In general, I’m a curious guy. But one thing I’m really curious about with respect to baseball, is nicknames, both for players and for teams. Players often come by lots of monikers, but teams really don’t. A dozen teams have had the same nickname for a century, and all but seven teams have had just one or two official nicknames, according to Baseball-Reference.
Sometimes, there’s a great reason for that. We don’t have to spend a ton of time debating whether or not Cardinals or Red Sox or Tigers are great nicknames. Others, however, are less fun. Recently, I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole regarding one specific area of team nicknames–teams named after specific people.
I’m not talking about kinds of people, like the Yankees. I mean actual people. The Brooklyn Robins were named for team manager turned team manager/president Wilbert Robinson. The Brooklyn Superbas were named in honor of Ned Hanlon, who was part-owner of the team.
But the one that really struck my fancy was the Cleveland Naps, who were named for Nap Lajoie. From 1903-1914, the Cleveland team went by this name. For part of that time Lajoie was player/manager, and part of the time he just played.
The team adopted this new nickname because either the ballclub and its players were unhappy with its previous monikers–Bluebirds, Blues and Bronchos–they didn’t catch on, or both. They named themselves thusly in Lajoie’s second year with the team, and Lajoie himself was less than a decade removed from playing semi-pro ball on the shores of Massachusetts. This struck me as fantastic, and it got me wondering, if we applied this to today’s game, which players would we name teams after?
I thought it would be instructive to start with the two teams that really do need a name change. We don’t need to get into the debate about the Braves and Indians names. You don’t need to be Sam Cooke to know that eventually, a change is gonna come. It’s simply a matter of time before each team has a new name. Nicknames can be difficult to give up, especially when they’ve been held for 73 and 100 years, as have the Braves and Indians, respectively. So why not look to your players?
Who exactly would be the right kind of player? Would it be a current player? Baseball does make a point to focus on the team. Baseball is much more reticent to push the stars of the game in the way that the National Football League and especially the National Basketball Association are happy to do.
So right away, there’s a roadblock. Baseball coaches (heck, probably all coaches) are fond of saying that it’s the name on the front of your jersey that’s important, rather than the name on the back of your jersey. It’s tough to emphasize teamwork if the names of one of your players is on the front of the jersey.
“Does basically this work as a permament no-trade clause forever and ever?” questions Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs. “How do you ever cut a player like that at the end of his career if he’s bad?” Before you even get that far in a player’s career though, there would be concerns. Contract negotiations would be awkward as well, Sullivan notes.
“I think that with how much player movement there is,” Sullivan continues, “and of course with how many injuries there are, that it just seems like it’s too much.” He has a point. In fact, in the case of the Indians, the unintended consequence of naming the team the Naps is that when Lajoie finally departed, they had to pick a new name. And in this case, they chose very poorly.
“The reason that the team was named after Lajoie to begin with is why we have the Indians now,” says Ohio native and founding editor of The Classical, Pete Beatty. After the team sold Lajoie back to the Philadelphia Athletics, they had to re-name the team. “So they had like a write-in contest with the newspaper, and because the miracle Braves had just come from like last place to win the World Series in 1914, people thought it would be good luck to use the ‘Indians’ nickname.” Flash forward to today, and Cleveland is once again saddled with a poor nickname.
So perhaps current players aren’t the way to go. Retired players, on the other hand, could be a boon. Certainly, Jackie Robinson is worthy of having a team named after him, though “Robinsons” is kind of a mouthful. Stan Musial and Ted Williams would be worthy, as well, but the St. Louis Men doesn’t sound quite right, nor does the Boston Ballgames. I mean, it has that nice alliterative feel to it, but it would be odd to say that the Ballgames won the ballgame. But one name in particular does have a really nice ring to it, and it would be replacing a team that should be in the market for a new nickname.
Getting back to Atlanta, NotGraphs and CBS Sports author Dayn Perry asks, “What about the Atlanta Hammers?” Well, the street that the ballpark is located on is already named after Hank Aaron, so why not the whole team? For 21 years spanning three decades, Aaron was–and still is–one of the premier names in the game. He’s also one of the most distinctive things about the Atlanta baseball franchise.
Last year, graphic designer S. Preston designed a series of minimalist ballpark prints that are now officially licensed by Major League Baseball and are prominently displayed at Target Field, as well as houses across North America (including my own). When Preston came to Turner Field, he chose the “715″ wall that is the spot where Aaron passed Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. The spot is actually not inside Turner Field but rather in the parking lot, but it remains one of the more distinctive features about the ballpark nonetheless.
And, while creating a nickname isn’t necessarily something that should get too bogged down in statistics, we can see that Aaron checks out here, as well. During his career, Aaron tallied 136.0 WAR for the Braves, and the next-best player, Eddie Mathews, tallied “just” 94.3, a 41-win difference:
|Top Five Braves Players by fWAR, bWAR|
You didn’t really need me to put that chart in there, but it’s fun to have a reminder of just how awesome a player Aaron was. You could make the argument that Aaron piled up the WAR—which is a counting stat, after all—because he played there longer, but, well, that’s kind of the point. Aaron is head and shoulders above the competition. And actually, he is still very involved with the team as a senior vice president, so honoring him while he is still with the team would be a perfect “get the roses while you can still smell them” moment.
The Indians don’t have the same opportunity, as the titans of their franchise are no longer with us. Lajoie is technically the greatest player in franchise history, but that’s a little bit of been there, done that. Bob Feller has a plenty good case, though. While he doesn’t have the statistical record to top Lajoie’s by either FanGraphs’ or Baseball-Reference’s WAR, he also missed four seasons serving in the Navy during World War II and probably would have surpassed Lajoie had he had those four prime years of his career. (He posted 6.5 WAR the year before the war and 10.7 the year after).
