October 08, 2004

What's in a Name?

Today's Musical Selection: "Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Phillip Sousa

Hi, everybody! Today I'm back on the DC baseball kick (curb your enthusiasm), in particular the task of naming the team. The naming issue is a bit up in the air at the moment, as MLB is trying to put off the decision until the team is sold, allowing the new owners to choose a name. That hasn't stopped fans and media outlets from debating the merits of various name possibilities. So, naturally, I felt the need to step into the fray.

BallWonk is running a highly entertaining series on some possibilities he'd like to see considered. His list includes Commanders, Diplomats, Federals, Georges, Grays, Monuments, Mosquitos, Potomacs, Speakers, and Whips. (Some of these choices are, I trust, more serious than others.) Other names bandied about include Exposes, Filibusters, Lobbyists, Beltway Bandits, Nationals, and Suckers (from those bitter about the stadium deal).

As far as I'm concerned, the right choice is the old choice: Senators.

I know there are plenty of good reasons not to choose "Senators," and I'll address those in a minute. But first, I want to address the issue of why some of the other choices won't fly.

For those who are wondering, "Why can't they just keep the Expos name?", that name is particular to Montreal. The team was originally named for Expo 67, the world's fair that put Montreal on the map as a cosmopolitan city and spurred the baseball drive. To keep the Expos name would not only be an insult to the people of Montreal, but it would rank up there in pantheon of mismatched names with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers and the infamous Utah Jazz. (I once ridiculed the Jazz in front of a Mormon friend, and he proceeded to explain, in all sincerity, that BYU actually had a fine jazz band. I shook my head and walked away.) Besides that, "Washington Expos" sounds pretty dumb.

Also, Washington is a pretty old-line and traditional city. The kind of colorful and progressive names usually associated with new teams aren't going to work here. We need something old-fashioned. So anything well off the beaten path (like Georges, Mosquitos and Whips) or based on dumb wordplay (Exposes and Monuments) is automatically stricken from consideration. Any name using "DC," "Capital City" or "Beltway" in place of "Washington" is out of the running. Anyone proposing a singular name or one ending in "z" or "x" will be shot on sight. (Exception: "Sox" names may be considered, but the options are thin. "Black Sox" has unsavory connotations. Green, Yellow, Orange, Purple, and Gray are not appropriate for DC. "Blue Sox" has possibilities, and I'm surprised it hasn't come up more.)

In addition to being an old-line city, Washington is a city that upholds its sporting traditions. When the NBA's Bullets became the "Wizards" in a misguided effort by owner Abe Pollin to combat violence, such fans as the team had went into revolt. The same thing occurred when the Bullets and the NHL's capitals ditched the old red-white-and-blue (as Gregg Easterbrook likes to say, "not to put too fine a point on it, the most successful color scheme in world history") in favor of a bland medium blue, copper and black. Even the nauseatingly racist "Redskins" name refuses to die, because the fans are accustomed to it. As I said, we venerate sports tradition here.

This means that otherwise intriguing names (like Potomacs, Speakers, Commanders, Ambassadors and Blue Sox) would miss the cut, along with some names attached to defunct Washington teams from other sports, like Federals (USFL), Diplomats (NASL), Stars (ASL), and Eagles (the name that the Padres were supposed to take when they almost moved to Washington in '74).

After all, what sets this Washington team apart from new teams in places like Tampa Bay and Phoenix is that we have a long and established history with the sport. Picking a name with no ties to our baseball heritage would be tantamount to throwing away all that tradition, which seems suicidal in a city like this. The new team should honor our past. It'd be foolish not to. (For cynics who wish to sneer that Washington's baseball tradition is nothing to be proud of, I would like to point out that we've won a world title more recently than the Cubs, Red Sox and White Sox, and that our history is dotted with great players such as Sam Rice, Joe Judge, Goose Goslin and the legendary Walter Johnson. I see nothing to be ashamed of.)

Applying those criteria, we're down to four choices: Senators, Nationals, Statesmen and Grays. The Washington team was officially called the Nationals from 1901 to 1958, when they finally formalized the name "Senators," which local fans had been calling the team for decades. Statesmen is the name of Washington's American Association entry from the 19th century. And Grays was the name of the Negro League team which played many of its games in Washington, though it was officially based in Pittsburgh.

