QQQ: Polychromatic Stockings

(Published some time after the scheduled date.)

It occurred to me a while back to wonder why the Oakland A's are called that.

I know the name is short for Athletics. And I know that other sports teams abbreviate their names: the Met(ropolitan)s, the Knick(erbocker)s. But how'd the A's end up with such a short abbreviation? The Mets aren't called the M's (though the Mariners are sometimes called the M's, and the Orioles are often called the O's). I suppose "the Aths" isn't such a great name (especially on radio, where sounds sometimes get blurred), but why not "the Lets" or something?

That got me started thinking about sports-team names. There are an amazing variety of them, especially if you include defunct teams and teams outside of the major leagues, from minor leagues down to kid leagues. When I was a kid playing league soccer, teams got to pick their own names, within reason; one team tried to name themselves the Nads, so that supporters could yell "Go, Nads!"

Some of my favorite major-league team names, from various sports:

The Flames, the Predators, the Raptors, the Thrashers. (That last is named after Georgia's state bird, the brown thrasher, a little sparrowlike critter.) The Buccaneers, the Cavaliers, the Mavericks. The Monarchs, the Kings, the Giants, the Titans, the Wizards, the Mystics. The Devil Rays. The Thistles (sadly long-defunct). The Pittsburgh Penguins—there's an evocative image. The Padres—whose bright idea was that? Plays on phrases: the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Rockies, the Texas Rangers, the Buffalo Bills. And for sheer silliness: the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Life imitates art, or at least movies.

The minor leagues are even better: the Warthogs, the Keys (after Francis Scott Key), the Mud Hens, the Mudcats. The Sand Gnats. The Grrrowl. The Whoopee.

There have been several colors of Sox/Stockings, if you include minor-league teams: Red, White, Blue, Silver, Brown, Green. And of course the nickname Black Sox. (The Cleveland Browns were named after their first coach, but the St. Louis Browns were originally the Brown Stockings.)

(And that brings up another question, posed by Josh Smith: If a member of the Dodgers is a Dodger, what do you call a member of the Red Sox?)

I'm intrigued by the recent spate of team names, especially in the WNBA, that appear to be singular rather than plural. The Tampa Bay Lightning, the Colorado Avalanche, the Minnesota Wild, the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic, the Utah Jazz, the Charlotte Sting, the Detroit Shock, the New York Liberty, the Phoenix Mercury, the Orlando Miracle. And the Utah Starzz (or is that plural?). Major-league baseball has thus far eschewed this silliness, but in the minor leagues there's the Madison Black Wolf. Apparently sportswriters refer to these team names as if they were plural: "The Black Wolf are playing in Minnesota today...." This gives a somewhat British sound to such articles.

Many college teams are named after animals, generally the same as the school's mascot. There are ordinary animals such as the Bears and the Owls; slightly more unusual animals such as the Longhorns and the Sagehens; and the totally odd ones, such as the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs. Go, Horned Frogs! And, of course, the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. There are odd non-animal names too: the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, the Harvard Cantabs (short for Cantabrigians). The U Penn team is known as the Quakers (so was the Philadelphia team, back in the 1880s); Swarthmore College's team is thus sometimes nicknamed the Little Quakers, or occasionally the Fighting Quakers.

Eastern Michigan University decided to stop calling its team the Redskins a while back, but before they could come up with a new name, their basketball team started winning in the NCAA tournament. So they decided to temporarily name the team the Emus.

And then there are the Georgetown Hoyas. The Georgetown mascot is a bulldog, but Hoya doesn't mean bulldog. The story is that the Georgetown football team's defense was once nicknamed the Stonewalls; fans would yell "What rocks [they are]!", which they translated into Latin and Greek as "Hoya saxa!" And the name stuck. So the Hoyas are apparently the Whats. Although I'm told Hoya is not a very good transliteration of the Greek word.

There are many other interesting name-history stories. (I don't know for sure how true any of these are.) For example:

  • The New York Jets may have been named partly to sound similar to the Mets; for the same reason, a short-lived New York professional tennis team was named the Sets, and the New Jersey basketball team is the Nets.

  • When Montreal was choosing a baseball team name, there were several candidates under consideration, but the person responsible for the final decision attended the 1967 World's Fair and enjoyed it so much that he named the team the Expos.

  • The Cincinnati Reds temporarily changed their name, during the Red Scare days, to the Redlegs.

  • The Packers were originally the Acme Meat Packers.

  • The Houston baseball team was originally the Colt .45s. In the '60s, after NASA's mission control moved to Houston, the team changed its name to the Astros.

  • The Los Angeles Lakers were originally from Minneapolis, where the name made a lot more sense. Similarly, the Los Angeles Dodgers started out in Brooklyn; fans dodged streetcars to get to the stadium, so the team became known as the Trolley Dodgers, later shortened to Dodgers. And the Utah Jazz were originally the New Orleans Jazz.

I was going to discuss team cheers in this column, but I've run out of space, so I'll just conclude with one possible answer to the question posed at the start of the column:

Jeff Hildebrand tells me that in the early 1900s, the caps for most baseball teams displayed the first letter of the name of the team's home city. The only exception was the Philadelphia Athletics, who had an A on their cap instead of a P.

This column includes material provided and suggested by Jeff Hildebrand, Alice Unger, Abby Friedman, Jon Rapkin, Larry Miller, Sarah Bergstrom, Josh Smith, and Will Quale.

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