Monday, February 23, 2009

What's In a Name?

I was using the depth charts at sportsline.com to help guide my pre-season predictions, and happened to notice that on their team pages, they list a number of facts: location, park, owner, GM, spring training site, etc (for example, here is the Rangers page). The one that caught my eye was "World Championships". They list Oakland as having won nine world championships, which means they are counting the titles earned when the franchise was based in Philadelphia. However, the Twins are listed with just two titles, meaning that they are ignoring the 1925 victory of the Washington Senators. The Braves are listed with three, which means they counted both 1914 Boston and 1957 Milwaukee.

As others have pointed out, the matter of franchises moving causes a lot of problems for record-keepers. On the one hand, in modern times at least, it is clear that the franchise is the same. The front office personnel move, the players move, the minor league affiliates stay tethered, etc. In nineteenth century baseball it was more difficult, as sometimes a franchise would said to have been sold back to the league or to a different city (as is the case with Worcester/Philadelphia between 1882 and 1883), and some people like to consider this a franchise shift. But it is usually closer to reality in those cases to say that one club folded, and the league simply added a new club in its place.

Of course, even in the modern era it can get confusing, if the league decides to get involved as in the case of my NFL team, the Cleveland Browns. You probably know that in 1996, the Browns ceased playing, and the personnel went to Baltimore and became the Ravens. But the NFL specifically stated that all tradition, colors, and records would stay in Cleveland for whenever a replacement franchise was obtained (we’re still waiting).

There are a number of different philosophies that someone in charge of these sorts of records could adhere to; I’ll sketch out a few, but they are hardly exhaustive:

1. The franchise is the same, no matter what--this is the philosophy that most recordkeepers use. It doesn’t matter if the team moves or not, they are still the same--the Nationals retain the history of the Expos, and the Twins should be entitled to the history of the Senators.

Pros: It models the reality that these are businesses, and sometime businesses move or change their names, but fundamentally remain the same.

Cons: Do the Twins’ fans care that the Senators won the World Series in 1925? Don’t the Senators have a lot more in common with the Nationals (and the second incarnation of the Senators), even if there is no direct lineage between the two? This point of view is all business and no soul.

2. Same as #1, except you obey the league when it tells you differently. If the Browns franchise is said to be on hiatus for three years, you roll with that, even if what happened to the management and personnel of the team is no different than what happened to that of the Houston Oilers or St. Louis Cardinals.

Pros: You get a pat on the head from the commish.

Cons: What makes the case of the Browns different than the case of the Oilers? Sure, the NFL promised Cleveland a new team, but Houston got one eventually too, and Cleveland didn’t (yes, I’m bitter, and I’m going to beat this into the ground). What if the league or the team claims something absurd, like that the Cincinnati Reds we know today, which started major league play in the 1882 AA, are direct descendents of the Red Stockings of 1869?

3. The franchise is the same if they maintain roots to the first location, like retaining the nickname (this seems to be the philosophy used by Sportsline, as the Braves, A’s, Dodgers, and Giants get to retain their titles, and they also retained their nicknames. The Twins are the only team that has ever won a World Series in one city, then moved and changed their name, so we can’t check to see if they are consistent on this policy).

Pros: I have no idea.

Cons: What if the original teams had been called the Washington A’s and the Philadelphia Keystones instead of the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia A’s? Today we might well have the Minnesota A’s and the Oakland Oaks. (The Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz may dispute this point.) But would it really matter?

One complaint that has been leveled about the Giants’ move to San Francisco is that they have done a poor job of retaining the New York heritage and properly celebrating McGraw, Mathewson, and the like (I’m not making this claim myself, just repeating what I’ve heard others say--I'm not a Giants fan and am in no position to make this kind of assessment). On the other hand, the Dodgers have been praised for trying to keep their Brooklyn roots in view. Is keeping the nickname enough, if you pretend that the old history doesn’t exist or push it aside?

