It is time to carry again the Cleveland Spiders (who actually weren’t that unhealthy, you realize)
Editor’s note: This story, originally published on July, 17, 2020, has been updated to reflect Sunday’s news that the Cleveland Indians plan to drop the nickname the team has used for 105 years.
Bring back the Cleveland Spiders.
The one historical fact about the original Spiders, the bit of trivia familiar to many fans, is that in 1899, they authored the worst record in baseball history (20-134). Indeed, that is pretty bad, but it’s a shame that’s how the franchise is remembered.
That last Spiders team made the Washington Generals — patsies for the Harlem Globetrotters — look like a juggernaut. The Spiders went 11-101 on the road, lost 24 straight games at one point and 40 of their final 41. (Cue Joe Riggins saying, “How’d they ever win the one?”) They played so many road games because they drew such paltry attendance in Cleveland — as few as 70 spectators at one game — and they lost less money playing away from home. So they changed the schedule accordingly. While losing all those road games, the Spiders were outscored 960-377.
Cleveland’s baseball team is in need of a new nickname, but why would I want to bring back the name of a team with such a legacy? There are two reasons. First, it’s a really cool nickname currently unused in major American professional sports, and a tremendous marketing opportunity. Second, it’s an unfair legacy, and bringing back the Spiders would give baseball a chance to right one of its historical wrongs.
A time for change
There hasn’t been a nickname change in Major League Baseball since the Tampa Bay Rays clipped their moniker from the original Devil Rays in time for the 2008 season. The National League hasn’t had a change since the Houston Colt .45s became the Astros in 1964, in advance of their move to the then-new Houston Astrodome. (Franchise relocations excepted.)
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Things used to be very different in professional sports. Nicknames were much more informal and fluid, and it wasn’t uncommon for a team to be known by more than one moniker at a time. Over the years, as teams recognized the value in having marketable identities and the merchandising opportunities that came with them, today’s geographic-location-plus-nickname format became deeply embedded in the psyche of sports fans. Changes in identity became more scarce and usually were spurred only by franchise moves, which themselves became more uncommon than in the early days of professional sports.
Change is afoot once again. It came to the NFL this summer, when the Washington franchise dropped its much-criticized nickname. That decision, for the D.C. footballers to finally confine the term they’d been using for nearly nine decades to the dustbin, put all the remaining team names related to Native Americans under the microscope for fresh looks. MLB, of course, has two such teams: the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves. At the time, the Indians said they would review the matter. Then word came Sunday the team is making a change. The Braves said in July they were not planning on changing the team name but at least were looking at their discomfort-inducing tomahawk chant ritual.
With a new name coming in Cleveland, the natural question is: What’s next?
Days of webs and wonders
For most of the 1890s, the Cleveland Spiders were one of the National League’s best teams. From 1892 to 1898, the Spiders’ .582 winning percentage ranked third in the league behind Boston (forerunners of the Braves) and the Baltimore Orioles. They never finished first but three times played in proto-World Series, which at the time pitted the first-place team against the second-place team. During that span, there were four of these matchups called the Temple Cup, which the Spiders won in 1895 by beating the Orioles.
Students of early baseball history will recall the famous Orioles teams of that era. Behind the battling, brawling ways of such legends as John McGraw and eventual Hall of Famers Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings and Dan Brouthers, Ned Hanlon’s Orioles featured a style of play that make the currently infamous Houston Astros look like a bunch of Mother Teresas.
Well, Baltimore’s chief antagonist during those years was the Cleveland Spiders, who were almost as good and every bit as mean. Led by their popular player-manager, Patsy Tebeau, the Spiders and Orioles had a rivalry so fierce that when Cleveland visited Baltimore during the 1895 Temple Cup series, the Spiders had to receive a police escort to get into the ballpark. And they were still pelted by bottles, rotten fruit and other projectiles. The Spiders in general, and Tebeau in particular, were particularly dangerous to umpires.
Still, their reign in the Sixth City was a glorious one and long lamented after it was over. The peak was the Temple Cup win. At a banquet that winter, Tebeau got up to give a speech and in between bouts of joyous tears, he said, “As long as Cleveland has a baseball club, the Cup should never leave the city.” Alas, the Cup went away after one more season, and in four more seasons, so did the Spiders.
