Calling all sports fans!
October 10, 2010 7:03 PM   Subscribe

What team names mean something? And why?

So I've been watching MLB postseason like everyone else in my city (seasoned Braves fan, here), and I was wondering...Why do teams pick out the names that they do? Philadelphia Phillies -- obvious. Minnesota Twin Cities -- obvious. New York Metropolitans -- less obvious, but it makes sense. Chicago Fire -- not so obvious, but pretty cool. LA Dodgers = Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers -- wow, I learned something kind of cool!

So, rather than looking up every single major sports team on wikipedia, I thought I'd ask the hivemind:

What are sports team names that say something about where that team is from, or maybe have some sort of nod to the team's / city's history?
posted by chicago2penn to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (61 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
The team I follow, the Baltimore Orioles, is named after an actual bird species. It is the state bird of Maryland and got its name not because it's peculiar to the state but because its plumage shares a color scheme with Lord Baltimore's coat of arms.
posted by escabeche at 7:07 PM on October 10, 2010


The Houston Astros (formerly Colt .45s) were renamed in 1965 when they moved to the new Astrodome stadium which was in turned named as a nod to the Johnson Space Center and the city's burgeoning space industry.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:08 PM on October 10, 2010


Chicago Fire

Are you talking about the MLS team? Because there was an actual Chicago Fire.
posted by niles at 7:08 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Cincinnati Reds were initially the Cincinnati Red Stockings and yes, they wore red stockings (long socks). They shortened the name to "Reds" in the late 1800s (1890? maybe?).
posted by cooker girl at 7:08 PM on October 10, 2010


And they lengthened it to "Redlegs" between 1953 and 1958, when calling yourself a "Red" was not exactly the going thing.
posted by escabeche at 7:09 PM on October 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


The Houston Oilers were named after all the private oil drillers (wildcatters) based in the Houston area.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:10 PM on October 10, 2010


Right! I forgot about "Redlegs!"
posted by cooker girl at 7:11 PM on October 10, 2010


I'm an Arizona Wildcats fan. They're so named because after a game many decades back, a newspaper reporter wrote that the team "showed the fight of Wildcats." The name stuck (and fits well considering some of our desert fauna.
posted by azpenguin at 7:11 PM on October 10, 2010


The Baltimore Ravens are so named because the city is where Edgar Allen Poe lived and is famously buried.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:11 PM on October 10, 2010


The Utah Jazz (NBA) made a lot more sense when they were the New Orleans Jazz.

The Baltimore Ravens (NFL) are named for Edgar Allen Poe's iconic poem; Poe was a resident of Baltimore.

The Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) were once the Minneapolis Lakers, named for Minnesota's motto, "land of ten thousand lakes."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:12 PM on October 10, 2010


The Wisconsin Badgers are named not after the animal (though we do have them here) but for the lead miners who lived in the southern part of Wisconsin before statehood. The tunnels they cut into the hillsides were called "badger dens" and the miners "badgers."
posted by escabeche at 7:14 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Boston Celtics: all the Irish people who live there.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:14 PM on October 10, 2010


The Toronto Blue Jays are named after Labatt's Blue, which is a terribly popular (and terribly terrible) beer.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:15 PM on October 10, 2010


The Cleveland Browns were named after Paul Brown, their first coach.
posted by box at 7:16 PM on October 10, 2010


Baltimore had the Colts before Indianapolis did, and the name stayed when the team snuck out of town in the middle of the night in 1984. They were named the Colts because of Baltimore's history with horse racing.
posted by cooker girl at 7:16 PM on October 10, 2010


The Parramatta NRL side is nicknamed the "Eels". The name of the area, Parramatta, is anglicised from the Aboriginal dialect "Barramattagal" meaning "place where the Eels dwell".
posted by trialex at 7:20 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Ottawa Rough Riders were named after log drivers. The Saskatchewan Roughriders were named after mounted policemen. Totally different!
posted by Sys Rq at 7:23 PM on October 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


My Alma Mater is Tufts University, and our nickname is the Jumbos because PT Barnum (of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey fame) was a major early benefactor of the school. He donated the elephant's taxidermied remains to the school, and the athletic teams have been the Jumbos ever since (with the exception of Ultimate, who go by The Elephant Men/Women).
posted by Rock Steady at 7:27 PM on October 10, 2010


Boilermakers was originally intended as an insult by Purdue's rivals, comparing their engineering students to uneducated tradesmen of the era.

