The Boston Sports Name Game

The Boston Sports Name Game
June 20, 2014, 3:30 pm
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The idea for this post was born during the most recent round of debate over Washington D.C.’s professional football team. As it happened, I was reading up on some history; not only about the questionable term (“Redskins”) that eventually became the team’s name, but also the name as it relates to this particular franchise. Basically, why and how, with all the available options, this team settled on “Redskins” to begin with.

And it all started in Boston.

It was the summer of 1932, and the city had just been awarded an NFL franchise. This team would play its home games at old Braves Field, and as a result, became known as the Boston Braves.

But after one year, the team moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park, and in turn, owner George Preston Marshall decided to change the name:

He chose the Redskins.

His motives for doing so weren’t exactly clear back then and are still disputed nearly 70 years later. Either way, the Boston Redskins played four NFL seasons at Fenway. In 1936, they even made the championship game. But shortly after, Marshall moved his team to D.C. and, in 1937, the Washington Redskins were born.

Now, maybe you already knew this story. But I didn’t until this week, and I was embarrassed for not knowing sooner. Even worse, while wallowing in that embarrassment, I started thinking about the teams that still play in Boston, how they came about their names, and realized that I wasn’t even sure about that.

Here I was, a lifelong Boston sports fans who can probably rattle off 25 years of Celtics draft picks, Red Sox shortstops and Patriots playoff victories; yet, off the top of my head, I didn’t know exactly why the Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins were called the Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins.

So, I thought it might be fun to track down those origins and throw them together in a column for handy reference.

I knew that the internet would help in doing so, and it did. But in this case, the internet also led me into a wild goose chase, in search of a legendary Patriots fan.

***

Right off the bat, I found a story on the Bruins official website that details why they’re called the Bruins.

It was 1924, and the NHL had just awarded Boston grocery mogul Charles Adams with the league’s first United States franchise. In turn, Adams had just hired Hall of Famer Art Ross as Boston’s first GM and made choosing a name Ross’ first responsibility.

Adams told Ross that the uniforms had to be brown with yellow trim, to cross promote his chain of stores. Also that the name “should preferably relate to an untamed animal whose name was synonymous with size, strength, agility, ferocity and cunning, and in the color brown category.”

In other words, he pretty much said: “Make it some kind of bear.”

Ross’ secretary nominated “Bruins” and it stuck.

***

According to the Celtics’ official website, their name was born in 1946, the product of a conversation between team owner Walter Brown and publicist Howie McHugh.

As the story goes, the two threw out a bunch of names, including the Whirlwinds, Unicorns and Olympics, but (for good reason) nothing clicked until Brown screamed “Boston Celtics!”

He immediately loved the name. He loved that it already had a basketball tradition (thanks to the barnstorming New York Celtics of the 1920s). He loved how it connected with Boston’s heavy Irish population. He instantly envisioned the now-classic green uniforms.

And the rest is history.

***

Unlike the Bruins and Celtics, the Red Sox website doesn’t have a clear explanation of where their name came from, and that’s probably because there is no clear explanation.

They officially became the Red Sox in 1907 — as determined by owner John I. Taylor — but Taylor doesn’t deserve credit for coming up with the name. More than anything, the name “Red Sox” evolved through years and years of filthy baseball incest.

Here’s a quick timeline covering the most important moments in this evolution.

1869: Harry Wright, a 34-year-old, English-born cricket pro assembles the country’s first all-professional baseball team — the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

1870: Ivers W. Adams — a 32-year-old net and twine tycoon — founds Boston’s first professional baseball team, and woos Wright away from Cincinnati.

The “Red Stockings” name comes with him and the Boston Red Stockings are born.

1876: The Red Stockings become a charter member of the National League, but there’s one problem: A team from Cincinnati is also in the mix, and they want to be called the “Red Stockings”, too.

Boston defers and becomes the Red Caps.

1901: The American League arrives on the scene, and with it, another Boston baseball team, this one owned by five men, including Connie Mack and Charlie Comiskey.

