When the Name of a Sports Team Makes People Mad

From a Washington Post story by Frederic J. Frommer headlined “The WFT’s name change is a marathon. The Cincinnati Reds 0nce did it in a sprint.”

Nearly 70 years ago, the Cincinnati Reds decided their name wouldn’t cut it in a political climate of anti-communist hysteria. Days before the start of the 1953 season, the team surprised sportswriters and fans when it announced that it would be known as the Redlegs.

On Feb. 2, the Washington Football Team will announce a new name of its own, but the process couldn’t be more different. Fans have been waiting for this moment since July 2020, when the team said it would ditch the name Redskins in the face of pressure from sponsors and a national reckoning on race. (Cleveland’s baseball team also dropped its longtime Native American name, the Indians, to become the Guardians.)…

Nothing close to Washington’s 18-month rebranding happened when the Reds, baseball’s oldest professional franchise, changed names. One day in April 1953, General Manager Gabe Paul announced the switch but provided no explanation.

“Some observers believed that the political significance of ‘Reds’ in international affairs was responsible for the change,” Sporting News reported at the time, referring to the era’s Red Scare and the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

The Reds’ GM later explained the reason for the switch was in fact to avoid the association with communism, team historian Greg Rhodes said.

“And it was true that the headlines were filled with bad news about the other ‘Reds,’ ” Rhodes said. “We were battling the ‘Reds’ in Korea. We were engaged in a Cold War with the ‘Reds.’ ”

In the previous presidential race, when Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed Joe McCarthy — the red-baiting GOP senator from Wisconsin — and hammered Democrats for their supposed softness on communism, The Post’s front page headline blared, “Democrats Are Too Lax With Reds, Ike Charges.” Eisenhower wound up winning in a landslide, recapturing the White House for the GOP after 20 years of Democratic control.

“Clearly, at the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, anything associated with the color red or its gradients was regarded as sympathetic to communism,” said John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball.

“Redlegs” didn’t come out of the blue. Thorn noted that it was a “Cincinnati nickname from the outset of the franchise as it was based on Red Stockings, which gave way to Reds.”

But the switch to Redlegs was a “halfhearted one,” Rhodes said, adding that fans and reporters used Reds and Redlegs interchangeably.

The name change proved short-lived — the team switched back to Reds in 1959 — but the issue resurfaced two years later when Cincinnati took on the New York Yankees in the 1961 World Series. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, a virulent anti-Communist with a flair for dreaming up sinister headlines, wrote to Reds Manager Fred Hutchinson on the eve of the Fall Classic, urging him to change the team name again.

In his letter, the judge said he was afraid “America is in for some terrible scares. It is inevitable that one headline or more will scream, ‘REDS MURDER YANKS!’ ” Musmanno wrote that it grieved him that Cincinnati “should have a baseball team named after the brutal bolshevistic gang of international bandits, who are terrorizing the world and instilling fear into the hearts of the American people who never knew fear before.”

In a twist, he invoked the Washington Football Team’s old name, along with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

“There was a time when ‘red’ was accepted as a contraction to the word ‘Redskin’ and there could be some connotation of self-esteem” in identifying with American Indians, he wrote, “but today, in the public mind, a ‘Red’ is invariably regarded as a member of Khrushchev’s Kleptomaniac Klansmen.”…

Luckily for America, the Yankees took the 1961 Series in five games.

In a rematch 15 years later — as the country was celebrating the 1976 bicentennial — the Reds swept the Yankees, with Gabe Paul, the Reds GM who had switched to the Redlegs in the 1950s, then running the Yankees’ front office. By that time, the term “Reds” had lost its scary luster. Still, somehow Cincinnati’s baseball team once again shared a nickname with this nation’s communist adversaries. The Reds were so dominant in the 1970s they were called the “Big Red Machine” — the same moniker as the powerhouse Soviet hockey team.

Frederic J. Frommer, a writer and sports historian, is the author of several books, including “You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals.”

Speak Your Mind