No one's really sure what a Hoosier (Indiana University) is. There's a lot of theories, though.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:27 PM on October 10, 2010


The New Orleans Saints are named after the song "When the Saints Go Marching In", which is often associated with jazz funerals in the city.
posted by tryniti at 7:31 PM on October 10, 2010


The Pittsburgh Steelers are named after that city's once-dominant industry.

Temple University's mascot & team are the Owls, because it started as a night school - hence the nocturnal symbol.

The Philadelphia 76ers are named after the year 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:32 PM on October 10, 2010


The San Francisco 49ers, named after the California Gold Rush of 1849.

The New York Knicks - short for "Knickerbocker", a Dutch name/term that has become synonymous with New York City.
posted by swngnmonk at 7:33 PM on October 10, 2010


Maybe this is an obvious one (although I would have thought "Chicago Fire" was obvious, so I might not be the best judge of that), but the San Francisco Forty-Niners (NFL) are named for the prospectors of the California Gold Rush, so named because many of them arrived in 1849.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:33 PM on October 10, 2010


The baseball teams at least didn't initially have official nicknames. The names emerged in the teens and 20s thanks to sportswriters looking to spice up their copy. Any writer given a chance would call a team the White Sox instead of "the Chicago American League club".
posted by chrchr at 7:33 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Savannah, GA's minor league team is called the Savannah Sand Gnats. You'll wonder why unless you've actually been in Savannah any time between March and November. It's the most present (and bitey and obnoxious) species.

The Anaheim Ducks are a pro hockey team owned by Disney named after the movie franchise.
posted by phunniemee at 7:39 PM on October 10, 2010


The Green Bay Packers are named for the Indian [meat] Packing Company, which provided funding for the team's uniforms when it was founded in 1919.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:42 PM on October 10, 2010


The minor-league Albuquerque Isotopes are named after a joke from The Simpsons
posted by box at 7:48 PM on October 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Mad Ants (NBA Development League) are a reference to Revolutionary War general "Mad" Anthony Wayne, for whom Fort Wayne is named.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:48 PM on October 10, 2010


Covering some of the NHL:
The New Jersey Devils are named after the Jersey Devil.
The Dallas Stars were originally the Minnesota North Stars.
The New York Islanders play on Long Island.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were named after the nickname of the domed arena they played in, the Igloo (cited here).
The Montreal Canadiens is rather obvious, as are the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Edmonton Oilers take their name from the Alberta Oil Sands.
The New York Rangers were owned by Tex Rickard and were thus Tex's Rangers.
posted by blueskiesinside at 8:02 PM on October 10, 2010


The name of the Seattle Mariners (MLB) represents the marine culture of our city. The Seattle Sounders Football Club (MLS) refers to the Puget Sound. The Seattle Seahawks (NFL) were named as the result of a public naming contest.

The MiLB affiliates of the Seattle Mariners include, among others, the Tacoma Rainiers, named after Mt. Rainier, a prominent feature in our landscape, and the Everett AquaSox, which I assume is a play on all the "Colored Sox" teams.
posted by halogen at 8:11 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


According to Wikipedia, the New York Jets (formerly Titans) were so re-named because their new home, Shea Stadium, "was located between two of New York's major airports." I'd also heard that the name was deliberately chosen to rhyme with the Mets, their new co-tenants at Shea.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:13 PM on October 10, 2010


The Edmonton Oilers take their name from the Alberta Oil Sands.

