Sports Teams That Moved

Most famously of all professional desertions, just three years after finally winning their first World Series in 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers left their trolley-dodging days behind to move to the car-ruled streets of Los Angeles. There, they won five more World Series, much to the chagrin of many of their former, Brooklyn fans. The same year, their arch rivals, the New York Giants, moved to San Francisco. The dual move was justified since, with two West Coast teams, it was easier for eastern teams to travel west for games.

Nearly 50 years after Canada’s only other previous pro basketball team, the Toronto Huskies, folded after the NBA’s first season, the Vancouver Grizzlies were born in 1995. A mere six years later, the Grizzlies lumbered southeast to Memphis, narrowly avoiding being called the Express after the FedEx Forum, where the team would play. The NBA quashed the plan to name a team after a corporate entity, although the Memphis Grizzlies seemed about as sensible as the Utah Jazz  (formerly of New Orleans), Calgary Flames (from Atlanta and named for the Civil War burning of the city), and the Los Angeles Lakers (from Minnesota’s Land of 10,000 Lakes).

For eight years Atlanta was home to the Flames; named for General Sherman’s burning of the city during the US Civil War. After losing in the preliminaries of the playoffs five straight years, the Flames burned their way north to Calgary in 1980 but kept their red-hot name in order to stay warm through the frigid Alberta winters.

In 2003-04, the Montreal Expos tried to appeal to Latin American fans by playing some of their games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It didn’t work, so in 2005 their millionaire players fled the Great White North to join the poor, huddled masses immigrating to the United States and became the Washington Nationals.

In 1979, after five losing seasons that tried the loyalty of even their most fervent fans, the New Orleans Jazz found a most unfitting new home, given their name, in Utah. Unfitting, of course, unless the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had given up the teachings of Joseph Smith in favor of marching to Dave Brubeck’s tunes. At least in Utah, the Jazz did something they failed to do in New Orleans: win, garnering seven division and two conference titles.

In 2004, Nippon Meat Packers, Inc., moved their aptly named Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team from crowded Tokyo, which hosted six teams, to the northern island of Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, which sadly had no pro baseball teams. The team changed cities, but kept their porcine name.

Founded in 1896, England’s Horwich Railway Mechanics Institute Football Club (RMI FC) remained loyal to their fans for almost a century. In 1995, they slid away from their infamous Grundy Hill field, which baffled rivals with a 14-foot slope from corner to corner, to Leigh in Lancashire. Even though they promised to keep their old name, Horwich became Leigh RMI FC, keeping their Railwaymen nickname, but changing their uniform, badge and colors. To fill the void, a new team was started in Horwich, playing at a new stadium yards away from, and far more level, than the old Grundy Hill field, but lacking Horwich RMI’s proud and storied past.

In one of the more covert moves in professional sporting history, in 1984 the NFL’s Colts silently trotted out of Baltimore in the middle of the night to avoid a proposed eminent domain seizure by the state of Maryland, riding hard for their new home in Indianapolis.

The A. E. Staley Company founded the Decatur Staleys as a company team in 1919. In 1920 the team joined the new National Football League and in 1921 the team abandoned their loyal fans to move to Chicago, changing their name a year later to the Bears. The Bears and the Phoenix Cardinals are the only two teams, both originating in or near Chicago, which survive as charter members of the NFL, although the Cardinals have flown far from their original Windy City nest.

After 24 years in Winnipeg, in 1996 the Jets flew south to try the seemingly impossible feat of playing ice hockey in the desert. As the Phoenix Coyotes, they succeeded in playing hockey, but not well: although they’ve made it to the playoffs many times, they’ve never made it beyond the first round.

The Braves are the longest, continually active club in Major League Baseball history, but they have only managed that feat by playing in three cities under seven names. They have been the Red Stockings, Beaneaters, Doves, Rustlers, Braves (twice) and Bees. A charter club of the National Association in 1871, the Boston Red Stockings finished first four straight years and won eight National League pennants in the 19th century. The 20th century was far less kind, except for 1914, when they went from last place to first in the final two months of the season, before stunning the Athletics in the World Series. The Braves deserted their Beantown fans in 1953 after finishing above .500 only five times between 1917 and 1945 to become the Milwaukee Braves, only to desert that fine brewing city for the southern comfort of Atlanta in 1966.

