Play ball, and Strike Out the Nicknames

By Joe Diorio

The 2021 Major League Baseball (MLB) season has a first and a last. This is the first full 162 game season since 2020’s pandemic-shortened season. And it will be the last season (maybe) that the baseball franchise in Cleveland, Ohio will be known by the nickname, “Indians.”

After 106 years, owners of the Cleveland nine (a generic nickname referring to nine players per side; it was coined by sportswriter Damon Runyon in the 1920’s, but I digress) decided (realized?) that the name “Indians” is racially insensitive. The team will therefore change its name to a “new, non-Native American” moniker, or so the team announced last December.

Unlike the Washington franchise in the National Football League (NFL), which dropped the name “Redskins” and for now is known simply as “Washington,” the Cleveland baseball team will keep the name “Indians” for one more season then debut a new nickname in 2022, although team owner Paul Dolan recently said he didn’t want to rush into picking a new name.

The Cleveland team was originally known as the “Lake Shores,” since Cleveland is on the banks of Lake Erie. They also were known as the Spiders (a name that’s an insider favorite for the new, 21st Century name), and the “Naps,” named for Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, a Hall of Famer who played for the team from 1902 to 1915.

The genesis of the name “Indians” is said to be connected to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who played for Cleveland in the late 1800s. Sockalexis was good, but sadly an addiction to alcohol shortened his career. Some argue the name “Indians” was done in his honor. More likely it was a fan vote that led to the adoption of the name.

Sports is under scrutiny for team names and images, but it is hardly a new trend. Sportswriter Filip Bondy talked about the problem with racist images in sports almost a decade ago. Where did some of these questionable team names come from?

Atlanta Braves (MLB) – the team was once known as the Boston Red Stockings (the team originated in Boston, then moved to Milwaukee, and later to Atlanta). In 1912 they became the Braves when new owner James Gaffney stepped into the picture. Gaffney was an alderman for the New York political organization Tammany Hall, which used an Indian headdress for its emblem. Hence the team became known as the Braves.

Kansas City Chiefs (NFL) – the franchise played its inaugural season in 1962 in Dallas as the “Dallas Texans.” They moved to Kansas City, Missouri the next year and became known as the Chiefs, a name connected to former Mayor Harold Roe Bartle, who played a pivotal role in bringing the team to Kansas City and whose nickname in political circles was “the Chief.”

Chicago Blackhawks (National Hockey League) – the team traces the origin of its name from original owner Frederic McLaughlin, who served in the U.S. Army’s 86th Infantry Division, known as the Blackhawks. The name Blackhawks is pervasive in the Army; its UH-60 helicopter uses the same name. Both the Army and the NHL’s Blackhawks are criticized by Native American organizations for use of the name.

Sports teams can change names successfully. The men’s and women’s athletic teams from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee are known as the “Bruins,” but if you go back in time Belmont’s teams – the entire school, in fact – used the nickname “Rebels,” a direct connection to the Confederate army. The school switched to “Bruins” around 1995 with nary a peep.

Pop quiz

How long has the practice of verbing a noun (as in, “I shall author a book.”) been a part of language? (Answer farther down.)

Heard on the air

During a discussion on ESPN about the future of Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, analyst Tedy Bruschi said he was confident Rodgers would finish his playing career “outside of a Green Bay uniform.” Aren’t there public decency laws about that?

Brevity is not always your friend

On March 28 Kaitlan Collins, White House Correspondent for CNN, tweeted “OMG,” sending her 1.1 million followers into a tizzy. Did something happen with President Biden? Were we at war?

Nah. Collins is an alumna of the University of Alabama and an avid ‘Bama sports fan (a photo of head football coach Nick Saban is her Twitter banner image), and she was reacting to the last-second loss by the University of Alabama men’s basketball team to UCLA in the NCAA national basketball tournament.

Everyone who follows Collins breathed a collective sigh of relief after she wrote, “I should have clarified it was a sports tweet.” ‘Nuf said.

Quiz answer

Verbing the nouns has been around since the 13th Century, so say most dictionaries and lexicographers. The rate at which nouns are verbed, however, is increasing. I blame the internet.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

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