Not so much, really. Edmonton's oil is very much of the traditional drill'n'derrick variety, just like that other Oilers town. The oil sands are 300 miles to the north.

The Edmonton Oilers name goes back to the '50s, when it was a nickname for the Edmonton Oil Kings. The oil sands started production in 1967. You do the math.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:18 PM on October 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Toronto Blue Jays are named after Labatt's Blue.

Sys Rq, please provide source. I've been a fan for 30 years and never heard that, though it certainly is plausible.
posted by segatakai at 8:41 PM on October 10, 2010


Here's a thumbnail summary of the origins of the team names in the NFL. I can't vouch for the accuracy of it, but I know the Atlanta Falcons name origin is accurate.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:55 PM on October 10, 2010


University of Illinois teams are the "Fighting Illini." There's actually some debate about the reference of this name. It may seem obvious that this refers to the Illinois Confederation, also called the Illini, but some disagree. In the early 1900s, the teams were only unofficially called the "Illini." This most likely was a reference to the Native American nation, but the first use of the name "Fighting Illini" was a reference to staff and alum who died during WWI.[1] For this reason, some people have argued that the name refers to these veterans.


Do colors count in this list? The Chicago Bears' colors are orange and blue, the same as founder George Halas' alma mater, the University of Illinois.

[1] It was used in a fund raising drive for Memorial Stadium, which was meant to be a memorial for those same veterans.
posted by chndrcks at 8:56 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mental Floss has done a really neat series on this!

MLB
NBA
NFL
NHL
Bonus: What your favorite teams were almost called

And as a USC alum, I have to tell the story of our nickname. Originally, University of Southern California athletes were variously known as Methodists or Wesleyans (one of our founders was Methodist). But in 1912, LA Times sportswriter Owen Bird coined a new nickname for us. Our teams weren't particularly good at the time, and we often went up against teams that were much larger or better equipped. But our athletes kept fighting on to the end, regardless of the odds or conditions, even when there was no way to win. So Owen Bird called us Trojans, the university approved, and the name stuck.
posted by sigmagalator at 8:58 PM on October 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL) are so called to commemorate Ohio's involvement in the Civil War.

The Dallas Stars were originally the Minnesota North Stars, which makes some sense given Minnesota's northernness.

And, on the more embarassing side, the Anaheim Ducks were originally the "Mighty Ducks of Anaheim", and were originally owned by Walt Disney Corporation. (The movie came out in 1992; the team started playing in 1993.) Nearly twenty years later and that name still makes me roll my eyes.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:03 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm willing to bet that a large number of teams in professional North American sports have nicknames whose etymology relates to the current franchise location (or a former one).

Example

Texas Rangers - The Rangers were (and still are) a law-enforcement agency in the state of Texas.
Dallas Cowboys - A nod to the role of the cowboy in the history of this state.
Dallas Stars - Originally the Minnesota North Stars, which was presumably a local astronomy related nickname.
Houston Astros & Houston Rockets - A nod to the massive presence of NASA in the area.
Houston Oilers - A nod to the strength of the oil industry in the local economy.
San Francisco 49ers - From the early days of the California Gold Rush.
Colorado Rockies - They play in Denver, which is near the Rocky Mountains.
Arizona Diamondbacks - I think the diamondback is a species of snake that is/was indigenous to the region.
Anaheim Angels - Formerly known as the Los Angeles Angels. Nickname probably chosen due to the English translation of the Spanish "Los Angeles" being "The Angels." I understand this causes a great deal of confusion on the Spanish language broadcasts of their games, and so the announcers will refer to them as Los Serafinos (the Seraphims).
Washington Nationals - There used to be a D.C. team in the Negro Leagues by this same name.

I'm not actually bored enough to look up every team in the five major sports leagues in the USA, so I don't know if teams like this (whose nicknames have historical reasoning) constitute a majority, plurality, or a minority.

