Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's In A Name? Baseball Team Names Throughout History

Every so often someone not terribly familiar with what we do walks into the showroom and breaks into a snicker upon encountering an Atlanta Crackers jersey. "Was there really a team called that?", they invariably ask. Without missing a beat, we always say "not only was there an Atlanta Crackers, there was an Atlanta Black Crackers", at which point the snicker usually turns into a guffaw.

It may seem odd for a Negro league team to call itself the "Black Crackers" but they were simply following a common practice of adapting the major or minor league team name from the same city.

This brings us to the subject of this month's blog, which is team names. In contemporary times, tens of thousands are spent by teams on consultants, focus groups and "branding" companies to develop team "identity", which often includes a new nickname. Professional baseball at all levels is a big business today, and these things are not left to chance. Although a few clubs have hung on to their traditional identities (thank you, Rochester Red Wings, Durham Bulls and Buffalo Bisons), the trend of the past two decades has leaned toward lots of cutesy animal logos and names like SeaDogs, River Cats, Hillcats, Warthogs - you get the picture. Good or bad, nicknames today are another part of the corporate branding process. One can also argue that the contrived and trendy names many minor league clubs have adopted are at least unique and preferable to the trend of the 1960s through 1980s, which was simply to adopt the parent major league club's nickname.

It was not always thus. In the beginning (the 19th century) professional baseball teams rarely had formal nicknames. Nicknames evolved when reporters, headline writers, and fans needed a shorter and more affectionate way to refer to the local nine, so team nicknames gradually developed organically. One common way to refer to a ballclub was by the color scheme on their uniforms, so we got "Red Stockings", "White Stockings", "Browns", etc. These have evolved into some of the team names that are still with us in the majors today. Another approach was to use the league name as shorthand for the team, as in "Philadelphia Americans" as an alternative for "Athletics". Baseball cards were often marked this way, "Detroit Americans" or "Pittsburgh Nationals". (This system was slightly confused by the American League Washington club taking the name "Nationals" for a time.) Or teams were simply referred to by a plural of their city name, as in "the Brooklyns". Sometimes, a simple geographic feature could spark a nickname, as was the case for the New York Highlanders, who played at Hilltop Park (who we know know as the Yankees). The important point here is that for several decades team nicknames were unofficial and and rather elastic. Most fans know the Dodgers tried on "Bridegrooms", "Superbas" and "Robins" before settling on Dodgers, and Boston's National League club was known as the "Beaneaters" and the "Bees" before they were the Braves. It took time for clubs to develop traditions and histories which were the foundation needed to give life to names that stuck. In the rare case that club owners tried to force a new nickname on fans it was not always successful, as when Philadelphia's National league club announced in 1945 that they would henceforth be named the "Bluejays". The new name didn't stick (perhaps the fact that the team neglected to take "Phillies" off the uniform didn't help).

When the Federal League came on the scene to challenge the majors in 1914, the lack of acknowledged nicknames created an identity problem for the fledgling circuit, and baseball writers struggled to come up with names that reflected the new league's name, so we ended up with the rather awkward "Brookfeds", "Buffeds" and "Chifeds". When Indianapolis' "Hoosierfeds" moved to Newark for the 1915 season, writers dubbed them the "Newfeds" (Fortunately sanity prevailed, and the alternative "Peppers" or "Peps" seems to have won out). It was not until the second and final Federal League season that "Tip-Tops" stuck for Brooklyn, "Whales" for Chicago, etc.

Getting back to the minor leagues, hundreds of cities and towns meant hundreds of names. When you read through some of the league standings over the years, you cannot help but crack a smile at the ingenuity, humor and pure fun of many of these team names (or be puzzled by some of the odder or more archaic ones). I thought I would go over some of them, and I have divided them into several categories for your reading pleasure. One could form entire leagues just based on the nickname type:

Alliteration Division: Some names just roll off the tongue. We have the Lincoln Links, Hopkinsville Hoppers, Goldboro Goldbugs, Terre Haute Terriers, and Sioux City Soos, Palestine Pals, and Crookston Crooks. This category would not be complete, of course, without the Hannibal Cannibals, who took the Illinois-Missouri League title in 1908.

Your 1934 Lincoln Links.

Industrial Division: It was common for ballclubs to acquire a nickname related to a local industry, so we got the Brockton Shoemakers, Gloversville Glovers, Bassett Furnitute Makers, Tulsa Oilers, and all manner of Fruit Pickers, Raisin Eaters and Manufacturers. However, the Findlay Natural Gassers of the Inter-State League must have been relieved when their name was changed to Oilers.

Institutional Division: Nearby institutions led to the Joliet Convicts, Leavenworth Convicts, Auburn Prisoners, Utica Asylums, and Nevada (MO) Lunatics.

International and Ethnic Division features the Paris Parisians, Dublin Irish, London Cockneys, Rome Romans, Troy Trojans, Cairo Egyptians, Shreveport Creoles, Baton Rouge Cajuns, Edmonton Eskimos, Coronado Arabs, Shenandoah Hungarian Rioters, and, we regret to mention, the Canton Chinks of the Illinois-Missouri League. To make matters worse, Canon City, Colorado's Rocky Mountain League club was called the Swastikas, and their uniform featured the symbol on the jersey sleeve, but this was 1912 - many years before the swastika was adopted by the Nazis.

Edmonton Eskimos, Western Canada League champs, 1955

Religion anyone? We bring you the Battle Creek Adventists, St. Paul Saints, Selma Christians, Enid Evangelists, Natchez Pilgrims, Palmyra Mormons, Salt Lake City Elders, Battle Creek Adventists, and Charlotte Presbyterians.

We've done religion, now how about politics? In addition to the dozens of teams named "Senators", we also have the Marion Presidents, Guthrie Legislators, Albany Governors, and Topeka Populists. The Decatur Commies played during the McCarthy era, and was beer available in the ballpark when the Des Moines Prohibitionists took the field? One wonders.

Historical Division
: Paris Bourbonites of Kentucky played in the Blue Grass League, and it really must have been a battle when the York White Roses faced the Lancaster Red Roses in Inter-State League action.

The 1950 Hopkinsville KITTY League club had a dual nickname, as they were known as the Hoptown Hoppers.

Criminality Division: Omaha Kidnappers, Asheville Moonshiners, Lowell Highwaymen, and Corsicana Desperadoes.

Teams we feel sorry for: It's doubtful the Kirksville Osteopaths struck fear into the hearts of their opponents, and pity the poor player who had to listen to the taunts of enemy fans as a member of the San Jose Florists, Hopewell Powderpuffs, or Salem Fairies.

We could form an NFL division from these teams: Bears (Mobile), Packers (Dubuque), Lions (Lodi), Patriots (Gettysburg), Seahawks (Port Arthur), Cowboys (Tucson), Colts (Orlando), Raiders (Cedar Rapids), Bengals (Columbus), Eagles (Dallas), Browns (Valdosta), and Jets (Ponca City).

In the Oxymoron Division the Columbus (GA) Confederate Yankees must have been very confused, as were the above-mentioned Atlanta Black Crackers.

There was all manner of royalty in the minors: The Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings toiled in southeastern Arizona. The Ottumwa Coal Palace Kings took the Illinois-Iowa league crown in 1890. The Brenham Kaisers fittingly played during World War I in 1914-15, at least before the Middle Texas League folded.

Long before the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota, it was common for teams shared by two cities to be called "Twins", as in Fargo-Morehead (ND-MN), Dunn-Erwin (NC), and Sherman-Denison (TX). Leakesville-Spray-Draper, NC was of course the "Triplets". But Johnstown-Amsterdam-Gloverville, NY addressed this same challenge by calling themselves the "Hyphens".

Lastly, there are historic team names we just love that don't fit into any category: The Lima Bean Eaters, Zanesville Flood Sufferers, Memphis Fever Germs, Kearney Kapitalists, and Regina Bonepilers, to name just a few.

Our Flannel Of The Month for June has nothing to do with the subject matter of the blog, but it's a beauty nonetheless: Tony Lazzeri's 1925 Salt Lake Bees home jersey, with a glorious bee manually embroidered on the chest. Available for $129 for a limited time.