A not-so-short history of baseball team nicknames

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Why are Boston’s Sox red and Chicago’s white? Who is it that the Dodgers dodge and why do we care now? Why is the team in St. Louis called the Cardinals? Who was the inspiration behind Cleveland being called the Indians? What crimes did the folks in Pittsburgh commit that led them to be called Pirates?

This article sets out to answer those questions and more as we take a trip around MLB and look at the origins of the nicknames for each of the current 30 teams.

How Major League Baseball teams got their names:

Los Angeles Angels

Let’s get some of the easy ones out of the way first. The Angels came into the American League in 1961 as an expansion team. For decades, the Los Angeles minor league team had been called the Angels, since Los Angeles is known as The City of Angels. Why? Because in the 18th century the population of the region ballooned when a Catholic priest named Junípero Serra ran a mission named for San Gabriel Archangel. The mission is still there, you can visit it.

Oakland Athletics

One of the oldest nicknames in pro sports, the Athletics name goes back to the Philadelphia Athletic Club, which was a popular civic organization in the city dating back to the 19th century.

The “A’s have taken their nickname with them to Kansas City and Oakland. The elephant as their logo/mascot came about after Giants’ manager John McGraw called the A’s “white elephants” in 1902. Owner Connie Mack flipped the insult around and adopted the white elephant as part of the team persona. It survives today, which leaves a lot of fans wondering why a baseball team called the A’s has an elephant on their uniform.

Seattle Mariners

When the American League decided to expand by two teams in 1977, the Seattle market was offered a team almost immediately to settle an old score. Eight years earlier, the Seattle Pilots had been an expansion team, but mismanagement by ownership led to their demise after one season (they went on to Milwaukee to become the Brewers). The AL offered Seattle a team to shuffle aside a lawsuit brought on them by the city of Seattle for the loss of the Pilots. The new ownership group ran a contest in the newspaper, soliciting nicknames. “Mariners” won by a hefty margin over the runner-up “Kings” or “Kingfish” (both for King County, Washington).

Texas Rangers

This team, which has their roots in the expansion Washington Senators, debuted in Arlington in 1972. They are named for the legendary Texas Ranger law enforcement agency, which traces their roots back to the 1820s.

Chicago White Sox

For decades, the only major league team in Chicago was the Chicago White Stockings of the National League, who went on to become the Cubs (more on that later). When the American League planted a team in the Windy City in 1900, they called themselves the White Stockings in homage to the former NL team. Later, the name was shortened to “White Sox.” So, the White Sox nickname is actually borrowed from the Cubs. Chew on that, South Siders. Strangely, the team has rarely worn white stockings.

Cleveland Indians

The Cleveland baseball team has had a long history of nicknames. First, they were known as the Blues because they wore blue striped socks. Then they were called the Naps after their star player, Larry “Napolean” Lajoie.

The team weas officially dubbed the Indians in 1915, but the reason is in dispute. Some sources say the Indian name came because the Boston Braves won the 1914 World Series and the theme was popular, others say it was to pay respect to Louis “Chief” Sockalexis, a native American who played pro ball in Cleveland in the last years of the 19th century. Sockalexis died in December of 1913, however, so I’m not sure why it took a full year for the team to change their name for him. The team itself clings to this latter explanation, in part to avoid the controversy of using the term “Indian” which has increasingly become more politically incorrect.

Note: in 2020, the team announced that they would be replacing the name “Indians” in the near future.

Detroit Tigers

According to one source the Tigers earned their nickname from their orange striped socks. However, when they entered the American League in 1901, the Tigers wore blue and red striped socks.

A more likely reason for the Tigers nickname is in reference to the Detroit Light Guard, a famous military unit from Michigan that had performed bravely in the Spanish-American War. The unit was known as the “Fightin’ Tigers” because the crest they adopted featured a Tiger head.

Kansas City Royals

After an unsuccessful decade hosting the Athletics, Kansas City got another chance at Major League Baseball with the expansion of 1969. The name “Royals” was selected from over 15,000 entries in a name-the-team contest. The name “Royals” is meant to signify the royal stature of the city as the hub of steer and horse industry in America. For many years the city has hosted the Kansas City Royal Horse Show.

