Cleveland to be MLB's latest name-changer

Many teams have switched over the years

December 15th, 2020

Cleveland has decided to change its name, the franchise announced on Monday, and it will shed the “Indians” moniker for an as-yet-to-be-determined replacement, at some point after the 2021 season.

It’s a momentous decision, one brought about by protests over sports teams’ use of Indigenous names and symbols. It’s also one with plenty of precedent, as franchises throughout baseball history have made such changes for a number of different reasons.

In the game’s wild and tumultuous early decades, names tended to be quite fluid. Cleveland itself is an example of that, with the franchise known as the Blues (short for Bluebirds) in the inaugural season of the American League in 1901, then briefly the Bronchos and then the Naps, in honor of Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, who played for the club from 1902-14 and also managed it for part of that time. It wasn’t until Lajoie’s departure that Cleveland became the Indians. (There also was a separate National League franchise known as the Blues and then the Spiders, between 1887-99).

By the 1940s, however, things had largely settled down. In the past 80 years or so, alterations to either part of a team’s name -- location or nickname -- have been relatively minimal, especially if we set aside those not sparked by a move.

In light of Cleveland’s decision, here is a look back at MLB name changes, first focusing on the more recent past. Instances in which a team swapped only its geographic name as the result of a relocation (say, the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics) are not included.

Same location, new name

Angels cycle through SoCal geography
In their 60-year history, the Angels have tweaked their name four times. The team originally was known as the Los Angeles Angels, back when it actually played in L.A. for its first five seasons, mostly at Dodger Stadium. But in early September 1965, it swapped “Los Angeles” for “California,” ahead of a move to Anaheim Stadium. In ‘97, the team became the Anaheim Angels, as part of a deal in which the Walt Disney Company took ownership and split the cost of a stadium renovation with the city. The Halos’ first championship followed in 2002. In ‘05, current owner Arte Moreno sought to broaden the franchise’s reach by rebranding it as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Eventually, that was shortened back to the team’s original name.

Marlins take Miami
When MLB first arrived in the state for the 1993 season, the expansion franchise was named the Florida Marlins. In 2012, however, the team moved from what is now known as Hard Rock Stadium, a football venue in Miami Gardens, Fla., into Marlins Park. With the new digs actually located in Miami, the Marlins adopted that name as part of a wider rebranding effort.

Rays drop the “Devil”
Can a name hold power over a franchise’s fortunes? In this case, one could make that argument. In its first 10 seasons of existence, Tampa Bay (which actually plays its games in St. Petersburg, Fla.) was known as the Devil Rays, referring to the aquatic creature, and lost at least 91 games annually. Then, owner Stu Sternberg dropped “Devil,” making the name a reference to the local sunshine. "We are now the 'Rays' -- a beacon that radiates throughout Tampa Bay and across the entire state of Florida,” Sternberg said. The Rays immediately won 97 games and went to the World Series, kicking off a far more successful second chapter in franchise history. However, the old Devil Ray still makes occasional appearances.

Houston achieves liftoff
An expansion team that joined the NL in 1962, Houston spent its first three seasons as the Colt .45s, sporting uniforms with its namesake pistol across the chest and playing at open-air Colt Stadium. But in ‘65, the club was to move into the so-called, “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Astrodome. Along with NASA’s presence in Houston, a change to Astros only made sense, though there was also the issue of the Colt Firearms Company wanting a piece of the team’s merchandising revenue. “The name was taken from the stars and indicates we are on the ascendancy,” Astros president Roy Hofheinz said at the time. However, it wasn’t until 1980 that Houston first reached the postseason.

Cincinnati plays politics
As MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon explained recently, the Reds switched their name to the Redlegs for five seasons in the 1950s, before switching back. The reason? The fear of communism and the Soviet Union that had escalated throughout the country, spurred by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

New place, fresh look

Baseball returns to the District
After the second incarnation of the Washington Senators left D.C. following the 1971 season (see below), the nation’s capital did not have a Major League team for more than 30 years. That finally changed when the Montreal Expos departed Canada for Washington after the 2004 season. The Senators name was a candidate to be brought back for a third time, but “Nationals” won out.

A Texas name for a Texas team
After the aforementioned move of the second Senators franchise to Dallas, it became the Texas Rangers -- a nod to the U.S. law enforcement agency. There also had previously been a Minor League team named the Dallas Rangers (or Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers) that had last played as a member of the Pacific Coast League in 1964.

