Old Team Nicknames

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by Bruce Allardice, May 2021


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In Marty Payne’s excellent presentation on old baseball club nicknames at the Frederick Ivor-Campbell Conference, he noted that he hadn’t tried to determine which nicknames were the most prevalent. Fortunately, Protoball’s search function enables a researcher to locate and count team nicknames of the 3,700 clubs in the database.

Most Common Club Nicknames, pre-1871

Star(s)1 320

Union 163

Excelsior 112

Independent 96

Eagle 86

Athletic 78

Atlantic 76

Olympic 64

Young America 63

Enterprise 57

Mutual 55

National 54

Clipper 51

By far the most popular nickname of the early clubs was the Star(s). Admittedly, this number includes “Star” variants, the most popular being “Lone Star” (a name adopted by teams in the state of Texas, and Texas wanna-be’s). In that era the word “Star” denoted the lead performer (as in a play) as well as a heavenly body. A well-regarded early Brooklyn club also sported this nickname.

The popularity of “Union” can be ascribed to several factors, but the two most obvious are copying the name of the Morrisania club, and in connection with the Civil War and the north’s fight to preserve the Union. In that connection numerous teams had nicknames of popular Union army generals, such as the General Grants of Newport, the Shermans of St. Louis, McPhersons of Decatur, Phil Sheridans of Warsaw, IN, and even the McClellans of Paterson NJ. Southern army veterans and sympathizers followed suit when naming southern clubs, with dozens of clubs named after the Confederacy’s two most popular generals, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

Every historian has noted the New York City (NYC) influence on early baseball. Here we see evidence of a similar NYC influence on early baseball club nicknames. The list of nicknames above very closely track the nicknames of the prominent early NYC clubs. For example, the clubs featured in the wonderful book Base Ball Founders2 include the Excelsior, Atlantic and Star of Brooklyn; the Eagle of New York City; the Union of Morrisania; as well as the Athletic and Olympic of Philadelphia. The many clubs nicknamed the Eckfords (after a prominent Brooklyn club with a unique name) and Creightons (after a prominent early baseball star) shows that clubs throughout the U.S. were familiar with, and chose, names of well-known pioneer NYC teams and players.

From the NY Clipper, June 27, 1868. Note that the headline uses the club nicknames, not the hometowns of the clubs

While today’s major league clubs have names that often refer to animals, relatively few of these early clubs (and only one of the top 13, “Eagles”) had any reference to animal? life. Area/location names were much more common. Proud southerners named their clubs after the “Lost Cause,” with nines named the Confederate, Dixie, Southern, and Rebels. Loyal Chicagoans started a club using the city’s then-nickname, the Garden City. Milwaukee had its Cream City club, the name referring to the cream-colored brick commonly used in Milwaukee’s buildings. Other club names looked beyond baseball to honor Heavyweight boxer John Heenan and Chess champion Paul Morphy.

Especially in small towns in the west, whimsical names were common. Thus we see the Flat Paddles, Homeolithics, Old Fogies, Soapweeds, Alkali Treaders, Toothpicks, Oh Be Joyfuls, Whangdoodles, Knock Down and Skin ‘ems, Ground Hogs, Cornstalks, Tarantulas, Plowboys, Six Shooter Jims, Lunatics, Hunkie Punkies, and many more. Perhaps modern league franchises, looking for a unique name to publicize their club, can find ideas by looking at this past!

_____ 1 The counts in this article includes plural versions of the name: e.g., “Star” as well as “Stars.”

2 Morris et al., eds., Base Ball Founders (2013).