Friday, December 02, 2005

What's in a Name?

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, December 1, 2005:
Though still dazed after the annual eating contest that Thanksgiving has become, I kept my eyelids pried open long enough to watch plenty of sports. If you are a New York fan across the four major team sports, this was as exciting a weekend as we’ve had in a long time.

In basketball the Knicks won in overtime on a buzzer-beater by the smallest player on the court, while the Nets won in overtime over the Lakers despite Kobe Bryant’s 46 points. In hockey the Rangers won an overtime shootout that was thrillingly extended to a record fifteen rounds; the Devils and Islanders won weekend games too. The Mets landed free agents first baseman Carlos Delgado and relief pitcher Billy Wagner and now seem plausibly pennant-bound in ’06; the Yankees will close a deal soon and, as always, will assure a way into the playoffs. The Giants rallied in the final minutes to create an overtime scenario, only to kick away three opportunities for a game-winning field goal. Only the Jets lost, but they may be forgiven all in this injury-shattered season, once so rosy.

Jets, Mets, Knicks ... Nets, Devils, Islanders ... Rangers, Giants, Yankees. In a tryptophanic reverie I began to wonder how did New York’s teams come to be known this way? I have written articles previously in this space about why athletes play, why fans root, and how team colors arose. It occured to me that I had created a chair with only three legs, and needed now to talk about how sports teams, mostly in our neighborhood, came by their names. (It would be fun to go far afield to plumb the gunslinger psychology of, say, the Houston Colt .45s, Baltimore Bullets, and St. Louis Bombers, but I have been accorded limited space.)

The oldest of surviving New York sports names is Knickerbocker, attached to the famous baseball club of Alexander Cartwright and his fastidious companions who in 1846 began to play the new game. The Knicks ceased to play competitive baseball in the 1860s and the club disbanded in 1882, but in 1946, a century after they had played the first match game by modern rules, their name was exhumed by a team playing a sport that wasn’t even invented until after the Knicks were gone. Today’s Knicks show no sign of their borrowed heritage in their corporate identity, but their first logo clearly invokes the Old Dutch Patroons of Washington Irving.

Next oldest is — surprise! — the Mets. Their official name of the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club came into being in 1961, the year before they took the field for their inaugural campaign at the old Polo Grounds, haunted with memories of the departed baseball Giants. However, as the Metropolitan Base Ball Club of New York the Mets had provided a major-league entry in 1883-87 and could trace its first incarnation back to 1857. The Jets and Nets were both named to rhyme with Mets, although each was born under another name—the Jets as the Titans (also playing in the Polo Grounds and echoing the Giants), the Nets as the Americans.

Newspapers attached the “Giants” name to the Chicago club also known as the White Stockings (today’s Cubs) in the mid-1880s, but by 1888 it had stuck to New York’s National League entry, which had previously been termed the Gothams, after an amateur club of the Knickerbocker era. When a New York entry came into the National Football League in 1925, it leased the Polo Grounds and took the baseball team’s name. These Giants vacated the Polo Grounds for Yankee Stadium a year before the baseball team hightailed it to San Francisco. Yet even today, local sports announcers call the team “the New York Football Giants,” in apposition to a ghost.

In the early days of major league baseball the press would usually refer to teams by their geographical locators alone: the Bostons would play against the New Yorks, the Detroits against the Chicagos. As some cities acquired additional big league entries, and sports sections began to enlarge, there was a need for short, punchy mascot names: Brown Stockings (“Browns”), Red Stockings (“Reds”), and so on. Brooklyn’s Trolley Dodgers of 1883 (so named because fans crossing from the trolley to the ballpark had to be watchful for cars arriving by intersecting lines) became Superbas and then Dodgers, Robins and, often as not, Bums. The Bums went west to Los Angeles, but when the American Football League began play in 1960, the team placed in L.A. (and long since relocated to San Diego) was called the Chargers because it sort of rhymed with Dodgers.

