Probably no other city in America has more peculiar origin stories for its sports teams than Los Angeles. Sure, the City of Angels has the Angels … but they’re in Anaheim, situated in an entirely different county.
Why are the Lakers not the Pacifics? And just exactly what are the LA Dodgers trying to “dodge”?
Even the Clippers and Rams aren’t Los Angeles born-and-bred. This city has an adoptive obsession with sports teams that came from (or ran away from) someplace else.
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Why the Lakers Are Called the Lakers
They used to say, “Go west young man, go west.”
That advice was appropriate for LA’s professional sports teams, because almost all of them came from someplace else.
The Lakers may be the most popular of all Los Angeles teams, and arguably the most iconic in the NBA. In LA, the team has won 12 NBA titles and 29 division titles. Many of the greatest players to ever lace on sneakers have worn the Laker purple and gold: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James to name a few.
But the Lakers came to Southern California under a cloud of uncertainty. In the 1960 season, the Minneapolis Lakers were struggling to win games when in January their chartered plane was forced to crash land in a field in Missouri on the way to play St. Louis.
The team owner, a man named Chris Short who made oodles of money in trucking, decided the close call was the last straw. Short was unhappy with the revenue his team was earning in Minneapolis, and even though it was his hometown, he packed the team up and went to LA. In their second year on the “left coast,” the LA Lakers went to the Finals.
Minneapolis Lakers Become the Los Angeles Lakers
No one ever really asked Short if he would change the nickname. Minnesota is known as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” thus the name Lakers, but you don’t think of lakes in SoCal. For the record, California has about 3,000 lakes, according to Wikipedia.
All these years later, the Lakers name doesn’t even seem wrong. When you say “Lakers” you think of bright gold uniforms and countless banners in the ceiling of the gym, and fast breaks, and Jack Nicholson. You don’t think of fishing in Minnesota.
The Dodgers and the Origin of Their Nickname
Bobby Fischer, the great chess master, who was 14 when Brooklyn lost their baseball team, once said of the Dodgers: “They were the heroes of my childhood. To all of us in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were gods.”
No neighborhood that hosted a ballpark ever had the love affair that “Flatbush” had with their Dodgers. Starting in 1890, before Brooklyn and New York became a bastion of commerce and culture in America, the folks who lived across the East River from Manhattan were a close-knit people who loved their home and their baseball team.
The Dodgers, or “The Bums” as their fans affectionately called them, were rarely winners in the first few decades of the 20th Century. By the 1940s, that worm had turned, and the Dodgers won a pennant in 1941, then again in 1947 and 1949, sparking a period of domination of the National League. That team became known as “The Boys of Summer” in a famed book written by Brooklyn’s own Roger Angell.
But where did the name “Dodgers” come from?
For that answer we return to the late 19th Century and the nascent days of mass transportation. As Brooklyn swelled from roughly 830,000 in 1890 to more than 1.6 million in 1910, the streets of the borough became crisscrossed with trolley tracks. The trolleys in Brooklyn were electrified streetcars, which required intricate tracks as well as overhead lines to provide the electricity.
There were no fewer than a dozen trolley companies operating in Brooklyn by the 1910s and 1920s. Across the river, New Yorkers used subways and buses, but Brooklynites had to quite literally “dodge” the many trolley cars in their neighborhoods. The baseball team, which had been known as the Grooms and Robins previously, became the “Trolley Dodgers” in 1911, or “Dodgers” for short.
The last trolley in Brooklyn ran in 1951. It was a method of transportation better replaced by more economical (and safer) busses.
When team owner Walter O’Malley decided to move his team to California for the 1958 season (bringing the Giants with him as a natural rival), he never considered changing the name. Ironically, Los Angeles had more operational trolleys (in the form of electric cable cars) in 1958 than Brooklyn did. So, maybe “Dodgers” was a good fit after all.
Why Are the LA Rams Called the Rams?
The defending Super Bowl champions got their nickname from Midwestern roots and a team owner who believed in brevity.
The Cleveland Rams were founded in 1936 by Damon “Buzz” Wetzel, a former All-American fullback who starred at Ohio State, and Homer Marshman, a successful Ohio attorney who knew barely anything about football. Buzz was the football guy, and Marshman was the money man. Later, Marshman explained how they arrived at “Rams” for a team name:
“Buzz was to run the show, serve as coach and player, too,” Marshman said in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “One day, Buzz told us we needed a (team) name. Reporters from the Plain Dealer and (Cleveland) Press were there. I asked the newspapermen for their advice. They agreed it should be a short name. Fordham was a big football school at the time and its nickname was the Rams. … I said to Buzz, ‘We can’t get one shorter than that.’ That settled it. We became the Rams.”
The Cleveland Rams won the NFL title in 1945. But all was not well: The team was bleeding money and facing competition from a new team called the Browns. So, owner Dan Reeves announced he would relocate the team to Los Angeles where he was confident he could make a better profit. He was correct.
Rams Were an Immediate Hit in LA
Part of the reason the LA Rams became popular in the city was a wrinkle in the contract they secured with the owners of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The lease required Reeves to field Black players on his team as a condition of renting the venue. As a result, the Rams re-integrated the NFL after more than two decades of a color barrier.
The Rams were the first major pro sports team to move to Los Angeles, leading the way for the Lakers, Dodgers, and so on. Later, the Rams bounced around the country: to St. Louis in the 1990s, and back to The City of Angels in 2016, where the team has played in two Super Bowls.
What about “Rams” — does it make any sense? It certainly didn’t in Cleveland. But the eastern mountains in California are home to big horn sheep, which have the curled horns that we see on the LA Rams helmets. So, at least there are “Rams” in California, which is more than we can say for some of these other teams.
What is a Clipper? And Why Do the LA Clippers Have That Name?
The Clippers trace their roots back to Buffalo. Did you know that? Originally the franchise was known as the Buffalo Braves. Which is alliterative, but not particularly politically correct or all that exciting.
In 1978, the owners of the Braves petitioned to move the team to California — more specifically sunny, sandy San Diego. Many folks wanted to call the team the “Suns,” but the NBA already a team with that name, in Phoenix. A contest was launched in a local San Diego newspaper, and the winning entry was “Clippers.”
San Diego has a geographic advantage over Los Angeles: The harbor is better protected from the gusty winds of the Pacific Ocean. That’s why so many sailors love San Diego. The biggest multi-masted ships of the 19th Century were called “clippers,” and San Diego welcomed many of them from all parts of the world.
By 1978, there were few at all in use anywhere, but the city has a museum dedicated to clipper ships. Plus, the term “clipper” has evolved to be used to describe many sailing vessels, especially those that can move quickly through the water.
A Quick Move From San Diego to Los Angeles
San Diego hosted the Clippers for six unsuccessful years, a period where the team had three head coaches and never made the NBA playoffs. The owner shocked the NBA when he moved the Clippers to Los Angeles before the 1984-85 season. He didn’t even ask permission. But his bold move went unchecked, and LA has had two NBA teams for nearly four decades.
The Clippers have never won a conference title, and have only recently experienced success. Even with improved play, the team will always be second fiddle to the Lakers in LA, (which doesn’t have any clipper ships to this day).
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