The Spiders were truly a star-laden club during their heyday. Cy Young was the biggest star but was closely followed on the hitting side by Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett. In Young and Burkett, the Spiders arguably featured the best pitcher and best hitter of the decade, and certainly comprised the best one-two hitter-pitcher punch. A third Hall of Famer, Bobby Wallace, was a key player as well, starting off as a two-way performer and then becoming one of the great shortstops of his day during a career that lasted 25 years. Tebeau was an outstanding first baseman, and other notables included catcher Chief Zimmer, starter George Cuppy, infielders Cupid Childs and Ed McKean and outfielder Jimmy McAleer.
When the Indians won the first World Series in franchise history by knocking off the Brooklyn Robins in 1920, the Spiders were memorialized in a sidebar in the post-Series edition of the Sporting News. In a piece titled “Cleveland’s Struggle for Place in Sun a Long Story,” it was written, “Let it be not forgotten that the Cleveland team of 1895, the old Spiders of [Patsy] Tebeau, as much a baseball idol in his day as Tris Speaker is now, won the Temple Cup from no less a wonderful team than the old Baltimore Orioles.” In a Sporting News obituary for McKean in 1919, the Spiders were called “one of the best baseball organizations ever put together.”
A brief history of name changes
In baseball’s early days, the label by which a team was called was often determined by some kind of observed trait about the club itself — even if that trait wasn’t necessarily accurate. The Perfectos weren’t perfect. The Superbas weren’t superb. The Colts weren’t all young. The Bridegrooms weren’t all married. Some of the Orphans had parents. And the Spiders all had two legs apiece, earning their name because Tebeau admired their long, lanky builds and prowess in fielding.
Other times, names stemmed from a team’s laundry, and some of those are still with us. White Sox. Red Sox. Reds. Cardinals. According to Joe Posnanski, there was even a pre-Indians push to call Cleveland the Black Sox. That was four years prior to the 1919 World Series, though the presence of Joe Jackson in Cleveland might have portended something.
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Some teams had nicknames based on an owner, a manager or a beloved player — anyone who attracted enough mass adulation to characterize an organization all by himself. The Brooklyn Robins were so-called because of manager Wilbert Robinson, once a member of those infamous Orioles. The Boston NL team was for a time called the Doves, after owners John and George Covey. The most famous example was in Cleveland, where before they were the Indians, the team was known as the Napoleons (for three years) and the Naps (for another nine seasons) in honor of beloved team star Napoleon Lajoie.
And as mentioned, teams often had more than one nickname at a time. In a given season, the Brooklyn team might have been referred to as the Superbas, the Robins or as how most now remember them — the Dodgers. The original Washington Senators were interchangeably known as the Nationals for more than five decades.
Baseball researcher Ed Coen published a definitive list of nickname evolution in the fall 2019 edition of the Baseball Research Journal. It’s a fully documented accounting of what teams were called, and when. What jumps out is just how fluid these things used to be.
In fact, the longest-standing surviving team name — one that has longest remained unchanged in its current city-nickname form — is that of the Detroit Tigers, who were the Detroit Tigers at the time the American League went major in 1901 and have never been called anything else. No other franchise can claim that homogeneity of brand. Of course, even the Tigers have at times been informally referred to as the Bengals over the decades.
The point is simply this: The recent era of brand stability in sports in general and baseball in particular has been mostly good in terms of building name recognition. But these things have always evolved over time and there is no real reason to be precious about it. There will be some hardheaded fans in Cleveland who will hit Facebook and proclaim something like, “If they change the name, I’m done.” Well, fine. You do you, as the kids say. There is no and never has been any real permanence to these things, and “because I’m used to it” is no reason to cling to a bad idea.
Decline and fall of the Spiders
So what happened? How did the Spiders go from one of baseball’s model franchises in 1898 to 20-134 in 1899? There is a two-word answer: Frank Robison. Robison was the co-founder and owner of the Spiders along with his brother Stanley, and the primary voice in the operation of the franchise.
Despite the on-field success and the status of Cleveland as “Sixth City,” the Spiders ranked in the bottom half of the NL in attendance in the early years of the 1890s, dropped lower even as their win totals increased and eventually became the least supported team in the league. At the root of the attendance problem were rigid Sunday blue laws in Cleveland, which meant that the Spiders had to play in a far-flung park out of the jurisdiction of the guidelines on what was the most lucrative drawing day of the week for other clubs.
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While Robison’s teams floundered at the gate, other problem cities emerged on the 12-team NL landscape. One of them was the proto-Cardinals, the team known then as the Browns, who were owned by a Prussian-born businessman named Chris von der Ahe, along with future White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. Von der Ahe was a larger-than-life personality probably most akin in modern ownership annals to people like Bill Veeck and Charles O. Finley. He didn’t really know anything about baseball, and eventually Comiskey bailed and the Browns fell into ruin.
Von der Ahe’s ballpark in St. Louis was partially burned in 1898, at a time when the blusterous owner was going through a rough divorce, among other legal tangles. Eventually, von der Ahe’s affairs were untangled in bankruptcy court, which resulted in the Browns being auctioned off on the courthouse steps. The winning bid was made by one G.A. Gruner ($33,000). Gruner, as it turned out, was probably a front for E.C. Becker, a minority owner of the Browns, and his partner — one Frank Robison, the owner of the Spiders. Robison assumed control and Becker faded into the background.
So after that auction, Robison controlled two franchises, something that now, of course, could never happen. Robison arranged a trade between his two teams, again entirely legal, if not ethical, according to the rules of the time. Basically the Spiders’ good players — including Young, Burkett, Wallace, Tebeau, McKean and Cuppy — were traded for St. Louis’ outcasts. In 1899, the Perfectos — as they were informally called that first season — outdrew the Spiders 373,909 to 6,088. Soon after, the club was redubbed the Cardinals. It was actually a brand-new franchise — after van der Ahe made some legal waves about losing his team, the league expelled the old St. Louis club and rechartered a new one under a different corporate identity.
Cy Young had 240 of his 511 career wins as a member of the Cleveland Spiders, his highest total with any team. Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images
And thus, the long, glorious history of the St. Louis Cardinals was born — on the strength of the demise of the Cleveland Spiders.
Back in Cleveland, the Spiders limped through that last season, after which the National League was contracted to the eight-team structure that remained in place until the Mets and Colt .45s began play in 1962. With several alluring markets opened up by the contraction, including Cleveland, Ban Johnson revved up the Western League, which he oversaw. That circuit began play as the minor American League in 1900 and declared itself “major” beginning the following year. Alas, the Spiders moniker did not follow Cleveland from the National League.
When searching for a new brand for the Cleveland franchise — and these days, nicknames are more about marketing cachet than anything, thus we call it a “brand” — there are some initial, general choices to make:
1. Do we want to return the Cleveland franchise to some former baseball identity? Or perhaps a dormant nickname from another sport?
2. Is there some new, Cleveland-specific nickname that can be invented out of whole cloth?
3. Do we simply want to generate a generic sports name that has no real connection to the city but has some general marketing pizzazz?
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Well, let’s start with the last possibility, if only so we can quickly dismiss it. Generic sports-ball nicknames are a terrible idea, at least if they don’t at the very least have some sort of historical connection to the city. For instance, I don’t think there are a lot of legit prides of lions prowling around southeast Michigan, but the Detroit Lions get along just fine. There used to be cougars in Michigan (and they might be back!) and they are sometimes called mountain lions. There aren’t any tigers either, but Tigers is one of those generic, ubiquitous sports names. Both my high school (Red Oak Tigers) and college (Missouri Tigers) use the name, and it makes no sense at all. When Detroit’s NFL team picked Lions as its name, it was probably just an attempt to latch onto the Tigers’ big-cat motif, and it stuck.
Still, a name should capture something about the city it means to serve as an avatar for. If you look through a list of nicknames from knockoff football leagues, you see all kinds of mistakes in banality — Attack, Force, Bruisers, et al. Whatever approach the Indians take to picking a new name, that genre should be avoided.
Working backward in our initial questions, let’s consider some Cleveland-y themes that might not have been tapped into in the past. I proceed with this as a non-Cleveland resident who has been to the city only to cover baseball. Treading into this area invariably means that I’ll miss something and emphasize something that is actually of no relevance, so inevitably, I am about to irritate about half of northeast Ohio. Consider this an outsider’s perception of Cleveland.
