As long as there have been sports, colors and symbols have been used to create social bonds between teammates and fans. Even ancient Roman chariot racing had four major groups consisting of the Reds, Blues, Greens, and Whites (they also had some serious sports-related riots).
Sports team names don’t always seem to make much sense at first glance, but things start to get much more clear once you know some of the history behind the nicknames. When baseball clubs started forming in the United States in the late 19th century, they used fairly generic names followed by B.B.C (“Base Ball Club”). Soon after, preferences shifted towards using stocking colors as team names. As the popularity of baseball picked up, newspapers started covering games and they often created nicknames for teams based on a defining characteristic of the team’s city or area. In cities with more than one team, nicknames were especially likely to be invented in order to differentiate teams more easily, and the formula of “City + Nickname” was born. These days, team names might be carefully chosen by a marketing team, but they are still modeled after the newspaper-created names, and they serve the exact same purpose as they did over 100 years ago: to establish team identity and make teammates and fans feel as if they belong to a group.
Now that we know a bit about how our team names got their form, let’s take a look at some of the fascinating historical origins of a few of them from the Big Four.
Major League Baseball
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Established in Brooklyn in 1883, the team went through a number of different names (like the Bridegrooms and the Bums) before settling on the Trolley Dodgers. The name refers to the network of trolleys in Brooklyn, which were a major cause of accidents at the time–dodging trolleys was a part of life. When the team moved to L.A. after the 1957 season, the name was kept.
2. Chicago White Sox
Originally the Sioux City Cornhuskers, the team transferred to St.Paul and then to Chicago, where it became the White Stockings, a name originally used by the Cubs. Newspapers began using the shortened form after a scorekeeper used it on a scorecard, and White Sox was made the official name in 1904.
3. New York Yankees
There are many theories about how the New York Americans became the Yankees. No one knows exactly where the word yankee came from, but the majority of linguists agree that it’s most likely from the Dutch form of John. Some say it was originally a disparaging term used against the Dutch in the U.S., who then turned around and used it against the English. The word had been kicking around as a term for various groups of people in New England and has carried lots of different meanings (even being used as a name for stock characters in comedy routines), and it became one of the many nicknames for the team starting around 1904–this just happened to be the one that stuck, and was made official in 1913.
4. St. Louis Cardinals
The nickname originally referred to the deep red color, not the bird. Legend has it that Willie McHale, a columnist for the St. Louis Republic, overheard a woman in the stands describe the uniforms as “a lovely shade of cardinal.” He began using the nickname rather than their previous name, the Perfectos, and it quickly caught on by 1900. Others suggest the name came from someone mocking the faded red uniforms. The bird logo didn’t appear until the 20s.
The National Football League
5. Green Bay Packers
What does packing have to do with football? Well, the team is actually named after a packing company. The team founder Curly Lambeau solicited his employer, The Indian Packing Company, for equipment and his employer agreed to sponser the team as long as he named them the Packers. The company went under later, but the name stuck and now it’s the oldest name in the franchise.
6. Baltimore Ravens
After moving from Cleveland in 1996, the new team needed a new name. A fan contest was held, and the Ravens was the winning entry. The name is a reference to Edgar Allen Poe, author of the poem “The Raven”, who was from Baltimore.
7. Chicago Bears
Originally the Stalers (after their sponsor the Staley Starch Company), the team was repurchased and renamed the Bears in 1922 by George Halas. He chose the Bears because Chicago’s baseball team was the Cubs, and according to him, football players are generally bigger than baseball players. Makes sense.
8. Washington Redskins
Hoo boy, here we go. Originally the Boston Braves (like the baseball team), the team moved to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, in 1933 and decided to change their name to the Redskins to avoid complications. In 1937, the team moved to D.C. The term redskin was probably originally a benign term, said to be originated by Native Americans–however, it has been used by European Americans since the 1860s as a pejorative and is now widely considered to be an offensive word. The name has been causing controversy for years, which owner Daniel Snyder has ignored, famously saying “We will never change the name of the team.” For a more detailed read, check out this article.
The National Basketball Association
9. Washington Wizards
The team had played as the Bullets since 1963, but in 1995 owner Abe Pollin decided to change the name as he felt that the name was too violent, especially considering the sky-high homicide rates in D.C. at the time. The tipping point is said to be the assassination of Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, who was a personal friend of Pollin. The team held a contest, and this magical name was the winner.
10. Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles isn’t known for its lakes, so how did the team get this name? It’s actually a pretty simple answer: the Lakers were originally the Minneapolis Lakers, which makes much more sense given that Minnesota is known as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The team kept the nickname after moving to L.A. in 1960.
11. New York Knicks
Knicks comes from Knickerbocker, an invented Dutch surname that was popularized by Washington Irving’s 1809 satire A History of New York, which he published under the pseudonym “Diedrich Knickerbocker.” The name evolved into a term for an imagined Dutch aristocracy in New York, who smoked long pipes and wore short pants (which is where the name for the clothing article knickerbockers, or knickers, comes from). The term continued to evolve and became commonly used as a generic term for people in the New York area. It has been in use in club names in New York for quite some time, due to its close association with the city. The New York Knicks basketball team acquired it by drawing it from a hat–several big wigs each put a name into the hat, and Knickerbockers was drawn.
12. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are so-named because Salt Lake City is the jazz capital of the world. Just kidding–the team was transplanted by its owners from New Orleans, the actual jazz capital, in 1979. After moving, they decided to keep both the name and the team colors of green, purple, and gold, which are the colors of Louisiana Mardi Gras. The decision caused some controversy that still lingers today, as both jazz music and Mardi Gras are major cultural aspects of New Orleans (although the team colors have since changed). The nickname the Jazz was originally chosen by New Orleans for this reason, as well as for the dictionary definition of jazz, “collective improvisation.”
The National Hockey League
13. Anaheim Ducks
Although it seems odd, this team actually got its name from where you’re probably thinking it did: The Mighty Ducks, the 1992 film. Many people assume it’s the other way around. The team was founded by Disney in 1993, and was originally called the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Quack quack quack!
14. Nashville Predators
Although it would be awesome if this team got its name from the Predator movies in the same way as the Ducks, that sadly is not the case. The name is the result of fan voting, in which Ice Tigers, Fury, and Attack were the final candidates. Founder Craig Leipold submitted his own, Predators, which ended up winning. Interestingly, the logo was decided before the name, and the voting was based on that.
15. Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings went by other names since forming in 1926, until the new name was chosen in 1932 when bought by James E. Norris. Norris had been a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, which had cycling roots. The MAAA emblem was a winged wheel and had also won the first Stanley Cup in 1883, which Norris thought made it a perfect choice for a team in the Motor City.
16. Boston Bruins
Bruin is a Middle English word that originates from a Middle Dutch word for brown (and is related to our current word brown). The name entered the English language in the 15th century as a proper name for Bruin the Bear, a character often found in the tales of Reynard the Fox, who was a trickster character. People then began using the name as a general term for bears. In 1924, general manager Art Ross was instructed to come up with a team name involving a wild animal with speed and agility, and he chose the Bruins.
Many of the interesting origins of team names have been lost or forgotten over the years, and it’s common for there to be more than one favored explanation. What do you think? Have you heard a different origin story for any of these team names?