What’s in a Name? A Brief History of Baseball’s Sobriquets

The removal of the Chief Wahoo mascot was long overdue. Now,
about that team nickname. (via Erik Drost)

The Cleveland Indians’ overdue and correct decision to mothball their Chief Wahoo logo after the coming season has reopened the debate about Native American mascots and team nicknames in sports.

To be clear, the Indians’ and Braves’ nicknames are both problematic and overdue for a change, as they are both based on dehumanizing stereotypes of the victims of genocide. Yet, despite the weight of that last sentence, I’m not here to throw rocks at that particular hornet nest. Rather, the debate over the Indians’ nickname got me to thinking about major league team nicknames in general, about their sources, and about how infrequently we think about exactly what an Astro, Met or Phillie actually is.

For example, did you realize that most major league nicknames describe groups of people? Of the 30 teams, seven are named after animals (not counting an eighth that was initially named after an animal but is now named after a beam of light), three are named after hosiery, two are named after mythical humanoids, and one is named after a mountain range. The remaining 16, to one degree or another, are named after groups of people. Here’s a closer look at where every major league team got its name.

Animals (or, as my daughter insists, non-human animals): Blue Jays, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Orioles and Tigers

The most striking thing about this group is how few of these animals are intimidating. The western diamondback rattlesnake, which is indeed indigenous to Arizona, is responsible for the greatest number of snakebites in the United States, and its venomous bite has a mortality rate among humans of between 10 and 20 percent. Tigers, an endangered species found in the wild only in Asia (though the Detroit Zoo does have one), can and do kill humans. Atlantic blue marlins have long boney bills that can impale a person, and they put up a good fight when hooked, but they are not typically aggressive toward humans. Cubs are baby bears. Blue jays are loud and bully other birds, but weigh less than four ounces. Cardinals and orioles are just pretty birds that blue jays push around.

The second most striking thing about this list is how loose the relationship often is between the animal and the location of the team. Diamondbacks, again, are indigenous to Arizona, the Baltimore oriole is the state bird of Maryland, and you can fish for marlin off the coast of Miami, but it largely ends there. While you can find blue jays and cardinals year round in both Toronto and St. Louis, it was the color, not the bird, that was the inspiration for those team names.

The National League’s St. Louis club was known as the Brown Stockings or Browns until it changed ownership and adopted red as the accent color on their uniforms in 1899. They were known as the Perfectos that season, but the Cardinals ever after. Blue is Toronto’s primary city color, as seen on its flag and the two major sports teams from the city that predate the Blue Jays. In addition, the original owners of the major league expansion franchise in Toronto was the maker of Labatt’s Blue beer, itself named after the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, which, in turn, was taken from a Grantland Rice pun on boxing great Joe Louis’ nickname.

The Cubs were the White Stockings, Colts and Orphans before taking on the Cubs moniker in the early 20th century. The Orphans’ nickname reflected the departure of franchise player and manager Adrian “Cap” Anson after the 1897 season. The Colts and Cubs nicknames were simply alliterative slang for young ballplayers, the latter not becoming the official team nickname until 1907, but in use for roughly five years prior.

As for the Tigers, they were named after the Detroit Light Guard, an Army National Guard unit founded in 1830 and nicknamed the Tigers.

Beam of light: Rays

The expansion club in Tampa Bay began life in 1998 as the Devil Rays, after the lesser devil ray, which is indeed found in the Gulf of Mexico but poses no threat to humans. After the 2007 season, they shortened the name to the Rays as part of a rebranding, adopting a light flare in their wordmark to suggest the rays of the Florida sun. However, they kept the image of a lesser devil ray on their left sleeve, suggesting that the abbreviated nickname refers to both the sun and the sea.

Mythical humanoids: Angels, Giants

The National League’s New York entry was originally the Gothams, a nickname for New York coined with derogatory intent by author Washington Irving in late 1807. The name Giants took hold in 1885, though how or why remains a subject of debate.

Did the relative size of some of the team’s players inspire the name? Was it simply an expression of enthusiasm by new manager Jim Mutrie, who would spend the rest of his life taking credit for the moniker? Did a sports reporter at the New York World, the paper that first used it regularly that April, coin it himself? It is quite possible that it was a combination of two or even all three. In 134 years, the Giants have never attempted to depict an actual giant on their uniforms or in their official logos.

The expansion Los Angeles Angels took their name from the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels, who played under that nickname in 1893 and from 1901 to 1957. “Angels” is derived directly from Los Angeles, which is Spanish for “the angels.” Thus, “the Los Angeles Angels” translates to “the the angels angels,” while the team name in Spanish is los Angeles de Los Ángeles.

Hosiery: Browns, Reds, Red Sox, White Sox

Color, specifically the color of hosiery, was the principal visual identifier and source of team nicknames in the early days of professional baseball. For example, in 1880, the eight-team National League included the Chicago White Stockings, the Boston Red Stockings, the Worcester Ruby Legs, the Cincinnati Reds, the Providence Grays and the Cleveland Blues. Curiously, those Reds, Red Stockings and White Stockings are not the same franchises we know by those names (or abbreviated versions thereof) today.

The 1880s White Stockings, as discussed above, were the nascent Cubs, and the dominant team in the National League in that decade. When the American League, then still a minor league, moved its St. Paul franchise to Chicago in 1900, the NL initially prevented it from using the city name. So, owner Charles Comiskey claimed the NL team’s abandoned nickname as a signifier. Headline writers shortened Stockings to Sox (Paul Stanley would approve, copy editors trying to determine how to make the name singular or possessive would not), and the change became official in 1904.

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Similarly, those 1880s Red Stockings were the nascent Braves (renamed in 1912 after stints as the Beaneaters, Doves and Rustlers), while the 1880 Cincinnati Reds were in their final year of play, and distinct from the current franchise, which began play in 1882. However, all three of those clubs owe their nickname to the very first professional baseball team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.

The current Cincinnati Reds began life as the Red Stockings in the American Association in 1882, shortening the name to Reds when joining the National League in 1890, and briefly expanding it to Redlegs for five years in the 1950s in the wake of McCarthyism. Original Cincinnati Red Stockings manager Harry Wright, meanwhile, built the NL’s Boston Red Stockings in 1871 from the ashes of that pioneering team, and thus took the nickname, and in some cases the actual stockings themselves, directly. Though the NL’s Boston club was soon dubbed the Beaneaters, after Boston baked beans, the team continued to wear red socks until 1907, when it switched to white for a single season, prompting the Doves nickname.

The AL’s Boston franchise, meanwhile, had no official nickname for its first seven seasons, but was referred to in print primarily as the Americans (meaning American Leaguers), as was the custom of the time. When the NL squad abandoned its red socks, the AL club pounced on the change. The team’s players opened the 1908 season with red stockings not only on their feet, but with the outline of a big red sock on their jerseys, and have been the Red Sox ever since.

Just as the American League’s White Sox and Red Sox took their names from their 19th-century NL counterparts, the AL’s since-relocated St. Louis entry did the same, taking the name “Browns” after moving from Milwaukee to St. Louis in 1902.

Humans by vocation: Brewers, Mariners, Padres, Pilots, Pirates, Rangers, Royals, Senators

A mariner is a sailor. Seattle is a major port. There’s no mystery there. However, the first major league team in Seattle went by the somewhat more vague “Pilots.” That nickname attempted to combine the city’s status as a center for aviation, as the home of Boeing, and as a port. The team logo put wings on a ships’ wheel, while the home caps had a gold bar and scrambled eggs on the bill, evocative of the caps of both airline pilots and ship captains.

When the Pilots moved to Milwaukee after a single year in Seattle, they became the Brewers, a name that dated back to 1894 and was the original name of the franchise that is today the Baltimore Orioles (see the St. Louis Browns, above). Brewing beer became a signature business in Milwaukee in the 1850s. At one point, the city produced more beer than any other city on earth.

Christian missionaries were central to the European settlement of San Diego, and the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, built in 1769, is one of the city’s landmarks. Though most Franciscan missionaries of the time were known as friars, or brothers (indeed, the Padres’ mascot/logo is known as the Swinging Friar), Padre is Spanish for the more priestly “father.”

Though the current Padres didn’t being play as an expansion franchise in the National League until 1969, the name has been in constant use since 1936, when the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars relocated to San Diego and became the Padres. The PCL Padres remained in San Diego through 1968.

The National League’s Pittsburgh entry was initially known as the Alleghenys after one of the three rivers that converge in the city. However, after the 1890 season, they landed second baseman Lou Bierbauer in a contentious custody fight in the wake of the collapse of the Players’ League, angering the American Association’s Philadelphia Athletics, who had employed Bierbauer prior to his jump to the short-lived start-up. The Athletics accused the Pittsburgh club of piracy, and the name stuck.

The source of the old Washington Senators name is obvious, but it is interesting to note that, after the expansion Senators moved to Texas in 1972, they again drew their new name from the government. The Texas Rangers are a state law enforcement agency founded in the early 1800s.

The Kansas City Royals were named after the American Royal livestock show, which has been held annually in Kansas City since 1899. The American Royal, in turn, took its name from the annual Royal Show held by the Royal Agriculture Society of England, which dates back to 1839. The Royals’ name is also evocative of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the great Negro League clubs, which called the city home from 1920 to 1965, disbanding just four years before the expansion Royals began play.

Humans by demographic: Dodgers, Mets, Nationals, Phillies, Twins, Yankees

Before making it official by putting “Dodgers” on their uniforms in 1932, the NL’s Brooklyn team went by a variety of nicknames, many of them simultaneously. Initially the Atlantics, then the Grays, their most common 19th-century appellation was the Bridegrooms (sometimes shortened to Grooms), which came about after several of their players got married in the same offseason.

In 1899, Bridgegrooms hired Ned Hanlon as manager, which earned the team the nickname “Superbas” because Hanlon shared a surname with the famous Hanlon Brothers, an acrobatic theater troupe then staging a production called “Superba.” The team again drew its nickname from its manager from 1914 to 1931, when it became the Robins under manager Wilbert Robinson.

The name Dodgers was first used in the 1890s, when Brooklyn began installing electric trolley lines, resulting in numerous collisions with pedestrians, many of them fatal. “Dodger” is thus slang for a resident of Brooklyn from a very specific period of time. The last Brooklyn trolley ran on Oct. 30, 1956, 20 days after the Brooklyn Dodgers’ last World Series game. Eleven months later, the Dodgers were gone, as well.

Officially the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, the expansion Mets took their name from the American Association’s New York entry, which lasted just five seasons in that league in the 1880s. Use of Metropolitans as a baseball nickname has been traced back to 1858. A Metropolitan is, simply, an inhabitant of a metropolis or major city.

The history of nicknames for Washington, DC-based major league teams is nearly as confusing as the history of teams with Red Stockings-derived monikers. The National League’s first Washington entry (1892-99) was officially the Senators, but often called the Nationals or Nats after the league in which it played. When the American League launched in 1901, its Washington entry was also the Senators, but from 1905 to 1956 its official name was the Nationals.

Still, it was commonly known as the Senators, and Senators and Nationals were again used interchangeably. When that franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins (named after the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, thus the TC on their caps), a new expansion Washington franchise joined the AL, again under the name Senators.

When the Montreal Expos (who began play in 1969 with a name taken from the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, better known as Expo 67) moved to Washington in 2005, becoming the first National League team in Washington since 1899, they took the name Nationals, and have stuck with it. Thus, technically, a Washington National is simply a National League ballplayer, though it can also be interpreted to mean a citizen of the United States.

Initially the Quakers, the religious sect of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn, the NL’s Philadelphia entry was often referred to, in the custom of the day, as the “Philadelphias.” That was, in turn, shortened to Phillies. They officially became the Phillies (not fillies, or young female horses), in 1890. The Phillies are thus, unofficially, the Philadelphia Philadelphians.