Some traits that jump out at me:
• Rock ‘n’ roll. This comes up because the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is perched on the shores of Lake Erie and a 1950s disc jockey in Cleveland named Alan Freed played a key role in growing the audience for R&B, and is credited for first using the term “rock ‘n’ roll.” As with most things, you can’t really pin down the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll to any one time or place, but if one American city can lay claim to being the cradle of rock, it’s probably Memphis, Tennessee, where most of the seminal early records were recorded. It’s fine that they put a rock museum in Cleveland, but let’s not push this “Cleveland as the birthplace of rock” idea any more than we have to.
• The Rockefellers. Industrialist (and monopolist) John D. Rockefeller wasn’t born in Cleveland, but he came of age there and got his start in business there. One of Cleveland’s most prominent historic buildings is the Rockefeller Building at West Sixth and Superior, not far from Progressive Field. Rockefeller eventually moved to New York, and his time in Cleveland probably doesn’t merit a sports nickname … unless it’s used in conjunction with something else or as a general concept. Stay tuned.
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• Forests. Cleveland has been called “The Forest City” going back to the second half of the 1800s, and if you look at newspapers from the late 19th century, it was constantly being referred to as such. Naturally, my sense was this was because northeast Ohio must have been heavily forested at one time. Apparently, it’s not as simple as all that and the origins of the Forest City name are a bit murky. It might or might not have something to do with Alexis de Tocqueville. Ohio is, of course, the Buckeye State, the buckeye being a once-ubiquitous tree in the region.
• Six. Another thing you see constantly when Cleveland is mentioned in late-19th-century publications, and into the early 20th century, is that it was the “Sixth City.” In terms of population, the city ranked roughly in the range of sixth in size until the 1940s. Now it’s out of the top 50.
• The lake. Lake Erie is, like, right there. Maritime activity always carries a lot of nickname possibilities. Lakers. Great Lakers. Sails. Sailors. Oars, which can actually be quite vicious, as seen in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Also, there’s Anchors — a very solid name.
• Underground comics. The great R. Crumb got his start in Cleveland and spent a lot of time there. He had a very loose baseball connection, having at one time illustrated non-sports cards for Topps. One of his friends, Clevelander Harvey Pekar, became a late-life sensation because of his “American Splendor” comics. There is another baseball tie-in: Pekar was portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the film “American Splendor,” and Giamatti’s father, Bart, served as baseball’s commissioner. Hey, there are worse things than being known as a hub for underground comics.
• Animals. The state bird of Ohio is the cardinal. Oh well. The mammal is the white-tailed deer — very cute. The reptile is a snake called the black racer. Racers isn’t too promising, though. Other state-something animals in Ohio include the spotted salamander, the American bullfrog, the ladybug and the trilobite. Meh.
• Colors. The state colors of Ohio are scarlet and gray. If we are looking to go the city motif route, I remind you that the Cleveland NFL team carries a nickname that is a color. The Browns, of course, were actually named for their founder and first coach, Paul Brown. Incidentally, Paul Brown also helped found the Cincinnati Bengals, so we should probably be glad that team didn’t come to be known as Also the Browns. Still, Grays is a name that has long historic roots in baseball, going back to Old Hoss Radbourn’s Providence Grays of the 1870s and ’80s. Also, more than one version of early Cleveland baseball clubs was called the Blues.
• Celebs. Like most cities of any size, a number of famous people hail from Cleveland. Halle Berry, Anna Gunn, Arsenio Hall (the Arsenios!), Phil Donahue, Thurston Howell/Mr. Magoo/James Dean’s fictional father (also known as Jim Backus), Majel Barrett (Star Trek royalty), Bob Hope, Paul Newman and, of course, Drew Carey. There are others.
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• Historical greats. Teams aren’t really named after their star players anymore and you can understand why. Someone who is a star today might not be a star tomorrow, and players move around a lot. Even Nap Lajoie got traded. Still, there are some possibilities if Cleveland wants to revive this old practice. The Dobys. The Fellers. The Naps — a reprise. The Speakers. The Shoeless Joes. The Belles. The Klubots. You could also reprise the Robins, to honor Frank Robinson, who became baseball’s first African American manager in Cleveland. Or the Robbies. There is also the Youngs — after Cy Young, whose 240 wins for the Spiders were the most he won for any team.
• Hybrid. You could combine some of these themes. The Rocks or Rockers could honor music and rich oil families. Or the Rockefellers — music, rich oil families and great pitchers. The Youngfellers — two historically great pitchers, and a hit for the “Raising Arizona” crowd, as well as a tribute to everlasting youth. Or the Pekarsenios — a comics artist and a stand-up comic.
