Last week, Cleveland’s baseball team announced a name change, ending months of discussions sparked by a national reckoning that urged institutions to drop racist logos and names.
Speaking of pro sports team nicknames that don’t work, Philadelphia’s baseball club could do much better than “Phillies.” The name is not so objectionable as it is lame, and Philadelphia is definitely not lame. It never has been.
The big-league ball club in Cleveland just announced that it will be known as the Guardians — a smart move because the team has been known since 1915 as the Indians, a racist name that was made worse by that awful “Chief Wahoo” logo.
The Phillies don’t need to change anything, unlike Cleveland. But the rebranding in Cleveland shows solid alternatives can be found right around the corner. That is literally true in Cleveland: “Guardians of Traffic” refers to giant Art Deco statues on a bridge near the ballpark.
The Cleveland club hardly just picked Guardians out of a cap. The club said it did 140 hours of interviews, surveying 40,000 fans, settling on a name that it noted in a news release serves “to protect, to keep watch, to defend.”
The club added: “For Clevelanders, this is a way of life. We fight together for what we believe in. And if we get knocked down, we pick each other right back up and keep fighting. We’re resilient, hard-working and loyal — to this city and to each other. That’s what it means to be Cleveland Guardians.”
“Phillies,” on the other hand, signifies ... what?
How the Quakers became the Phillies
The expansion franchise was first known in 1883 as the Quakers (speaking of passive), picking up the sub-nickname “Phillies” in an Inquirer news report before the team had even played a regular-season game.
“Phillies” caught on, and the team’s nickname was officially changed in 1890, according to baseball-reference.com.
“The Phillies endure as the oldest, continuous, one-nickname, one-city franchise in all of professional sports, an extraordinary tradition,” the team’s 2021 media guide practically crows, as if coming up with a better one would be forever out of the question.
But people have been looking for alternatives for 75 years. When the Carpenter family bought the club for $400,000 in 1943, the Phillies had not been to the World Series since 1915 and had just one winning season since 1918.
So the Carpenters wanted a fiercer name for their new era. Even though the team would still be officially known as the Phillies, “Blue Jays” was chosen from among 623 entries in a contest. Topping the Phillies script in the 1944 logo — with the i’s dotted by stars for the first time — was a rendering of a sort-of-ferocious blue jay.
But the name never really caught on. When the Phillies won the National League pennant in 1950, that team was known around town as the “Whiz Kids,” a nod to their relative youth. Consequently, the team of veterans that won the pennant in 1983 was the “Wheeze Kids.”
The other long-standing pro teams in town have more interesting nicknames: Eagles, after the New Deal symbol; 76ers, in honor of the city’s role in the American Revolution; and Flyers, which is alliterative and evokes speed (even though “Fists” might have been better).
Inspiration is everywhere
Doing away with “Phillies” would also mean the end of the team’s sad logo, with the prissy script and those star-dotted i’s — and the 250-year-old Liberty Bell in the background. Philadelphia’s team needs a stronger emblem than a cracked bell, for one thing.
The ball club can’t use “Rockies,” a nod to our film-famous boxing hero, because that nickname has been claimed by that big-league team in Colorado, but inspirations abound all over Philadelphia — the brawny Navy Yard and waterfront, the mighty bridges and factories, those great murals, even its place in music history.
Rebranding comes with its own special reward: millions more in fresh merchandise sales. The NBA’s Brooklyn Nets have one of the all-time most passive names (which is why “Hoagies” would not work here), but they have a simple, popular black-and-white logo.
Think outside the box. Way outside. Maybe the team could just be called “Philly.” No Philadelphia, no Phillies. Brief and bold. A nickname for the whole town.
Consider the Jawn. “Jawn,” or, roughly “thing,” is distinctly Philadelphian: contemporary, interchangeable, all-inclusive, descriptive, an inside joke. Most important, it cops an attitude.
I don’t like singular names for teams, but Philly and Jawn can be used for everything here, and by everybody here. They belong to Philadelphia, as the teams in town have for generations.
Plus, T-shirts and caps would fly off the shelves, and not just at the ballpark. There is already a Phillies cap with “jawn” on the front. Rightfielder Bryce Harper wears a “Jawn” stocking cap, with the Liberty Bell replacing the “a.”
The fun of the game
Changes are inevitable.
The Washington Football Team ruled out all imagery with Native American connotations last month, and the Kansas City Chiefs dumped their mascot, “Warpaint,” a horse.
But changes don’t have to be sparked by controversy. Some changes can be fun, because sports are supposed to be fun. Remember?
Dave Caldwell grew up in Lancaster County, graduated from Temple University, and lives in Manayunk. He was a sports reporter for The Inquirer from 1986 to 1995.