The Yankees were initially know interchangeably as the Highlanders, for the high elevation of their home ballpark in upper Manhattan, and the Americans. The latter was simply an indication of the league in which they played, as with pre-Red Sox Boston Americans or, alternatively, the late 19th-century Washington Senators/Nationals. The latter nickname soon begat “Yankees,” which was both more distinct and easier to abbreviate in headlines (to “Yanks”). Yankees was thus intended as a synonym of Americans, as it is used outside the U.S., not as a derogatory term for Northerners or, even more specifically, New Englanders, as it is more commonly used within the U.S.

Then again, Yankee was originally a derogatory term used by the British to describe the colonists in the 18th century. The origins of the word are unclear, but it may have been derived from Dutch names or slang (the Dutch equivalent of John is Jan, pronounced Yaan). In a way, then, the name Yankees references New York’s original settlers, the Dutch explorers of the 17th century.

Humans via cultural appropriation: Braves, Indians

The NL’s Boston Doves became the Rustlers in 1911 under new owner William Hepburn Russell, the nickname derived from the owner’s last name. However, Russell died that November, and new owner James Gaffney renamed the team the Braves in 1912.

Gaffney was an alderman at the New York political machine Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was the most successful of the many Tammany societies named after 17th-century Lenni-Lenape leader Tamanend, who was mythologized as the “Patron Saint of America” in the 18th century for the peace treaties he signed with William Penn. Tammany Hall used Tamenend as a mascot of sorts, and Gaffney transposed the idea to his new ballclub. Two years later, Gaffney’s Braves staged a tremendous late-season surge to win the franchise’s first modern World Series.

The following January, the Cleveland Naps sold titular star Nap Lajoie to the Athletics and, finding themselves in need of a new nickname, became the Indians, a name inspired not by 19th-century outfielder Louis Sockalexis, but by the Miracle Braves that won the World Series three months earlier. While the Braves’ name, however biased and misguidedly, was originally intended as one of honor and nobility, the Indians’ was a racist cartoon from day one.

Nicknames that are linguistically problematic: Astros, Athletics, Rockies

The Rockies are very obviously named after the Rocky Mountains, which are the prominent feature of western Colorado’s landscape. The team gets its primary color, purple, from the “purple mountains majesty” line in “America the Beautiful,” and its iconography is dominated by jagged mountain peaks, the most recent edition to that being Coors Field’s massive new scoreboard.

The problem is that, while the Rocky Mountains are often referred to as the Rockies, “Rocky” is an adjective, and a “Rockie” is not a thing, or at least not a thing other than an athlete. From 1976 to 1982, a Rockie was an National Hockey League player for a Colorado Rockies team that subsequently moved to New Jersey and became the Devils. In geographical terms, there is no singular of Rockies other than perhaps mountain, but you’re not about to hear Nolan Arenado talk about how happy he is to be a Mountain, and the abbreviation “Rox” does no one any good.

Another team with an adjective for a name is the Athletics. They are not the Oakland Athletes. They are the Athletics, a name which dates back to the 1860s, when amateur baseball teams were formed by men’s groups known as athletic clubs. One such club was the Athletic Club of Philadelphia, which became the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia and, in the newspapers, simply the Athletics.

The 1866 edition of the Athletics wore that familiar letter “A’ on their breastplates, making the Athletics’ A the oldest extant logo in the major leagues and prompting the nickname A’s. The National League, National Association, American Association and Players League all had teams known as the Philadelphia Athletics at one point or another in the late 1800s. The current Athletics, however, began life with the American League in 1901, and wore an A on their chest in each of their first 19 seasons and from 1928 to 1953. It wasn’t until their final season in Philadelphia that they wore “Athletics” on their jersey, and neither the letter P nor the word Philadelphia ever appeared on a Philadelphia Athletics uniform.