Often when a team moves a new one is created to replace it, casting the need for the move into serious question. In 1999, just one year after the Sheffield Eagles won the Australian National Rugby League’s Challenge Cup, they moved to merge with the Huddersfield Giants. Using mostly ex-Sheffield players, they played at each of the teams’ former stadiums, but attracted few fans, so a new Sheffield Giants team was founded.

In 1995, Meadowbank Thistle Football Club (FC), near Edinburgh, Scotland, moved to the new town of Livingston, 10 miles away, and changed their name to Livingston FC. Unfortunately for those who wish teams that move to be punished, the team thrived in their new home and won the Scottish League Cup in 2004.

In 1997, the Hartford Whalers sailed south to beach themselves in Pamlico Sound which was as close as they could get to their new home in Raleigh, NC. Realizing that not much whaling was done in land-locked Raleigh, the team changed their moniker to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The NHL’s Kansas City Scouts were founded in 1974, narrowly avoiding a bizarre nickname designed to appeal to both Kansans and Missourians: the MO-Hawks. Thankfully, the Chicago Blackhawks vetoed the name as too close to their own beloved appellation and the new team struggled on under the Scouts name with records of 15-54-11 and 12-56-12. Deeply in debt, the owners scouted new territory in Colorado and in 1976 became the Rockies. They were the first NHL team, with the California Golden Seals who moved to Cleveland to become the Barons the same year, to relocate since the 1934-5 season. Having caught the moving bug, the Scouts/Rockies didn’t remain in Colorado long, moving to New Jersey and becoming the Devils in 1982.

In 2006, the San Jose Earthquake soccer team dribbled south to Houston to become the Dynamo. To appease irate fans, San Jose got a new franchise, which was also called the Earthquake and took the field in 2008—making it appear that the team had never left.

The Atlante football club was founded in 1916 in Mexico City, named for the mighty sea battles fought in the North Atlantic in World War I. The team racked up an impressive record of seven championships and three Mexican Cup titles. In 2007, Atlante left Mexico City’s famed 114,465-seat Azteca Stadium to move closer to its namesake, to Estadio Andres Quintana Roo in Cancun. They must not have high hopes for the popularity of their move, since their new stadium has just 7,000 seats, although there are plans to expand it to 20,000 seats.

Founded in 1898, the Morgan Athletic Club evolved into the Racine Normals when they played football in Normal Park on Chicago’s Racine Avenue. The team acquired yet another name when their owner, Chris O’Brien bought used jerseys from the University of Chicago. The jersey was faded to maroon, which prompted O’Brien to declare, “That’s not maroon, it’s Cardinal red!” In 1920 they splurged the $100 to join a new league that would become the NFL as the Chicago Cardinals. Bargains on jerseys not withstanding, after nine losing seasons in 10 years, the Cardinals flew south to nest in St. Louis in 1959 before continuing their migration south to Phoenix in 1988.

Even sports-mad Australians often can’t keep their teams. In the Australian National Rugby League, teams as varied as the Western Suburb Magpies, Balmain Tigers and North Sydney Bears have migrated, merged or morphed into other teams in other cities, while in 1982, the Australian Football League’s South Melbourne Swans even swam north to become the Sydney Swans. No ugly ducklings they.

In 1970 Buffalo gained two pro teams: the Braves in basketball and the Sabres in hockey. Only the Sabres lasted out the decade. In 1978, the Braves moved to San Diego, sailing into port as the Clippers, where after several disappointing seasons they were drawing an average of 4,500 diehard fans a game. San Diego had already lost the Rockets, who took off in 1971, landing in Houston, and in 1985 the Clippers sailed north to berth in Los Angeles.

Far from a modern phenomenon, teams deserting fans is as old as organized sports. The Milwaukee Brewers fielded their first team in 1894 as part of the new Western League, which became the American League in 1900. They were one of only two teams, the Detroit Tigers the other, who avoided moving or folding when the American League became an independent league, but the Brewers didn’t remain brewing for long. In 1902 they moved to St. Louis and changed their name to the Browns, latching onto a lineage that went back to the legendary 1880s club that by 1902 had gone to the birds, becoming the Cardinals. Even after being extremely popular and fielding a midget, Eddie Gaebel to pinch hit in 1951, the team moved in 1953 to Baltimore and, following the bird theme, became the Orioles, another name with a storied history. The original Baltimore Orioles had flown the coop in 1903 to become the New York Highlanders and later the Yankees.