The Yankees arrived on the scene around 1913, although the team had joined the American League a decade earlier to replace the Orioles of Baltimore. They played as the New Yorks, the Greater New Yorks (referencing the 1898 consolidation of today’s five boroughs into one city), and the Highlanders. This name reflected not only their Hilltop Park in northern Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River from the site of today’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, but also their owner Joseph Gordon. Punning newsmen referenced the Gordon Highlanders, a fabled Scottish fighting regiment.

Actually, the name “Yankees” is more apt for a Boston or New England team, and the NFL fielded a Boston Yankee eleven. If turnabout is fair play, then it is fitting that the home of the Braves (originally in Boston, then in Milwaukee, and since 1966 in Atlanta) derives from New York’s Tammany Hall, whose leader James Gaffney bought the team in 1912.

New York’s first National Hockey League franchise was the Americans, founded in 1925. When boxing promoter and Madison Square Garden president Tex Rickard installed a second team in 1926, fans and sportswriters referred to the new squad as “Tex’s Rangers,” and the name stuck. Staying with hockey for a bit, New Jersey’s Devils were originally the Kansas City Scouts, transplanted to the Pine Barrens and renamed for a Sasquatch-like swamp critter that was said to prowl there. The Islanders name is a prosaic restating of their location on Long Island, while associating with the larger metropolis of New York to which so many Island residents commute for work.

Irksome to me lately has been a baseball attempt to follow in the footsteps of the “Long Island Islanders,” creating a linguistic conundrum with odd resonance. The owner of the team formerly known as the Anaheim Angels (until the 2005 campaign) is Arte Moreno, who has revealed himself to be not only a shrewd businessman but a linguistic strategist of the first order. By renaming his team as the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” he remains in technical, perhaps niggling compliance with the term of his lease with the city stipulating that Anaheim is to be included in the team’s name. By adding “Los Angeles” he intends to surf on the presumed benefits of attaching to a larger metropolitan area, with a presumably more lucrative media profile.

The official team position on the new name is that it honors the team’s roots, for the expansion franchise commenced play in the ballpark of the former Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels. But the franchise has been located in Anaheim since 1966. An equivalent “honoring” of a vacated city might be the Brooklyn Dodgers of Los Angeles. And of course there remain in common unquestioning parlance such mystifying names as the Los Angeles Lakers, transplanted from Minnesota, “the “land of 10,000 lakes,” or the Utah Jazz, formerly of New Orleans.

By bumping “Anaheim” to the caboose position of his new name for the team, Moreno has brilliantly anticipated that newspaper and other media practice would inevitably truncate the team's cognomen to “Los Angeles Angels.” In my view this has already happened. Short team nicknames like Yanks or Sox or Cubs or Bums were born a century ago largely of headline writers’ desperation to squeeze character count. Things may not have changed so much today, even given the limitless “real estate” of the web page or the unfettered air space of radio and tv.

The Moreno Stratagem appeared to be something new, not inadvertently redundant, for which I could find neither name nor precedent: the deliberate packing of a term with so much information, even irrelevance, that editors could be counted upon to reach for their blue pencils, and the cutting could be counted upon to come from the rear ... especially because that prepositional phrase “of Anaheim” is a hanging chad, inviting its own snip.

I was frankly flummoxed. I ran through my whole list of rhetorical devices, from alliteration to zeugma, and could find nothing that quite fit the Moreno Stratagem. Oxymoron came close, but a subterranean level of common sense or humor is discernible in “jumbo shrimp” or “adult male” that is not evident in “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.” And then I found it: Anesis (an’-E-sis): A figure of addition that occurs when a concluding sentence, clause, or phrase is added to a statement which purposely diminishes the effect of what has been previously stated.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Does calling some preexisting thing by a new name confer a new reality upon it? Lincoln once was asked, “If we called a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs would a dog have?” His reply:

“Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

--John Thorn


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