Major League Team Names

One area that the Wordorigins.org web site gives short shrift is onomastics, or the study of names and proper nouns. Given this month’s baseball theme, an exploration of major league team names is in order. The dates listed are the dates the team name came into use, not the date the modern organization was founded.

Oakland Athletics (1860). This is probably the oldest baseball team name still in use, dating to 1860 when an amateur Philadelphia team dubbed themselves the Athletics. The modern American League team played in Philadelphia (1901-54) and Kansas City (1954-67) before landing in Oakland in 1968. Since arriving in Oakland, the name has alternated back and forth between Athletics and A’s, depending on the whim of the moment.

Cincinnati Reds (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 finally simply as the Reds. The modern National League team traces its lineage to 1890 and is named after the 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 (1870). The original Chicago White Stockings were the National League team that would eventually 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 1901 and joined the American League, the team took to calling themselves the White Stockings. The Sox abbreviation took hold in 1902. The 1919 team was nicknamed the Black Sox by the fans. Many believe that the nickname comes from the fact that the team threw the World Series in that year. But actually the nickname predates the gambling scandal. Comiskey refused to pay for the laundering of the team uniforms. The players also refused to pay for the cleaning, and the uniforms got dirtier and dirtier—hence the Black Sox nickname. Comiskey finally gave in, paying for the cleaning—which he then he deducted from the players’ World Series bonuses. No wonder they threw the Series.

Boston Red Sox (1871). 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 team was gone by the 1880s, however. When an American League team was formed in Boston in 1901, it played under a variety of names in the first few years, the Pilgrims, Puritans, Plymouth Rocks, Somersets. Finally, in 1906 the Red Sox name was revived and applied to the new team.

Philadelphia Phillies (1873). 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, operating since 1883. But the nickname Phillies is even older than the team, originally belonging to a National Association team that played from 1873-75. The name, obviously, derives from the name of their home city.

Baltimore Orioles (1882). The Orioles name gets its start in 1882 with a now defunct American Association, and later National League, team. The name comes from the Maryland state bird, the Baltimore Oriole, which is named after Cecilius Calvert, the 2nd Lord Baltimore. When the 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 modern Orioles team dates to 1954 when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore. The Browns had played in St. Louis since 1902, the name coming from an earlier St. Louis team.

New York Metropolitans (1883). The first New York Metropolitans began play in 1883 and eventually became the Giants. The Giants and Dodgers both left New York in 1958, leaving the city without a National League team. When the National League expanded back into New York in 1962, it revived the old Metropolitans name, shortening it to Mets.

San Francisco Giants (1886). This New York National League team began play in 1883 as the Metropolitans. They changed their name to the Gothams, before settling on Giants in 1886. In that year, manager Jim Mutrie referred to his players as “My big fellows! My giants!” in a conversation with sportswriters and the name stuck. The team moved to San Francisco in 1958, taking the name with them.

Pittsburgh Pirates (1891). The Pittsburgh team began play in 1882 under the name Alleghenys. They joined the National League in 1887. In 1891, the team signed second baseman Lou Bierbauer to 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 1881, the team was originally named the Browns after the color of their stockings. The National League team changed its colors to red in 1899. 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. St. Louis’s American League team subsequently adopted the Browns name.

Detroit Tigers (1901). You might not suspect it, but the American League Tigers derive their name from the color of their socks. The original colors of the uniform socks were black and yellow stripes, evoking the image of a tiger.

Milwaukee Brewers (1901). The original Milwaukee Brewers were organized in 1901 as one of the charter teams in the American League. 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. The name is a reference to Milwaukee’s beer industry. In 1998 the team switched to the National League.

Los Angeles Dodgers (c. 1903). The Brooklyn team got its start in the minor leagues in the 1880s, moving up to the National League in 1890. Originally known as the Bridegrooms, and later as the Superbas, baseball writers took to calling them the Trolley-Dodgers and eventually just the Dodgers. Turn-of-the-century Brooklyn was crisscrossed with streetcar lines and Brooklynites were nicknamed Trolley-dodgers, hence the name. The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Brooklyn has never been the same since.

Chicago Cubs (1902). Founded in 1870 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. On the face of it, Yankees might seem an odd choice, for Yankee is traditionally associated with New England, not New York. But given the Dutch origin of the term and the founding of New York as a Dutch colony, it is appropriate. All three names were used until 1913, when the Yankees name became official. They moved to their current location in the Bronx in 1923.

Atlanta Braves (1912). Few teams 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. The team played under the name 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. When the team was sold again in 1912, team president, Johnny Montgomery Ward, changed the name to Braves, a reference to Native American warriors. 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 Indians are named in honor of Louis Sockalexis, the first Native-American to play in the major leagues (1897-99), although this fact is forgotten by most fans today who know the mascot as “Chief Wahoo.” The team dates to founding of the American League in 1901. Originally known as the Blues, after the color of their uniforms, they became the Bronchos in 1902, and the Naps, after Napoleon Lajoie, their star second baseman in 1903. When Lajoie left the team in 1915, a newspaper contest was held to pick a new name, the first of many such naming contests. Indians was the winning entry.

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 Twin Cities.

Anaheim Angels (1961). This American League team was originally the Los Angeles Angels, hence the name. They moved to new digs in Anaheim in 1965, changing the name to California Angels. In 1996, they formally adopted the name of their home city.

Houston Astros (1965). The National League expansion team in Houston was originally named the Colt .45s, after the firearm, from 1962-64. 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. 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 team moved into its new indoor digs in the Astrodome, the team changed its name to the Astronauts, which was quickly clipped to simply Astros.

Montreal Expos (1969). The first non-US major league team is named after the Montreal World’s Fair, Expo ’67.

Kansas City Royals (1969). This American League team name is the result of another newspaper contest. The Royal is a reference to the American Royal Parade, a Kansas City livestock event.

San Diego Padres (1969). This National League team takes its name from San Diego’s long-established minor league team. The name evokes the heritage of the Spanish missions that first brought European settlers to California.

Texas Rangers (1971). This American League team is another that was once the Washington Senators (1961-71). In 1971 they moved to Arlington, Texas and changed their name to Rangers, after the famed law enforcement organization.

Seattle Mariners (1977). Yet another team named by a newspaper contest. The name is a reference to Seattle’s seafaring tradition. The Mariners are in the American League.

Toronto Blue Jays (1977). The blue jay is a bird common throughout southern Canada. When the American League expansion team sponsored a “name that team” contest it received 4,000 suggestions from 30,000 fans. 154 fans suggested Blue Jays and the team management picked that name.

Colorado Rockies (1993). This National League team is named, obviously, for the mountain range

Florida Marlins (1993). A National League expansion team named for the game fish found in Florida waters.

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 Devil Rays (1998). This American League team is named for the fish (also known as a manta ray) native to Florida waters.

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