Baseball teams have been named after animals, local landmarks and a gun brand. Several of them have been identified by the color of the socks. There is one named after a mountain range and another that refers to dodging trolleys in a town the team left more than 60 years ago.
The strangest name in baseball history may be the team that was named its best player. That team – Cleveland Naps – was forced to adopt a new name when Napoleon Lajoie left the club after the 1914 season. With the help of local sports writers, Cleveland Indians were created.
After years of criticism, Cleveland has agreed to drop the name, which many see as racist, and will start looking for a new one – a process that has happened relatively few times since team names were standardized in the early 1900s. Name changes, it should be noted, can take a while to get right, as stated by the NFL’s Washington Football Team, which temporarily goes by a generic designation after drop their own racist name.
How Cleveland and Washington navigate through the changes may provide a plan for other teams as the pressure to eliminate offensive names in sports becomes stronger. It could eventually affect teams like the Atlanta Braves and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and perhaps even less obvious examples, like the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
Much of the early enthusiasm in Cleveland’s search for a name has focused on getting the club renamed Spiders, the current favorite, according to several oddsmakers. While the name has some baseball history in Cleveland – not particularly good history, but history – it has no connection to the current Cleveland club. The Spiders were a national league team from 1889 to 1899. They lost the championship in 1892 to Boston, and lastly, they put a mark on baseball uselessness by going 20-134 before disbanding. A smaller league club also used the name in 1915 before he was bolted for greener pastures in Toledo.
The current Cleveland team, on the other hand, was one of the American League’s original franchises in 1901. If the club wanted to refer to a name from the team’s past, it would have four to choose from: Blues, Bronchos (also spelled “Broncos”), Molly Maguires and the mentioned lures.
It may be hard to imagine a team renaming itself the Boston Big Papis or the Los Angeles Trouts, but that was exactly what Cleveland did for Lajoie’s first full season with the club in 1903. Lajoie, a Hall of Famer considered one of the best hitters in major league history, largely due to the unusual honor. He struck. 339 in 13 seasons with the club, and collected several batting titles. He is still the franchisee’s career leader in victory over compensation.
The Naps nickname stuck even after a team from 1912 to change its official name to Molly Maguires – in itself an unusual sports name, to which it referred a group of Irish labor rights activists. But after a final placement in 1914, Lajoie demanded a trade and was sent back to his previous club, the Philadelphia Athletics, necessitating a name change for Cleveland.
The team’s search for a new name has often been credited to a newspaper competition academic studies has demanded a fan contest or a reference to Louis Sockalexis (an Indian player for the spiders) for being a spy. In fact, a selection that consisted of local sports writers and team representatives decided on the name, with some Cleveland newspapers reporting at the time that it was temporary. It stuck.
Cleveland is in the market for one again, also shining a light on how rarely a name change happens, at least in baseball. Recent name changes have included the Tampa Bay Rays dropping “Devil” from its name in 2008, and Expos was renamed the Nationals after a move to Washington in 2005.
To find an established team that changed its name without changing city, you had to go back to the 1965 season, when the Houston Colt. 45s became the Houston Astros. It would be easy to assume that it was the affiliation with a firearm that inspired the change – similar to Washington’s NBA franchise that changed its name from Bullets to Wizards – but the change to Astros seemed to be more about capitalizing on space madness at the time, and honorable the team’s exciting new dome stadium, while also addressing the fact that the Colt firearms company had opposed the team’s memories.
“We think it is in line with the situation where we are the world capital of the world,” said Roy Hofheinz, the club’s president at the time. “The name was taken from the stars and indicates that we are on the rise.”
All in all, baseball will be left with 11 teams playing under its original name as major league teams, including the Detroit Tigers, which began playing in the AL in 1901 and is the longest-serving major league team that has never had another hometown gold nickname . (The Chicago White Sox, who started playing in the AL that same year, became known as the Chicago White Stockings.) Each of the 19 other active teams has had at least one change. One of the more interesting reasons for a change belongs to the Cincinnati Reds, who left the Redlegs in the 1950s to distance themselves from any connection to communism.
There is no timeline for when Cleveland will rename its team. The Indians’ names will be used in 2021, so that the franchise era can avoid rushing into an unpopular name change, like the one made by the NBA’s Wizards.
Be it spiders, blues, bronchos, molly maguires or any other name, the team has an opportunity to make a positive out of something that has been hurting for many years. And while it is highly unlikely to return to the lure, the team could always nod to it by calling itself one of the team’s many stars, such as Jose Ramirez or Shane Bieber.
Cleveland Biebers? Probably not.