How Sports Teams Got Their Names
Most sports fans don’t invest the same amount of time and thought into how their favorite team’s name came to be as they do on matters of immediate relevance, like position battles and ticket prices. For lifelong fans, how the team got its name was knowledge instilled in them since the moment that information was comprehensible. For sports fans that don’t necessarily have a stake in a particular franchise, the name is either obvious, or just is.
However, every team name has a story—even if that story is decidedly mundane. Mundane can be just intriguing as something far more grandiose, because mundane can be the most unexpected explanation. The machinations and cultural forces within a community that ultimately led to the very name that is so easy to take for granted, can be utterly predictable…or pure non sequitur.
This is how sports teams got their names.
Until the decision was made to relocate to Chicago in 2001, the international headquarters of the Boeing aviation and aerospace company was located in Seattle. The same goes for the SuperSonics, until they were relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008.
The franchise’s (former) name was inspired by a “Concorde-like airplane, which was to be call the Supersonic Transport.” Even though the plane was eventually scrapped, “SuperSonics” was put to a public vote in Seattle and “won by a landslide.”
They weren’t part of the NHL’s famed Original Six, but the Penguins were part of the 1976 expansion that doubled the size of the league. When it was learned the city would be receiving a hockey team, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette held a typical name-the-team contest.
Though somehow it ended up being Carol McGregor, the wife of team owner Jack McGregor, who ended up naming the team. The Civic Arena, nicknamed “The Igloo,” inspired her to come up with the Penguins, the natural choice for a team that plays in such a distinctive building.
Though many teams were named based on their uniforms back in the day, the Penguins might be the only named based on their building. They got their moniker despite the objections of the logo artist, who leaned heavily towards calling them the Hornets.
According to the university’s website, it took quite a few years before Syracuse landed on the Orangemen as their athletic mascot. Vita the Goat represented their first swing in the 1920s. Next was the Saltine Warrior, which was a fictional Native American character born from an oddly elaborate hoax. Big Chief Bill Orange, as he was known, was adopted by the university in the ‘30s and remained in place until a Native American student protest in 1978.
After a few less offensive, but substantially dumber mascots came and went, the powers that be landed on an Orange “with appeal,” which was designed by a proactive male cheerleader. The weird saggy orange plush ball mascot, also known as “Otto the Orange,” didn’t come about until the mid-90s. An 18-member committee of faculty and staff decided on the creepy orange fur ball, which beat out a lion and a wolf.
New York Knicks
Everyone knows Knicks is shortened from Knickerbockers, but what, exactly, is a “Knickerbocker”? Well, apparently the origin of the term dates back to the original Dutch settlers in America. Also known as “knickers,” they were a style of “pants that rolled up just below the knee.”
Now, if you’re thinking there must be another meaning that would explain why Knickerbocker was first adopted as a team name in 1845, well then you’d be wrong. According to the late Fred Podesta, who was a longtime executive of Madison Square Garden, “The name came out of a hat.”
“Why ‘Knickerbockers?’ Why not??”
Added to the NHL three years after the expansion that doubled the league in 1967, the Vancouver Canucks, along with the Buffalo Sabres, respectively, became the 13th and 14th teams to enter the league for the 1970-71 season.
The Canucks were based off a Canadian political cartoon that originated in 1869. “Johnny Canuck was a Canadian superhero who was created as a political carton in 1869,” and later re-invented as an “action hero who fought Adolf Hitler.”
The Cubs played their first games as a franchise in the late 1800s as the White Stockings, Colts and Orphans before changing for the final time in 1902. After changing monikers three times in 25 years, a Chicago newspaper decided to hold a contest in hopes of coming up with a name that would finally stick. Although Cubs was the winning selection, initially it was largely ignored.
It wasn’t until Fred Hayner, a sports writer for the Chicago Daily News, used the term “to describe a team with a bunch of young promising players,” likening them to young bears. Soon after, the name began appearing in newspaper headlines, which led to widespread acceptance from fans and media alike.
Chicago White Sox
When a second professional baseball franchise was established in Chicago in 1900, instead of coming up with an original name of its own, owner Charles Comiskey opted for one that had been previously discarded by the Cubs. Originally called the White Stockings, the named was “shortened” to the White Sox in 1902. A number of early baseball teams were named after various colored stockings.
Prior to Comiskey moving the team to Chicago, it was actually a minor league team in Sioux City, Iowa, called the Saints. The National League, which was the only league that existed at the time (the AL was established in 1901), initially forbade the franchise from using the city’s name in its moniker. They decided on the White Stockings because it was already familiar with fans in town.
Team names that stem from fan submissions and a public vote are rarely very interesting. Such is the case with the Bucks, which was selected by over 14,000 Milwaukeeans who participated in a contest to name the team in 1968. The interesting part is not what was chosen—seriously, does it get much more boring than a deer?—but rather what wasn’t chosen.