Nicknames, particularly in early baseball, were somewhat specious. They weren’t official, they changed on the whims of newsmen, etc. Even if they were firmly established by 1920 or so, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use them as the defining characteristic of a franchise. And what to do about name changes for teams that don’t make a geographical move? Teams like the Devil Rays have tried to change perception and tweak their identity by changing their nicknames. They are just the most recent example; the Astros nee Colt .45s are another, as were the short-lived Boston Bees and Philadelphia Blue Jays. I don’t think anyone would seriously try to claim that the 1964 Colt .45s and 1965 Astros should be looked at as different teams.

4. Make location the defining characteristic. If the team moves, the records start over, regardless of whether they keep the name or any other factor.

Pros: This viewpoint recognizes that the team's location is of paramount importance, but also recognizes that each franchise is unique, and doesn't lump seperate entities together simply because they played in the same city. It recognizes that the Oakland A's have a unique history that they started writing in 1968. You could also of course maintain a set of records for the "A's franchise", and a seperate set of Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Oakland records.

Cons: With the compromise of keeping records for the franchise overall and in just one select location, this seems to me to be the best solution, so I will certainly welcome any drawbacks you see in the comments.

5. Recognize that there are at least two distinct ways to look at it: from the perspective of the franchise, and from the perspective of the city. Have two different sets of records.

Pros: It best models reality. In one sense, the Twins clearly are the same club as the Senators. They moved and Calvin Griffith and Harmon Killebrew came along, and if you were trying to handicap the 1961 AL pennant race you wouldn’t have treated them as an unknown or as an expansion team.

And from the other perspective, Walter Johnson has nothing to do with Minnesota. Fans can take pride in their team’s history, but generally can only truly cherish what they themselves have experienced. And no one in Minneapolis in 1925 shed a tear when the Senators won it all, as they had no idea that 36 years later that franchise would shift west to their town. And Washingtonians may be old enough to remember Frank Howard’s moonshots, or were told about it by their father and have considered it their baseball heritage, even if the team they now root for used play in Montreal.

From this perspective, the modern day Browns descend from the pre-1996 Browns (but also the Cleveland Rams and Bulldogs). And the Ravens spiritual roots trace back to the Colts.

Cons: It’s confusing. It takes up more space, and sometimes there should be even more nuance (speaking from experience as Cleveland fan, no one really cares that the Rams won the NFL championship while they were here. Most people treat Cleveland pro football history as truly having begun in 1946 with the founding of the Browns. Perhaps this was different when there were still a lot of people who remembered the Rams, but it’s no longer the case). So in that case, I could add a sixth approach, which is simply to have no strict policy and to judge each case individually. That may be satisfying on some level, but for a reference work, I think most people would agree that it’s better to have clear guidelines.

Most record books go with either approach #1 or approach #4, and I have no problem with that. However, the tack taken by Sportsline (again, they're using #3, as best I can tell), which considers the Twins to have won two World Series and the Giants to have won five doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And don’t even get me started on the fact that they completely ignore the nineteenth century.

1 comment:

  1. --Seems to me that continuity of the franchise corporate entity is the logical historical default position. The organization previously known as the Brooklyn Dodgers players remained intact in the sense that it continued to maintain its corporate and contractual relationship with its players after moving to LA. To the extent that baseball has a coherent sense of historical continuity it seems to revolve in a significant way around the evolution of continuous corporate franchises, and base records are best organized around those (I personally would ignore the history by fiat efforts of the NFL vis-a-vis the Browns). That doesn't mean that geographically organized records can't be of legitinmate interest to geogrphaically oriented fans, though, and can be amusing as a way to organize slices of history.
    --It seems to me perfectly legitimate to focus on records that begin with the start of the AL-NL two league era. The sixteen franchises that constituted the AL and NL in 1901 are still around today, and that level of stability was not achieved until then. to treat that as the beginning of a "modern baseball" that continues today seems historically defensible, though of course certainly not the only defensible approach.

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