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.

Grammatical Madness

By Joe Diorio

Something I once wrote made lawyers for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) send me an angry letter.

In 2000 I was a consultant for a “dot-com” startup that provided advice and equipment for athletic coaches. Among the company founders were two college basketball coaches. Their position as NCAA coaches entitled them to free tickets to the NCAA basketball national championship tournament weekend, known among sports fans as the “Final Four.” They decided to use their tickets as prizes to promote the fledgling company.

I wrote and posted a promotion on the website announcing that one could enter to win tickets to those four games, using the term “Final Four” in my copy.

No sooner did that website announcement appear than a letter arrived from the NCAA, tersely telling us that the term “Final Four” is a registered trademark, property of the NCAA, and cannot be used for commercial purposes without permission.

(I am compelled to mention that A Few Words About Words® is a free newsletter and – I hope – falls into the category of a news outlet. Don’t “@” me, NCAA.)

Upon seeing this letter one of the company founders scoffed and said we wouldn’t change the website and that the NCAA could go ahead and sue us. His logic was that the publicity would be worth the hassle. The company never was sued.

This demonstrates the zealousness surrounding names for the springtime national collegiate basketball championship tournament. Not only is the nickname affiliated with that last weekend of college basketball protected, but so is the nickname describing the tournament leading up to those final games, “March Madness.”

It didn’t start that way. The term was first coined by Henry V. Porter, an Illinois high school basketball coach. He mentioned it when writing about the state championship tournament, even including it in a poem he wrote. The last stanza of the poem reads:

With war nerves tense, the final defense

Is the courage, strength and will

In a million lives where freedom thrives

And liberty lingers still.

Now eagles fly and heroes die

Beneath some foreign arch

Let their sons tread where hate is dead

In a happy Madness of March.

History notes there were considerable legal battles over the ownership of the term, with the NCAA ultimately emerging as the winner.

The iron-clad ownership of both terms explains why so many advertising and marketing campaigns employ clever copywriting to discuss the championship without ever using the proprietary terms. You may read “the big games,” or as Scott Tattar, a professor at Drexel University suggests, simply, “The Tournament.”

Copywriter Michael Bense – who I must emphasize is a professional advertising copywriter (you’ll see why I say that in a second) – suggests “Ultimate Quadrival” and “Vernal Equinox Derangement.” Michael was obviously shooting from beyond the three-point arc on those attempts at lexicological wizardry.

Odds and ends (mostly odds)

If the name worked once … Twitter account @PopCrave on January 17 wrote that singer Justin Timberlake confirmed to Ellen DeGeneres that he and his wife, actor Jessica Biel, “welcomed their second child named Phineas.” Someone aptly – and quickly; it is Twitter we’re talking about here – mused, “They have two kids named Phineas?”

COVID-19 term du jour … First heard on local television news in mid-January. The practice of traveling out-of-state to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine is being called “vaccine tourism.” Anybody setting their watch for when a flyer arrives in the mail with a picture of Mickey Mouse standing on a beach and holding a syringe?

Here is one for the Apostrophe Protection Society … Reader Annie Micale Webb in early February offers this observation: “I just noticed that the B-52’s and the Go-Go’s have apostrophes in their names and I’m grammatically triggered. Why are they there? The B-52’s WHAT? The Go-Go’s WHAT?”

And so it won’t be overlooked … March 4 is National Grammar Day. I find it sad we dedicate only one of the 365 to grammar, but I guess that’s just me. (Check out the next post to read more.)

Let’s write carefully out there, people. 

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.