Change was Brewing
Eight years before the Mariners arrived in 1977, Seattle had the expansion Pilots, who joined the AL in 1969 and went 64-98 in a chaotic, financially challenged first season. Like many unsuccessful TV pilots, the baseball Pilots did not get another chance. Instead, purchased by future MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, they moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers, in honor of their new city’s beer industry. Soon, Bernie Brewer and his sudsy slide would become a franchise fixture.

Two cities, one name
In 1961, baseball’s expansion era began. One of the changes involved the original Senators departing for Minnesota, while Washington was granted a new franchise. The relocating Senators headed for the Twin Cities -- the metropolitan area that includes Minneapolis and St. Paul. Not wanting to play favorites, owner Calvin Griffith named the team after both.

From brown to orange
In the AL’s inaugural 1901 season, a team known as the Milwaukee Brewers finished in last place. It quickly relocated to St. Louis and became the Browns. Often a little brother of the NL’s Cardinals, the Browns mostly languished near the bottom of the standings. A potentially momentous move to Los Angeles in the 1940s fell apart, but owner Bill Veeck eventually sold the team, which moved to Baltimore for the ‘54 season. The new name, Orioles, was a nod to both Maryland’s state bird and previous Baltimore teams, including one that played in the NL from 1892-99.

The old days

Way back when, team names had a greater tendency to come and go. In many cases, it can even be unclear exactly what a club’s official name was in a given year, as different monikers were slapped on and off, overlapped with each other and battled for supremacy.

Here then is a quick look at some of the team names not mentioned above that were discarded during the period between the first season of the NL in 1876 and 1940. This list is based on Baseball-Reference’s franchise logs, although other sources might differ.

Current name: Atlanta Braves
Previous names: Boston Red Stockings (1876-82), Boston Beaneaters (1883-1906), Boston Doves (1907-10), Boston Rustlers (1911), Boston Braves (1912-35; ‘41-52), Boston Bees (1936-40), Milwaukee Braves (1953-65)
Yes, the team of Hank Aaron, Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones and now Ronald Acuña Jr. was once called the “Beaneaters” -- back when it resided in Beantown.

Current name: Boston Red Sox
Previous name: Boston Americans (1901-07)
The Red Sox were not originally the Red Sox, nor did they wear red socks.

Current name: Chicago Cubs
Previous names: Chicago White Stockings (1876-89), Chicago Colts (1890-97), Chicago Orphans (1898-1902)
Before the Cubs were neighbors with the White Sox, they were the White Sox (more or less).

Current name: Los Angeles Dodgers
Previous names: Brooklyn Atlantics (1884), Brooklyn Grays (1885-87), Brooklyn Bridegrooms (1888-90, 1896-98), Brooklyn Grooms (1891-95), Brooklyn Superbas (1899-1910, ‘13), Brooklyn Dodgers (1911-12, ‘32-57), Brooklyn Robins (1914-31)
“Dodgers” famously came from the term “Trolley Dodgers,” a reference to Brooklyn’s trolley cars. But “Bridegrooms”? That apparently came about because seven Brooklyn players had gotten married in quick succession.

Current name: New York Yankees
Previous name: New York Highlanders (1903-12)
Before reaching lofty heights as the Yankees, the franchise was named after the literal heights it occupied at elevated Hilltop Park.

Current name: Philadelphia Phillies
Previous name: Philadelphia Quakers (1883-89)
The origin of “Phillies” is, well, self-explanatory.

Current name: Pittsburgh Pirates
Previous name: Pittsburgh Alleghenys (1882-90)
“Pirates” came from accusations that the franchise had stolen a player named Louis Bierbauer from another team. It replaced the original name, but the Allegheny River still flows past PNC Park and welcomes the occasional home run ball.

Current name: San Francisco Giants
Previous names: New York Gothams (1883-84), New York Giants (1885-1957)
“Giants” is often said to have been coined by Jim Mutrie, the team’s manager from 1885-91, as a descriptor of his players. But that may not be entirely accurate.

Current name: St. Louis Cardinals
Previous names: St. Louis Brown Stockings (1882), St. Louis Browns (1883-98), St. Louis Perfectos (1899)
When the team ditched “Browns” for “Perfectos,” the color scheme changed to red, or more specifically, “a lovely shade of cardinal,” in the words of a fan whose comment was printed in a local sportswriter’s column and quickly caught on.