This annotated week in baseball history: Feb. 28 – March 6, 1944

On March 4, 1944, the Philadelphia Phillies officially changed their name to the Philadelphia Blue Jays. Obviously, it failed to take. Richard looks back on that and other name changes across baseball history.

Last week, it emerged that a daughter-in-law of Bernie Madoff was petitioning to change her last name, and that of her two children, to “Morgan,” citing threats and bad publicity generated by the name. It is an understandable decision, given the associations now linked with Madoff.

This was roughly the same theory the Philadelphia National League franchise was operating under when it began a contest to change its name. In 1915 the team had lost the World Series, four games to one, to the Red Sox. It finished second the next two years, and promptly entered a period of awfulness that seems to defy belief.

From 1918 through 1943, the last full season before the name change took effect, the Phillies’ highest finish was fourth. That was in 1932, a season when they were two games over .500. That was balanced by every other season that period, when they finished below .500—often way, way below. The team lost 100 or more games an astounding 11 times, including every year from 1938 through 1942. The Phillies lost 534 games those five years; their winning percentage those years is actually below that of the 1962-65 Mets.

In 1930, while losing 102 games, the Phillies scored an impressive 944 runs, which was good for fourth in the league. But they allowed a jaw-dropping 1,199 runs. No post-1900 pitching staff has ever allowed more. The ace of the staff was Phil Collins (no relation, I assume), who had a 4.78 ERA. No other pitcher on the staff with 30 or more innings—and only one overall—had an ERA under 5. Seven of them, including half the starting rotation, had an ERA above 7.50.

For variety’s sake, the Phillies could sometimes also not hit at all. The 1942 team, losers of 109, scored just 394 runs in 151 games. For sake of comparison, the 1981 Phillies—playing a strike-shortened schedule of just 107 games, still managed to score almost 100 more runs.

So the Phillies of this period were simply a terrible team, and one that was looking for a new identity. Team President Bob Carpenter—son of the new owner—came upon the idea of changing the team’s name in order to give it a fresh start under its new ownership. Hoping to involve the fans—it should come as no surprise to learn that the gruesome team was having trouble bringing fans to the ballpark, attendance often dipping under 3,000 per game—Carpenter announced that the team would pick the new name from fan suggestions.

Former Blue Jay Roy Halladay, now pitching for the former Blue Jays (Icon/SMI)

While the franchise received some predictable entries (more than one wit apparently suggested the “Stinkers”) there were also some legitimate choices. With the goal of a unifying theme, Carpenter selected the Blue Jays, and awarded the creator—a Mrs. Elizabeth Crooks—a war bond and season tickets to the newly christened Jays. (She probably appreciated the war bond a lot more, all things considered.) Carpenter also announced he would attempt to rename the farm teams appropriately—Blue Rocks, Blue Wings, and so on.

The name never really stuck—perhaps because while the team changed its uniforms to a blue color and put a Jay on the sleeve, the jersey still inexplicably read “Phillies” across the front. By 1946 the whole experiment had been abandoned and the team was formally the Phillies once more.

Of course, some name changes work better for all involved. The most recent, and in some ways most similar to the Phillies’ change, was that of the Tampa Bay Rays. As the Devil Rays had never lost fewer than 91 games and finished higher than fifth just once, the team dropped the “Devil” before the 2008 season. Since then, the Rays have won the AL East, won the 2008 pennant and averaged more than 90 wins. Sample size issues do apply here, but so far I would say the Rays are happy with their change.

Changes like those in Tampa Bay and Philadelphia are the exception, as most teams change names when they change homes as well. Although the standard is somewhat inconsistently applied, the general rule seems to be that the more successful a franchise was in its previous home, the more likely it is to keep its name when it changes homes. Hence, the Pilots, a badly attended bad team in Seattle, decided to identify with its new home and gave us the Brewers. More recently, the Expos looked to shed their history north of the border while embracing their new home, and the Nationals were born.

You can understand, however, why the Nationals did not want to take on the Senators name, which had previous been in Washington. That name has twice been abandoned by shifting franchises, first when the Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961 and again just over a decade later when the “new” Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers.

In contrast, when the Dodgers and Giants made their move to the West Coast, both were established teams with a history of success, with one or the other having played in seven of the previous 10 World Series. For them it was no doubt it an easy choice to change only the city in front of their name, keeping the prestige the name brought with them.

This is probably the same theory for the Braves franchise that kept its name when it moved first to Milwaukee and then to Atlanta. In the first case it was just four seasons removed from a World Series appearance, and only seven years out when it arrived in Atlanta.

And finally there is my favorite changing name of all time. In 1954 the Cincinnati Reds—eager to prove they had no communist tendencies—announced they were to be known as the Redlegs. Of course, the name had nothing to do with communism in the first place (it was shortened from “Red Stockings”), but paranoia was running high and the team wanted to be extra sure. Sanity was restored after the 1959 season.

It would seem there are no name changes on the horizon, but when and if they come, I will be here to let you know how they compare to those in history.

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  1. db said...

    Team nicknames were not historically static and teams did not always have “official” names.  The early Brooklyn Dodgers were as likely to be called the Superbas, depending upon who and when you asked.

  2. AndrewJ said...

    Cincinnati adopted the “Reds” moniker in the 19th century, and the USSR was founded in 1917. As one Cincinnati exec said, “We were Reds before they were.”

  3. Richard Barbieri said...

    I should add that I didn’t intend this to be a definitive list. There’s obviously a lot of additional team name changes, the Highlanders/Yankees, Browns/Orioles, and others as noted above. This was more intended as an overview of the concept in general.

  4. Michael Caragliano said...

    The Braves may have stayed the Braves in two other cities, but in Boston, they were called the Bees from 1936-1940. After Emil Fuchs sold his control of the team, they were re-named and even went so far as re-naming Braves Field (the Bee Hive, naturally).

  5. Bob Rittner said...

    Has any other team ever renamed itself after its star player as the Cleveland team did between 1903-14 when it became the Naps after Napoleon LaJoie?

  6. Richard Barbieri said...

    The now-Dodgers were known as the “Robins” during the tenure of manager Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson.

    The Indians are also, according to at least one version of the story, named for 19th century Native American ballplayer Louis Sockalexis, who was a Cleveland player, though he never actually played for the franchise.

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