July 16, 2020 [LINK / comment]

Hail to the (name to be announced later)?

As had been anticipated for the past few weeks, the Washington Redskins formally announced on Monday that they will no longer be called the Redskins. The news came ten days after the team began a formal review of the name issue on July 3. See the rather terse official announcement at redskins.com. The most likely replacement names are the "Warriors" or the "Red-tails" (referring to the World War II Tuskegee airmen), but "Pigskins" (referring to the vaunted offensive linemen of the 1980s known as the "Hogs") is another distant possibility. I suppose the team song "Hail to the Redskins" will be banned in the future, but it may depend on the new name.

It is important to note that majority franchise owner Dan Synder vowed several years ago that he would "NEVER" change the Redskins' name. His change of heart was quite obviously the result of financial pressure from corporations that do business with the Redskins, most notably Federal Express, which threatened to terminate the naming rights contract of what used to be called Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. (See below.) Unfortunately, these circumstances will taint any future efforts by the Washington NFL franchise to promote social justice causes. Of course, this will become much more significant if the National Football League season actually does take place this fall. Many high school and college teams are canceling much or all of their 2020 schedules, so NFL games this year are by no means certain. They only have six weeks to change uniforms, stadium logos, stationery, etc. Unlike baseball, the very nature of football involves constant, close physical contact with opponents, and the risk of a single player infecting two entire teams in the course of a single game may be too much to take.

FedEx Field, Redskins logo

Closeup of the southeast entrance to FedEx Field, in Landover, Maryland, with the Washington Redskins logo. (Sept. 28, 2014) To see the whole photo, click here.

To me it's obvious that the name "Redskins" was never intended as an insult, but it was not exactly a polite reference to the Native American population either. Most sport team names invoke tough or fearsome qualities, sometimes roguish in nature. The way I figure it, 14 of the 32 current NFL team names refer to human beings based on occupation, size, geographical region, history, ethnicity, etc. (including 2 that refer to Indians), another 14 are derived from animals (including 4 birds), and the remaining four are hard to classify: Bills, Browns, Jets, and Chargers. As for Major League Baseball, 19 of the 30 current team names seem to refer to human beings (if you include the Angels), 8 are derived from animals (including 3 birds), 2 refer to hosiery colors (Red Sox, White Sox), and the Rockies refer to a mountain range.

History of team name changes

All that got me to wondering how often pro sports team names have changed in the past, and the table below is what I came up with. To summarize the findings, twelve of the 31 name changes resulted from having moved to a new city, reflecting a desire to "start fresh" with a new identity. (Note that 6 of the 13 MLB franchise relocations since 1901 did not result in the name being changed; see the MLB franchises page. If you count the Athletics being called the "A's" during their early years in Oakland, that would be just 5 of the 13.) Five the the name changes are unknown to me. Two of the baseball team names (Highlanders and Astros) were based on the stadium they were playing in, and four of the football team names (Bears, Pirates, Redskins, and Jets) were related to the "host" MLB team with which they shared the facilities. Finally, team names reverted to old names seven times, most often after just a few years with a new name that didn't catch on. The two ambiguous cases are the Washington Senators/Nationals (1905-1955), when most people just stuck to the old name on an informal basis, and the Oakland Athletics/A's (1968-1986), the latter of which is merely an abbreviation of the former.

Other teams being targeted include the Cleveland Indians (who have already committed to changing their name), the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, and believe it or not, the Texas Rangers! (Before the Civil War, the Rangers were responsible in part for rounding up escaped slaves.) As far as I can tell, the only other team name that was ever considered offensive was the Cincinnati Reds; during the Red Scare of the 1950s, being called a "red" was equivalent to being called a traitor. (Say, maybe the Redskins could simply be called the "Reds," without using any Native American symbols!) Any future name reversion appears highly unlikely with the Redskins, however.

Name changes of pro football and baseball teams

Year League City (or state) Old name New name Reason for change
1902 AL St. Louis Brewers* Browns Moved from Milwaukee.
1903 AL New York Orioles* Highlanders Moved from Baltimore to Hilltop Park.
1909 NL Boston Beaneaters Braves ???
1903 AL Cleveland Blues Naps # To honor star player Napoleon Lajoie.
1905 AL Washington Senators Nationals @ # Seeking fresh start after poor seasons.
1913 AL New York Highlanders Yankees Moved down to Polo Grounds.
1915 AL Cleveland Naps Indians # In memory of Louis Sockalexis.
1922 NFL Chicago Staleys Bears Moved from Decatur, IL to Wrigley Field.
1927 NL Brooklyn Superbas Robins ???
1932 NL Brooklyn Robins Dodgers Fans had to dodge trolleys.
1933 NFL Boston Braves Redskins Moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park.
1934 NFL Detroit Spartans Lions Moved from Porstmouth, Ohio.
1941 NFL Pittsburgh Pirates Steelers To identify with steel workers.
1936 NL Boston Braves Bees ???
1941 NL Boston Bees Braves Reverted to old name.
1943 NL Philadelphia Phillies Blue Jays* ???
1944 NL Cincinnati Reds Red Legs ???
1945 NL Philadelphia Blue Jays Phillies Reverted to old name.
1946 NL Cincinnati Red Legs Reds Reverted to old name.
1954 NL Cincinnati Reds Redlegs Reverted to earlier name; Red Scare?
1954 AL Baltimore Browns Orioles Moved from St. Louis.
1956 AL Washington Nationals @ # Senators Officially reverted to the original name.
1961 NL Cincinnati Redlegs Reds Reverted to original name.
1961 AL (Minnesota) Senators* Twins Moved from Washington to Twin Cities.
1963 AFL New York Titans* Jets Soon to share stadium with MLB Mets.
1963 AFL Kansas City Texans* Chiefs Moved from Dallas.
1965 NL Houston Colt 45s Astros New stadium: the Astrodome.
1968 AL Oakland Athletics A's Moved from Kansas City.
1970 AL Milwaukee Pilots Brewers Moved from Seattle.
1972 AL (Texas) Senators Rangers Moved from Washington.
1987 AL Oakland A's Athletics Reverted to old name.
1996 NFL Baltimore Browns* Ravens Moved from Cleveland.
1999 NFL (Tennessee) Oilers Titans Moved from Houston two years earlier.
2005 NL Washington Expos Nationals Moved from Montreal.
2020 NFL Washington Redskins TBA Anti-racist public sentiment.

SOURCES: ESPN Information Please Sports Almanac, 1999, etc.
# : from sportsteamhistory.com
* (asterisk): This team name was later used by a different MLB or NFL franchise.
@ "Nationals" only appeared on Washington uniforms in 1905 and 1906, and "Senators" remained a widely-used name; the name was officially reverted in 1956.
NOTE: This table excludes the temporary mergers of some NFL teams during World War II.