Owner Charlie O. Finley brought the A back soon after taking a controlling interest of the team at the end of 1960. Finley officially shortened the team name to A’s in 1972, but Walter Haas restored “Athletics” after buying the team from Finley in 1981. As for the team’s elephant mascot, that stems from a comment by New York Giants manager John McGraw in 1902. McGraw called the Athletics a “white elephant,” meaning a costly mistake, for owner Ben Shibe. Manager Connie Mack immediately embraced the term. In the eight-year span that the AL’s Philadelphia Athletics did not wear an A on their chest, the letter was replaced by an elephant.

Finally we come to the Astros. Astro is not even a word. It’s a prefix. The Astros began life as the Houston Colt .45’s, named for the signature handgun of the old west. They were rechristened the Astros in 1965, when they moved into the space-age Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium.

The connection to the space program is clear. NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, since renamed for president Lyndon Johnson, opened in Houston in 1963, and mission control was relocated there in 1965. What’s not clear is why the Astros were not called the Astronauts or the Stars. Perhaps someone with the team had a fondness for Astro, the dog on the short-lived Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons, which debuted in 1962.

If so, things have come full circle, as you can now buy an Astros jersey for your dog and bring him or her to Dog Day at the team’s current stadium, which carries the name of an orange juice company and celebrates Houston’ historic connection to the railroad, because what the heck is an “Astro,” anyway.

Resources and References


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ImpliedVol
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ImpliedVol
“To be clear, the Indians’ and Braves’ nicknames are both problematic and overdue for a change, as they are both based on dehumanizing stereotypes of the victims of genocide.” I’m an American Indian (Lumbee) myself, and an Atlanta Braves’ fan at that, and I think people like you should stop being offended on behalf of others. And stop trying to relegate any mention of my culture to the history books. The notion that “Braves” is dehumanizing is absurd to me. “Braves” to me is a great name to honor the fighting spirit my ancestors had. Something most of us are… Read more »
Cliff Corcoran THT
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Cliff Corcoran THT
I was hoping to avoid this debate with regard to this piece, but I will say a couple of things here. First, thank you for reading and for adding your voice to the conversation. Second, I recognize that there is ample disagreement among American Indians about this issue, as well the fact that “American Indians” does not describe a homogeneous group. I also recognize that it can seem patronizing when a non-Indian appears to speak on the behalf of American Indians. I was not attempting to speak for American Indians here. I was speaking on my own behalf. I think… Read more »
Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Yes, the term “Indians” is not problematic, as it was an honest mistake by Columbus and has never on its own been any kind of stereotype. Therefore, now that Chief Wahoo is gone, there is absolutely no reason to change the name, especially considering the honorable reason it was picked in the first place.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

EDIT: Oh, wait, that story about Sockalexis isn’t exactly true?! Well, even still, there’s nothing wrong with the name “Indians” itself, nor is there is any issue with taking inspiration from the Miracle Braves just because some racist writers immediately took the opportunity to make some insensitive jokes about it.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

As constructive criticism, if you do not wish “to throw rocks at that particular hornet nest” it probably would have been a good idea not to lead with that particular hornet nest and then provide your rather strong personal opinion on the matter. This appears to be fact based article but from the first two paragraphs you would never know it.

Las Vegas Wildcards
Member
Las Vegas Wildcards
Cliff, with all due respect, any possible nickname change by Cleveland or Atlanta, must be led by Native Americans. No amount of internet stories, or college professor opinions by non-Native Americans will change anything at all. There has to be a significant number of Native Americans wanting a change, being willing to mobilize, explain their position, and answer questions, just like any other movement. Movements cannot be remote controlled by the people not being affected. The heavy lifting must be done on this issue by Native Americans. And it can’t be a single ESPN appearance in six months, then slipping… Read more »
Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
If you are going to eliminate the Indians and Braves, might as well throw the Pirates overboard too. Regardless of the origin of this Pirate team, Pirate is just as derogatory a term as Indians and Braves. Its etymology is rooted in the Barbary piracy of the late 17th and 18th centuries which was almost the exclusive province of Islamic fanatics. If you look at the Pirate logos over the years, they consistently depict a deranged middle eastern man bent on pillaging and rape. This stereotype is worse than what the Braves or Indians depict. If you want to live… Read more »
Paul G.
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Member
Paul G.
Actually, the term “pirates” goes back to at least the ancient Greeks. The word “peiratēs” means “one who attacks (ships).” The concept of piracy probably is only slightly younger than the invention of the first boat. That said, pirates were not nice people, whether it be Blackbeard, the Barbary pirates, the Vikings, the Cilicians of Roman times, or any other pirates that did not star in Disney movies. Getting robbed was probably the best outcome possible. Of course, teams do not name themselves “Pirates” to communicate to the fans that they will be relieved of their valuables with a side… Read more »
Cliff Corcoran THT
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Cliff Corcoran THT

