What National League team briefly changed their name in 1953, right before the McCarthy hearings started?

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Published March 28, 2024

Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.

Yes, it’s true: On April 9, exactly four days before the 1953 season opener, the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager told sportswriters in all apparent seriousness that they’d prefer to be called the Redlegs. Never mind that their jersey logo still said “Reds” inside the little pointy C, and would until 1956. Never mind that the only other name they’d used in 86 years1 was Red Stockings.2

Nope, screw all that. Joseph McCarthy was waving around fake lists of communists, and suddenly the name “Reds” wouldn’t do … though somehow no one thought of that until April, five months after McCarthy’s re-election, and three years after he first made the bogus claim.3

The newly rechristened team did not have the greatest season. They lost 10 of their first 12 games; by mid-September they were 18 games below .500, bringing about the resignation of their field manager, Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. He never managed again; his return to baseball after 15 years away lasted just 248 games.

Their fortunes did not get better in a hurry. The Redlegs finished 23 games out of first in 1954, and 23.5 in ‘55. Then in 1956–the year they finally got “Reds” off the jersey–they called up a hard-hitting outfielder named Frank Robinson, whose NL Rookie of the Year performance kept them in contention all year, and for years to come.

Cincinnati Redlegs Button (credit: National Museum of American History)

But they never did reach the summit as the Redlegs. In 1954, Joseph McCarthy was censured for roping the army into his attacks; in 1957, he died of alcoholism and karma. In 1960, the Reds went back to being the Reds, as most everyone had called them the whole time anyhow. In 1961 they put the word back onto the jersey, and Robinson was named the NL’s Most Valuable Player, and the team won its first pennant in 21 years.

Some other things McCarthyism ruined:

  • As of 1952, 47 of the 48 states had anti-subversion statutes, and 32 required teachers to take loyalty oaths. In Michigan, people writing or speaking subversive words could look forward to life in prison. In Tennessee, it was the electric chair.
  • The infamous Hollywood blacklist targeted all-timers from Lucille Ball to Leonard Bernstein to Charlie Chaplin to Ossie Davis to Arthur Miller to Dorothy Parker to Artie Shaw to…
  • Hey, don’t forget the lavender scare! In 1953, Eisenhower signed an executive order barring queer folk from the federal government. An estimated 5,000 people lost their jobs.

Have we mentioned lately how important it is to vote?

  1. Cincinnati had a pro team in 1869, and it went undefeated in its first 81 games–exactly half a modern-day season–against amateurs. Then they fielded a charter member of the National League in 1876, but that franchise was kicked out in 1880 for selling booze at the ballpark, and reorganized to join the (then-major league) American Association in 1882. They rejoined the NL in 1890, and have won (checks notes) exactly nine pennants in the 134 years since then. That’s even worse than the Cubs.
  2. That other hosiery-related team didn’t hit the scene until the American League–the “Junior Circuit”–debuted in 1901. In fact, it was longer than that: They were called the Americans for their first seven seasons. Early baseball was nuts, in case you can’t tell.
  3. “No reason was given for the change,” the New York Times reported. “The political significance of the word ‘Reds’ these days and its effect on the change were not discussed by management.” Sounds like something a bunch of commies would say …

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