Other possible selections, which were picked because they reflected the local/regional wildlife, included: Beavers, Hornets, Ponies and Skunks. Maybe fans were going on shear size, since the buck is the only option with a physically intimidating presence. It doesn’t seem they considered the fact deer are panic-prone spazzes that can be incapacitated by bright lights.
Looking back on it, not going for the Skunks seems like a real missed opportunity. If that toxic butt stink doesn’t get you, the rabies certainly will.
When professional organized baseball first came to Pittsburgh in 1887, the team that joined the National League was called the Alleghenys. “The team’s nickname referred to the location of its home field in Allegheny City, today’s North Side,” that per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Alleghenys were crippled when their best players bailed on the team during the 1890 season to play for the Pittsburgh Burghers of the newly established Players League. Attendance plummeted after that, with just 17 people showing up for one game—they finished the year 23-113.
Following the worst season in franchise history, the Alleghenys poached a number of players from American Association franchises. Hit hard were the Philadelphia Athletics, which “loudly protested the move, complaining to league officials that the Allegenys’ actions were ‘piratical.’” They were officially the Pirates by the start of the 1981 season.
Perhaps the only thing crazier than the Stanford Tree is how the Tree came to be. The university’s mascot was actually the “Indians” from 1930-72 but was deemed offensive and discarded with the support of the students. “Cardinal” (the color, not the bird) was then adopted, with the tree from the school’s logo beating out a “steaming manhole and a giant french fry” in a 1975 contest, as noted by Jim Weber of Yahoo! Sports.
Honestly, forgoing the manhole and the giant french fry seems like a real missed opportunity. If only we had some of the logo designs that were submitted to help paint a more accurate picture. The Tree is cool too though. Though present as part of the marching band at all sporting events, the Tree isn’t Stanford’s official mascot—it doesn't have one.
New York Rangers
Despite the misleading photo used, the New York Rangers hockey team predates the Texas Rangers baseball team by over 40 years. Both teams were named, in one way or another, to honor the famed Ranger Division or the Texas Department of Public Safety.
While the MLB Rangers in Texas are more geographically intuitive, the NHL Rangers in New York are a derivative of former Madison Square Garden president G.I. “Tex” Rickard—‘Tex’s Rangers’ just stuck and was eventually adopted by Rickard himself.
On the surface, the Bulls seems like one of the many generic team names picked at random from the animal kingdom. But unlike, for instance, the Tigers or Bobcats, the Bulls name was meant to demonstrate “strength and power,” and was “tied into the city’s meatpacking tradition.” Back in 1966, Chicago was the meat capital of the world—of course, it’s hard to say how official those rankings were. Richard Klein, the franchise’s first owner, credited his youngest son for the final decision.
Said Klein: “At first, I was thinking of names like Matadors or Toreadors, but if you think about it, no team with as many as three syllables in its nickname has ever had much success except for the Canadiens. I was sitting around the house, kicking these names around with my wife and three sons, when my little son Mark said, ‘Dad, that’s a bunch of bull!’ I said, ‘That’s it! We’ll call them the Bulls!’ And that’s how the team got its nickname.”
Without question, the most popular sports team in the state of Ohio is the Ohio State University Buckeyes. While OSU boasts well over three million fans, the Cincinnati Bengals have under one million to their name—at least judged based on Facebook information provided.
Paul Brown, who wanted to make sure there was no confusion between his new professional football team and the college athletic team in Columbus, founded the Bengals in 1967. The Buckeyes was the most popular name of hundreds suggested by fans in the Cincinnati area, but Brown was set on the Bengals.
The Atlanta Flames were part of the NHL from 1972-80. The team derived its name from the city’s not-so-flame-retardant past during the Civil War, when it was burned to the ground by General William T. Sherman’s forces. Maybe that’s why they call it Hotlanta? Maybe not.
In 1980 the team moved to Calgary, a much more suitable location for a hockey team (the Knights, Fire Ants, Thrashers, and Knights again have all failed in Atlanta). Instead of brainstorming on something more Canadian, the owners decided “Flames” would “be a good fit for an oil town like Calgary.”
The NBA awarded Orlando a franchise via expansion in April 1987, the result of efforts from businessman Jim Hewitt and former 76ers general manager Pat Williams. In anticipation of the team’s arrival, the Orlando Sentinel held a contest for fans to submit ideas and then vote. Among the finalists: Heat, Tropics, Juice, Magic and Challengers.
Named as a tribute to the space shuttle that had exploded over Cape Canaveral the previous January, Challengers was actually the fan favorite in Orlando. Ultimately, though, it was a panel of judges, not the public, who had the final say in naming. Perhaps they didn’t want the team forever associated with an aerospace tragedy, deciding instead on the Magic, a nod to Disney World.