What's in a name? Origin of 'Nationals'

December 21st, 2020

When baseball returned to Washington, D.C., from Montreal for the 2005 season, the question was what the team’s identity would be. The history of the Nationals name is part of a two-century journey through baseball’s past.

Over 160 years ago, Washington’s first professional baseball team -- the Washington Nationals Baseball Club -- was founded on Nov. 7, 1859. Its first game was played on a field south of the White House gates (presently referred to as “the Ellipse") on May 5, 1869.

Washington became part of the National League in 1885, but it was eliminated after the NL contracted to eight teams from 12 in 1900. When former Western League president Ban Johnson created the American League the following year, baseball returned to the nation’s capital with the Washington Senators.

After the 1904 season, the team’s name was changed back to the Nationals. For the next five decades, though, newspapers referred to the club interchangeably as the Nationals, Nats and Senators.

During this time, another baseball team took the field in Washington, D.C. The Homestead Grays of the American Negro League began playing half of their home games at Griffith Stadium in 1940. Referred to as Washington Grays and the Washington Homestead Grays, the club won Negro National League pennants in ‘40-45 and ‘48, along with three Colored World Series titles in ‘43-44 and ‘48. The league ceased operations following the ‘48 championship series, and the Grays played as an independent team until ‘51.

Ahead of the 1956 MLB season, the Nationals officially were reverted back to the Senators. The team relocated to Minneapolis in ‘60 and became the Twins. The following year, an AL expansion team was awarded to Washington. Its name -- the Senators (again). When the expansion version of the Senators struggled, the team was transferred to Arlington, Texas, in ‘71 and became the Rangers.

In the meantime, MLB had awarded Montreal an expansion team in 1969. The club was known as the Expos, named for the Expo 67 World Fair held in the city.

As the Expos were playing in Canada, there were attempts to bring baseball back to Washington. On Dec. 6, 1973, for example, NL owners approved the relocation of the Padres, only for the club to come under new ownership that decided to stay in San Diego. In ‘91 and ‘94, Washington was considered for an expansion team. Denver, Miami, Phoenix and St. Petersburg were awarded one instead.

It was on Sept. 29, 2004 that MLB appointed Washington as the relocation city for the Expos. By this time, there was an abundant list of options with significant ties. During the selection process, "Senators" was ruled out because Washington does not have voting representation in the U.S. Senate. After a local focus group and other considerations, the franchise went way back in the history books for a new beginning.

On Nov. 22, 2004, the Nationals team name was announced during a ceremony at the Main Hall at Union Station.

"It's a question of taste," then-team president Tony Tavares said at the time. "In this case, I think Nationals gives us a fresh start. For example, in our media guide, we're talking about having a page of records from the old Senators, a page of records from the Expos and a blank page writing our own records in Washington. This is a new team. The record is going forward here. We'll start with that."