*Mind you, I could very well be completely wrong on some/all of these.

On preview - nice one sigmagalator!
posted by AMSBoethius at 9:04 PM on October 10, 2010


The Tampa Bay Rays were, until last year, I think, called the Devil Rays, named after the local indigenous wildlife. Of course, people objected (several years after the founding of the team, mind you) to Satan and all his works, so they changed the name. Woo, central Florida!

Also, the Atlanta Hawks (which came up on a similar question at one point) used to be in the Quad-cities area made up of four cities in Illinois and Iowa across the Mississippi (Rock Island, Moline, Bettendorf and Davenport). The local Native American tribe was (is?) the Blackhawks. Back in the day, they were known as the Tri-City Blackhawks, but the name was shortened to the Hawks when they moved.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:06 PM on October 10, 2010


segatakai: I don't really have a source on that, but the team (which was supposed to be the Giants) was most definitely owned and named by Labatt, so... Yeah.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:17 PM on October 10, 2010


NBA team Portland Trailblazers is a reference to the Oregon Trail.

The Seattle Supersonics is a reference to local employer Boeing.

Most NBA team names are pretty obvious local references. The Boston Celtics are a reference to the large number of Irish immigrants who settled in Massachusetts, for instance. I think the Lakers are just a name built on the first two letters LA, representing Los Angeles. The Chicago Bulls are probably a reference to the stock yards. And so on.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:31 PM on October 10, 2010


The Wikipedia entry on British football club nicknames, which are usually related to club/local history and may be somewhat confusing to novices. Like my club, Sheffield Wednesday, are known as the Owls because they were from Owlerton. I also like Everton being known as the Toffees because of the candy shop across the street from the ground. Or Tottenham Hotspurs being named after "Harry Hotspur" from Shakespeare's Henry IV.

Oh and the San Jose Earthquakes are named for the fault-lines in the area. (Please no Earthquakes!)
posted by kendrak at 9:48 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anaheim Angels - Formerly known as the Los Angeles Angels. Nickname probably chosen due to the English translation of the Spanish "Los Angeles" being "The Angels."

Actually, they're now officially the "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim," as when Disney sold them, the new owner eventually decided he wanted the team to have more of a marketing presence, and had it identified with LA (although that sort of thing doesn't seem to hurt the Patriots or Texas Rangers, etc).

But because of a contractual obligation with Anaheim that required the city to be part of the name, the most ridiculous name in pro sports was thus created as a compromise. The crazy thing is that the team itself barely acknowledges the "Los Angeles" part in terms of media, merchandise, and signage. They're just "The Angels."

Of course, this replaced the previous team to have the distinction of worst name: the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. In that case, after Disney had also sold them, their new owner decided to go with the simpler "Anaheim Ducks" (along with new uniforms) and their fanbase was eternally grateful.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:39 PM on October 10, 2010


The Seattle Supersonics is a reference to local employer Boeing.

They now play as the Oklahoma City Thunder. I'm not sure if Oklahoma gets a lot of Thunder, or if the ownership just thought it sounded cool. And apparently Tulsa already had had a minor league football team, the Oklahoma Thunder.


I think the Lakers are just a name built on the first two letters LA, representing Los Angeles.

As was mentioned earlier, they originally played in Minnesota. Along with the Utah Jazz, another example of the "That made more sense" variety is the Calgary Flames NHL team, which first played in Atlanta.

And Atlanta has since gotten its own team, the Thrashers, named after Georgia's state bird, the brown thrasher.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:54 PM on October 10, 2010


Along with the Utah Jazz, another example of the "That made more sense" variety is the Calgary Flames NHL team, which first played in Atlanta.

Huh? Calgary is home to oil and gas, hence Flames. Right?