I think you’re trying a little too hard there. The most famous pirates were English (Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Black Bart, Henry “Captain” Morgan, Sir Francis Drake). That history (and the fictional English pirate Long John Silver) is clearly the reference intended by nearly every mention of piracy in the United States. If you see a Muslim bent on rape when you look at the Pirates’ logo, that’s on you.

Good point about the “naughts,” though. I did think of that, but found no reference to it in stories about the team being named.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Technically, Sir Francis Drake was only considered a pirate among enemy nations. He was a legal privateer, not a true pirate.

TL
Member
TL
No, Cliff. Now you’re trying to have it both ways. You can’t conveniently cite the most famous pirates to support the use of “Pirates” as a team name if you won’t also accept that the names “Braves” and “Indians” can be construed as honoring famous American Indians. It’s inconsistent. Plus, your contention that “nearly every mention of piracy in the United States” refers to famous English pirates is plain wrong. There have been many news stories over the past decade covering the piracy at sea still happening throughout the world. If you’re going to inject your personal beliefs into an… Read more »
Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

There’s nothing wrong with glorifying criminal behavior in a team name. That’s part of making the team sound fierce. As already mentioned, there are other team names that do the same thing or along similar lines.

Moate
Member
Moate
This is pretty basic. When you compare the Pirate’s current logo (It’s literally the Letter P), with the stereotypical image the Indians use it’s embarrassing. It’s less about the names as (which could be interpreted as representing a proud heritage) as the BS they use to show what an Injun looks like He’s didn’t cite the examples of famous pirates as “good, polite pirates” which therefor should be honored. The logo seems to be depicting guys more along the line of “Pirates of the Caribbean” than pirates from North Africa who the term may have originally been used to describe.… Read more »
Paul G.
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Member
Paul G.
The following January, the Cleveland Naps sold titular star Nap Lajoie to the Athletics and, finding themselves in need of a new nickname, became the Indians, a name inspired not by 19th-century outfielder Louis Sockalexis… This is almost certainly wrong. The major problem here is Joe Posnanski has written at least three articles on this subject and you are relying upon the original one. The first update did, in fact, find that the Cleveland Plain Dealer thought the name “Indians” came from Sockalexis. In the latest article (http://sportsworld.nbcsports.com/cleveland-indians-nickname-sockalexis) Joe is very much of the opinion that Sockalexis was at least… Read more »
cheekfullofchew
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cheekfullofchew

Great article Cliff, very informative.

Brad
Member
Brad

the the Angels Angels – I lol’d! Spanglish is so deliciously stupid…

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt
There’s clearly a spectrum of team names that refer to Native American/American Indians and/or their tribes in terms of acceptability. The Florida Seminole Tribe has endorsed the use of their name by Florida State. It’s fine. Redskins is clearly not ok. The depiction of Chief Wahoo is clearly not ok. Basically everything else is somewhere in between those extremes and worth talking about. It seems like the Braves is almost at the 50/50 midpoint: a lot of GA area tribes have made statements in support of the name, and it isn’t derogatory. The old Brave-face logo was pretty awful, but… Read more »
Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Actually, the team managed by Mr. Scioscia is “The The Angels Angels of Anaheim.” People keep forgetting about the last part of that ridiculously long name.

Cliff Corcoran THT
Member
Cliff Corcoran THT

The Angels very quietly dropped the “of Anaheim” after the 2015 season.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

So in 1899 the National League had teams named the Perfectos and the Superbas? That must’ve been fun.