Statesmen is a respectable choice, though it may even be too old-school to be considered. I doubt even the oldest baseball fans in the Washington area have memories of the old Statesmen, who were very short-lived and were gone before the turn of the 20th century. There's a difference between honoring your history and burying yourself in a mausoleum, and I think "Statesmen" falls on the other side of that line.

Nationals is a solid choice with a lot of tradition behind it (officially, it's the longest-running name in Washington baseball history). I would have no objections to this choice. On the other hand, it is a little dry. Try saying "Washington Nationals" a few times out loud and you'll see what I mean. Doesn't really roll off the tongue.

Grays is the favored choice of Mayor Williams, and anyone who's worked as long and hard as he has to bring baseball to DC deserves a hearing. Those in favor of the Grays name point out that the Grays had far better record than the Senators squads of the same era, sometimes outdrew them, and might have won a head-to-head matchup if such a thing had been feasible at the time. Also, picking the name "Grays" would be a good way to make connections with the city's African American population, some of whom are feeling put out with the teams because they're afraid gentrification will drive them out of Anacostia. Baseball as a whole needs to do a better job marketing itself to African Americans, and in city might that be more important than in Washington, famously dubbed "Chocolate City" by Parliament in the '70s.

I was a lot more down on the "Grays" name, as I mentioned last week, until I spotted someone on TV sporting a modernized rendering of the Grays jersey. I thought it looked pretty sharp. Even though, like Nationals, it lacks a bit for punch, I would not object in the least if the new ownership elected to go this route.

That leaves us with my choice, Senators. It a name with a great sound (trying saying "Washington Senators" out loud). it has pop and punch, it's uniquely DC (Ottawa hockey team aside), and it's got the history. It even has the distinction of being a "democratically elected" name, since the team adopted it after fans preferred it to the official name. It even lends itself to headline puns ("Senators Veto Mets," "Senators Censure Braves"), which is something you can't say for Grays. What more could you want?

Now, there are some worthwhile objections to Senators. I'll deal with the primary objections I've heard:

DC doesn't have Senators. Mark Plotkin's hobby-horse argument. As if Congress will tell the DC statehood folks, "Well, seems you bought yourself a whole team of Senators, so no voting rights for you." It's a fair point, but if we're looking to use the baseball team as a platform for voting rights, wouldn't it be better to use the name "Senators," on the off chance that an announcer might comment on the irony in passing on a broadcast some day? Avoiding the name "Senators" for voting-rights reasons won't attract attention because it's hard to notice something that isn't there. It's far more likely that Tim McCarver, in the middle of one of his rambling half-hour tangents, will say, "Huh, the Washington team's called the Senators, but they don't have any. Figure that," than to say, "Did you know that the Washington team's not called the Senators because they don't have any?" Think about it.

Oh, and Mark: We do have Senators in Washington. A hundred of 'em. Try looking in that building with the big white dome out beyond left field in the renderings of the new park.

(If Plotkin and the voting-rights folks want to refer to the new team the "Shadow Senators" so they can make their point, they can feel free.)

The Texas Rangers own the name. Technically, this is true. When Bob $hort sold us out and hauled our team to Dallas, he took the copyrights and trademarks with him. However, I really don't think the Rangers would try to hold us for ransom to get the name back. It's not like they're using it. Send 'em a ribeye and a 6-pack of Pearl beer and we're good to go.

It's already failed twice. This is the most powerful argument from people who want a fresh start. Despite the proud moments, the Senators' history is laminated in failure, and two teams with the Senators name skipped town. Those who believe in curses darkly suggest that one hangs over this name. Why set ourselves up for doom and failure?

But I don't believe in curses. And nicknames don't kill teams, bad owners do. The Senators name bears far less blame for the loss of our teams than noted racist Calvin Griffith (who in 1978 told a Lions' Club meeting in Waseca, Minnesota that he moved the team "because you have a lot of good, hard-working white people here") and noted opportunistic sellout $hort. We just happened to be afflicted by two of the worst owners in baseball. It's not the name that drove the teams out of town.

