Winning titles: The fascinating origins of 16 sports team names
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?
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Small point: they were the Minneapolis Lakers, not the Minnesota Lakers.
Good catch Greg, you’re completely correct–that one slipped past me! Fixing it now.
Also, it is worth mentioning that although MN is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the name Minneapolis translates literally into “city of water” from the Sioux term “minni” meaning water and the Greek “apolis.” The common nickname is “The City of Lakes” and hence, the name Lakers gets its relevance.
The Ravens, EAP wasnt from Baltimore but he drank himself to death and is burried here.
The Bears were the Staleys, not Stalers
Tinkham, one of the investors, recalled that the nickname was a combination of the state’s rich history with the harness racing pacers (investor Chuck Barnes was a horse racing enthusiast) and the pace car used for the running of the Indianapolis 500.
Probably a stupid question, but what’s a harnessing racing pacer?
harness refers to race horses. there are two types of harness race horses, trotters and pacers
That’s Indiana Pacers. 🙂
no mention of the New Jersey Devils?
Why? It’s a boring name.
There is a mythical beast in central New Jersey called the New Jersey Devil, akin to Sasquatch in the west or Yeti in the Himalayas. Yeti is in a very isolated area, Sasquatch less so, and if there is a Jersey Devil, he’s in an exurban McMansion not far from the Garden State Parkway.
Mighty Ducks of Anahiem got their name from the movie, but it’s also the logo of Delta Upsilon Fraternity (DU). One guess as to which fraternity then Disney CEO Micheal Eisner belonged to.
Why is a team based in New York called the Rangers? Its’ because of Madison Square Garden’s owner in the early 30’s, Tex Rickard. His hockey team became known as Tex’s Rangers, and eventually, the Rangers. Their other nickname, the Broadway Blueshirts, is a little more self explanatory.
Rickard also had a hand in another team’s nickname: The Montreal Canadians long had used a C and and an H for a logo – meaning Club de Hockey Canadien. They were the “Franco” team to match up with the “Anglo” Montreal Maroons. Rickard, always a story teller, said the H meant “Habitant”, an early term for farmers in the Quebec area. The term, though completely false, stuck – thus why the Canadiens are called the Habs.
That’s really interesting, especially the Habs tidbit. Thanks for posting it!
If you did this report on all sports team of each sport you highlighted above, I would read every one of them. I find this fascinating and hope you expand your selections.
Glad you enjoyed it! We’ll certainly consider doing more like this.
As normal, here is another liberal site pushing to have the Redskins name changed and even providing a link to a page with incomplete and unstated facts about the name. The entire name change fiasco is more than likely the brainchild of
Harry Reid and Democrats. Why you may ask?
I’m sure everyone is familiar with Harry Reid attempting to use the Bureau of Land Management to try and seize the cattle and some of the land of Cliven Bundy. I know, it doesen’t sound like it has anything to do with the Redskins.
Well, it just so happens that Indians living on a reservation don’t pay taxes. It also happens to be that they are allowed to run Casino’s on their land, and not pay taxes. And it also happens that Harry Ried’s cousin runs a casino in Las Vegas. So naturally, Harry Reid being the corrupt dick he is would just love to abuse his power and use the Bureau of Land Management to kick the Indians off their land and seize it for “Federal use.” This would not only place the Indians in the unfortunate situation of being forced to pay taxes, but would also remove all those pesky casino’s in direct competition with his cousin’s casino in Las Vegas.
Is this making more sense? How you accomplish such a feat by not getting the population all riled up? Easy, remove all traces and support of the Indians, and any mention of them from the public. Literally, make them disappear and fade into history without so much as a whimper from the public. After all, if you remove all public sentiment for the Indians, who would care if you take their land away from them? Of course, the Redskins being such a well known team and constantly in the spotlight make this quite a problem.
So begin the campaign to make them change their name by coming up with the fictitious spectacle that Native American’s are opposed to the name, when nearly 90% of them have no problem at all with the name. The entire name change fiasco is purely political in nature, and has nothing at all to do with how Native American’s feel about the name.
Don’t be ridiculous! It’s not Harry Reid, it’s the UN, the New World Order and the Illuminati trying to take our Redskins name away. Damn Europeans, why do they hate our freedoms so much?
So, please, please get your facts straight before making comments like this. Otherwise you make clear thinking, rational individuals look like silly, deluded, paranoid fools.
Also, it isn’t Harry Reid or any specific democrat. It’s just a set of judgement against a rancher who isn’t following the law, and bilking the public out of hundreds of thousands of grazing fees, and using land that is federally protected for wildlife. When Bundy lost after 20 years of wrangling (Wow, how totalitarian, just like Stalin, giving him 20 years to fight it out in court…) he started talking stupid (which was easy for him, being he isn’t terribly bright…).
“nearly 90% of them have no problem at all with the name”, really? You need to check your facts because the research that you’re referencing here has been proven over and over to be completely flawed. More recent research shows that yes, majority of Native Americans do in fact find “redskin” to be an offensive term. It’s simple and you’re inventing conspiracy where there is none.
By the way, -1 for forgetting to mention Illuminati.
You missed perhaps the most interesting NBA team name of all: The Detroit Pistons were the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons until 1957; a company team owned by Fred Zollner of the Zollner Corporation, makers of pistons for several of the major automakers of the day.
Zollner’s legacy in the NBA:
– He brought together leaders of the NBL and the BAA to meet at his house in 1949. Sitting around his kitchen table, they agreed to merge, forming the NBA.
– He was the first pro basketball team owner to hire a bench coach.
– In 1952, when he purchased a DC-3, Zollner was the first to fly his players to away games.
– the NBA Western Conference Championship trophy is named in his honor
Fred Zollner, prototypical baller.
Nashville Predators actually got their name from the remains of a saber tooth tiger found below the stadium during construction. http://predators.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=36966
Kathleen enjoyed your name studies. What were your major sources?
How I feel when my favorite team fails: http://www.teatat.com/check-how-many-of-the-sport-fan-poses-apply-to-you-you-may-do-it-without-even-noticing/.
What about the Pittsburgh Pirates? They have the best name story in all of sports!