To paraphrase Shakespeare, a lousy team by any other name would stink just as bad. The Bard pre-dates baseball by a couple of centuries, more or less, but he knew something about putting butts in the seats. He knew that people would turn out for a good product. The better the play/team, the bigger the attendance. The play/the team’s the thing! If Hamlet had been entitled The Dane Curse (apologies to Dashiell Hammett), it would still be a timeless classic. In a sense, a sports team’s nickname, no matter how longstanding, no matter how beloved, is almost irrelevant.
In more recent years, when franchises move, they often change names to something geographically-appropriate (Expos-Nationals; Pilots-Brewers; Browns-Orioles; Senators-Twins), but teams that don’t move rarely do so. MLB’s last change was in 2008 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became the Rays, which was hardly major surgery. Franchises may change team colors, uniforms, or logos but the nickname usually remains the same.
The Indians, for example, have changed their logos, team colors, and uniforms numerous times over the years. Much like relics that are reproduced as souvenirs for tourists, merchandise with throwback logos is common. In fact, as I write this, I have a shirt in my closet with a Chief Wahoo logo that went out of style when I was one year old (1951). I’m not an Indians fan (in fact, I’ve only seen one game in Cleveland), but the shirt was really nifty and it was 75 percent off. Still, I can’t figure out how it found its way to the Rangers team shop at the Ballpark in Arlington. The stream of commerce is indeed tortuous.
Hardly a man is still alive who can remember a time when Cleveland did not employ some version of a Chief Wahoo logo. But it’s nowhere near as old as the franchise. Cleveland is a charter member in the American League, which was founded in 1901. The franchise has long been known as the Indians, but that name only dates back to the 1915 season.
For the first 14 seasons of the Cleveland franchise, the nickname situation was more informal—not just for Cleveland but for all major league teams. The shelf life of a nickname wasn’t long.
When you look at photos of deadball era players, note that you rarely see the team’s nickname on the uniform. The away uniform would typically display the name of the city, but the home uniform often had just the first letter of the city (the Olde English D of the Detroit Tigers home uniforms is a rare survivor).
In the National League, the Reds and the Cubs went against the grain and showed their names on the uniforms. In the American League, the Red Sox and the White Sox did the same, though the latter simply displayed “Sox,” which makes it look as though they were afraid to commit to a color. It’s almost as if the Sox knew they were going over to the dark side in 1919 and they wanted a uniform that would work just as well with black as with white.
One gets the impression that team owners felt the nickname wasn’t that important, so why bother to emblazon it on the uniform? The name of the city was paramount; the nickname was just an afterthought. Fans and sportswriters were not reluctant to come up with their own nicknames. If a name caught on, great; if it didn’t, try another one. Cleveland was a textbook example.
For its inaugural big league season, the Cleveland team was referred to as the Bluebirds. That was a rather dainty name for a blast furnace town like Cleveland. The players preferred their team to be known as the Blues (also the nickname of a 19th century Cleveland team), as they wore all-blue uniforms.
During the 1902 campaign, the team acquired Napoleon Lajoie, who had been involved in a celebrated contract dispute in Philadelphia. His popularity was a shot in the arm for the team, whose nickname was changed to the Naps in 1903 in his honor. And so it remained through 1911. Without perusing old newspapers, one can readily imagine headlines such as “Naps Caught Napping.”
I guess they could have called the team the Napoleons, but that could have been confusing, as John McGraw had already secured Little Napoleon as his personal nickname. Besides, the non-dictatorial definition of Napoleon (a flaky piece of pastry) would be about as suitable as the Cream Puffs.
A century later, it’s difficult to imagine employing a popular player’s name for the team’s name. How about the Atlanta Chips in honor of Chipper Jones? The Boston Papis in honor of David Ortiz? The New York Dereks in honor of Derek Jeter? Of course, if Tampa Bay ever comes up with a perennial all-star named Ray, they’re good to go.
At any rate, the 1912 season in Cleveland heralded the arrival of yet another nickname, and perhaps the most unusual in major league history, if not all of baseball history: The team was known as the Cleveland Molly McGuires.
Supposedly, the Indians adopted the nickname in honor of James Thomas “Deacon” McGuire, a player-manager in Cleveland from 1909-1911. His record as a Cleveland manager was nothing to write home about (91-117), but his lengthy career as a player was notable. He played from 1884 to 1912 and still holds the record for lifetime assists by a catcher with 1,859. Today, his renown probably doesn’t extend far beyond the Veterans’ Committee at Cooperstown.
More controversial, the nickname also derived from the Molly Maguires, the secret society of post-Civil War Irish-American coal miners who were blamed for any number of atrocities in northeast Pennsylvania mining towns.
The Molly Maguires have been pretty well documented by historians. If you’re so inclined, you can read more about them on the web or at your local library. And if you’re into old movies, you might want to check out The Molly Maguires (1970), starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris.
It’s easy to see why the Molly Maguires would attract the attention of historians and filmmakers, but why would a baseball team adopt the name? (Just imagine trying to sneak such a name past Bud Selig today!)
It’s possible the team thought adoption of this name would imply some sort of solidarity with the working-class people of Cleveland, who were legion. Cleveland was home to lots of heavy industry and a large immigrant population. The team needed some sort of marketing tool, as attendance had been below the league average since 1904. So why not market the team as a bunch of working-class heroes? I don’t believe there were any coal mines within the Cleveland city limits, but the State of Ohio had its share.
