The Stories Behind Professional Sports Teams with Backyard Bird Nicknames

June 18, 2013

With the four major professional sports all on fans’ minds in some capacity – the championship series in both basketball and hockey, the third month of the regular season in baseball and the recent pre-training camp activities in football – it’s worth noting that approximately 1 out of every 10 teams across those leagues are named after birds. The vast majority of these, however, are not named after the kinds of birds for which backyard birders provide food and shelter.

Football’s Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks, as well as basketball’s Atlanta Hawks, are all named for birds of prey (although there is no actual bird that’s officially called the “seahawk,” which is instead a common nickname for the osprey). Football’s Baltimore Ravens are named after the foreboding (in literary circles) relative of the crow, while hockey’s Pittsburgh Penguins are named after the flightless bird found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, basketball’s New Orleans Pelicans are named after the long-beaked water birds with the large throat pouches, and hockey’s Anaheim Ducks are named after the large and varied group of  aquatic birds.

But there are still four teams that have names of birds that so many people get hours of enjoyment from watching. In fact, three of these four teams all play the same sport: baseball. If you’re both an avid backyard birder and a rabid baseball fan, perhaps this nickname connection is the long-hidden reason why. Well, maybe not – but either way, the stories of how football’s Arizona Cardinals and baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays came by their nicknames are not quite as simple as someone saying, “There are lots of cardinals indigenous to St. Louis, let us call our baseball team the Cardinals.”

CardinalfallArizona Cardinals: Arizona’s nickname traces its origin to an early incarnation of the franchise as an amateur team in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, while playing under the nickname of the Normals, the club’s owner purchased used jerseys from the University of Chicago. Disagreeing with the stated color of faded maroon, the owner declared, “That’s not maroon, it’s Cardinal red!” Though the franchise would go on to experience disbandments, re-organizations and relocations to the Southwest, the nickname still stuck.

Baltimore Orioles: This nickname is closely linked with professional baseball in Baltimore, as most of the teams based in the city over the years have been called the Orioles – and unsurprisingly at that, considering the state bird of Maryland is the Baltimore Oriole. Perhaps what isn’t as widely known, however, is that the bird was so named in the early 1800s because the colors of the male resembled the colors on the coat of arms of George Calvert. Calvert (better known as Lord Baltimore) was a member of the Calvert family, a clan whose claim to fame was establishing the colony of Maryland in the 17th century. So when the St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore for the 1954 season, the traditional nickname was quickly adopted.

Scardinalt. Louis Cardinals: The year was 1899, and the burgeoning St. Louis franchise had just discarded its original nickname of Browns for the snappier-sounding Perfectos. Unfortunately for St. Louis fans, the dominance implicit in the new nickname failed to manifest itself on the field, as the team finished a distant 5th that season. Whether looking for a more appropriate nickname or simply a good turn of phrase, a local sportswriter referred to the team – which wore red striped stockings and red-trimmed uniforms – as the St. Louis Cardinals in a newspaper column sometime during the team’s non-perfect year. The new name soon caught on and the rest is history.

bluejayToronto Blue Jays: When Toronto was given the ability to develop an expansion franchise for the 1977 baseball season, executives decided to hold a “Name the Team” contest. After 30,000 entries had been whittled down by a panel of judges to 10 finalists, “Blue Jays” emerged as the selection by the team’s board of directors for the new team’s nickname. A statement issued by the board’s chairman stated, in part, that the name was picked because 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.”

So the next time somebody tries to argue that there is no connection between backyard birding and professional sports, you’ll now be able to tell them otherwise. Happy birding!

-By Sean Peick (Guest Writer)

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