In 1973, South Shields FC became Gateshead United FC after moving between English towns only 10 miles apart. The football gods punished both teams; both failed a few years later. Fans were not without a favorite long; new teams arose in both cities.

Basketball’s Gems started life in Detroit, but after suffering the ignominy of the worst record (4-40) in the league in 1946, they fled the scene of their horrific season to find a more hospitable home in Minneapolis. To avoid any connection with their former losing ways, they changed their name to the Lakers, which made sense in the Land of a Ten Thousand Lakes. In 1960, they flowed west to Los Angeles, where their Lakers moniker made much less sense, given that finding 10 lakes in Los Angeles would be a challenge, let alone 10,000, but they kept the name nonetheless, probably because, unlike the Gems, the Minneapolis Lakers never went 4-40 and, in fact, won five championships to which the Los Angeles Lakers then added nine more.

Not even men with access to artillery can keep their teams. In 1886 the workers at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich in south London founded a football team: the Arsenal Gunners. Just 27 years later, in 1913, in what must be a form of mutiny, the club moved to Highbury in north London.

The original Athletics played baseball for Philadelphia fans as amateurs, taking their name from the fact that they were an athletic club. The team turned pro in 1871 when it joined the National Association, and was one of the clubs in the National League when it was founded in 1876, as chronicled in the wonderful book, The League That Lasted. The team then played in the American Association from 1882 to 1890. In 1955 the As (the apostrophe was added in 1970) abandoned their fans in the City of Brotherly Love and moved to Kansas City, but the sporting gods punished the Athletics for deserting their fans. After winning five World Series and nine American League pennants in Philadelphia, they didn’t win a single pennant or World Series during their years in Kansas City. Giving up on their ill-fated move after 13 years, they moved west to Oakland in 1968. This move was more successful, with the team adding six pennants and four World Series to their trophy case.

The Rams locked horns with opponents in Cleveland before migrating to Los Angeles in 1946, leaving their fans in shock, since the team had won the NFL Championship only the year before. After winning another championship in 1951 for Los Angeles, they migrated again in 1994 back across the country to St. Louis, where they won a Super Bowl in 1999.

Not even the largest sports fan organization in America, the Browns Backers with more than 50,000 members worldwide, could stop their team from leaving. In 1996, the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and changed their name to the Ravens, probably in an attempt to hide from their rabid fans. Advertisers were so angered at the move that all advertising was pulled from the stadium for the Browns’ last games in Cleveland. The NFL, facing more than 100 lawsuits by fans, awarded Cleveland a new franchise in 1999, which continued the Browns’ proud name. By 2006, Browns’ fans were still probably the most loyal fans in the NFL, with 99.8 percent of seats filled at Cleveland Browns Stadium, rain, shine or snow.

Basketball’s Atlanta Hawks began life as the Tri-City Blackhawks in 1946, flying north to Milwaukee in 1951 and shortening their name to the Hawks. They abandoned their Brew City  roost in 1955 to fly to St. Louis before finally nesting in Atlanta after a final move in 1968.

The Seattle Pilots were founded in 1969 and navigated for a year in the cold waters of Puget Sound before setting course for Milwaukee presumably via the Panama Canal, the Hudson River, Erie Canal and Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan. After their long voyage, they needed a stiff drink and changed their name to the Brewers. With only a year under their keel in Seattle, the move was controversial and led to most leagues decreeing that expansion teams can’t move until they have spent at least five years in a city.

The California Seals were founded in 1967 as an NHL expansion team. They changed their name within a year to the Oakland Seals and then, possibly hoping ‘gold’ in their name would help them show a profit, became the Golden Seals in 1970. None of the name changes helped. After nine money-losing seasons, the team moved to Cleveland and changed their name yet again to the Barons. Even that did not help. The Minnesota North Stars absorbed the team within a few years. 

