and another six years before the team started putting bears on its uniform, but the name would eventually stick.
Also today in baseball history:
1948: Hank Greenberg, a long-time member of the Tigers, is hired as Cleveland’s farm club director by Bill Veeck. He’d eventually become the Indians’ general manager.
1986 – Major league baseball’s Rules Committee votes to change the designated hitter rule for the World Series, allowing a DH to be used in all games played in the A.L. club’s home park. Since 1976, the DH had been used, or not used at all, in alternating years.
1987 – The Mets send catcher Ed Hearn and minor leaguers Rick Anderson and Mauro Gozzo to the Royals in exchange for David Cone and minor leaguer Chris Jelic. Cone would post a 20-3 record for the Mets in 1988. It would turn out to be one of the more lopsided trades in recent history