Lastly, to address our final general area of inquiry, let’s run through the history of Cleveland professional sports nicknames. I used the Sports Reference sites to build this list:
• Baseball: Bearcats (minors), Bears (Negro Leagues), Blues (American Association, American League and National League), Bronchos (American League), Browns (Negro Leagues), Buckeyes (Negro Leagues), Clippers (Negro Leagues), Cubs (Negro Leagues), Elites (Negro Leagues), Forest City (minors), Forest Citys (National Association), Giants (Negro Leagues), Hornets (Negro Leagues), Indians (American League and, informally, National League), Naps (American League), Red Sox (Negro Leagues), Spiders (National League), Stars (Negro Leagues), Tate Stars (minors, Negro Leagues), Tigers (Negro Leagues)
• Football: Browns (NFL), Bulldogs (NFL), Indians (twice, both NFL), Rockers (Arena), Gladiators (Arena)
• Basketball: Cavaliers (NBA), Rebels (BAA, 1946), Rockers (WNBA, 1997 to 2003), Allmen Transfers (NBL, 1943 to 1945)
• Hockey: Barons (NHL, 1967 to 1978)
OK, the first sentence of this story gives away the game — it’s got to be the Spiders.
As mentioned, I quickly rule out generic sports-ball names that have no historic or geographic connections to Cleveland, or even baseball. Among the theme-based possibilities, if we must rule out the Youngfellers and Pekarsenios, I actually like the Grays and Blues, two traditional baseball monikers that help build a color-based motif for Cleveland. (Not sure what you do about the Cavaliers.) You could also go a step further and go with Gray Sox or Blue Sox. The latter is probably better, and would give the AL three versions of Sox — Red, White and Blue. That’s nifty.
The Grays name fits with the state colors and the Old Hoss backstory and ties back to the nickname of the historic Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues, which featured legends such as Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. That’s not Cleveland-related, but I really like the idea of honoring Negro Leagues franchises, such as plans to call a team in potential expansion city Nashville, Tennessee, the Stars.
Among Cleveland’s Negro Leagues teams, you can’t use Browns, Cubs, Giants or Red Sox. Buckeyes was the longest-existing club and would be a great choice if not for Ohio State University, and I don’t think Cleveland wants its baseball team to be the second-most popular Buckeyes in the state of Ohio. Tate Stars was an owner-derived name that no longer works. Clippers was the name of a team from a short-lived league (as in a few weeks) formed by Branch Rickey to scout African American players. That name has maritime possibilities, but it’s also the longtime moniker of the Triple-A team in Columbus, Ohio.
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As for prior major league team names, most can be ruled out quickly. (Yes, even the Allmen Transfers.) I personally don’t like Rocks or Rockers because I think it’s historically presumptuous. And baseball already has the Rockies, often referred to as the Rox by their fans.
There seems to be some interest in Gladiators among fans because of some statues in Cleveland on a bridge named after Bob Hope’s father. The city tie-in is weak, as far as I’m concerned, which leaves this as one of those generic sports-ball nicknames that I hate. Thumbs down on Gladiators.
While I like Grays or Blue Sox, I find myself landing on the Cleveland Spiders and get a little excited when I think about it. Part of that might be because I came back to the name a long time ago. The Cleveland team in my sim-game baseball league, which I formed in the mid-1980s using the Statis Pro Baseball tabletop game, has always been called the Spiders.
While I can’t honestly claim that there is a non-contrived connection between Cleveland and the arachnid class of the animal kingdom, there are, of course, spiders there, and some of them are big. Spiders are both menacing and intimidating — perfect for a sports identity. It’s an untapped brand, one that has worked amazingly well in the comic-book and superhero-movie industries.
As a sports moniker, Spiders has a proud history in Cleveland, despite the injustice of the final season of the original incarnation. And graphic designers have already been hard at work designing some amazing possible logos that integrate Cleveland’s existing “C” logo with its existing color scheme, and recaptures the logo used by those long-gone Spiders. It’s a marketing and merchandising slam dunk.
It’s time — past time — to put the Cleveland Indians on a clipper ship and let them sail off into the Lake Erie sun. It’s time to bring back the Cleveland Spiders.