The Royals—not to be confused with the Royals of baseball fame—played basketball in Rochester from 1945 to 1957 before dribbling east to Cincinnati. In 1972 they continued traveling on to Kansas City not only to change cities but also names, although they retained a royal pedigree by becoming the Kansas City-Omaha Kings for three years before dropping the Omaha appellation. In 1985 they made yet another move to Sacramento and retained their ties to the royal purple by becoming the Sacramento Kings.

The Syracuse Nationals began playing in the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1946 before the NBL merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA. The team won the NBA championship in 1955. They were the last small-town team left in the NBA when they moved to Philadelphia in 1963 to become the 76ers, and are the oldest franchise in the league.

It is extremely rare, if not unique for a team to move and then realize their mistake—as well they should. The Oakland Raiders made such a realization. After 21 years in Oakland, they deserted their ‘Raider Nation’ and sailed south to Los Angeles in 1982 against the wishes of the NFL, but with a court’s blessing. By 1994 they realized their horrible mistake and sailed back to their adoring ‘Nation’ of fans in Oakland.

One team deserted their fans even before they played a single game. In 1972, the World Hockey Association (WHA) awarded a team to San Francisco, christened the SeaHawks four years before Seattle hatched their Seahawks, only to move the team to Quebec City as the Nordiques before the team’s skates even hit the ice. The Nordiques then played in Quebec for 23 years in the WHA and then the NHL before abandoning their Quebecois fans for Colorado, where, as the Avalanche, they were rewarded for their perfidious move when they won the Stanley Cup their first year after the relocation.

The Chicago Packers liked to move almost as much as they liked to change their name. In 1961, they joined the NBA but just two years later changed their name to the Zephyrs. A year after that they moved to Baltimore, changing their name again, to the Bullets. They then moved to Landover, Maryland for the 1972 season, before moving again to Washington in 1974 and changing their moniker one last time in 1996, when they became the Wizards—the Wizards of Moving and Name Changes would have been a more accurate moniker.

The Houston Oilers remained loyal to their fans for 36 years until 1996 when the lure of moving proved too strong even for their deeply sunk roots. They moved to Memphis in 1997, but the moving bug had bit deep and in 1998 they moved again, to Nashville. After a brief two years as the Tennessee Oilers they found no black gold in Nashville and changed their name to the Tennessee Titans. With the long legs of Titans, can another move be far away?

The Chaparrals played professional basketball in Dallas from 1967 to 1970, then expanded their range to become the Texas Chaparrals, playing most of their games in Dallas, but also some in Lubbock and Fort Worth. The team drew few fans in the later cities, so after the 1970-71 season, the Texas Chaparrals became the Dallas Chaparrals again until 1973 when the team rode out of town to San Antonio and became the Spurs.

From 1925 until 1955, the Giants played in New York at the Polo Grounds, although they played football and never used horses in their backfield, at least not the four-legged variety. They then moved to Yankee Stadium before deserting their fans entirely and moving to New Haven, CT in 1973 to share kennel space with the Bulldogs at the Yale Bowl. Finding Yaley canines not to their liking, they returned to New York for the 1975 season to play at Shea Stadium. Their return to New York didn’t last long. Only a year later they moved to East Rutherford, although they retained their New York appellation and their New York fans could make the drive across the river to the Giants’ new home in a stadium that finally sported their own name, if not the name of their state: New Jersey’s Giants’ Stadium.

The Warriors fought adversaries on the basketball court in Philadelphia from 1946 to 1962 before moving west to San Francisco. Claiming the entire state as their territory as the Golden State Warriors, they played some home games in San Jose and as far away as San Diego before settling in Oakland.

Even the short-lived United States Football League had difficulty with the concept of fan loyalty. One team, the Breakers—as in breaking the sacred oath to their fans—played in three different cities over the league’s three-year existence (1983-5): Boston, New Orleans and then Portland.

Besides being burned by a rival team of British soldiers in 1814, Washington endured the ignominy of losing a team twice. The Washington Senators played in Griffith Stadium in the U.S. capital from 1901 to 1960 before moving to Minnesota and changing their name to the Twins, given the paucity of Senators in the Twin Cities. The Senators second incarnation moved from dejected Washington to Dallas-Fort Worth for the 1972 season, changing their name to the Texas Rangers.