19to21: June 24, 2008
A Rose By Any Other Name: Looking at Major League and Minor League Baseball Franchise Appellations
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many games the St. Paul Apostles played, it’s
Baseball...Then and Now
News Item: May 31, 1884 – The Altoona Mountain City plays their final game, losing 5-3 to the Baltimore Monumentals.
The Altoona Who lost to the Baltimore What?
Prior to the 2008 season, players like Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, Aubrey Huff, Roberto Hernandez, Rocco Baldelli and even, heaven forbid, WadeBoggs, had reason to be doubly embarrassed. Not only did they, at one time or another, play for a lousy team, but they played for a lousy team called the Devil Rays. (And, how many more residents of Tropicana Field… a ballpark named after a glass of orange juice… can you quickly name without going to an encyclopedia? The team has been so bad they crave anonymity.) And while the current crop of Tampa Bay players for the moment aren’t embarrassed by their team’s play (everyone who thinks they can finish ahead of the Red Sox and the Yankees this year stand up… please join everyone else in their chairs, Mr. Hunsicker), they still can be embarrassed by their name. You see, just as lousy teams have been a long-standing baseball tradition, so have funny team names, and the Tampa Bay franchise stands at the top of the list (the only time they’ve been near the top of anything) among current examples.
It was bad enough when they were the Devil Rays, which is, as you surely know, a slang term for members of the superorder Batoidea. Now, as to why these basically harmless creatures should be considered satanic in any fashion, well, that’s one for the ichthyologists. Apparently deciding they didn’t want to be associated with the devil (and, in point of fact, the team was usually called the D-Rays, which made even less sense… is that anything like the Death Ray that Buck Rogers used to have to deal with…) the team changed its name prior to this year to just plain Rays. Now a broad term for members of the superorder Batoidea, the team is thinking of trading for Ray Durham and Ray King, bringing Ray Knight, Ray Culp, Ray Bare, Jim “Sting” Ray, Ray Fosse and Jim Ray Hart out of retirement, channeling Bugs Raymond, and seeing if Ray Laager is willing to reprise his youthful success in wiffle ball. You can call me Ray, or you can call me Ray J., or you can call me A. Ray, etc., etc., etc.
Of course, some might say that there are Dolphins in football and Sharks in hockey (a sport that once had a goalie named Camille “The Eel” Henry), so why can’t there be Rays in baseball? Why not, indeed? After all there was once a team of Whales. This was in the Federal League, and that was a name that made even less sense than Rays, because the Whales played in what is now Wrigley Field, and how many whales have you ever seen in Lake Michigan?
You get the picture. Team names don’t have to make sense (How many lakes are there in Los Angeles and how much jazz is played in Utah?), and they can be pretty funny, and both kinds have been around for a long time. Probably the two oldest odd names date back to the sport’s pre-league period, when Eckford played in Brooklyn and Athletic played in Philadelphia. (Note that the singular nickname phenomenon did not start in the late 20th Century, it started in the 1850s, when basically all nicknames were singular.) The Eckford club was, for reasons unknown (unless maybe its because he was a famous Brooklynite), named after late 18th Century/early 19th Century Brooklyn shipbuilder Henry Eckford, who most likely never even saw a real game of baseball. The Athletic moniker, the longest-lasting name in baseball, dates to the spring of 1860 when members of the Handel and Haydn singing society of Philadelphia decided to form a baseball team. Although there are a couple of versions of how it happened, basically one member suggested that the team needed to have a strong name, something athletic. And thus was born a name that still exists, 148 years later.
(In case you think Philadelphia specializes in obscure names, “Phillies” is nothing more than a contraction of “Philadelphias,” a name that first surfaced in the National Association in 1872, albeit with an organization that had nothing to do with the current National League team of the same name.)
Although the Rays prove that funny names still exist into the 21st Century in the major leagues, the 19th Century was the heyday of strange sobriquets. For example, the first professional league, the aforementioned National Association, had the Baltimore Canaries. Canaries? Not orioles? Orioles makes a lot more sense. Have you ever seen a canary flying around Camden Yards? Ever looked up the Baltimore Canary in Audubon? Still, the prize for the strangest nickname in the NA (even though the Eckfords played in 1872, as did the Elizabeth Resolutes in 1873) goes to the short-lived franchise in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, that began the initial NA season of 1871 under the handle Kekiongas (or sometimes just Kekionga). Now, what the heck is a Kekionga? It happens to be a Miami Indian word… for blackberry patch. So the team was the Ft. Wayne Blackberry Patches. No wonder they dropped out before the season ended.
Two short-lived 19th Century leagues, the Union Association and the Players League, also specialized in funny names. The UA, which saw teams come and go with staggering regularity during its single season in 1884 featured the Wilmington Quicksteps (they must have stolen a lot of bases) and the Allegheny Mountain-situated Altoona team that was indeed called Mountain City (actually, a 20th Century Altoona minor league team came up with at least a more original nickname). The UA also had those Baltimore Monumentals. Though a mouthful, the Monumentals at least had a connection to Baltimore, which was often called Monument City in the 19th Century. (If you’ve ever met Boog Powell at current game, you may think that name still applies.) However, the prize for creativity, to say nothing of religiosity, went to the St. Paul, Minnesota team that played eight games in the UA. Depending on the source, they were sometimes called the White Caps, but they also went by the Apostles.
Six years later, investors in Cleveland were apparently at a loss as to what to call their team in the Brotherhood League. Since this would be the PL’s first year, they apparently settled on Infants to indicate same. “Hey, what team do you play for?” “The Infants.” “Oh yeah, where are your diapers?” POW! Still, that might have been better than the name the Pittsburgh team in the Players League was stuck with, the Pittsburgh Burghers. At least they weren’t the Hot Dogs.
The fact that the National League didn’t have any competition from 1892 to 1900 must have effected the marketing geniuses who were charged with promoting the 12-team league, because they sure came up with some strange names in that era. The Brooklyn franchise led the way, going from Grooms to Bridegrooms (several of their players got married during a short period of time) to Superbas, a name that makes no sense at all in 2008, but which refers back to a popular acrobatic troupe at the turn of the last century. This bunch was known as “Hanlon’s Superbas,” and, wouldn’t you know it, the manager of the Brooklyn team at one time was Ned Hanlon. Of course, this is also the franchise that before and after this era was known as the Trolley Dodgers, due to the proliferation of a certain form of public transportation in Brooklyn. Have you ever seen a trolley car in L.A.? (Even worse, they were often unofficially called the Bums.)
As silly as “Bridegrooms” might have been, Boston fans had no chance to make fun of Brooklyn in the Gay 90’s (an embarrassing term after the fact if there ever was one), because their team was known as the Beaneaters. Yes, Boston was and is famous for baked beans, but you’d think someone could have come up with a little less suggestive nickname. Redskins? Patriots? Anything…
Further west, the long-time dueling NL franchises in Chicago and St. Louis were even contesting which team could have the odder name in 1899. In Chicago, where Cap Anson had been the face of the franchise since William Hulbert stole him from the Athletics (and then kicked them out of the league to preserve his ill-gotten gain) in 1876, they had a bunch of “Orphans” without their “Cap” when Anson was finally let go. The Chicago Orphans… sounds like an early version of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Not to worry, though, the Robison Brothers in St. Louis made an even worse choice when they decided to strip their Cleveland franchise and move all the good players to their St. Louis franchise for the 1899 season. They were so sure they were on the road to success that the re-named the team “Perfectos.” Oops, they finished fifth, 18 ½ games out of first (behind the Superbas, for that matter.)
Some semblance of rationality returned to the majors with the turn of the century, and, except for Federal League oddities like the Whales and the Brooklyn (a venue that most certainly leads all others in funny names) Tip Tops (named after the brand of bread sold by the Ward Brothers, who owned both the bakery and the team), most major league teams have had fairly reasonable names over the past 100 years. Well, there was one other exception, in the 1950s when the Cincinnati team bowed to the pressures of McCarthyism and changed its name from “Reds” to “Redlegs.”
That pretty well covers the major leagues, but, what about the minors? It turns out that the bushes have long proved to be a fertile field for silly or obscure team names, and even some of the sillier current ones – the Lansing Lugnuts and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (who play like pigs) come quickly to mind, but there are so many there’s no point in trying to list them all -- have nothing on some of the tags used in the past. Actually, the Altoona franchise, now in Double A, has a pretty good name… the Altoona Curve, named after the famous Pennsylvania Railroad horseshoe bend near the Mountain City. Evocative nicknames in the minors are nothing new, even though some from the past were pretty strange…
Bassett Furnituremakers (located in North Carolina’s Furniture Triangle)
Red Wing Manufacturers (maybe they made furniture in Minnesota, too)
Cortland Wagonmakers (good thing these three teams didn’t play in the same league)
Williamsport Millionaires (a better name for today’s majors than the minors in 1908)
Lynchburg Hill Climbers (you can guess what the sportswriters said when they were falling back in the pennant race)
Dallas Navigators (how far from the ocean is the middle of Texas?)
Kalamazoo Kazoos (which wins the alliteration prize)
Elkhart Truths (of which they had a moment of in tight games)
Cedar Rapids Rabbits (they probably stole a lot of bases)
Norwich Witches (they cast a spell on their opponents)
Meriden Silverites (Connie Mack played there, but fortunately not for this team)
Milwaukee Mollys (they played like a bunch of girls)
Racine Belles (ditto… it was Belles, not Bells)
Troy Washerwomen (they played like a bunch of old ladies)
Youngstown Puddlers (good thing they didn’t play in the same league as the Washerwomen)
Peoria Distillers (like Big John Baal, they couldn’t hit the ball until they hit the bottle)
Reading Pretzels (Reading baseball expert Brian Engelhardt confirms this 1908 name from the Tri State League… their pitchers tied the other teams’ hitters in knots, including those of the Williamsport Millionaires, who were in the same league. In fact, Williamsport High School’s teams are still called the Millionaires, says Englehardt.)
Los Angeles Looloos (really… Rube Waddell, who was lulu himself, pitched for them in 1902)
And while the Rube may have pitched for the Looloos, there have been, and still are, some lulus in the minors. Is this great game, or what?