Speaking of Comiskey, the Chicago White Stockings, who would go on to be owned by Comiskey and play in the park named for him, are also charter members of the American League.

One day, before a game, a scorekeeper named Christoph Hynes writes White Sox instead White Stockings on top of the official scorecard.

At the time, headline editors at the Chicago Tribune were desperate to save space on the page. They noticed Hynes’ shorthand and jumped all over it. The name “White Sox” became commonplace in the press and everywhere else.

1904: John Taylor, 29-year-old son of the publisher of the Boston Globe, buys Boston’s American League team.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, the White Stockings officially change their name to the White Sox.

1907: After the season, Fred Tenney, manager of Boston’s NL squad, announces that his team will no longer wear their trademark red stockings because he believes that the dye is dangerous.

After the announcement, John Taylor jumps on the opportunity to snatch up the discarded baseball identity. He tells the press that HIS team will now wear red stockings.

He also assumes the Red Stockings name that had originated in Cincinnati . . . he updates it with the abbreviation that originated in Chicago . . . and the Red Sox are born.

***

And that brings us to the New England Patriots, a team with a crystal clear explanation for why they’re called the Patriots. According to the team’s official website, when the franchise was awarded to Billy Sullivan and his ownership group in 1959:

“One of the first orders of business was giving the franchise a name and that was accomplished through a public contest. Thousands of entries were submitted to name the team and 74 fans suggested the winning name, the Boston Patriots.”

Easy enough, right? Right, except that shortly after reading the story on the Patriots website, I came across an entry on Wikipedia titled: History of the New England Patriots.

And I know, Wikipedia is Wikipedia. It’s a better resource than people give it credit for, but it’s also far from an authority on most issues. Either way, I read through the entry and they provided one additional detail about the Patriots naming contest:

“Sullivan chose ‘Boston Patriots,’ which was suggested by 74 fans, among them Larry Kepnes.”

My first question: Larry Kepnes?

My second question: Who’s Larry Kepnes?

I googled “Larry Kepnes Patriots”, assuming that it would provide a simple answer. But it didn’t. The only results were from blogs across the Internet, discussing how the Patriots got their name and essentially lifting the “Larry Kepnes” passage straight from Wikipedia. There was no other insight into who he was, or why he deserved special mention among the 73 other sports fans who suggested and the “Patriots” as a name.

Only: “Sullivan chose ‘Boston Patriots,’ which was suggested by 74 fans, among them Larry Kepnes.”

Next up, I tried “Lawrence Kepnes Patriots” and there were only two results.

The first was a list of people who had donated money to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston in 2012, in honor of Myra Kraft.

The other was to a 2012 newsletter from Hebron Academy, a boarding school in Maine. Lawrence Kepnes was listed as a 1943 graduate.

I assumed these two links were related and both Kepneses were my Kepnes. The first one for obvious reasons, and the second one because it made sense along the timeline. If Kepnes had graduate high school (or a college prep year) in 1943, he would have been at an appropriate age to be voting for the name of New England’s football team in 1959. Especially when that school was in New England.

At this point, I ditched the “Patriots” aspect of the search and went full Kepnes.

I found a 1940 census record for a man named Morris Kepnes, then 39 years old, who lived in Chelsea, MA with his wife and their 14-year-old son, Lawrence.

I found a site that was basically a word document, called “Descendants of Samuel Kepnes” that also connected a Morris Kepnes to a son named Lawrence, who lived in Massachusetts.

I googled “Lawrence Kepnes MA” and I got a phone number. I also saw that Mr. Kepnes is now 88 years old, but I still wanted to try and reach out. Just to see or hear a little bit more information on the roll he played in the Patriots being the Patriots, or if he knew why this Wikipedia entry had singled him out among all the other voters.

So I called, and a woman picked up the phone. I asked if Lawrence was available, and she asked who was calling. I told her who I was, how I had come across his name, and why I was interested in speaking with him.

“Well, why don’t you send over your questions in the mail,” she said.

“E-mail, or the real mail?” I said.

“Real mail,” she said, and then hung up.

And that’s where this part of the story ends.

But I promise it will be continued.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine