How the Cardinals got their nickname

December 21st, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- While the St. Louis Cardinals franchise can trace its roots back years before Opening Day in 1899, it was that windy April day in St. Louis that future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Bobby Wallace and Jesse Burkett would make history as the modern-day club.

The three were playing on the team newly named as the St. Louis Perfectos, and it was the first season under new owners Frank and Stanley Robison, who took over after several years of terrible baseball and a disastrous fire forced Chris Von der Ahe to sell. The Robisons were disappointed in the crowds their winning Cleveland Spiders drew, so they moved the Spiders’ roster to the St. Louis franchise. The St. Louis Browns' roster was moved to Cleveland.

Along with the uprooted roster, the Robisons changed the name of the club to the Perfectos and look of the club to include cardinal red. It was these new uniforms, enhanced by red socks, trim and accents, that Young and his teammates debuted in 1899. The story goes that St. Louis Republic columnist Willie McHale overheard a fan in the stands that summer call the new uniforms “a lovely shade of cardinal.” McHale began referring to the team as the Cardinals in his columns, and it struck a chord with fans.

By the 1900 season, the nickname had fully caught on -- the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began referring to the club as the Cardinals, and the team officially changed its name from the Perfectos to the Cardinals that year.

Management didn’t start thinking of the moniker “Cardinals” in terms of birds until 1921, when general manager Branch Rickey went to a meeting and came away with a new meaning for the team’s nickname, featuring stenciled and colored cardinals, each placed on a brown string to represent a twig. The birds on the bat would become the emblem for the team moving forward.

Young and his team won that Opening Day game in 1899, with Young delivering a six-hitter in a 10-1 victory -- ironically against the Cleveland Spiders. The Perfectos held onto first place until late May, but they faded to fifth place that season with 84 wins. The fans stayed, and the Cardinals finally turned things around in 1926 with their first National League pennant -- and a World Series championship.

The franchise has changed owners and ballparks since, but it hasn’t changed its league or its look. The 1899 season was not the first of the franchise, but it was arguably the birth of the Cardinals.