So let's bring back the Senators, shall we? I propose that we nickname our stadium "The Voting Booth." And in recognition of the valid points of the Grays backers, I think the stadium should contain a museum dedicated to the Negro Leagues, with a special focus on the Grays and other teams that called Washington home. Sound like a plan?

Here's hoping I'll see my fellow fans at the Voting Booth in 2008.

That's all for me today. Until next time!

Posted by Fred at October 8, 2004 02:51 PM

Excellent points all around.

There's one thing I'd like to say to the people supporting the Grays name - does this really accomplish what you're trying to do? You say that naming the MLB team after the Homestead Grays honors Negro League ballplayers.

I say, what kind of honor is that? People are going to forget about the name connection once the newness of the team wears off, and won't take the time to learn about the long (largely forgotten, mind you) history of the Negro Leagues and black Americans in baseball. Naming the team after the Grays really amounts to nothing more than a token PC gesture - just like many token PC gestures from white America to black Americans.

If the people supporting the Grays name are serious about truly honoring the Negro Leagues, why not (as MF suggests) push for the creation of a Negro Leagues museum inside the new ballpark with memorabilia, video exhibits, classic uniforms, and an entire sections focusing on the Homestead Grays. And on top of that, push for the museum to be open every day of the year, not just on game days. This would do far more to educate the public about the Negro Leagues than simply naming a team ever would, and would only be appropriate for one of the top cities in the country for black Americans.

Besides, why not unite behind a name that the entire area - white, black, brown, yellow and green - supports: Senators. In terms of fan support, Senators spanks the Grays, with nearly twice the number of votes in a recent Washington Post poll (41% of the vote to 21%). Even the top three choices behind Senators ("Grays", "Nationals" and "Choose Something Else") didn't add up to the number of votes in favor of Senators. The area's baseball fans have spoken, and the eventual owners of this team would be downright suicidal.

Posted by: Papa Shaft at October 8, 2004 10:44 PM

I have to wonder why DC would be so interested in naming the new team after a franchise that failed twice. Not only did the Senators leave town twice, they were terrible on the field 95% of the time too.

The name Grays, other than just being cool, also celebrates a legacy of success. The Homestead Grays are a franchise with great history of success, something that Senators doesn't have. Baseball is about connecting with history, and with the choice in front of you, isn't it better to connect with the successful history?

Hell, have the museum too. And there needs to be two statues outside the stadium: Walter Johnson and Buck Leonard. While Josh Gibson was a more famous Gray, Leonard spent almost his entire career there, which was unheard of in Negro League Baseball.

Regardless of the name, forget about the stadium being named the Voting Booth. Like all new stadiums, it will be WhoeverPaysTheMost Field.

Posted by: frinklin at October 9, 2004 12:59 AM

Good points, and arguments like yours have softened my own resistance to the Senators name. (Softened, but not reversed; I was raised a Twins fan, and so it is an article of faith rather than reason to me that the Washington Senators now play in Minnesota, and that's history you just don't mess with.)

But if we're in the mood, we could pay tribute to Washington's dismal baseball heritage - which basically amounts to lose, lose, lose, 1924, lose, lose, lose, lose entire team, gain new team, lose, lose, lose, lose entire team again - AND the Negro Leagues AND have a catchy name. Just go for the Washington Potomacs. The Potomacs were an independent negro-league team in 1923, formed by the legendary Ben Taylor. Sadly, the only thing legendary about the rest of the team was its talent; it had almost none. The Potomacs joined the Eastern Colored League in 1924 and finished 6th out of 8. They finished last in 1925 and moved to Wilmington. (Ye gads, was the indignity of playing segregated ball for a bad team not enough without having to move to Delaware?)

So the Potomacs offer all the historical "charm" of the Senators - losses and relocation - and an even older Negro-League tie-in than the Grays and with a catchier name to boot. Plus the Potomac is the one thing DC, Virginia, and Maryland have in common, and the new ballpark will be almost within sight of the Potomac. And in terms of nicknames, we'd probably wind up being the Macs. If someone offers me my choice of tickets to the Senators, the Grays, or the Macs, I'm taking the Macs tix every time.

Posted by: BallWonk at October 10, 2004 06:44 PM
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