We all have our own favorite teams, and for many of us the team name plays a huge role in our identity as a fanbase. As a result of this, it’s a fairly safe assumption that a lot of sports fans know the history behind their team names. From my own personal perspective, I can tell you that the Cubs received their moniker from newspaper writers at the beginning of the 20th Century (after having previously been called the White Stockings, the Colts, the Orphans, and the Remnants, among others) due to the relative youth and energy of the club at the time. The Bears received their name while they were playing in the Cubs’ Wrigley Field, when it was agreed that football players tended to be larger than baseball players, so they took the name in honor of the relationship they had with the Cubbies. The Blackhawks, despite what you may think, actually were not named after the Native American Chief Black Hawk, but rather were named after a military unit that the original owner of the franchise served in during World War I (which took their name from Chief Black Hawk, so I suppose that may just be splitting hairs). And finally, the Fighting Illini were not only named after the Illiniwek nation that originally inhabited the area that is now Illinois, but also in honor of the brave Illinoisans and University of Illinois graduates who fought and died on the battlefields of Europe in WWI.
Almost every single older team has an interesting story about exactly how they got their name. Newer teams, however, tend to have a bit more random naming system in place, as expansion and relocation franchises often take advantage of the internet to hold name your team contests in an attempt to try to develop a relationship with their future fanbase as early as possible. Just recently, a new minor league hockey team was founded near where I live in Hoffman Estates, IL, and they went the route of holding a team naming competition to brand their new franchise. That contest drew thousands of responses, attracted hundreds of fans on various social media networks, and resulted in several news stories in the local media, all before their very first puck drop. As a result, the Chicago Express will begin play in the 2011-12 ECHL season, having beaten the other three finalists, the Blizzards, Hammers, and Knights, to become the new franchise’s name. Sadly, none of my name ideas made it to the final four, so there would be no Chicago Rhinos, Chicago Druids, or Hoffman Maneaters, among the many other suggestions I submitted, but there can be no denying that the simple act of holding such a contest was a cheap, easy, and effective way for the Express to develop initial interest in the team. Definitely the smart idea for any new team, whether they play in the major leagues or the minors and below.
But sometimes teams are relocated or founded in areas that actually have a very long history with the sport. Nowhere was this more evident than in Washington, D.C in late 2004/early 2005 when the Expos abandoned Montreal. Even though our nation’s capital had been without a Major League Baseball team for over three decades, there was an initial and very strong push for the team to become the fourth incarnation of the Washington Senators (the first folded in 1899, the second relocated to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1960, and the third relocated to Texas to become the Rangers in 1971). In fact, the assumption that they’d take up the old Senators banner was viewed as an inevitability by many fans, so much so that when the team instead became the Nationals there was actually a decent amount of surprise at the decision. What may not be known though is the fact that the owners of the team were actually considering three separate name ideas, all of which would have been in homage to past teams that played in D.C. The three potential names were the Nationals, the Senators, and the Grays, and any one of these three names could have very easily become the newest member of the MLB, but politics played a huge role in the naming-decision.
The history of the Senators has already been discussed above, so I’ll instead focus on the other two possibilities. The Nationals were actually a name that goes back hand-in-hand with the Senators to the initial foundation of baseball in Washington, D.C. All three Senators teams were also known as the Nationals or nicknamed the “Nats” by newspapermen at points throughout their existence. While the Senators name eventually became more popular and stayed in our public memory, the name Nationals actually has just as long and storied of a history in D.C. baseball as the Senators.
The Grays, on the other hand, have a bit more of an interesting story to tell in Washington, D.C. The name comes from the Homestead Grays, the historic Negro League team that played in eastern Pennsylvania for almost four consecutive decades from the early 1910s to the late 1940s. Throughout the tragic history of segregation in professional baseball, the Grays are quite possibly the second most famous Negro League team of all, behind only the fabled Kansas City Monarchs. Despite the fact that they were based primarily on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, the Grays actually considered Washington, D.C. as a sort of home away from home, even going so far as scheduling some of their home games in the nation’s capital in the ’30s and ’40s. As a result of this, the Grays have a strong legacy in both D.C. and Pittsburgh, and both the Pirates and the Nationals routinely wear throwback Grays uniforms whenever either team plays in the select few regular season games per year that honor the memory of the Negro Leagues.
After the Expos moved to D.C., the team quickly settled upon these three names as their potential identity moving forward. At this point, however, politics crept into the naming decision. Despite the Senators being the seemingly-obvious choice among many baseball fans, many D.C. residents and the city council officially objected to it, arguing that it was inappropriate to name the team after the U.S. Senate when the District of Columbia does not have representation in that body. Despite the history of that team name in the city, the owners were unwilling to go against the city council and local groups on this issue, especially as they were in the process of getting municipal support in funding the construction of a new stadium to replace the aged RFK Memorial Stadium (which they eventually were successful in receiving, with public money funding a significant portion of the $611 million pricetag for the new Nationals Park).
The Grays moniker was the next to run into a trap, this time out of fear of not being politically correct. Despite being the name originally supported by then-D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, and in spite of the fact that it would be so-named to honor the legacy of a Negro League team in a city that is majority black, the name made some residents of the city and the team uneasy for the simple fact that “gray” seemed to draw negative connotations to the American Civil War. There was a palatable and obvious sense that naming a team in the nation’s capital after the same color that a significant number of rebel soldiers wore during a war fought primarily over the issue of slavery could be viewed as inappropriate. For the team to financially succeed in Washington, D.C., they would need to receive the support of the district’s black population, and the franchise simply was just not sure that the “Washington Grays” would be whole-heartedly embraced by the local population and the national media with this possible stigma in mind.
So, as a result of the civic opposition to the name “Senators” (and, of course, the desire to not bite the hand the would feed them hundreds of millions of dollars for their new stadium) and their sense of unease over possibly unleashing still painful memories of the old Confederacy by naming their team the “Grays,” the new team simply fell back into their only real remaining option and went with the Nationals. Despite the fact that the “Nats” (or, as their detractors would say, the “Gnats”), have just as long and a storied history in D.C. as any other baseball name you could imagine, it seemed like an odd and haphazard fit for the newly-relocated franchise. The name, even in short form, seems almost awkward in the National League, and the team has never really gotten off the ground when it comes to fan support, aside from brief moments of excitement over the potential for pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg. Obviously, I am not even trying to claim that their situation would be any different if they were the Washington Senators or the D.C. Grays….
…. but all I know is that, as an outsider looking in, as a lifelong fan of baseball, and as a student of history always fascinated by the Civil War and actively against the ideals of the Confederacy, I was definitely rooting for the Grays.