This fact may surprise you, but it is indeed true: sports franchises can change their names. This is a pretty hot topic in the baseball world because of today’s news that Cleveland’s team is renaming themselves as the Guardians. This name is fine. It’s fine! There’s nothing to actively dislike about it, and I’m certain it will grow on fans and casual observers as time goes on. Besides, it’s no dumber than any other team’s name, given that this league has two separate franchises named after socks. And, perhaps most importantly, it achieves the goal of not mocking an ethnic group, which is (somehow) a bar that had yet to be cleared.
The news out of Cleveland is particularly notable for how infrequently this sort of thing happens: not counting relocation, an MLB franchise has not officially changed its name since 2008, and, before that, the 1950s. In 2008, Tampa Bay dropped the “Devil” to become the Rays, the Cincinnati Redlegs became the Reds in 1958, and the Washington Nationals (not a National League franchise, funnily enough) became the Senators in 1955. But these examples don’t really count, since those franchises were either modifying their existing name or returning to a past name that stuck around. No, dear reader, if you want to find the last time a franchise attempted to change its image wholesale, we have to go all the way back to 1944, in the City of Brotherly Love. Let’s remember the Philadelphia Blue Jays.
In November 1943, Phillies owner William D. Cox was banned from baseball by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for betting on Phillies games, and was thus forced to sell the franchise. It wound up in the hands of Bob Carpenter Sr., member of the notable duPont family, who named his 28-year-old son Bob Jr. as team president. The Carpenters, eager to protect their investment and convince themselves that buying the worst MLB team was actually a good idea, wanted to start their tenure off on the right foot by distancing themselves from the franchise’s losing past.
The Phillies’ persistent reputation for futility was already deeply ingrained by 1943. How deep was it? Well, they had only one winning season in the 25 years between 1918 and 1942, and the 1932 squad barely finished over .500 at 78-76. 11 seasons ended with over 100 losses, and 19 of them ended with 90 or more losses, including two separate stints of at least 6 consecutive seasons with 90 or more losses. The Phillies finished last in the National League 14 times and only finished higher than sixth in two seasons. The 1941 and 1942 teams lost an eye-popping 111 and 103 games, respectively, which remain the franchise’s worst-ever marks.
Consider that even after living through the doldrums of the 2010s, the late 1990s, the late 1980s, the Phold of 1964, and more, almost every Phillies fan alive has still not seen the franchise at its true nadir. I suppose you don’t become the first North American sports franchise to lose 10,000 games without some, uh, elbow grease.
With that context in mind, it becomes easy to understand why the Carpenters thought a fresh start for the Phillies was a good plan. Overhauling rosters was a bit harder in the days before free agency, so attention turned towards something more immediately fixable: the team name. “Phillies” was associated with literal decades of losing, and ownership wanted to send a message that with a new sheriff in town, things were going to change. An unsuspecting public was coerced into participating in a name-the-team contest announced on January 25, 1944 with the promise of a $100 war bond awarded to the winning submission. Interestingly, the new nickname was not promised to become the primary moniker but rather an insignia to help better identify the team; after all, what even is a “Phillie” anyway?
The contest proved popular and Carpenter received over 5,000 letters from every state in the union. Some of those names absolutely rule: Aces, Bell Ringers, Daisies, Keystones, Minutemen, Rainbows, Strugglers, and Valley Forgers are just glorious. The war bond prize ultimately went to Mrs. Elizabeth Crooks, a Delaware Valley resident. She was one of seven to suggest Blue Jays, all of whom received season tickets. Why Blue Jays? According to Mrs. Crooks, “It reflects a new team spirit. The Blue Jay is colorful in personality and plumage. His fighting, aggressive spirit never admits defeat.” (Admittedly, this description does conform pretty well with Philadelphians’ self-image, even if it’s not as fun as Bell Ringers.) And so the new nickname was put into place, with an illustration of a Blue Jay appearing next to the team name on official print materials as well as on the left sleeves of the uniforms beginning in 1944.
So what was the reaction to the new name? Well, the fact that the team is no longer called the Blue Jays in 2021 should give you a hint. The Philly faithful were mostly annoyed and confused, since “Phillies” had been use for over five decades and by all indications the franchise’s name hadn’t actually changed. After all, the name in the papers and on the front of the jerseys remained the same. This was somewhat intentional on the part of the franchise, which encouraged the use of both nicknames interchangeably. Carpenter’s intent was a slow phase-in to avoid swift fan pushback, but this really just prevented the adoption of “Blue Jays” in place of “Phillies.” There was real outcry, however, from the good folks down in Maryland, as Johns Hopkins University was not pleased to learn of their new connection with the losingest organization in professional sports. In fairness, Hopkins athletics had already been using the nickname Blue Jays for decades when the Phillies decided to interlope. These factors led to a general disregard and lack of use for the “Blue Jays” nickname, so it was quietly dropped from the uniforms in 1946, and scrapped altogether by the start of the 1950 season.
It’s hard to say in retrospect if this was a good idea. “Phillies” stood for terrible baseball and organizational incompetence to a far greater degree than it does now, and changing names was pretty common for sports teams back then. The Carpenters can’t really be blamed for desiring distance. And the jay itself looked fine enough on the uniforms. But ultimately the moniker just didn’t connect with fans or the media. Given the choice, people liked the old name better, and some people really hated the new name, so it didn’t stick. Fortunately for Cleveland, I think they will be able to avoid Carpenter’s biggest mistake: letting the old nickname hang around in an official capacity.