Perspectives: Grading the Names of Pittsburgh’s Teams
Contributing editor Sean Collier offers up his report card on the subject.
In July, a pair of sports franchises revealed new names — to decidedly mixed results.
The NHL’s forthcoming expansion team announced it would be dubbed the Seattle Kraken, to a rousing response on social media (and, undoubtedly, a hundred thousand exclamations of “Release the Kraken!” around the Pacific Northwest). Meanwhile, the football team based in the District of Columbia said it would suit up this season as, uhh, the Washington Football Team.
The owners figured it would take a full season to settle on something better, apparently.
This got me thinking about team nicknames. While a storied franchise can overcome a rough title — the Orlando Magic is a terrible name, for instance, but Shaq fixed that problem single-handedly — the most venerable teams seem to have great monikers.
With that in mind, I decided to grade five current nearby teams and five defunct local franchises. Let’s assume that Seattle Kraken (quite possibly the only professional team where the players are individual components of a singular beast) is an A+ name, and Washington Football Team gets an F. Here’s how I’d grade the Steel City sobriquets.
Pittsburgh Penguins — B+
It’s a pretty good name; it’s an ice-based creature, it’s alliterative and the team began its history playing in a building nicknamed the Igloo. (Please disregard the fact that igloos can be found near the North Pole and penguins can be found near the South Pole; that’s just pedantic.) However, as Morgan Freeman instructed us, Penguins aren’t exactly speedsters on the ice; they’re only lithe in the water. Mixed signals here.
Pittsburgh Pirates — A+
With apologies to fans of more recently successful franchises, this is the gold standard. The team was named after an opposing organization accused them of “piratical” business practices, making it the rare team that lives up to its hype. And it kept doing pirate stuff from there, like the time Lloyd McClendon commandeered first base. The majors are full of gentle creatures, like Cardinals and Padres and two varieties of socks; who has a better name than the Pirates?
Pittsburgh Riverhounds — B-
While the soccer team gets points for acknowledging the city’s defining geographic feature — and its proximity to the water — the back half of the name falls apart. A hallmark of poor team names is “word + common animal,” as evidenced by the hundreds of collegiate and professional teams ending in -hounds, -cats, -hawks and -dawgs. If they were the River Monsters or even just the Rivers, they’d be flirting with an A grade.
Pittsburgh Steelers — A-
I hate to criticize even slightly the Steelers name. There’s no more iconic team name in town, and it ranks among the best in the NFL, a league where the Houston Texans are somehow allowed to persist. There’s just one little problem: What’s a Steeler? If we had been a mining town, I can’t imagine we would’ve gone with the Coalers (proximity to my name notwithstanding). I realize that Pittsburgh Steelworkers was probably too unwieldy, and Pittsburgh Steels was awkward, but if you showed the name to someone with no knowledge of our city, they’d probably assume we misspelled “stealers.” Still, good name.
Washington Wild Things — B
All the credit the Washington-based independent baseball team gets is for making a “Major League” reference. That is some top-tier fealty to a modern classic. If I were in charge, I’d make every ace change his last name to Vaughn. It’s alliterative, too, which is tough in Washington, unless you’re a wolverine. The team’s branding has never been as cool as the name, and two-word nicknames are clunky, but this is a solid effort.
Pittsburgh Bankers — D+
If you’re going to name your team after a profession, at least make it intimidating — like the Texarkana Casketmakers, an early-20th century minor league baseball team that is still in the running for the best-named team in history. The Pittsburgh Bankers are one of the earliest recorded professional ice hockey teams, but they sound like they’re going to win the game by making you wait in line. (I’ve awarded some extra credit because, in the team’s earliest days, all the players did work for local banks.)
Pittsburgh Condors — C+
The city’s ABA franchise is usually remembered for its second name, the Condors. It’s not a bad name, per se, as an intimidating raptor with an impressive wingspan would probably be good at basketball. However, it’s a meaningless name — the only condors in Pittsburgh were acquired by the National Aviary long after the ABA folded — and not nearly as good as the name of the first local ABA team and the league’s inaugural champions, the Pittsburgh Pipers.
Pittsburgh Phantoms — D
In 1994 (and only in 1994), the Civic Arena played host to a professional roller hockey team. (I assure you this was a real thing.) Improbably, the team named itself against Kennywood’s marquee rollercoaster of the era, the Steel Phantom. This is unbearably silly. The only reason the Phantoms rise above a failing grade is because Phantom is a cool word. And if it were going to name itself after a roller coaster, the Jack Rabbits would’ve been a better choice.
Pittsburgh Piranhas — A
I can’t be objective about this one; it’s a team made up of murderous fish. That’s just cool. The logo of this short-lived semi-pro basketball team was a pointy-toothed fish chomping on a basketball. Other than the utter geographic nonsense inherent to the name, this is perfect.
Pittsburgh Shamrocks — B-
On the one hand, Ireland has no hockey tradition to speak of. It barely gets snow, let alone ice, and the two main sports are Gaelic football and hurling, two equally incomprehensible games that barely extend beyond the Emerald Isle. So the name of this one-season 1930s ice hockey team remains bewildering. On the other hand, I would wear Pittsburgh Shamrocks gear in a heartbeat. (Does someone make this? I’ll send money.)
Sean Collier is a contributing editor at Pittsburgh Magazine