Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

No one will ever name a sports team this way

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Sun March 10, 2013
Harmon Killebrew, wearing his Washington Senators uniform, swings a bat during practice, c. 1957.
Harmon Killebrew, wearing his Washington Senators uniform, swings a bat during practice, c. 1957.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In the U.S., you can name a team almost anything, says Bob Greene
  • The one certainty is that no one will call a major league team "the Senators," he says
  • Greene says Washington Senators, once in the American League, came from simpler time
  • Today's politicians are so disliked that no one would cheer for them, he says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- In American professional sports, you can name a team almost anything.

You can give the team a ferocious name (Tigers, Lions, Bears, Grizzlies, Bengals). You can go for a swashbuckling image (Pirates, Buccaneers, Trail Blazers). Colors are all right for a team name (Reds, Browns, Blues). Birds (Orioles, Falcons, Eagles). You can sound regal (Royals, Titans, Kings). Aeronautic themes work (Jets, Flyers, Rockets). Fish (Marlins). Religious imagery (Saints, Padres). Even insects (Hornets).

There are some names -- and mascots and logos associated with them -- that have become controversial, but that are still used: Redskins, Indians, Braves.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

But I have been talking with sports experts and sports-marketing specialists, and they are in agreement that there is one name -- a name that used to belong to a famed big-league baseball team -- that would be met with such antipathy by America's fans that no team today would even think of using it.

I refer, of course, to the Senators.

"Not a chance," said Rob Fleder, former executive editor of Sports Illustrated and editor of sports books including "Sports Illustrated's The Baseball Book" and the baseball anthology "Damn Yankees."

The Washington Senators were a charter member of the American League, and were around, in one form or another, from 1901 until 1972. For a lot of that time they were a terrible baseball team -- they were derided with a popular saying: "First in war, first in peace, last in the American League."

But although the team was lousy, no one minded the name. "People associated 'Senators' with something revered, something held in high regard," Fleder said. "The team wasn't distinguished, but the name was."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Now?

With polls showing that the approval rating for Congress is minuscule (around 15% in many polls, 12% in a recent New York Time/CBS News poll), "no marketing person in his right mind would name a team the Senators," Fleder said.

Indeed, when, after 33 years without a big-league baseball team, Washington was awarded one for the 2005 season, the owners, probably wisely, went with Nationals, not Senators, for a name.

"You need a name that has a chance to be loveable," Fleder said. "That leaves 'Senators' out."

That's an awfully melancholy commentary on the current state of our public attitudes. Yet purely as a business decision, calling any new big-league sports team the Senators would be seen as ill-advised. Ferguson Jenkins, the Hall of Fame pitcher who broke into the major leagues in 1965, when baseball's Senators were still playing in Washington, said last week:

"I don't think that any team today would choose to call itself the Senators because of all of the controversy in Washington. I believe that people would think that the name was too political."

Indeed, today's poisonous political environment is the main reason that what was once a perfectly good sports-team name would be a nonstarter now. Sports historian David Krell, author of the forthcoming "Blue Magic: The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field, and the Battle for Baseball's Soul," said:

"The term 'Senator' once sounded much more austere. The country felt differently about Washington. My father said that when men and women would go to the movies, and the newsreel came on and Franklin Roosevelt would appear, the people in the theater would cheer." Krell recalls hearing an older American proudly "tell a story about how, as a boy, he memorized the names of all the senators. They were giants.

"But I just don't think you could use that name for a team now. It would be a punch line. Something that Jay Leno would make jokes about every night."

In Canada, a country that may have a more tolerant attitude toward the machinations of government, the professional hockey team in Ottawa was named the Senators early in the 20th century, and, as a member of the National Hockey League, still is. And in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the minor-league baseball team was christened the Senators in 1894, and continues with the tradition of the name.

But in the multi-billion-dollar, high-stakes world of U.S. major-league sports -- and even at major U.S. colleges -- it would doubtless be seen as foolhardy to take a chance on using that name.

"Now that the approval ratings for Congress are within the margin of error for ax murderers, it is inconceivable," said Ron Rapoport, who traveled the country for decades covering all the major sports for newspapers in Los Angeles and Chicago, and who is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of the greatest sports columns in the history of Chicago newspapers.

"Some of us remember the Washington Senators," he said, "but if someone proposed calling a team the Senators today, young people would scratch their heads and think: 'What a strange choice.'"

The current turmoil in Washington likely hasn't helped matters. Michael Talis, president of Talis Sports Marketing, a company that arranges baseball fantasy camps featuring former big-leaguers and organizes appearances by retired players, said he would worry about the emotional well-being of athletes compelled to wear the uniforms of such a team.

"Players having to take the field with the word 'Senators' stitched in big letters across the front?" he said.

"Can you imagine the kinds of things the fans would be yelling at them?"

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT