What's in a name? Introducing the Guardians

July 23rd, 2021

The Cleveland Guardians are born.

And boy, was it complicated.

First, a history lesson. Back in baseball’s early days, nobody really knew what was in a name. Baseball nicknames in those days were often ephemeral and hastily assembled.

Six members of the Brooklyn team got married in 1888, and so they became known as the Bridegrooms, or Grooms. Nobody cared to consider what would happen if all six players got divorced in 1889 (the Brooklyn Bachelors?). Then they became the Superbas because of … a popular circus act known as the Hanlons’ Superba? Sure, why not? Then they became the Trolley Dodgers, because of the (ultimately temporary) dangers posed to pedestrians by trolleys -- a danger that didn’t last in Brooklyn and didn’t follow the team to L.A., even though the Dodgers name itself did.

Names were equal parts simple and chaotic back then.

Your players wear red socks? Cool, you’re the Cincinnati Red Stockings. But wait, that team folded and a few of the players went to Boston? OK, now they’re the Red Stockings. But wait, now there’s a new team in Cincinnati? OK, they are back to being the Red Stockings and you Boston boys have to be the Red Caps. But wait, now the Red Stockings are shortening their name to the Reds? OK, Boston, you can be the Red Stockings, but we’re gonna call you the Red Sox. Everybody happy?

No team had a more nebulous naming situation than the Cleveland club established in the American League in 1901.

The city’s National League predecessor had been known as the Blues, the Forest Citys, the Orphans, the Infants and the Spiders (because of their black-and-gray uniforms and several long-limbed players). The AL outfit originated as a Western League team known as the Grand Rapids Rustlers, then the Cleveland Lakeshores. In 1901, it became the Bluebirds. The next year it was the Bronchos (this was long before John Elway forever soured that name in Cleveland). The following year, a newspaper naming contest was such a debacle that they decided to just name the team after its best player, , which would seem the most short-sighted choice of all … except that it stuck more than a decade. But the team was also informally known in the newspapers at various points in those early years as the Exiles, the Castoffs, the Misfits, the Spiders (again) and the Molly McGuires.

You got all that?

So then, in 1915, they needed a new name, because Lajoie had been sold to the Philadelphia Athletics (a pretty boring name that has had tremendous staying power from city to city). Representatives from Cleveland’s four daily newspapers (CLEVELAND HAD FOUR NEWSPAPERS!) banded together to come up with a new name. The Boston “Miracle” Braves had just won the World Series, and so, in keeping with that in-the-moment theme, the Indians were born (whether Louis Sockalexis, who was very briefly a standout player for the Spiders in the NL, truly inspired that selection 15 years after his 94-game career in Cleveland had ended is, at the very best, debatable).

The Indians name was not supposed to stick.

“The nickname … is but temporarily bestowed,” wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “as the club may so conduct itself during the present season as to earn some other cognomen which may be more appropriate. The choice of a name that would be significant just now was rather difficult with the club itself anchored in last place.”

Yet the name lasted as the Indians moved up from eighth place in 1914 to seventh in 1915, then sixth in 1916, then third in 1917, then second in 1918 and 1919. Finally, Cleveland won its first World Series (its first championship since the Spiders won the 1895 Temple Cup) in 1920.

And that pretty much sealed it. You win a World Series with the name, you keep the name.

When the Cleveland club finally acknowledged the problematic nature of the name -- first with the removal of the Chief Wahoo logo in 2018, then with the announcement in December 2020 of the search to find a new name altogether -- it was far too late to make a non-controversial change. The name had been around too long. It meant too much -- both positively and negatively -- to too many people. And those who either didn’t want to acknowledge or simply didn’t agree with the sensitivity of having a sports franchise named after a race of people were never going to be satisfied with the outcome of this process. That’s just the nature of things.

And even for those lifelong Clevelanders on board with ditching the Indians name (hand raised), there was never going to be a new name that everybody agreed with -- especially not on Twitter. (That’s where I regularly took up the losing cause of the Spiders. No matter the result, I am proud to have served.)

Even when you look beyond the enormously complicated matters of race and politics associated with the Indians name, to brand anything as big as a Major League franchise in the year 2021 is convoluted. The legal issues associated with any team-worthy name in the English language were even more profound than the Cleveland Indians – and the NFL’s Washington Football Team -- envisioned. Per its release announcing the Guardians name, the team went through a monthslong process that included 140 hours of interviews with fans, community leaders and front office personnel, surveying 40,000 fans, conducting 100-plus hours of teammate brainstorming sessions and generating 1,198 name options, which were narrowed down through 14 rounds of vetting.

What the release doesn’t state is that Guardians was selected weeks ago. Thanks to an existing relationship, Cleveland was able to get the great Tom Hanks to narrate a pump-up video announcing the name, with Black Keys music blaring in the background. Jersey mock-ups were made and logos were carefully crafted. It was a painstaking process.

Yet as recently as Thursday night, there was a small possibility of the whole thing falling apart as the final hurdles were cleared (not unlike a baseball trade that comes down to the wire).

Guardians was announced Friday morning.

So, yeah, things are a little bit different in 2021 than in 1915. But the end result is that Cleveland now has a nickname that it can actually utilize. For a very long time, the sensitivity of the Indians name had outweighed its usefulness in marketing applications. A couple years ago, the team contracted a local advertising agency to try to design a new logo -- something to replace Wahoo and supplement the (boring, in my opinion) Block C. That process went nowhere. Native American symbols are too meaningful to that population to be cheapened by baseball branding, and crafting a logo strictly related to Cleveland while dancing around the nickname itself was awkward.

So now it’s the Guardians, an homage to the Art Deco figures -- the Guardians of Traffic -- sculpted in sandstone atop the Hope Memorial Bridge. You can see those structures from the western side of Cleveland’s baseball operations offices (and, just as importantly, from the Progressive Field media dining room, where I have observed them while eating many a lukewarm hamburger over the years).

Nearly a century ago, the Guardians of Traffic were imagined as icons for a city that, at the time, was the fifth largest in the nation. Time took its toll on Cleveland and on the Guardians. By the 1970s, the bridge had become so decrepit that there were calls for demolition. But they got cleaned up and fixed up in the 1980s and, because everything old eventually becomes new again, in more recent years they’ve become popular inspiration for artists, T-shirt designers and ad-makers. Cleveland itself has enjoyed a similar revival from the nadir of bankruptcy.

We’ve come a long way, baby, and the Guardians can tell you all about it.

The statues inspired both the name and logo concepts revealed Friday, though they do pose some of their own challenges that prevented a total incorporation of those famous faces into the logos. And no, you won’t find a new mascot named “Guardy the Guardian” patrolling Progressive Field anytime soon. (Slider, a member of the Mascot Hall of Fame, is still gainfully employed.)

But for as complicated as this entire process turned out to be, the name itself is blissfully uncomplicated. It is free of the racial sensitivities of its predecessor and has no psychological attachment to what transpired in the 1954, 1995, 1997 and 2016 World Series. It is a fresh start for the team with the longest championship drought in the sport.

And if Tom Hanks is on board, who are we to argue?

So what we’ve learned here in Cleveland over the last year is what, exactly, is in a name. Sports team names, whether they were arrived at in 1881 or 2021, mean something to people, because the teams themselves mean something to people. We wear them on our chest, and they seep into our bloodstreams. They also seep into legal documents.

With this exciting-but-arduous process over, Cleveland baseball has a new beginning with a familiar feel. It’s a marriage of tradition and transformation. And unlike what happened with those fleeting Bridegrooms from Brooklyn, this marriage is going to last.