Founded in 1869 as the first-ever major professional athletic association in the U.S. and Canada, Major League Baseball boasts some of the oldest names and teams in all of sports. Examining the unique backstories of 30 notable franchises, here is a history of every MLB team’s name origins.
Chicago Cubs (1876)
Founded in 1876 alongside the Boston Red Caps (modern-day Atlanta Braves), the Chicago Cubs entered the MLB originally as the Chicago White Stockings. Before settling on the name Cubs in 1902, the team first became the Colts and later briefly adopted the dismal title, Orphans. The origins of the name Cubs are unclear, but one theory suggests that the name stuck after a sportswriter featured it in a newspaper headline.
Atlanta Braves (1876)
The Braves entered the MLB alongside the Cubs in 1876, spending a great chunk of their time-honored history in Boston. Throughout the franchise’s Massachusetts residency, it jumped between multiple titles, from Red Caps to Beaneaters to Doves to Rustlers to Braves to Bees and back to Braves again. It wasn’t until 1953 when the team would make its way to Milwaukee and then to Atlanta in 1966 where it resides today.
Despite the valiant nature that the team’s mascot suggests, the Braves trace their origins to a less amenable source. James Gaffney, who was a member of the Democratic Party machine known as Tammany Hall, bought the Boston franchise in 1911. Tammany Hall is named after famous Native American Chief Tamanend and displays a Native American headdress on its insignia. Members of the organization became known as Braves, hence the nickname was passed along to Gaffney’s players.
Cincinnati Reds (1882)
From its founding in the American Association (AA) in 1882 to its current-day standing in the MLB, the Cincinnati Reds have flip-flopped between numerous ‘Red’ names, including Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1882 to Cincinnati Reds in 1890 to Cincinnati Redlegs in 1953 and finally back to Cincinnati Reds in 1959. The traditional reason for the mascot’s common color dominator is simple – the players wore red socks.
Pittsburgh Pirates (1882)
Formerly known as the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, the team would transfer into the National League in 1890 following the collapse of the Player’s League. Shortly afterward, the team signed former Philadelphia Athletic, Lou Bierbaur. One Philadelphia sportswriter wrote that Pittsburgh “pirated away Bierbauer.” Subsequently, the Pittsburgh Pirates were born.
St. Louis Cardinals (1882)
Before the name Cardinals, the St. Louis team had always either been known as the Brown Stockings, Browns, or Perfectos. This changed in 1900 when a columnist for the St. Louis Republic reported hearing a woman remark that the team’s red stockings were a “lovely shade of Cardinal.” After publicizing the column, fans adored the nickname so much that it became the franchise’s official mascot.
Philadelphia Phillies (1883)
Prior to becoming the modern-day Philadelphia Phillies, the team started off in 1883 as the Philadelphia Quakers. The name soon changed to Philadelphias, which was later shortened to Phillies. Despite attempting to rename the team to Blue Jays in 1943, the blue-winged mascot failed to catch on.
San Francisco Giants (1883)
In 1886, the-then New York Gothams fought for a National League championship. Rumor has it, that following an impressive victory against the Philadelphia Phillies, team owner Jim Mutrie fondly regarded his players as, “my big fellows, my giants.” Whether or not it’s true, the name Giants stuck. Even after relocating to San Francisco in 1957, the team retained its celebrated mascot.
Los Angeles Dodgers (1884)
Up until 1958, the Dodgers had resided in Brooklyn, bouncing between numerous nicknames, including Trolley Dodgers, Bridegrooms, Superbas, Dodgers, and Robins. The name Dodgers emerged as part of the team’s first title, Trolley Dodgers, referring to pedestrians who dodged the Brooklyn tram that transported passengers around town. Between 1914 and 1931, the team embraced the name Robins to honor renowned manager Wilbert Robinson. It would return to “Dodgers” in 1932 following Robinson’s retirement and retain the nickname after relocating to Los Angeles.
Cleveland Indians (1901)
Originally named the Naps in honor of star player Napoleon Lajoie, the modern-day Cleveland Indians changed their title after Lajoie left the team in 1914. Though the definitive reason for the new mascot is uncertain, there may have been some influence from the Boston Braves’ triumphant win over the Philadelphia Athletics in the previous World Series.
Boston Red Sox (1901)
Despite sporting dark blue socks during the franchise’s early days playing as a charter member of the American League, the current Boston team would eventually gravitate to the name Red Sox after owner John Taylor switched the team’s uniforms to all-red. The nickname references that which was used by the Cincinnati Red Stockings between 1867 and 1870 and was also used by Boston’s National League franchise between 1871 and 1876.
Baltimore Orioles (1901)
First introduced to the league as the Milwaukee Brewers, the modern-day Baltimore Orioles were one of the eight new teams to enter into the MLB in 1901. The franchise would transition from Milwaukee to St. Louis in 1902 under the name Browns before settling in Baltimore in 1954. Its mascot was chosen in honor of the Baltimore team of the same name that dominated the league during the 1890s. The team’s winged mascot was adopted after Maryland’s state bird and features the same orange and black colors worn by Lord Baltimore.
Chicago White Sox (1901)
To pay homage to the original Chicago White Stockings that played between 1876 and 1889, Chicago’s new MLB franchise assumed the former mascot of its sister team, the modern-day Chicago Cubs. A few years later, the team shortened its name to White Sox.
Detroit Tigers (1901)
Of the eight teams to enter into the league in 1901, Detroit was the only one to retain its original mascot. The name Tigers is a moniker for Michigan’s oldest military unit, the 425th National Guard, popularly known as the Detroit Lion Guard. When it was first introduced to the American League in 1901, Detroit’s new team obtained formal permission from the regiment to assume its symbol and title.
Minnesota Twins (1901)
The arrival of the Washington Senators in Minneapolis in 1960 sparked a debate over whether or not to preserve the original name or alter it in favor of something relevant to Minnesota. Team officials went with the latter, electing the name Twins in reference to the two neighboring cities Minneapolis and St. Paul, jointly known as the Twin Cities.
New York Yankees (1901)
In 1901, the original Baltimore Orioles shuffled over to New York where they would adopt the name Highlanders. Even with an official mascot, the team was commonly referred to as the New York Americans. In 1904, an editor for the New York Press labeled the team as the Yanks in the headline because it was shorter and easier to fit.
Oakland Athletics (1901)
One of the oldest names clinging to the MLB today, “Athletics” traces its roots back to the City of Brotherly Love during the early 1860s, stemming from the Athletic Baseball Club of Philadelphia. Often referred to as simply the Oakland A’s, the team’s logo features a white elephant holding up a bat while balancing on a baseball. The reason behind the sigil comes from a comment made in 1902 by New York Giants manager John McGraw, who referred to the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics as a “white elephant.”
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
The Angels procured their name from the Los Angeles Pacific Coast League team that played from 1903 to 1957. More so than the mascot itself, the franchise struggled to identify an affiliated region in its title. Until 1965, it operated under the title of Los Angeles Angels before becoming the California Angels in order to garner more appeal. After the franchise was bought by Disney in 1997, the team converted to the Anaheim Angels. By 2005, it reverted back to Los Angeles Angels for the sake of tapping into the Los Angeles media market.
Texas Rangers (1961)
In 1972, another team by the name of Washington Senators relocated to Arlington, Texas. In honor of the Texas police force that patrolled the state during the 1820s, team owner Robert Short renamed his team the Texas Rangers.
Houston Astros (1962)
With the intention of “keeping with the times,” Houston Astros’ president Judge Roy Hofheinz changed the team’s name from Colt .45’s to Astros. Considering that Houston is known as “the space age capital of the world”, Astros was a fitting choice. According to Hofheinz, “With our new domed stadium, we think it will also make Houston the sports capital of the world.” Some theorists also speculate that the team was pressured by Colt Firearms Company, which protested against using the name of its handgun cartridge.
New York Mets (1962)
In 1961, New York held a name contest for its new expansion franchise, featuring the finalists, Rebels, Skyliners, Jets, Avengers, Burros, Continentals, Bees, NYBS, Skyscrapers, and Mets. “Mets” won by a decisive margin. Much to the delight of headline writers, the new name offered favorable brevity.
Washington Nationals (1969)
Between 1969 and 2004, the current Washington Nationals played in Canada under their first title, the Montreal Expos. After relocating to the U.S. capital, the team revived the name of its first franchise, which played in D.C. leading up to its transfer to Minnesota in 1960.
Kansas City Royals (1969)
Among more than 17,000 entries submitted in the new Kansas City club’s 1969 name contest, 547 fans proposed “Royals.” One fan in favor of the mascot wrote it was a noble fit considering “Kansas City’s position as the nation’s leading stocker and feeder market and the nationally known American Royal Livestock and Horse Show. Royalty stands for the best – that’s another reason.”
San Diego Padres (1969)
The San Diego Padres derive the same name as the city’s Pacific Coast League team. “Padres” is Spanish for father or priest, alluding to the region’s Mission known as Basilica San Diego de Alcala, the first Spanish Catholic Mission in California.
Milwaukee Brewers (1969)
Famous for its beer industry, Milwaukee has passed along the name Brewers to a myriad of baseball teams throughout the late 19th century. After owner Bud Selig acquired the departed Seattle Pilots, he chose the traditional name Milwaukee Brewers for his expansion franchise.
Toronto Blue Jays (1977)
After sponsoring a 1977 name contest that drew roughly 30,000 submissions, team officials announced Tornoto’s new franchise mascot, the Blue Jays. According to board chairman R. Howard Webster, the blue jay “is strong, aggressive and inquisitive. It dares to take on all comers, yet it is down-to-earth, gutsy and good-looking.”
Seattle Mariners (1977)
After the hasty departure of the Seattle Pilots in 1969, the city was awarded an expansion franchise in 1977. As one of the country’s primary ports, the name Mariners was chosen to echo Seattle’s proud link to the sea and maritime industry.
Colorado Rockies (1993)
Much to the dismay of many fans, officials announced in 1993 that Colorado’s expansion franchise would play under the title, Colorado Rockies, the same name of the botched NHL franchise that scraped together a mere average of 19 wins per season between 1976 and 1982. Local newspapers conducted surveys that indicated many fans favored the name Bears, the same mascot as Denver’s famous minor league team. In defense of “Rockies”, CEO John Antonucci stated, “The name we picked – it’s strong, enduring, majestic.”
Miami Marlins (1993)
The Miami Marlins implemented the name of the same city and mascot as the South Florida minor league team, which played on-and-off between 1956 and 1988. Prior to focusing exclusively on the city of Miami in its title, owner Wayne Huizenga chose the name Florida Marlins in 1993 in the hopes of spawning a state-wide allegiance. This would change in 2012 after the Marlins made their new home at Marlins Park.
Arizona Diamondbacks (1998)
Among the list of entries submitted for Arizona’s new expansion franchise, Scorpions, Coyotes, Rattlers, and Phoenix were some of the most popular. Much to the relief of many fans, the name Diamondbacks emerged victorious, putting to rest the baffling idea that a team based in Phoenix, Arizona might be called the Arizona Phoenix.
Tampa Bay Rays (1998)
The most recent team to join the MLB chose the name Devil Rays from roughly 7,000 submitted entries in a 1995 name contest. Unfortunately, the new mascot yielded substantial backlash from Christians and other fans offended by the word ‘devil.’ It wasn’t until 2007 that the team finally shortened its title to Rays. Oddly enough, the franchise’s luck drastically improved the following season when it made an unexpected run to the World Series.