I’ve always been fascinated with the origins of sports teams’ nicknames, so my interest was piqued when I heard about the recent name changes of minor league baseball franchises in Jacksonville, Fla., and Binghamton. Although I’m not a big fan of Jacksonville’s new moniker, I didn’t need an explanation for why Jumbo Shrimp was chosen. Unlike the Lakers of Los Angeles and the Jazz of Utah, it made perfect sense.
But I did need to be educated about Binghamton’s decision to switch from Mets to Rumble Ponies. Apparently, the equine moniker was chosen because it pays tribute to the six carousels from the early 1900s still operating in Broome County. The new nickname beat out several finalists, including—I kid you not—the Stud Muffins. Somewhere, fans of the defunct Georgia-based Eastern Hockey League team, the Macon Whoopee, must be laughing lustily.
Not everyone in the Southern Tier is pleased with Binghamton club owner John Hughes’ decision. Sports fans love tradition and Binghamtonians liked the fact their team bore the same nickname as their parent club, the New York Mets. Tradition clearly played a role in Los Angeles’ decision to keep the Lakers nickname when the National Basketball Association team relocated from Minneapolis, even though L.A. doesn’t boast any lakes, and why Utah remained the Jazz after that hoops club came marching in from New Orleans.
I get why minor-league teams would want the prestige of having the same nickname as their major-league affiliate. But I’m happy Rochester’s teams have created and retained their own identities through the decades. The Rochester Americans—or Amerks, as they are better known—were a takeoff on the Montreal Canadiens, and wound up with a red, white and blue crested logo that is one of the best in all of sports.
Rochester’s Red Wings took their name from the first major-league baseball club they affiliated with—the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1928, the International League franchise, which had relocated from Syracuse, held a “Name the Team” contest. Three of the 1,700 respondents suggested Red Wings, but Frank Spofford was proclaimed the winner because his letter was received first. Rochester general manager Warren Giles cited several reasons for adopting the new name. He liked that no other team in organized baseball had a similar name. It also conveyed Rochester’s position as a unit or a wing of the Cardinals organization. Lastly, and most simply, Cardinals were birds with red wings.
As it turned out, the nickname continued to work years later when Rochester decided its long-time partnership with St. Louis was for the birds and started a new relationship with the Baltimore Orioles. Yes, the Orioles had orange wings, but that didn’t stop birds of a feather from flocking together.
Before becoming known as the Red Wings, Rochester’s professional baseball team changed nicknames seemingly as often as late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner once changed managers. From its inception in 1877 until 1928, the Flower City’s professional team was known at various times as the Rochesters, Jingoes, Bronchos, Hustlers, Colts, Brownies, Champs, Chiefs, Beau Brummels, Hop Bitters and Tribe.
The Buffalo Bills are named after Buffalo Bill Cody, the famed frontiersman. The name was suggested by a fan named Jimmy Dyson back in 1947 when Buffalo was a member of the All-American Football Conference. Dyson felt it was appropriate because owner Jim Breuil owned Frontier Oil Co. and Buffalo was exploring a new sports frontier. Breuil liked the idea and presented Dyson with a check for $500. Sadly, the league ceased operations in 1950, and, despite solid fan support, Buffalo wasn’t one of the AAFC teams absorbed by the NFL.
When Ralph Wilson brought professional football back to Buffalo with an American Football League franchise in late 1959, he asked one of the local newspapers to hold a nickname contest. About a thousand ballots were returned. Among the names suggested: Bruisers, Bees, Marauders, Condors, Bombers, Brutes, Bucks, Eries and Red Jackets. One clever person even proposed naming them the “Wils” after Wilson. The majority of fans cast their ballots for the Bills, and Wilson, not one to buck tradition, gladly went along with public sentiment.
Interestingly, Wilson would not have been the first owner to name a team after himself. The Cleveland Browns, one of the Bills’ rivals in the AAFC, were named after their coach/owner Paul Brown. A funny aside: As a kid, I thought for sure they were named for their dominating running back, Jimmy Brown.
Another Ohio sports team also boasted a colorful nickname. In 1869, Cincinnati fielded the first professional sports team in history. The Queen City’s nine became known as the Red Stockings because of their red sox. Later, their name would be shortened to the Reds, but during the 1950s, they briefly changed their name to the Cincinnati Redlegs because of the communist scare sweeping America. Red was the official color of the Soviet Union and China, so the baseball franchise attempted to distance itself and not draw the ire of witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy.
Syracuse University’s teams also have a colorful past. Interestingly, the school’s original colors were pink and pea green. In 1873, they were changed to rose pink and azure blue. Seventeen years later, after being heavily ridiculed by opposing fans at a track meet at Hamilton College, several SU students met with the chancellor to change the school’s color scheme. Orange was adopted and over time sportswriters began referring to them as the Orangemen. (The nickname was shortened to Orange in the 1990s so it would be gender-neutral.)
Imagine that! Had it not been for several SU students from the Class of 1890 raising a stink about pink, fans in the Carrier Dome might have been cheering “Let’s go, Pink!” instead of “Let’s go, Orange!”
Nationally recognized journalist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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