Feller also is not short on nicknames that would be perfect for a team. You could start with either of his actual names, the Cleveland Bobs or the Cleveland Fellers. You could go with “Heaters,” as one of his nicknames was “The Heater from Van Meter.” Or perhaps the “Rapids,” after his other famous nickname, “Rapid Robert.” Given his relatively small stature for a pitcher and his electric fastball, Feller captured baseball fans’ imaginations like few in the game have, and it would be hard to find fault with naming a team after him.
You also could give some consideration to Tris Speaker, as “Speakers,” “Eagles” (for his “Grey Eagle” nickname) or “Spokes” (for his “Spoke” nickname, as in “Speaker spoke”) also have a nice ring to them, but he doesn’t pass muster the same way Feller does. “Everyone knows Tris Speaker fixed games with Ty Cobb,” says Beatty. Whether he did or didn’t, that probably cuts a little too close to name your team after him.
We don’t need to stop there, of course. Perhaps you’re already thinking of new team nicknames for your team, and by all means, share them in the comments if you do.
Maybe going official is a little too bold for you. Your team’s nickname is just fine, you say. Well what about an unofficial nickname? Plenty of teams have them, be it “Bucs,” “Bronx Bombers,” “Redbirds” or “Tribe.” In fact, this slogan adorns the top of every page on the Pirates’ official website this year:
“Bucs” is used interchangeably with “Pirates” just about everywhere you go. A search for “Bronx Bombers” on MLB Shop returns 998 results. The constant Red Sox-ification of the game led the Cardinals to start “Redbird Nation,” because Cardinals Nation just doesn’t sound close enough to Red Sox Nation. You get it. There are teams that go by more than just one name. And why not? If Nas, Puffy and Jay-Z have taught us anything, it’s that you’re only as good as your next nickname.
It’s here where we could start to work in current players. One such player who comes to mind is Felix Hernandez. He already has his King’s Court in Seattle, a special section designated just for him, complete with ticket specials that go back as far as 2011. And Hernandez’s first start of each season goes beyond that, as Safeco Field becomes the “Supreme Court.” In short, Hernandez is the Mariners.
“He’s definitely the one,” says Sullivan. “He’s definitely the one guy that you would even think of naming the team after.” And, as with Aaron, Hernandez has a nickname that is tailor made for a team nickname—the Kings. “The Seattle Felixes, that just sounds awful,” says Sullivan. “The Seattle Kings is like a nod but is also a serious name.” It would also be perhaps a small measure of revenge for the city, as it was on the verge of acquiring the NBA’s Sacramento Kings very recently.
The team still officially would be the Mariners, but also could be called the Kings. This would take the love for Hernandez one step further, which is fitting. Assuming good health, he’ll pass Randy Johnson for most WAR by a Mariners pitcher this season, and given that he is under contract through the end of the 2019 season, he stands a decent shot at passing Ken Griffey Jr. for most WAR on the team, period. Finally, the name is even a nod to the team’s past. “It hearkens back to the Kingdome,” says Perry. Indeed it does.
While Seattle Kings might be the most perfect nickname that incorporates a current player, Mike Trout might be the most perfect current player. Trout is locked up long-term and still isn’t even 23 years old. Trout isn’t going to become the player-manager of the Angels any time soon, but he actually may be more qualified than Lajoie was to have a team named after him.
Lajoie didn’t tally his first eight-plus win season (8.9 WAR in 1901) until he was 26. Trout already has two 10-win seasons on the ledger. In fact, it wasn’t until that 1901 season—which was Lajoie’s sixth—that he reached the career WAR that Trout has already reached in his fourth. And Trout really has played only the equivalent of two and a half seasons. Yes, the Los Angeles Trout could be the way to go.
Heading east for a moment, there is one more nickname to consider—the Tampa Bay Longos. Longos, named for third baseman Evan Longoria, isn’t a name that makes a ton of sense necessarily, but here’s the thing—neither does their current nickname. “They’re named after sunlight right now,” says Pete Beatty. “And that’s kind of stupid.” You might not know this, but there is sunlight in other places on the planet. One place there isn’t sunlight though, is Tampa Bay’s sorry excuse for a ballpark.
What they do have though, is Longoria. He is a) already the best player in franchise history, b) still young (he’s in his age-28 season this year) and c) signed forever—through 2022 at least. Only Robinson Cano, Joey Votto, Elvis Andrus, Miguel Cabrera and yes, Bobby Bonilla are on the books for as long as is Longoria.
Of course, since these nicknames would be unofficial, there is less concern about the shelf life of the player in question. What about the Chicago Paulies? Who doesn’t love yelling Paulie? Perhaps as a Paulie myself I’m biased, but it’s a fun name to yell. And certainly Paul Konerko has been a pretty special part of the White Sox for the past two decades.
Speaking of importance, who is more important in Boston than David Ortiz? He’s (accidentally?) flouted the FCC, nearly ended selfies as we know it, and most importantly, let an entire region climb on his back for three of the most memorable postseason runs a Boston team has ever had. For over a decade, teams have known who’s their Big Papi. If you don’t think “Boston Papis” t-shirts would sell like hot cakes, you’re crazy. In fact, I’m already mad that I don’t own one.
Nicknames are hard to earn, and even harder to die. Many major league teams haven’t spiced things up in a century. In the cases of the Braves and Indians, this is to their extreme detriment. With others, MLB just comes off a little stiff. At a time when the NFL keeps proving just how un-fun they really are, this would be a great time for baseball to show its lighter side. The league may not like to tout its players over all, but they are the reason we watch the game. Incorporating players into team nicknames would have to strike the right balance in order the person in question to retain his humanity, but that balance can be struck, and would prove a great gesture for the players we love most.