The KC minor league team had been known as the Blues for several decades, serving for some time as a feeder for the Yankees.

Minnesota Twins

Since the team plays in Minneapolis, a twin city to St. Paul, the name “Twins” was a perfect selection when they received the former Washington Senators in 1961. Their uniforms have almost always included an arm patch that shows two brothers shaking hands across the river that divides the two cities.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles are the descendants of the St. Louis Browns, who moved to Baltimore in 1954. Baltimore has used the Orioles nickname for more than a hundred years, dating back to the 19th century when their entry in the National League was the best and most innovative team in baseball. They were called the Orioles after the state bird of Maryland.

Boston Red Sox

In 1907, Boston owner John Taylor decided to give his team a makeover. Prior to that, the Boston team played in white uniforms with blue trim, and were officially without a nickname. Newspapers called them the “Americans” to differentiate them from the Boston team in the rival National League. Since the NL Braves wore blue, Taylor decided to outfit his team in red. Within a few years, their red stockings led to the nickname “Red Sox.” Aren’t you glad they did? Otherwise Boston fans would be part of “American Nation” today.

New York Yankees

The New York Press lasted as a newspaper for less than 30 years, but it contributed quite a bit to American culture. It was Press editors who coined the phrase “yellow journalism” to disparage the tactics of competitor periodicals. The paper’s sports editor, Jim Price, was the first to use the name Yankees in reference to New York’s entry in the fledgling American League, as early as 1904. He chose Yankees or “Yanks” because it was much shorter in headlines than their unofficial team nickname, “Highlanders”. By the late 1910s, Yankees had supplanted Highlanders as the preferred moniker.

Tampa Bay Rays

When team officials selected Devil Rays as their nickname when Tampa Bay was first announced as an expansion team in 1995, it was not warmly received. Some fans objected to the “Devil” term. The team wanted Stingrays, a common sea creature found in the Florida waters, but that name was copyrighted by a professional team in Hawaii. In 2007, the club officially removed “Devil” and became simply the Tampa Bay Rays (focusing more on sunshine than sea creatures). They promptly made their first trip to the World Series and have been a much better team ever since.

Toronto Blue Jays

“The blue jay is a North American bird, bright blue in color, with white undercovering and a black neck ring. It is strong, aggressive and inquisitive,” said team chairman R. Howard Webster after the club selected the name from more than 10,000 entries in a contest. “It dares to take on all comers, yet it is down-to-earth, gutsy and good-looking.” The team, which joined the American League in 1977, adopted red, white, and blue colors and incorporated them along with the use of the Canadian maple leaf.

Atlanta Braves

Late in 1911, when he became owner of the Boston Braves, James Gaffney, a construction magnate who was a member of New York’s prominent political group Tammany Hall, decided to rename the club, which had been known as the “Doves.” He settled on the name “Braves” as a sort of inside joke, since an Indian brave with a headdress was the symbol of Tammany. As owner of the team, Gaffney built Braves Field, at the time of its construction one of the most impressive venues in sports. The nickname followed the team to Milwaukee and ultimately Atlanta.

Miami Marlins

The marlin is obviously a salt water fish that is found in the waters off Florida. The expansion Florida Marlins joined the National League in 1993 and chose that name which was used by minor league teams in Miami for a long time. In 2012, when a new stadium was opened in Miami, the franchise shed the “Florida” and became the Miami Marlins.

New York Mets

When the franchise entered the National League for the 1962 season, team owners asked fans to select from among ten names they had chosen. The ten names were:

  • Avengers
  • Bees
  • Burros
  • Continentals
  • Jets
  • Mets
  • NYBS
  • Rebels
  • Skyliners
  • Skyscrapers.

Mets (which is short for Metropolitans) won rather easily, with two other names getting write-in votes: Empires and Islanders. Several of the rejected names were later selected by other pro teams (Islanders and Jets, for example).

Philadelphia Phillies

Probably no other major league team has a more interesting history of nicknames than the Philadelphia National League team. Since 1890, they have continuously been known officially as the “Phillies” (simply a shortening of Philadelphia or Philadelphia’s), but several times they have tried to shun that name.

In the 1890s the franchise tried to get Quakers to catch on, to no avail. Quakers, of course, are integral in the history of the state of Pennsylvania.