*googles it*

Huh. Apparently they were in Atlanta first, and apparently Sherman burned down Atlanta during the Civil War, and apparently that is an appropriate thing to name a professional hockey team after. Seems a bit inflammatory, IMO.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:31 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Chicago Fire is a total rip-off of the UIC Flames.

The DePaul Blue Demons comes from "D-men," a nod to the D insignia that was prominent on the uniforms.

North Park University was founded by Swedes and their team is appropriately the Vikings.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:59 PM on October 10, 2010


The Wellington Phoenix, playing in the Australian A-League, are so named because they rose from the figurative ashes of a defunct club, the New Zealand Knights, who were so named because they were formed from the remnants of the administrative debacle that was the Football Kingz, who had a Z in their name because there was an existing basketball club in Sydney called the Kings, which is a stupid name anyway, and I'm pretty sure Kingz is similar enough to Kings to infringe on the Kings' trade mark rights in any case.

While not really related to the teams' origins, New Zealand is a bit of a case study for stupid team names, particularly based on the colour of their strip, All Blacks, Tall Blacks (basketball), Wheel Blacks (wheelchair rugby), Black Sticks (hockey), Black Caps (cricket), and culminating with the Black Cocks (badminton) - I'm not kidding. Women's teams take on a "fern" moniker, giving us the Silver Ferns (netball - sissy basketball), White Ferns (football), Tall Ferns (basketball), &c.

But it's really not difficult to find interesting examples of your question at any level of any sport, and the names become part of the esotericism surrounding sports teams. Examples from New Zealand include: Waterside Karori, nicknamed "Wharfies", founded by Wellington dock workers; a number of clubs called [Name] Marist, usually named for the Christian schools that founded them (Marist, from Mary); Fencibles United, named for the Fencibles (short for Defencibles) Corps that recruited British soldiers to move to New Zealand in the 1800s; Stop Out, named for community organisation aimed at preventing kids from becoming "stop outs", apparently slang for troubled youths; Olympic, "the Greeks" (this might be a common naming convention around the world for Greek founded teams?); and Hospital, guess why.
posted by doublehappy at 12:40 AM on October 11, 2010


Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat probably speak for themselves.
The WNBA team from New York is called the Liberty, and have an image of the statue in their logo.
The Lakers were originally from Minnesota, whose motto is "Land of 10,000 lakes"
Cornhuskers is also pretty obvious.
posted by Gilbert at 1:50 AM on October 11, 2010


doublehappy beat me to most of the New Zealand team names. I'll add the Wellington Hurricanes (rugby), so named because Wellington is really really windy. Otago Highlanders (because Otago was settled mainly by Scottish people). Saints (Wellington basketball team that dominated NZ basketball in the 80s, named because it was founded by ex-students of St Patrick's College).

Was also going to mention Sheffield Wednesday, so named because they practiced on Wednesdays.
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:44 AM on October 11, 2010


They now play as the Oklahoma City Thunder. I'm not sure if Oklahoma gets a lot of Thunder, or if the ownership just thought it sounded cool. And apparently Tulsa already had had a minor league football team, the Oklahoma Thunder.

The name was changed due to legal issues regarding the move. The name itself wasn't particularly symbolic. Fitting names for the region mostly include references to our varied hazardous weather conditions, the petroleum industry, and large animals native to the plains. There's no shortage of oil-related names for pro sports teams. Bison just isn't that catchy. There was a USBL team named the Oklahoma Storm already.

So in this case, it was just a matter of what was regionally fitting, inoffensive, yet catchy. On top of all that, we had the added bonus of unveiling our new logo to the tunes of AC/DC.

The more interesting part about the new team logo is not quite so related, but I'll throw it in here for good measure. The team's colors include blue, yellow, and a color somewhere between red and orange. That's because the OU Sooners wear crimson and the OSU Cowboys wear orange. Playing favorites there would be foolish in a state where college football fans put pro sports fans to shame.

