Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

No one will ever name a sports team this way

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
March 10, 2013 -- Updated 1226 GMT (2026 HKT)
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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT