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8 Other Teams That Changed Their Nicknames

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@Hornets

The Charlotte Bobcats will officially become the Hornets next season, uniting the Queen City's current NBA team with its old nickname. The original Charlotte Hornets franchise moved to New Orleans in 2002, but last year changed its name to the Pelicans, freeing Hornets up. In honor of the former Bobcats, here are eight other pro sports teams that opted for a new nickname.

1. Houston Colt .45s

Houston's baseball team was originally known as the Colt .45s, but team president Judge Roy Hofheinz made a change "in keeping with the times" in 1965. Citing Houston's status as "the space age capital of the world," Hofheinz settled on Astros. "With our new domed stadium, we think it will also make Houston the sports capital of the world," Hofheinz said. The change was likely also motivated by pressure from the Colt Firearms Company, which objected to the use of the Colt .45 nickname.

2. New York Highlanders

In 1903, the original Baltimore Orioles moved to New York, where they became the Highlanders. As was common at the time, the team, which played in the American League, was also known as the New York Americans. New York Press editor Jim Price is often credited with coining the nickname Yanks, or Yankees, because it was easier to fit in headlines. The team officially adopted the Yankees name in 1913.

3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays

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Vince Naimoli, owner of Tampa Bay's expansion team, chose Devil Rays out of more than 7,000 suggestions submitted by the public in 1995. The reaction was not positive. "So far, I've fielded about 20 phone calls protesting Devil Rays, and most of the callers have described themselves as Christians who are upset about the word devil," a Tampa Tribune columnist told a reporter less than a week after the nickname was announced. In his excellent book The Extra 2%, Jonah Keri said Naimoli was furious people didn't like the name. "He ordered the team to conduct a phone poll, where people could vote on one of two names: Devil Rays or Manta Rays." Though Manta Rays was the early leader, the team claimed Devil Rays caught up, and it was declared the winner.

According to Keri, Naimoli originally wanted to nickname his team the Sting Rays. But that name was trademarked by a team in the Hawaiian Winter League and Naimoli refused to pay $35,000 to buy it. The team dropped the "Devil" after the 2007 season and the curse that had plagued the franchise for the previous decade was apparently lifted, as Tampa Bay made a surprising run to the World Series the following season.

4. Washington Bullets

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In the early 1990s, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin said he was becoming frustrated with the association of his team's nickname and gun violence. After Pollin's friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, Pollin decided to take action and announced his plans to rename the team. (However, Dan Steinberg of D.C. Sports Bog wrote a very detailed history of the name change, and questioned the impact Rabin's death had on the decision.) Regardless, a name-the-team contest was held and fans voted on a list of finalists that included Wizards, Dragons, Express, Stallions, and Sea Dogs.

The choices left D.C. journalists scratching their heads. A Washington Post editorial panned the selections: "Except for Sea Dogs, which is simply inexplicable, they look like the output of the same computer programs that create names for new car models and laundry detergents." Not long after Wizards was announced as the winning name before the 1997-98 season, the local NAACP chapter president complained that the nickname carried Ku Klux Klan associations.

Previous nicknames for the franchise include Packers and Zephyrs.

5. Tennessee Oilers

After relocating from Houston to Tennessee in 1995, the team played two seasons as the Oilers before owner Bud Adams held a statewide contest to rename the team. Titans was chosen over nicknames such as Tornadoes, Copperheads, South Stars, and Wranglers. “We wanted a new nickname to reflect strength, leadership and other heroic qualities,'' Adams told reporters.

6. New York Titans

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The New York Titans were renamed the Jets in 1963 after Sonny Werblin led an investment group that purchased the bankrupt franchise for $1 million. According to a contemporary New York Times story, the franchise considered calling itself the Dodgers, but nixed the idea after Major League Baseball didn’t like it. Gothams also got some consideration, but the team didn’t like the idea of having it shortened to the Goths, because “you know they weren’t such nice people.” The last finalist to fall was the New York Borros, a pun on the city’s boroughs; the team worried that opposing fans would make the Borros-burros connection and derisively call the squad the jackasses.

Eventually the team became the Jets since it was going to play in Shea Stadium, which is close to LaGuardia Airport. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the name was supposed to reflect the “modern approach of his team.”

7. Boston Braves

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In 1933, one year after he acquired an NFL franchise in Boston, George Preston Marshall changed the team’s nickname from Braves to Redskins. According to The New York Times, the name change was made to avoid confusion with baseball's Boston Braves, who later moved to Milwaukee and then Atlanta. The franchise relocated to Washington before the 1937 season.

8. Anaheim Mighty Ducks

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Quack. Quack. Quack! Quack! QUACK! Anaheim joined the NHL in 1993 and its team was known as the Mighty Ducks, after the popular Disney movie and cross-marketing vehicle of the same name. The nickname was changed to Ducks and the logo was changed in 2005 after Disney sold the team.

Portions of this story originally appeared in 2010.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Courtesy of Dave Drason Byrzynski

Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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