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YankeesEveryone is familiar with team names in the world of sports that are horribly offensive to one group or another today, in our more enlightened times. An example is football’s Washington Redskins, who are under a great deal of pressure to change their name, since it is seen as an affront to Native Americans. But not all team names are so overtly racist and offensive; some are more subtle or have connotations that are usually overlooked today. In fact, almost every team in baseball has a name that, if its history were known, would elicit just as much shock and opprobrium as “Redskins.”

In an ongoing series, we will examine the history and origin of each Major League Baseball team name. The results might shock you. They will definitely rock you. First up, the American League East.

Toronto Blue Jays – Most people assume the team is named after the distinctive bird, a common sight during long Canadian winters, but the truth is more surprising. In the 1920s, Yugoslavia was a new country and spelled its name “Jugoslavija” on its postage stamps. Slavic immigrants to Canada were commonly referred to as “J” or “Jays” as a way to mock their home country’s spelling, which appeared odd to the Anglo-Saxon establishment of Toronto. Further insult was heaped upon the slur by adding “blue” in front, a reference to the predominantly male immigrants, who had to leave their wives in the old country, and who it was implied had no access to sex, since Canadian women would have nothing to do with them. The term is related to the slang “blue balls” or groinal pain caused by lack of sex. Over time the racist overtones of “Blue Jays” was lost, but the name stuck in the public consciousness, and was bestowed on the expansion baseball team in 1977.

New York Yankees – The term for Americans living in the American Northeast has a long history, but the team was actually named after an early manager’s frequent use of the phrase “yankee my crankee” in his stories about traveling the country in the early years of organized baseball, and anecdotes about his incessant whoring.

Baltimore Orioles – Early pitchers in the area were renowned for their control, and it was boasted that they could throw the ball through an area as small as a “glory hole” at will. “Oriole” is an archaic Chesapeake Bay dialect term for the same.

Boston Red Sox – Stephen Crane famously wrote about blood being a symbol of “the red badge of courage” for soldiers in the American Civil War. Boston baseball teams were already a dominant force in the sport as early as the 1860s, and one of the best teams christened itself “Red Socks” and later “Red Sox” to honour its players who had served bravely in war, and bore the wounds to prove it. But there is a more pejorative meaning, of a soldier who wounds himself on purpose in order to escape duty, and this is the sense which has been used by fans of other teams over the years, suggesting that the Red Sox are weak and cowardly, and lack the heart to win. This has been somewhat mitigated by their three World Series wins since 2004.

Tampa Bay Rays – Although the team is named  the devil ray, a fish common to the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, a “Ray” is also an offensive term which traces its origins to criticism of Ray Liotta, the actor most likely to play characters with his own first name or slight variations. See roles as “Ray,” “Gray,” and “Roy.” The implication is of an actor so stupid he can only respond to his own name, even while filming. Fans in Anaheim and Los Angeles are known to chant “Ray-ay” and shout “Hey, Ray!” during visits by Tampa Bay, in efforts to distract the players, which is held to be uncommonly easy to do.

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There is a tradition of certain matchups in baseball being given nicknames, e.g. when the Mets and Yankees met in the World Series in 2000 it was named “The Subway Series” (and not because it was sponsored by Subway sandwiches). When the A’s and Giants met in the 1989 series, it was deemed “The Bay Series” because both Oakland and San Francisco border on San Francisco Bay. Here are some potential matchups for the 2012 World Series and the obscure connections that might help in determining what to label them for posterity:

A’s vs Cardinals = I-70 Series (the A’s used to play in Kansas City, Missouri)

Orioles vs Cardinals = For the Birds or St. Louis Series (the Orioles used to play in St. Louis as the Browns)

Giants vs Yankees = Transcontinental Subway Series (the Giants used to play in New York)

Rangers vs Nationals = Battle for Washington (the Rangers moved from Washington and played there as the Senators)

Orioles vs Reds = Earth Tone Series (the Orioles were formerly the Browns)

A’s vs Giants = Earthquake Series (when they met each other in the 1989 World Series, there actually was an earthquake)

Giants vs Orioles = Big vs Small (the mascot of the Browns was a pixie, which are very small mythical creatures)

Rangers vs Braves = Cowboys ‘n Indians (The Texas Rangers enforced the law in the Wild West)

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