Major League Team Names

It’s called the “great American pastime,” and baseball has been an integral part of life in the United States for, give or take, the last 160 years. So here are the origins of the names of the Major League Baseball teams, past and present.

For those not familiar with the structure of American professional baseball, the Major League Baseball consists of, and has consisted of since the early days of the twentieth century, two leagues, the National League (founded 1876) and the American League (founded 1901). But at various times, particularly in the nineteenth century, other leagues existed, and I make reference to them below when needed. There are also a number of minor leagues, which now exist primarily as “farm” teams to develop player talent for the majors. And until the middle of the twentieth century, professional baseball in the U.S. was segregated, with African-Americans not permitted to play in the two major leagues. There were separate Negro leagues, with the best teams every bit the equal in player quality with the white, major league teams. Following the integration of baseball with Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Negro leagues folded. Where I could find the information, I’ve included the origins of Negro league team names.

The dates listed after the team names are the dates the name came into baseball use, not the date the modern organization that currently uses the name was founded.

Oakland Athletics (1859). Athletics is probably the oldest sports team name still in use, dating to 1859 when an amateur Philadelphia team dubbed themselves the Athletics. The name was used, off and on, throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century for a number of professional, Philadelphia teams. The modern American League franchise played in Philadelphia (1901-54) and Kansas City (1954-67) before landing in Oakland in 1968. Since moving to the Bay Area, the name has alternated back and forth between Athletics and A’s, depending on the whim of the moment. 

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Cincinnati Reds / Red Stockings (1869). The Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first professional baseball team, playing 1869-71, before reverting to amateur status. Named for the color of their socks, they were also known as the Red Legs and simply as the Reds. The modern National League team traces its lineage to 1890 and is named after that earlier Cincinnati team. During the Cold War, some admonished the Reds for having an “unpatriotic” name. Lou Smith, sports editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer responded, “Let the Russians change, we had it first.”

Chicago White Sox / White Stockings / Black Sox (1870). The original Chicago White Stockings were a professional team that existed, off and on, in the first half of the 1870s, until the formation of the National League in 1876, when the team became a permanent fixture, playing under the White Stockings name until 1889. That National League team would, in 1902, become the Cubs. The National League team abandoned the name in the 1890s, and when Charles Comiskey moved the minor league St. Paul Invaders to Chicago in 1900 and joined the American League, the team took to calling themselves the White Stockings. The National League objected to the name because of its earlier use by one of their teams, so in 1904 the nickname was shortened to White Sox. The derogatory and very unofficial nickname Black Sox was applied to the 1919 team and more specifically to the eight players on that team who threw the World Series in that year. There is a belief that the Black Sox nickname doesn’t stem from this scandal but instead comes from Comiskey’s refusal to wash the team’s uniforms more than once a week. But there is no actual evidence of this actually being the case—although Comiskey was famously tight-fisted, an attitude that had a great deal to do with the players’ willingness to accept the gamblers’ money and throw the World Series.

Washington Nationals (1872). The name Nationals was adopted by several short-lived, late nineteenth-century, professional teams that played in Washington, D.C. National Association teams in 1872 and 1875 used the name, as did two teams in 1884, one in the Union Association and another in the American Association. In the next century, the American League Senators officially changed their name to the Nationals in 1905 and continued to officially use the name through the 1956 season, but the team never shook the Senators name, which continued to be used by sportswriters and fans. That franchise left the city for Minnesota following the 1960 season. The current Nationals team are the old Montreal Expos, who moved to Washington in 2005, changing their name to the Nationals in the process.

Philadelphia Phillies (1874). The name Reds may be older, but the National League Phillies are the oldest, continuously operating, one-name, one-city franchise in all of professional sports, playing since 1883. But the nickname Phillies is even older than the current team, originally belonging to a National Association team that played from 1873-75. The name, obviously, derives from the name of their home city.

Milwaukee Brewers (1878). Milwaukee is famed for its beer industry, so it’s no surprise that a number of teams from Milwaukee have adopted the name Brewers. Three teams, in three different leagues, used the name in the nineteenth century. In 1901, one of the charter teams in the American League also began life with that name, although they only played in Wisconsin for one year, before moving to St. Louis and becoming the Browns, and after another move becoming the modern-day Baltimore Orioles. In 1970, the Seattle Pilots, an American League expansion team, moved to Milwaukee after one year of play and were rechristened the Brewers. In 1998 that team switched to the National League.

Homestead Grays (1879). A Providence, Rhode Island, National League team played under the name Grays from 1879–85. But the more famous team of that name was the Negro league Homestead Grays. Founded in 1912, the team is named for Homestead, Pennsylvania, a steel-mill town outside Pittsburgh. The team played in the Negro National League from 1935–48. They primarily played in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field when the Pirates had away games, but in the 1940s they played most of their games in Washington, D.C. Featuring greats like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, the team won nine consecutive Negro National League titles starting in 1937. The team disbanded in 1950 with the integration of the major leagues.

St. Louis Browns (1883). Three different St. Louis teams have gone by this name over the years, so called because of the brown trim of their uniforms. The first was an American Association franchise from 1883–91. Next up was the National League franchise that would later be renamed the Cardinals. They played under the name Browns from 1892–98. The third was the American League team that played in the city from 1902–53, before moving to Baltimore and becoming the modern-day Orioles.

Baltimore Orioles (1883). The Orioles name gets its start in 1883 with a now defunct American Association team. The name comes from the Maryland state bird, the Baltimore Oriole, which is allegedly named after Cecilius Calvert, the 2nd Lord Baltimore. When the present-day American League was founded in 1901, the name was revived for the new Baltimore team. In 1903, the Orioles moved to New York and became the Highlanders and later the Yankees. The current Orioles team dates to 1954 when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore.

New York Metropolitans / Mets (1883). The original New York Metropolitans played from 1883–87. When the National League expanded back into New York in 1962, following the departure of the Giants and Dodgers for California, it revived the old Metropolitans name, shortening it to Mets.

Los Angeles Dodgers (1884). This team got its start in Brooklyn in 1884 as the Trolley Dodgers.  In the late nineteenth century, Brooklyn was crisscrossed with streetcar lines, and Brooklynites were so called from their need to avoid being hit by one. The team played under a variety of names over the years: Bridegrooms (1890–98); Superbas (1899–1910); Dodgers (1911–13); and Robins (1914–31); before officially and permanently becoming the Dodgers once again in 1932. The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Brooklyn has never been the same since.

Louisville Colonels (1885). The name Colonels has been applied to a number of teams that have played in Louisville, Kentucky. The name was first used by an American Association team from 1885–89 and in 1890. The National League had a team in Louisville that played under that name from 1892–99. And various minor league teams have used the name in the twentieth century. Colonel is an honorific title that the state of Kentucky has been bestowing on citizens since 1885, but the term had been an unofficial honorific before that.

San Francisco Giants (1885). The current National League franchise, and the first team to use the name, began life in 1879 as the Troy (NY) Trojans. The team moved to New York City in 1883, becoming the Gothams. The name Giants began being applied to the team by sportswriters in 1885. The team moved to San Francisco in 1958, taking the name with them. The story that the name was coined by manager Jim Mutrie in 1885 when he referred to his players as “My big fellows! My giants!” has little evidence to support it; there are second-hand and decades-after-the-fact reports of Mutrie using name, but no direct evidence. Other teams that have used the name Giants include:

  • Cuban Giants, first professional black team,1885–89
  • Chicago American Giants (Negro National League, 1920–31 and Negro American League, 1937–48 and 1950)
  • Baltimore Elite Giants (NNL, 1937–48; NAL, 1949–50)
  • Atlantic City Bacharach Giants (Eastern Colored League, 1923–28)
  • Brooklyn Royal Giants (ECL, 1923–27)
  • Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants, Japanese Central League


Washington Senators (1886). The name Senators, after the upper house of the U.S. Congress, has been applied to a number of teams over the years. Two National League franchises in the nation’s capital used the name from 1886–89 and 1892–99. But the team with whom the name is most closely associated is the American League team that played in the city from 1901–60. Senators was the popular nickname for that team, although the official nickname was the Nationals for most of that period, 1905–56. That team decamped to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961. The name was used by another American League expansion team in the city from 1961–71, but that team moved to Texas in 1972, becoming the Rangers. None of these teams had much success on the field, giving rise to the phrase, “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

Cleveland Spiders (1889). Spiders was a name for a National League franchise that played in Cleveland in 1889–99. They were so called because their skin-tight uniforms gave the players a spidery appearance.

Pittsburgh Pirates (1891). The Pittsburgh team joined the National League in 1887 under the name Alleghenies. They were redubbed the Innocents in 1890. In 1891, the team signed second baseman Lou Bierbauer away from the Philadelphia Athletics with a lucrative contract. Bierbauer’s old club saw this as theft and dubbed the Pittsburgh team the Pirates. The name stuck.

St. Louis Cardinals (1900). Founded in 1892, this National League team was originally named the Browns after the color of the trim on its uniforms. In 1899, the team changed both the color of its uniform trim to a bright red and its name to the Perfectos. That year an unknown woman in the stands remarked that the new color was “a lovely shade of cardinal.” A reporter overheard the remark and suggested in the next day’s paper that the team change its name to Cardinals and adopt the bird as its mascot. The team did just that the following year.

Detroit Tigers (1901). The American League Tigers are yet another team that derives its name from the color of their socks. The original colors of their uniform socks were black and yellow stripes, evoking the image of a tiger. There is some dispute over who coined the name, though, the team’s first manager George Stallings or Detroit sportswriter Philip J. Reid.

Chicago Cubs (1902). Founded in 1876 as the White Stockings, this National League team was also known as the Colts and the Orphans (after Cap Anson was fired as manager in 1898). In 1902, the Chicago Daily News suggested that the team be called the Cubs because of the number of young players on the team. The name became official in 1907.

New York Yankees (1904). The greatest franchise in professional sports got its start as the American League Baltimore Orioles in 1901. They moved to New York in 1903, taking on the name Highlanders and later the Hilltoppers after the elevated location of their Manhattan ballpark. The press started dubbing them the Yankees in 1904. Allegedly, the shorter name made for easier headlines. All three names were used until 1913, when the Yankees name became official. (The name Yankees was applied to the Boston Red Stockings in 1875 by at least one sportswriter, but the name doesn’t seem to have stuck to that team.)

Boston Red Sox (1907). When the original Cincinnati Red Stockings team disbanded in 1871, many of the players headed to Boston and formed a new Red Stockings team. That name did not last long in Boston, however. When an American League team was formed in the city in 1901, it played under a variety of names in the first few years, the Pilgrims, Puritans, Plymouth Rocks, and Somersets. Finally in 1907, the stockings reference was revived and the shortened Red Sox applied to the new team.

Atlanta Braves (1912). Few franchises have played under as many names (or cities) as has the National League Braves. Harry Wright and three Cincinnati Red Stockings teammates founded the Boston Red Stockings in 1871 when the Cincinnati team reverted to amateur play. In 1876, the team changed its name to the Red Caps, before becoming the Beaneaters from 1883-1907, after Boston’s long dietary association with beans. In 1907, the Dovey brothers bought the team and dubbed them the Doves. The team played under the name Rustlers in 1911, before being sold again in 1912, to Tammany Hall politician and building contractor James E. Gaffney. One of Gaffney’s partners, John Montgomery Ward, suggested the name Braves, because members of the Tammany Society were often referred to as such—the Democratic Party machine in New York City was named after Tammany or Tammend, a Delaware chieftain. The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and then on to Atlanta in 1966. The Braves name has remained with the team in all three cities.

Cleveland Indians (1915). The franchise dates to founding of the American League in 1901. Originally known as the Bluebirds or Blues, they became the Broncos in 1902. The following year they became the Naps, after Napoleon Lajoie, their star second baseman and later manager.  When Lajoie left the team in 1915, owner Charles W. Somers sought out the opinions of several sportswriters regarding a new name, finally settling on Indians. There is myth that the team ran a contest to determine the name and fans chose Indians in honor of Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who had played for the old Cleveland Spiders and who had died in 1913, two years before. But this myth is untrue.

Kansas City Monarchs (1920). The Monarchs were a charter member of the Negro National League, playing in that league from 1920–31. It was an independent club from 1932–36, before becoming a charter member of the Negro American League in 1937. The team continued playing until 1959.