A century ago, mining was much more labor-intensive than it is today. More than a few ballplayers signed contracts to escape the mines. One escapee was Stan Coveleski (HOF 1969), who played for the Tribe for nine years, starting in 1916, two years too late to be one of the Molly Maguires. Too bad, because he and his brother Harry (a 12-year major league veteran), actually came from Molly Maguire country (Shamokin, Pa.).
Adopting a name like Molly Maguires was a risky venture, as the name almost literally raised a red flag in some circles. During the heyday of the Mollies, merely accusing someone of being a member of the group was enough to sully a reputation. It was not terribly different from tagging someone with one of the other hot-button labels, such anarchist, communist, Nazi, racist, or terrorist.
One wonders how Ban Johnson and the other American League owners felt about this name. Major league owners were certainly not known for relaxed attitudes toward anything that smacked of labor unrest. Even so, given the informality of nicknames at the time, the league passing judgment on questionable appellations would have had no teeth.
If the fans and newspaper writers chose to refer to the local team as the Molly Maguires, then the Molly Maguires they would be…for as long as the fans and newspaper writers chose to call them that. At any rate, the revolving door of nicknames would expel it soon enough.
And for those who didn’t care for the Molly Maguires, the nickname Naps wasn’t totally out of vogue. After all, Napoleon Lajoie was still with the team and was still highly popular.
But Lajoie had an off year in 1914 and was traded to the A’s, so clearly the name Naps was no longer apt. As it turned out, the Molly Maguires was also found wanting.
At the conclusion of the 1914 season, the team was ready for a make-over. No matter what the team was called, they had finished deep in last place at 51-102. They were not only 48½ games behind the first-place A’s, they were 18½ games behind the seventh place White Sox.
Perhaps symbolic of the team’s doldrums was Guy “Apple Blossom” Morton, who started the season with 13 consecutive losses before finally winning the first game of a double-header against the Yankees on Sept. 27. In that same game, Nap Lajoie got his 3,000th hit (he was not the first MLB player to do so, as Honus Wagner had done so earlier in the season), one of the few bright spots for the team that season. Also of note, that victory staved off the team’s 100th loss…but only till the second game of the double-header.
Thanks to the team’s nosedive, as well as reversals of fortune in his other businesses, team owner Charles Somers found himself $1.7 million in debt—an enormous sum in those days. The team’s dismal performance resulted in attendance dropping by two thirds: From the franchise’s record high of 541,000 in 1913 to 185,997 just one year later. This despite the fact that they still had the town to themselves, as a planned Cleveland franchise in the Federal League had not materialized.
Clearly, the luck of the Irish was not with the Cleveland franchise in 1914 so a different ethnicity was invoked.
It has long been part of baseball lore that the nickname Indians was a tribute to Louis Sockalexis, a popular 19th century Cleveland player who is considered by some baseball historians to be the first American Indian (he was a member of the Penobscot tribe in New England) to play in the major leagues.
Sockalexis got off to a roaring start with the National League Cleveland Spiders in 1897. Around mid-season, however, he injured an ankle, supposedly while jumping out of a brothel window, and his playing time tailed off. Subsequent problems with alcohol didn’t help, and he was released early in the 1899 season.
While Sockalexis was with the team, it was frequently referred to as the Indians—but he only played in 94 games from 1897 to 1899. He had a career average of .313, but that includes a mere 116 hits, three home runs and 55 RBIs.
There was something symbolic about the decline of Sockalexis. Once he was gone, the team really went to pot. The roster was gutted by the owners, who transferred the players to the St. Louis Perfectos (forerunner of the Cardinals), which they also owned. As a result, the Cleveland National League franchise folded after the 1899 season.
Sockalexis was long gone by the time the Indians nickname was formally adopted in 1915. He was not only out of baseball but out of this world, done in by heart disease at the age of 42 on Christmas Eve, 1913.
The Indians nickname was largely a newspaper-inspired event, an offseason attempt to channel the Miracle Boston Braves, who went from last place in midseason 1914 to a pennant and then defeated Connie Mack’s heavily favored A’s in the World Series.
That last-to-first mojo was just what they needed in Cleveland, so some sort of nickname pertaining to vanishing Americans was deemed desirable. If it worked in Boston, it should work in Cleveland.
Actually, it did work, but the results weren’t as dramatic. The Indians worked their way up the standings from last place to seventh (1915), sixth (1916), third (1917), second (1918 and 1919), and finally a title in 1920.
So the Indians were in, and the Molly Maguires were out. It’s tempting to joke that the Molly Maguires got scalped. If that sounds too ethnically insensitive, then you could say they got the shaft.
The period from 2012 to 2014 marks the centennial of the Mollies, but I’m guessing the Indians have no plans to commemorate their forebears. And despite the efforts of Indian activists, I think there’s no chance the Indians (or the Braves) will ever assume non-Indian nicknames. The era of quick-change nicknames is over. Continuity is king now.
Nowadays we have more people in the work force involved in data mining than coal mining, so the Molly Maguires nickname isn’t likely to pop up again on any professional sports teams. On the other hand, a quick internet search reveals that Molly Maguire’s is a popular name for Irish pubs. If some of those establishments sponsor softball teams, then somewhere in this proud land “Molly Maguires” may survive on sweaty T-shirts proudly stretched across beer bellies.