In the 1940s, team owner Robert Carpenter, who had several crazy (for their time) notions, placed a blue jay patch on the team uniform in hopes that Blue Jays would catch on. It didn’t.

For a few years in the 1950s the team used “Fightin’ Phils” on their correspondence to help cement that name, but it failed.

Finally, in the 1960s the name “Phillies” was embraced and has been in place ever since. The Phillies have used probably as many variations of their logo and team colors as any team in MLB history, at times wearing blue, black, yellow, and red. 

Washington Nationals

The Nationals name was actually officially the nickname of the American League Washington club for more than 50 years, though everyone pretty much called them the Senators. Later, the expansion Washington team who played in the American League from 1961-1971, was also the Senators. In 2005 when the Montreal franchise went south to D.C., they revived the Nationals name, “Nats” for short.

Chicago Cubs

In the 1880s, when the then Chicago White Stockings roster was peppered with young players, observers called them “Anson’s Colts”, after manager Cap Anson. The name gradually morphed into Orphans (after Anson bolted) and then became the Cubs in the early years of the 20th century.  

Cincinnati Reds

How boring is this? The Cincinnati baseball club, which traces their origins to the days of the Civil War, was known as the Red Stockings because they wore red stockings. (Not JUST red stockings, that would have been scandalous).

Over the years they’ve been called the Redlegs and Reds, the name which has stuck. Bowing to pressure, during the communist scare of the 1950s, the team officially changed the name back to the Redlegs for a short time to be politically correct.

Houston Astros

Originally known as the Colt .45s, that nickname was never appreciated by the Colt Firearm Company (who manufactured the weapon), so it was not a surprise when in 1965 the team changed their nickname to Astros. Houston was then the aeronautics center of the country and the hub of the space industry. The term Astros in reference to “astronaut” was a no-brainer.

Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee is often called “Suds City” because they are home to several of the nation’s most successful breweries. The Brewers nickname was an obvious choice in 1970 when the city received the short-lived Seattle Pilots as their own. Minor league teams had used “Brewers” for years.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Once upon a time in the 1880s, there was a second major league, called the Players’ League. It was a rival to the National League, started by some of the most prominent players in the game of baseball. The league collapsed under pressure from NL owners, and Pittsburgh “raided” the roster of a few teams. As a result, they were called “pirates” for poaching players. The derisive nickname was adopted the club.

From 1890 to 1911 the name of the city was officially “Pittsburg” according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. But citizens didn’t like it, and in 1911 they successfully petitioned to have the “h” returned.

St. Louis Cardinals

Sportswriter William McHale started using the “Cardinals” name when covering the game in the late 1890s. Prior to that, the team was known as the Brown Stockings, Browns, and Perfectos. The name apparently came from the brightly colored red socks. It’s all about the socks, right?

Arizona Diamondbacks

Fans chose Diamondbacks in a contest from among Coyotes, Phoenix, Rattlers, and Scorpions. A diamondback is a snake, with a name that has a perfect connection to the baseball field.

Colorado Rockies

Team officials picked “Rockies” over “Bears,” which had the support of the Denver newspaper and many fans.

Los Angeles Dodgers

LA sports teams have an identity crisis. The Lakers get their nickname from the team that came to LA from Minneapolis, and the Dodgers nickname is similarly a holdover from a previous location.

The Brooklyn NL club was known as the “Dodgers” because of the many trolleys in the New York borough. People in Brooklyn had to “dodge” the trolleys in the streets, and there were numerous incidents in which citizens were scrunched to death by the multi-ton cars. Previous to Dodgers, the team was called the Robins (short for Wilbert Robinson, the team’s manager), Superbas, and Grooms (when one season several players were newlyweds).   

San Diego Padres

The longtime Pacific Coast League entry from San Diego was called the Padres, so in 1969 the NL expansion club adopted the name. Padre is the Spanish word for father, and since San Diego was the site of one of the first Spanish Catholic missions on the West Coast, that term has long been associated with the city.

San Francisco Giants

Like the Dodgers, the Giants are a transplanted team from New York. The Giants name goes back to at least the 1880s, when their manager liked to call his team “My Giants” because of their stature in the National League (they won titles in 1888 and 1889).

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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