Like 90 feet to first base or the dulcet tones of Vin Scully, the names of MLB's 30 teams are cemented as part of the game's story -- passed down from generation to generation with every win, loss and legendary player. And while a lot of franchises came by their nicknames through, say, a fan vote, others have long, winding and pretty weird backstories. Let's investigate:
It's become so iconic that we hardly even think about it, but how did a baseball team come to be named the "Dodgers" anyway? Come, as we go down a rabbit hole of wedding vows and public transportation.
The team was founded in the 1880s, and for the first few decades of its existence, the franchise's official name was simply the Brooklyn Base Ball Club. Still, a handful of unofficial nicknames were used by both fans and the press -- from mundane monikers like the "Atlantics" in 1884 to more, uh, eccentric ideas like the Bridegrooms (because, you guessed it, a bunch of their players got married in rapid succession) in the 1890s. In the early 20th century, the team was even briefly named after a popular local vaudeville troupe, Hanlon's Superbas, as a local media gag after Ned Hanlon assumed ownership. As proof that this is all totally real, we submit the following:
But around the turn of the 20th century, a name closer to the hearts of home fans emerged, and this one would eventually stick for good. At the time, Brooklyn was filled with trolley lines, and as the borough moved to electric power and the trains became more dangerous, "trolley dodging" became a part of everyday life. Trolley Dodgers became an increasingly popular name for the club, though the press still used several nicknames interchangeably for years -- often even within the same sentence.
The team itself didn't make a definitive choice until 1932, when longtime manager Wilbert Robinson -- whose last name inspired some fans and writers to refer to the team as the "Robins" -- retired. Looking to fill the void, the Brooklyn Base Ball Club officially changed its name, and "Dodgers" finally showed up on both home and away uniforms.
Although we shudder at the thought of a world without Fredbird, the Cardinals didn't get their name from the bird that marks the team logo. After years of futility as the St. Louis Browns in the late 19th century, the franchise was sold to the Robison brothers, who just so happened to also own the Cleveland Spiders. ("But wait," you ask, "isn't that a pretty significant conflict of interest?" You're absolutely right, but it was the Gilded Age.)
Hoping to build a championship team, the Robisons sent nearly all of the Spiders' best players to St. Louis prior to the 1899 season -- including Cy Young, pictured here in the lower left corner:
The team decided it needed a new nickname to go with the new roster: the Perfectos. (No, really.) More importantly, though, they also changed uniforms -- eschewing their traditional brown for a red trim and red socks. Later that summer, St. Louis Republic reporter Willie McHale overheard a woman in the stands admire the new threads and their "lovely shade of cardinal." McHale included it in his column the next day, and while it's unclear how quickly the name caught on, the team made the change official in time for the 1900 season.
It's hard to imagine the Pirates without the beautiful, Bat-Signaled skyline of Pittsburgh, but the franchise actually began in nearby Allegheny City as, wait for it, the Alleghenys. As the team moved to the professional American Association, they adopted Pittsburgh as their home, but decided to keep the nickname -- until 1891, when they found themselves in the middle of one of the fiercest controversies in the game's young history.
A new ownership group wanted to make a splash after a disappointing season, so the team signed second baseman Lou Bierbauer away from the Philadelphia Athletics (a legal move, since the A's hadn't put Bierbauer on their reserved list). Still, Philly was irate, and decided to file an official complaint -- even going so far as to call their rivals "piratical."
The Alleghenys strongly maintained it had done nothing wrong, and for the 1890 season, the team adopted the nickname "Innocents". But, after the league ruled in Pittsburgh's favor, ownership was so pleased with the whole thing they decided to rename the team the Pirates in time for the 1891 season -- though it wouldn't appear on Pittsburgh's jerseys until 1911. And, over a century later, players are still taking the name very seriously:
Professional baseball first came to the Motor City back in 1881, when the National League welcomed the Detroit Wolverines -- Michigan is the Wolverine State, after all. The Wolverines had an interesting run -- ownership once purchased an entire franchise just to steal its stars, and they still hold the big league record for most runs allowed in an inning at 18 (?!) -- but the team folded after just eight years.
Another Detroit team popped up in its place in 1894, and while it was officially named the Wolverines, they were increasingly referred to as the Tigers -- as early as April 1895 in the Detroit Free Press. Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with the orange stripes the team wore:
The name actually came from the local National Guard infantry regiment. The Detroit Light Guard is Michigan's oldest military unit, fighting in key battles as far back as the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and earning the nickname "Tigers" in the process. The nickname stuck with the baseball team to such an extent that, upon joining the American League in 1901, the regiment granted the team permission to use its nickname and symbol.
Oddly enough, the club on Chicago's North Side was first known as ... the White Stockings. That would change with the emergence of player-manager Cap Anson, who cast such a long shadow over the franchise that they eventually came to be known as Cap's Colts.
But Anson couldn't hang around forever, and when he finally retired, things got dreary -- the Chicago media eventually decided to dub the team the Orphans, and even went with "Remnants" during the group's 53-86 season in 1901. Thankfully, Frank Selee was determined to change things when he took over as manager the following season. His youth movement left the local papers scrambling for a nickname, until someone -- possibly Fred Hayner of the Chicago Daily News, though no one's sure -- came up with a different baby animal that had a nice ring to it: the Cubs.
When the Baltimore Orioles moved up to New York in 1903, they were seen as invaders. No, literally -- the New York Evening Journal settled on Invaders as the appropriate nickname for the Big Apple's new team. Luckily, the name didn't stick. Though the team officially remained the Greater New York Baseball Club, the most common nickname among fans was the Highlanders, because their stadium in Manhattan was situated on a hill (in contrast with the Polo Grounds, which lay in the lowlands north of Central Park).
When the press was looking for a shorthand in columns, though, they would refer to the team as the Americans -- a common move in cities with two teams, one in the National League and one in the American. From there, the path to Yankees was just a matter of expedience: New York Press editor Jim Price called the team the Yanks in 1904, all because he was trying to make a headline fit.