Baseball teams have been named for animals, local landmarks and a brand of handgun. Several of them have been identified by the color of their socks. There is one named after a mountain range and another that references dodging the trolleys of a city the team left more than 60 years ago.
The strangest name in baseball history might be for the team that was named after its best player. That team — the Cleveland Naps — was forced to adopt a new name when Napoleon Lajoie left the club after the 1914 season. With the help of local sportswriters, the team became the Cleveland Indians.
After years of criticism, Cleveland has agreed to drop the name, which many view as racist, and will begin searching for a new one — a process that has happened relatively few times since team names became standardized in the early part of the 20th century. Name changes, it should be noted, can take a while to get right, as evidenced by the N.F.L.’s Washington Football Team, which is temporarily going with a generic designation after dropping its own racist name.
How Cleveland and Washington navigate their changes could provide a blueprint for other teams as the push to eliminate offensive names in sports grows stronger. It could eventually affect teams like the Atlanta Braves and the N.F.L.’s Kansas City Chiefs, and perhaps even less obvious examples, like the N.B.A.’s Golden State Warriors.
Much of the early enthusiasm in Cleveland’s search for a name has focused on having the club renamed the Spiders, the current favorite, according to multiple oddsmakers. While that name has some baseball history in Cleveland — not particularly good history, but history — it has no connection to the current Cleveland club. The Spiders were a National League team from 1889 to 1899. They lost the 1892 championship to Boston and, when last seen, set a mark for baseball futility by going 20-134 before disbanding. A minor league club also used the name in 1915 before bolting for greener pastures in Toledo.
The current Cleveland team, on the other hand, was one of the American League’s original franchises in 1901. If the club wanted to reference a name of the team’s past, it would have four to choose from: the Blues, the Bronchos (also spelled “Broncos”), the Molly Maguires and the aforementioned Naps.
It might be hard to imagine a team renaming itself the Boston Big Papis or the Los Angeles Trouts, but that was exactly what Cleveland did for Lajoie’s first full season with the club in 1903. Lajoie, a Hall of Famer regarded as one of the best hitters in major league history, largely justified the unusual honor. He hit .339 in 13 seasons with the club, collecting multiple batting titles. He is still the franchise’s career leader in wins above replacement.
The Naps nickname stuck around even after a 1912 effort by the team to change its official designation to the Molly Maguires — itself an unusual sports name, as it referenced a group of Irish labor rights activists. But after a last-place finish in 1914, Lajoie demanded a trade and was sent back to his previous club, the Philadelphia Athletics, necessitating a name change for Cleveland.
The team’s search for a new name has often been credited to a newspaper contest, though academic studies have made the claim of a fan contest or a reference to Louis Sockalexis (a Native American player for the Spiders) to be specious. In reality, a committee that consisted of local sportswriters and team representatives decided on the name, with some Cleveland newspapers reporting at the time that it was temporary. It stuck.
Cleveland’s being in the market for one again also shines a light on how rarely a name change happens, at least in baseball. Recent name changes have included the Tampa Bay Rays dropping “Devil” from their name in 2008, and the Expos being renamed the Nationals after a move to Washington in 2005.
To find an established team that changed its name without changing cities, you would have to go back to the 1965 season, when the Houston Colt .45s became the Houston Astros. It would be easy to assume it was the association with a firearm that inspired the change — similar to Washington’s N.B.A. franchise changing its name from the Bullets to the Wizards — but the change to the Astros appeared to be more about capitalizing on the space craze at the time, and honoring the team’s exciting new domed stadium, while also addressing the fact that the Colt firearms company had objected to the team’s souvenirs.
“We think it is in keeping with the situation in which we are the space capital of the world,” Roy Hofheinz, the club’s president at the time, had said. “The name was taken from the stars and indicates we are on the ascendancy.”
In all, baseball will be left with 11 teams playing under their original name as major league teams, including the Detroit Tigers, who began play in the A.L. in 1901 and are the longest-serving major league team that has never had any other home city or nickname. (The Chicago White Sox, who began play in the A.L. the same year, were briefly known as the Chicago White Stockings.) Each of the other 19 active teams has had at least one change. One of the more interesting reasons for a change belongs to the Cincinnati Reds, who went by the Redlegs in the 1950s to distance themselves from any connection to communism.
There is no timeline for when Cleveland will rename its team. The Indians name will be used in 2021, allowing the franchise time to avoid rushing into an unpopular name change, like the one done by the N.B.A.’s Wizards.
Be it Spiders, Blues, Bronchos, Molly Maguires or some other name, the team has an opportunity to make a positive out of something that has been painful for many years. And while a return to the Naps is highly unlikely, the team could always nod to it by naming itself after one of the team’s many stars, like Jose Ramirez or Shane Bieber.
The Cleveland Biebers? Probably not.