Baltimore Black Sox (1923). No relation to the infamous Chicago team of 1919, a number of Baltimore Negro league teams played under this name from 1923–34.

Kansas City Royals (1928). The International League franchise that played in Montreal from 1928–60 were the Royals. But the more famous team of this name is the American League expansion team that started playing in Kansas City, Missouri in 1969. The name was chosen from over 17,000 entries in a fan contest. Royals is a reference to the American Royal Association, which runs an annual livestock event, parade, rodeo, and barbecue in the city.

Pittsburgh Crawfords (1931). Named after the Crawford Bath House in a historically African-American section of Pittsburgh, the Crawfords were a Negro league team. Originally an independent club founded in 1931, they joined the Negro National League in 1933. They moved to the Negro American League and Toledo, Ohio in 1939, and then on to Indianapolis in 1940. The team folded the following year. The team was briefly revived back in Pittsburgh in 1945–46 as part of the Negro United States League. The 1935 Crawfords are widely considered the greatest Negro League team of all time, and by some as the greatest baseball team period. It featured stars Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Satchel Paige.

San Diego Padres (1936). The Padres were originally a minor league team in the Pacific Coast League. The name evokes the history of Spanish Catholic missions that first brought European settlers to California. In 1969, when the National League expanded yet again, the team moved up to the big league. 

Toronto Blue Jays (1943). The National League Phillies vainly tried to change their name to the Blue Jays in 1943–44, but fans and the press never accepted the name, and they went back to being the Phillies for the 1945 season. In 1977, the American League expansion team in Toronto picked up the name. The team’s original owner was Labatt’s brewery, which named the team after its Labatt’s Blue beer and which used a blue jay in many of its ads. The Blue Jays are currently the only non-U.S., major league franchise.

Minnesota Twins (1961). This American League team had originally been the venerable Washington Senators before moving to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961. The name is from the toponymic sobriquet Twin Cities.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (1961). This American League team originally played in Los Angeles, hence the name. They moved to new digs in nearby Anaheim in 1965, changing their name to the California Angels. In 1996, they formally adopted the name of their home city, becoming the Anaheim Angels. But they changed it again in 2005, taking on the mouthful that is their current name.

Houston Colt .45s (1962). From 1962–64, the National League expansion team in Houston was officially named the Colt .45s, after the firearm that “won the West.” The Colt Arms Company, which was not associated with the team, objected, as did many fans who didn’t like the violent association and simply called the team the Colts.

Houston Astros (1965). But in the early 60s, Vice President Lyndon Johnson brought NASA’s manned space program to Houston and the city became space central. In 1965 when the Houston team moved into its new indoor digs in the Astrodome, the team changed its name to the Astronauts, which was quickly clipped to Astros, and popularly even further to simply the ’Stros.

Montreal Expos (1969). The first non-U.S., major league team is named after the Montreal World’s Fair, Expo ’67. The team moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005, becoming the Nationals.

Seattle Pilots (1969). Before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, Seattle was most famous for its aerospace industry, most notably represented by Boeing. Hence the name Pilots, a name for a short-lived American League expansion team that played in Seattle for one year before bankruptcy resulted in it being sold and moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

Texas Rangers (1971). In 1971 when the Washington Senators moved to Arlington, Texas, they changed their name to Rangers, after the famed, nineteenth-century, Texas, law-enforcement organization.

Seattle Mariners (1977). The American League Mariners were named as the result of a newspaper contest. The name is a reference to Seattle’s seafaring tradition.

Colorado Rockies (1993). This National League expansion team is named, obviously, for the mountain range. They play in Denver, but chose to go with Colorado to increase the regional appeal.

Miami Marlins (1993). A National League expansion team named for the game fish found in Florida waters, the team began life as the Florida Marlins, changing the name to Miami in 2011.

Arizona Diamondbacks (1998). Yet another National League expansion team, this one is named for the diamondback rattlesnake, common to the deserts of the American Southwest.

Tampa Bay Rays (1998). This American League team is named for the fish (also known as a manta ray) native to Florida waters. The team was originally the Devil Rays, from 1998–2007.


Source:

Dickson, Paul. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, third edition. 2009.

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