This is the first of what I hope will be a series of ranking of some things I tend to care about in sports, like team names, logos, stadiums, uniform designs etc. Because it’s
April May, we’re starting with the nicknames of the 30 major league baseball teams. The rankings are based on my criteria, which are as follows:
* Originality. Unusual or historic names will score higher. Names used by dozens of teams – I’m looking at you, Tigers – will fare less well. Even if the team was the first to use it, if other have copied it, I’m taking points off, because of criteria No. 2.
* Specificity. Does the name only make sense for that team, for reasons of history or geography? Names that can be applied to any team, in any sport, won’t score well. Great non-basketball examples of good, location-specific teams are the Minnesota Vikings and the (late, lamented) Seattle Supersonics.
* Lack of marketability. I prefer names that weren’t devised with cap or jersey sales in mind, but reflect historical accidents or the quirks of fans or owners. The less menacing the animal or creature, the more I tend to like it. Probably the worst offender in this category in all of sports are the Toronto Raptors.
(Note: it’s come to my attention that a few team names I’ve ranked lower on the list – namely the Nationals and Mets – are nods to older, defunct teams. I still think those are boring names but feel free to bump them up a few notches).
And the team with the best name in baseball is:
1, Baltimore Orioles
As much as it pains me personally, as a Yankees fan, the Orioles get the nod. The Baltimore Oriole is a small bird (icterus galbula) that eats grubs and small insects. Not only is their name original, it’s hard to pronounce, sounds like Oreo and must be a marketers nightmare. It’s specific to the region – the bird got its name because it shares its colors with the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore – and a nice nod to history. The team, formerly the St. Louis Browns, adopted the name of an early incarnation of the Orioles when they moved to Baltimore in 1954 (that earlier version, which left Baltimore in 1901, became the Yankees).
2, Minnesota Twins
Named after the Twin Cities, the Twins could only play in Minneapolis (or St. Paul). There’s nothing menacing or dangerous about twins, and you can’t design a twin mascot. But it does have a nice, zingy sound, it fits nicely in headlines and it’s got the word “win” in it. It’s a great baseball nickname.
3, St. Louis Cardinals
Another small, colorful bird. The Cardinals spent a year as the Perfectos – which might have gotten them even higher on this list – before adopting the Cardinal nickname in 1900. There’s something dignified and elegant about the bird, and it fits this very successful franchise. It only loses points because other teams have used the nickname, most notably the Arizona Cardinals which began as the Chicago Cardinals in 1920 (and which took its name from an even earlier team, the Racine Cardinals, which began using that name in 1901).
4, Houston Astros
Short for Astronauts, the Astros have great local flavor. Houston is home of the Johnson Space Center, which directs NASA missions. No other city could name its team the Astros (although the Houston Rockets took similar inspiration). Astronauts were pretty cool in the 1960s – when the team was renamed from the Colt .45s – and the name has a fun, retro quality. The image of a puffy-suited astronaut bouncing round the moon doesn’t exactly suggest winning baseball. I don’t recall their ever having an astronaut mascot and they’ve gone through lots of color and logo redesigns (I like the one above best) but they’ve used the star in all of them.
5, Milwaukee Brewers
Another classic example of a city-specific nickname. They brew beer in other cities, of course, but not even St. Louis is as associated with brewing as Milwaukee. Like the Steelers, it’s a blue-collar name that plays off the city’s industrial identity. I preferred their old ball-in-mitt logo, but the new one (above), with its shafts of wheat, is even more evocative of old-timey beer making.
6, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are a problem: it’s a great name but one that obviously makes no geographic sense. In Brooklyn, the name was a shortened version of Trolley Dodgers (and before that, they were awesomely named Superbas, giving the Perfectos a run for the money), named for the borough’s street cars. And that makes it an excellent name: regional character, with a sense of fun and whimsy. In Los Angeles, they join the Lakers (and, in spirit, the Utah Jazz) as teams whose names are vestiges of their original cities. But I give them credit for sticking with a name that has character rather than abandoning it to take on a newer, blander identity (see: Nationals).
7, Chicago Cubs
Is there anything less menacing than a Cub? It’s a bit too universal – there’s nothing specifically Chicago about Cubs (or even Bears) – but it is unique. No other team seems to have copied them. There’s something about a soft, clumsy baby bear that seems to fit the way the Cubs play baseball, too.
8, Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are a sort of an un-mascot. It’s more of a nickname, and not a very imaginative one, and feels like a barely-thought out European soccer name (ie, Wolverhampton Wolves, Wigan Lactics) But it scores high on all my criteria and I like how unmarketable it is.
9, Los Angeles Angels
An excellent name. A reference to the City of Angels, it’s specific, unique and highly unthreatening. It also lends itself to the cool halo logo.
10, Boston Red Sox
Another one that pains me, but the Red Sox name is so stupid, it’s great. It’s a misspelling of a clothing item the team doesn’t wear, it’s impossible to turn into a mascot, and could only exist if it was adopted more than a century ago. I’m downgrading it because it’s not really Boston-specific (like the Celtics and Patriots) and they trailed the White Sox by a few years.
11, San Diego Padres
One of the goofiest names in sports, I’m going with their old logo to remind you that, yes, they named the team after Spanish monks. Not exactly designed to strike fear into their opponents hearts.
12, New York Yankees
I’m a Yankees fan, but the name never made a lot of sense to me. “Yankee” usually refers to a New Englander, like in a “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and not a New Yorker. But even if it’s geographically inexact, it’s still a good name: regional, unusual and slightly odd. It’s quirkiness has been obscured by the team’s success.
13, Seattle Mariners
A solid, unpretentious name. I liked their old trident logo, but the compass one is more dignified. While I guess you can have Mariners anywhere there’s water, it seems pretty unlikely another team will ever adopt this name.
14, Chicago White Sox
Since they predate the Red Sox, I suppose they should be ranked higher. But sports socks are supposed to be white, so while it’s still odd to name your team for your socks, it’s less odd if they’re white. They do get points for their secondary nickname, the Pale Hose.
15, Miami Marlins
There’s a lot of reasons to dislike the Marlins, but their name isn’t one of them. It evokes the old Miami of sport fishing and Earnest Hemingway, and has a nice, sharp baseball sound to it.
16, Oakland Athletics
The Athletics are a historically bland name, which in my system both helps and hurts them. The name is clearly an ancient relic, but the fact they were the Athletics in Philadelphia and Kansas City before Oakland makes clear how universal it is. I much prefer Athletics to the truncated “A’s”, though, and I like their elephant mascot, which of course makes no sense.
17, Texas Rangers
Not a bad name – a salute to the historic Texas Rangers – but a bit too rootin’, tootin’ for me. And there’s a New York Rangers hockey team, whose name makes less sense but they got there first.
18, Kansas City Royals
I had the Royals a lot lower – the name seems completely unsuited for this very un-royal midwest city – but I read up on the origin of their name, and it’s derived from the American Royal livestock show, apparently a Kanas City institution. So it gets points for history and a connection to the city, even if it’s not readily apparent.
19, Cincinnati Reds
Like the Athletics, the Reds have a lot of history – they’re the oldest club in major league baseball – but the name is uninspired. Formerly the Red Stockings, they chose boring over quirky (as opposed to the the Red Sox). They get some credit for persisting with their name through the Cold War, although lose some for temporarily abandoning it in favor of the Redlegs during the 1950s.
20, New York Mets
Just a weird, unlovable name. I’ll give it points for being completely uncynical, but it’s generic to the point of ridiculous (couldn’t every city name its team the Metropolitans?). The fact that it’s the third institution in New York nicknamed Met – after a museum and opera – doesn’t help.
21, Toronto Blue Jays
Inoffensive, and an homage (or rip off) of the bird nicknames higher on this list, but also generic. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing specifically Toronto about Blue Jays, and the name seems to have been chosen in part because the team owner of the time, Labatt Brewery, made Labatt Blue.
22, Colorado Rockies
Not terrible but sort of bland and obvious.
23, Washington Nationals
Formerly the Montreal Expos, the franchise gave up that colorful and odd name for the grim, institutional sounding Nationals. It sounds like a compromise chosen by a committee, with an eye toward fitting in newspaper headlines. In a city full of groups named things like the National Association of Insurance Actuaries, maybe it makes sense but couldn’t they have found something more fun? Even the Senators – the name of the two previous Washington franchises – would have been better. And Senators are definitely not fun.
24, Tampa Bay Rays
I actually preferred their first name, the Devil Rays, even if it violates my own rule because it was such a naked grab for T-shirt sales. But it had some local character and I like teams named for seafood. Lopping off the Devil seems designed to appease Florida’s religious conservatives, and the result is a weak nod to the state’s sunshine, which is odd for a team that plays indoors. If they were aggressively appealing to teenagers with Devil Rays, now they’re chasing the senior citizens who want to sit in the sun.
25, San Francisco Giants
We’re now in the realm of the vague and boring. The Giants may be an old and distinguished franchise, but their name is dull. That it survived a trans-continental move, and inspired the name of a football team, just proves the point.
26, Detroit Tigers
There are no Tigers in Detroit. Or in Princeton, Missouri, Auburn, Baton Rouge or any of the other dozen places that use the name.
27, Pittsburgh Pirates
No pirates in Pittsburgh, either.
28, Atlanta Braves
We’re now moving from aesthetically offensive to just plain offensive. The Braves are an improvement over the Indians – naming your team after a subset of a subjugated people seems preferable than naming it after the entire people – and both are a whole lot better than the Redskins, but it’s still not cool. I might feel differently it there was any intelligence behind the appropriation, but it’s a Hollywood/Davey Crockett version of Indian identity. They seem to have exiled Chief Noc-A-Homa and his tepee in the bleachers, but the tomahawk and name remain.
29, Cleveland Indians
See the Braves, above. The Indians may or may not have been named after former player Louis Sockalexis, a Native American, but whatever. It’s still blatantly racist. And if the name doesn’t convince you, check out Chief Wahoo.
30, Arizona Diamondbacks
While not as problematic as the Braves and Indians, those teams at least have history as an excuse. The Diamondbacks are baseball’s best (or worst) example of choosing a name for commercial purposes. Instead of considering baseball’s tradition of easy-going names, they tried to adopt the menace of a venomous serpent. In an effort to be edgy and cool, they’ve ended up with something tacky and cheap, a name best suited for an Arena Football team.