(This column was written Jan. 14, 2011)
By Shelly Saltman
I have always enjoyed learning about the legacy of teams and their origins as they developed over the years. For example, one thing that always intrigued me was the fact that the University of California (Berkeley), the first of the great California system, was nicknamed the Bears. So it was obvious when UCLA was founded they should be the Baby Bears. Thus UCLA chose the Bruins. The comparison goes even further. Since California's uniform colors were dark blue, their young offspring UCLA chose baby blue.
However, that's neither here, nor there. What is here is the fact that although major league baseball for years has called itself "America's National Pastime," the true wearer of that moniker is the NFL. The NFL has perhaps the most rabid fan base in the history of the United States. How the teams were named, I think, is of great interest.
When the Bears, then the Decatur Staleys, moved to Chicago, they played their first seasons at Wrigley Field, home of baseball's Cubs. Owner George Halas in tribute to his landlord called his team the Bears ... as simple as that! Paul Brown, Cleveland's great coach when he founded the 1968 Cincinnati AFL expansion team, he named it the Bengals after so many Cincinnati teams that had gone before. When the leagues merged in 1970, he kept the name.
The Buccaneers got their name from a radio contest in 1974, just a month after Tampa was awarded an expansion franchise. Buccaneers was the winner beating out many names including Mafia, Buzzards and Sea Horses. Imagine instead of a pirate, the logo might have been a guy in a cement block.
The Cleveland Browns were part of the All-American Football Conference in 1946 and became part of the NFL in 1950. Paul Brown was their first coach and General Manager. Although the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996, the fan based remained and in 1999 when the NFL awarded the city a new franchise, the name Browns was re-activated.
Dallas Cowboys...seems like natural fit? However, they were originally the Rangers, but did not want to be confused with a local minor League baseball team who were the Rangers at that time. The Philadelphia Eagles joined the NFL during the height of the Depression 1933. Bert Bbell, the owner, named the team Eagles in honor of the New Deal's Recovery Act's symbol - the Eagle.
Some teams received their names by contests, others by the owners. For example, owner Tony Morabito chose 49ers for his San Francisco franchise because of the area's gold rush history. Tim Mara named his New York team the Giants. They played their games at the Polo Grounds, home of the baseball Giants. A destination that was already well known.
The naming contests produced thousand of entries and many of the winners. Jacksonville held a contest two years before the franchise was awarded in 1991 with Jaguars getting the majority. Atlanta chose the Falcons in a contest by a teacher named Julia Elliot who argued that the Falcon is a proud and dignified bird symbolized by great courage.
The Miami contest, which eventually selected the Dolphins, posed an interesting situation. The name was a runaway choice, but because so many people picked it there had to be a tiebreaker. The winner had to pick the winner and the score of Notre Dame versus U of Miami. The game ended in a scoreless tie, but the winner who received two lifetime passes to Dolphins games was Mrs. Robert Swanson of Miami.
In 1960, Oakland held a contest to pick a name for its AFL team. The fans chose Senors, but management opted for Raiders. Even then, Al Davis swam against the tide. The most successful contest was in Seattle in 1975. There were 20,365 entries. Seahawks, a name describing the city's link to the sea was one of 1,741 different names. Seahawks was named on the most ballots, 151.
Boy, did New Orleans pick the right name, or what? They were awarded the franchise on All Saints Day in 1966. Also, when you think of New Orleans, immediately jazz comes to your mind and of course the great song made famous by Louie Armstrong, "When the Saints Go Marching In." A perfect marriage!
Houston Texans joined the NFL as an expansion team in 2002. The name tells the story. They replaced the Houston Oilers who moved to Nashville in 1996 after 36 years and are now the Titans. After two seasons as the Tennessee Oilers (the name made no sense), owner Bud Adams changed the name to the Titans. A sensible name selected from Greek Mythology since Nashville is often referred to as the "Athens of the South."
In 1936, Cleveland's new AFL franchise took their name from one of the top collegiate teams of the era... The Fordham Rams. The name has stuck through moves to Los Angeles and St. Louis.
The Green Bay Packers came by their name legitimately. Curley Lambeau, one of the team's founders and long-time coach, worked for Indian Packing at the time. The packing company provided the original jerseys, equipment and uses of its athletic field for practice, as a result the Packer name fit perfectly. Two interesting sidebars are 1) the field they play on today is Lambeau Field and 2) the team is owned by the citizens of Green Bay.
It was Minnesota General Manager Bert Rose who recommended the name Vikings in 1960. The board of directors liked it immediately since the name represents the Nordic tradition of the region, as well as an aggressive person. The Patriots and the Steelers both have names that also feet their regional heritage. New England sportswriters originally picked Boston Patriots capitalizing on the area's involvement in the founding of our nation sparked by Paul Revere's ride.
The Steelers were founded in 1933 and originally the Pirates like their baseball neighbors. However, in 1940, the wife of the ticket manager pointed out to owner Art Rooney what the steel industry meant to Pittsburgh. Rooney not only changed the name, but also placed U.S. Steel's logo on the helmet where it has been ever since.
The Jets were originally the Titans in the AFL. In 1963, a five-man syndicate headed up by my MCA boss, Sonny Werblin, changed the name to the Jets. It was Sonny's ability to land an NBC contract and his drafting of Joe Willie Nameth that more than anything brought about the AFL merger into the NFL. Partially called the Jets because their playing field was close by LaGuardia Airport.
In 1946, the Miami Seahawks of the All-American Football Conference moved to Baltimore. A contest was held and Charles Evans of Middle River, Md. suggested Colts. His reasoning simple, the Colts were the youngest entry in the league in an area famous for its racehorses.
For years, I sat on the board of the John Mackey Foundation. John, as the first president of the Players Association, was responsible for bringing about free agency. A Hall of Famer, he defined the role of tight end. Today, unfortunately, he is not well. When the team moved to Indianapolis in 1984, they kept the name ... a misfit.
The Kansas City Chiefs were the Dallas Texans in the AFL. The name was picked to honor Kansas City Mayor Roe "The Chief" Bartle who was instrumental in bringing the team to Kansas City.
Speaking of Missouri, the St Louis Cardinals who since have moved to Phoenix, actually started as a football club on the southwest side of Chicago. They were known as the Normals until 1901. At that time the owner received some faded hand-me-down maroon jerseys from the University of Chicago. The color looked more like Cardinal red. The team became the Racine Cardinals, keeping the name as they moved: Chicago 1922, St. Louis 1960, and finally, Phoenix, 1988.
The Detroit Lions were originally the NFL's Portsmouth's Spartans. In 1934, the new owner George Richards renamed the Lions since the area already had a successful feline team... baseball's Tigers. Denver Broncos got their name in a contest that capitalized on Denver's Wild West heritage.
I saved the Redskins, Ravens and the Chargers for last. The Redskins because I was always told by my mother, an immigrant lady, that my dad and my uncle Louie played for the Boston Indians. Thanks to a reader I learned there was never a team named Indians in Boston only Braves and Redskins... the same team. To my mom, they were Indians. They played in Boston for four years and moved in 1937 to Washington, keeping the name.
After a 12-year void, football returned to Baltimore from Cleveland. The name Browns remained in Cleveland, but focus groups selected the name ravens honoring one of Baltimore's most famous sons, Edgar Alan Poe and his poem "The Raven." The San Diego Chargers were so-named by a Hollywood resident because the man who owned them in 1960, Baron Hilton, also owned the then new "Carte Blanche" charge card. Silly reasoning, but it stuck first in the AFL and now the NFL.