As for the names of the college teams? The Cowboys are obvious enough. The Sooners are named after the "Sooners" in the Oklahoma Land Run, people who signed up for the Land Run of 1889 early, moved to the land they wanted, hid out until the official start time, and claimed the land for themselves immediately. Those particular "sooners" were not exactly well loved.
posted by Saydur at 3:58 AM on October 11, 2010


The NBA's Indiana Pacers name is a highly tortured reference to the only big-time sport the city of Indianapolis had at the time, the Indianapolis 500. It's a reference to both the pace car used during the race, and an oblique reference to the fast pace that is set in the race and, thus, the fast pace of game play for the team.

Indianapolis also had a minor-league hockey team named the Indianapolis Racers. The name is a similar Indy 500 reference.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:33 AM on October 11, 2010


Fort Wayne
posted by Doohickie at 6:21 AM on October 11, 2010


Oops... didn't mean to click on post yet. No idea how that happened.

Anyway, the NBA Detroit Pistons were not named for the Detroit auto industry; at least not directly. The team started out as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons of the NBL:

1941/42: Automobile-piston magnate Fred Zollner launched the club in the National Basket ball League and christened it the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. The Pistons were not the only team named after auto parts in the NBL as they were joined by the Akron Firestone Non-Skids, Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, and Toledo Jim White Chevrolets.

1956/57: Following the season Fred Zollner determined his team could no longer compete in the small market of Fort Wayne, Indiana. So he moved his team to Detroit a growing city built around the automobile industry.
posted by Doohickie at 6:27 AM on October 11, 2010


The Ohio State Buckeyes are named for the tree (Aesculus glabra,) which was at one time omnipresent in the state. The nuts (which are mildly toxic) kind of look like the eye of a deer, I guess. There are other, William Henry Harrison/tall dude who impressed local tribes/etc. explanations available.

Anyway, this explains the chant "we are the Buckeyes - we are killer nuts!"
posted by SMPA at 7:00 AM on October 11, 2010


The Milwaukee Brewers are so named because of the city's long history of beer brewing.
posted by JJtheJetPlane at 7:49 AM on October 11, 2010


The New Orleans Hornets were originally the Charlotte Hornets, so called because Cornwallis called Charlotte a "Hornet's nest of rebellion."
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:11 AM on October 11, 2010


A note on the Montreal Canadiens - you may also hear them called the Habs. "Hab" is short for the French habitants which directly translates to residents or inhabitants. It's a traditional term for the residents of Quebec.

Continuing in Canadian hockey teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers, and Vancouver Canucks are all pretty obvious (to spell it out - flag, capitol city, oil town, national nickname).

The Atlanta Braves were originally the Boston Braves. Their rivals were the Boston Pilgrims, who eventually became (sort of) the Red Sox. Confusingly, the Boston Braves were originally called the Boston Red Stockings.
posted by maryr at 9:10 AM on October 11, 2010


The Pittsburgh Alleghenies signed a player away from the Philadelphia Athletics. The Athletics were very mad and accused the Alleghenies of being piratical. The name stuck and the Pittsburgh team renamed itself the Pirates. (Source.
posted by oreofuchi at 9:35 AM on October 11, 2010


A note on the Montreal Canadiens - you may also hear them called the Habs. "Hab" is short for the French habitants which directly translates to residents or inhabitants. It's a traditional term for the residents of Quebec.

It's actually more akin to "settlers" or "pioneers" or "homesteaders" -- or, most accurately, "peasant" or "serf." New France was, just like the old one, a feudal state, with lords (seigneurs) and peasants (habitants).
posted by Sys Rq at 10:56 AM on October 11, 2010


And the C and H in the Canadiens logo don't stand for "Canadien" or "Habitants," but rather "Club de Hockey."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:51 PM on October 11, 2010


I asked a question a while back that you might be interested in:

Which sports-team names are references to drugs or alcohol?
posted by box at 7:04 PM on October 13, 2010


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