15 Weirdo Stories Behind Sports Team Name Changes
A sports franchise is the ultimate exploration of the Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Players change, coaches change, even the people signing the paychecks change. The team's identity is wrapped up in its city and team name, a physical location and an abstraction as rallying points. But what happens when those change? What if some of the pettiest people imaginable are involved? There's nothing in the rulebook that says you can't change your name, it's just never not weird:
The Disgusting Saga of The Washington Commanders
Right off the bat, this isn't a “weirdo” one so much as a “let's get this mess out of the way." Aside from being a stubborn, racist scumbag who dragged his feet changing the team name from a literal skin-based slur even when it was obviously the right thing to do, Washington owner Dan Snyder has shown his miserable true colors in all walks of life. We're not going to rehearse any kind of silly debate about the merits of the old name here, this simply isn't a space where we're going to do that. It will always be in the Elias books that the Washington football team was actually named ”The Washington Football Team" for two seasons, which is both hilarious and embarrassing. Commanders is so much better, this shouldn't have been this hard.
The Cleveland Guardians Are Pretty Cool
Our second team to take more than a century to do the right thing regarding racist caricatures, the Cleveland Guardians were inspired by the Guardians Of Traffic on Hope Memorial Bridge. These four art deco statues are close by Progressive Field, where the Cleveland baseball team plays, and they're pretty rad. Decorations like this give cities texture and personality, a certain uniqueness. Using something unique to your city as a mascot is basically the opposite of a cartoonish, crudely-drawn stereotype of an entire group of people, and we're for it.
The Tragic Irony of Washington Wizards
Abe Pollin really tried. As Washington, D.C. in the 90s was in the middle of an uptick in gun violence, Pollin's friend Yitzhak Rabin—the Prime Minister of Israel—was assassinated at a rally in Tel Aviv. “My friend was shot in the back by bullets. The name ‘Bullets’ is not longer appropriate for a sports team," Pollin said, before changing the name from “Bullets” to the Wizards. A person in power reacting negatively to gun violence and then doing something about it might seem strange to our 21st century American readers, but we swear this really happened. The name would become darkly ironic when a gambling debt dispute between Wizards players Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton led to the two pulling guns in the locker room.
There Used To Be Chicago Packers
Given Chicago's history as a huge meatpacking town, it's kind of ironic the city's biggest sports rival is called the Packers. Some folks who were either very arrogant or very stupid agreed. When the NBA granted its first expansion to Chicago in 1961, the Chicago Packers took the court. Presumably because saying “go Packers” is akin to drinking Bubbly Creek water to a Chicagoan, the name was unpopular, lasting only one season before a re-brand to the Zephyrs. THAT lasted one more season, before the team moved to the D.C./Baltimore area and adopted the name “Bullets.” Huh. Whatever happened to that team?
The Shared History of the Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder
The way Oklahoma City stole the Seattle SuperSonics is a shameful stain on NBA history and an ugly chapter in America's history of sports teams trying to extort city governments to build sports stadiums. When David Stern approved the sale of the franchise to Clay Bennett, a man who looks like he is legally only allowed to live in Oklahoma, the Seattle franchise's fate was sealed. While the Thunder acknowledge their Seattle history, guys who played in Seattle aren't as thrilled. Sonics legend Gary Payton adamantly refuses to have his jersey retired anywhere other than the Emerald City.
Some Charlotte Hornets Never Played For the Charlotte Hornets
In a similar “shared history” cluster-grumble, the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans to play as the Hornets from 2002-03 until 2012-13, when they became the Pelicans. In 2004, a new franchise, the Bobcats, began playing in Charlotte. Even though the Hornets' jerseys where on every SLAM Magazine cover in the 90s and the Bobcats' jerseys looked like Create-A-Team Option 4 in NBA Live, the Bobcats didn't get to wear Hornets gear until 2014-15. The New Orleans Pelicans Basketball Reference page omits their Charlotte time entirely, and the Charlotte Hornets page takes a “we were on vacation” approach, skipping the two seasons of no bball in CHA.
Introducing Pierre The Pelican
New Orleans was looking to celebrate their city, reflect their unique culture in their professional basketball team. The bright teal of the Hornets just belonged in Charlotte, and there's so much cultural richness and iconography to mine. They chose the nickname “Pelicans,” a rad bird who doesn't exactly scream “badass,” but at least has an iconic scene Finding Nemo. The mascot rollout, though, was a little shaky: Pierre the Pelican was immediately nightmare-inducing and had to be given a makeover, but the Pellies weren't done, rolling out the do-NOT-click-this-link King Cake Baby for Mardi Gras.
The Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim
Younger sibling syndrome is hard. The Los Angeles Angels were formed in 1961, three years after the storied Dodgers moved over from Brooklyn. They became the California Angels after moving an hour-in-traffic south to Anaheim in 1965. In 1997, presumably late to the Might Ducks party, they rebranded as the Anaheim Angels. In 2005, new owner Arturo Moreno went back to the Los Angeles name, but a leasing agreement forced them to be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Everyone everywhere hated that, and now the team is known as the “Los Angeles Angels, those losers who are wasting Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout's primes.”
Titan Up To The Super Bowl
When the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee, a name invoking oil drilling no longer made sense. Tennessee went with the alliterative Titans. It should be noted that when the team switched from “Tennessee Climate Changers” to “Tennessee Greek Mythological Figures,” they immediately had a Miracle in the playoffs and won the AFC Championship. Footage of that year's Super Bowl has unfortunately been lost to history.
The Tampa Bay Rays Bow To Satan(ic Panic)
An MLB expansion team in the X-Treme era of the 1990s, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were named after an actual large marine vertebrate. But since the United States is full of people who think Kevin Bacon was the bad guy in Footloose, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were inundated with pleas to drop the “devil.” The team now plays as the Tampa Bay Rays, and Satan will presumably have his revenge in the next life.
The Houston Astros Save Themselves Some Headaches
Before they were the Astros, the Houston baseball team was known as the Colt .45s, which had to be irritating for sportswriters with that extra period just hanging out uninvited. The name was changed in 1964, as America was jacked up about the space race and Houston was becoming a major NASA epicenter. When the team moved into the Astrodome the following year, those old smoking guns were a relic of the past. But boy oh boy, imagine the FIGHTS we'd be having if the ‘Stros were still named after a gun in the era of mass shootings, huh? It’d be like the “should we bother to respect Indigenous Peoples?” debate except with a fun Second Amendment twist! Aren't you exhausted just thinking about it?
Newspaper Slang Creates the New York Yankees
Gotta be honest, this one surprised us. We figured the name Yankees went back to the Revolutionary War or whenever that doodle dandy was riding through town sticking feathers in his cap. That’s sort of the case—the name was inspired by patriotism—but the team was originally called the Highlanders. Newspapermen of the time, unaware of Sean Connery, thought 'Highlanders' was too unwieldy to fit in headlines, and used ‘Yankees’ until it caught on officially.
There Are Still Harbor Pilots In The Great Lakes!
In 1969, Major League Baseball team the Seattle Pilots formed, and it was a pretty bad idea. The team had no stadium, the owners had no cash, and the players couldn't play. The team was named for team president Dewey Soriano's part-time job as a harbor pilot. Well too bad for Dewey, because he went broke and sold the team to Bud Selig, who had recently founded Teams, Inc.—and ‘Teams’ stood for To Encourage All Milwaukee Sports. While Milwaukee is situated on the harbor-filled Lake Michigan, Soriano and his silly little hobby name were out. Selig went with Brewers, the name of a team that his mother cheered for growing up.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Choose Canada Over Ireland
The Toronto hockey team was originally known as the Arenas before everyone thought “kinda stupid, eh?” and changed to the St. Patricks in 1919. Toronto had a large Irish population at the time, but when NHL Trophy Namesake Conn Smythe bought the franchise and blocked a move to Philadelphia, he renamed the team the Maple Leafs, capitalizing on some patriotism cache and referencing an infantry unit in WWI. Ah, to wistfully wonder what sorts of blackout-inducing beer specials could have been on St. Patrick's Day at the St. Patricks' game.
Wilt Chamberlain Goes There and Back Again With Philadelphia
Less a weirdo story about a team name and more a fun quirk of history: if you see a photo of NBA great Wilt Chamberlain in a 'Philadelphia' jersey, that doesn't tell you which team he's playing for. Chamberlain began his career with the Philadelphia Warriors, who moved to San Francisco in 1962. In the meantime, the Syracuse Nationals moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers. Chamberlain was traded to the 76ers, where he played four seasons before relocating to California's other team.