Brooklyn Boro

Future Brooklyn Dodgers nicknamed ‘Superbas’ when they started spring training in Florida

August 5, 2015 By Palmer Hasty Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The first year the Superbas traveled to Florida for spring training in Jacksonville, March of 1907. All graphics from the Brooklyn Public Library Digital Archives.

Where does a nickname like the “Superbas” come from?  Hang on, we’ll try to explain.

Today, with all the media attention surrounding the U.S. government’s case against the Washington Redskins nickname, we thought it would be interesting to look into the many nicknames of the Brooklyn Dodgers before they officially became the “Dodgers.”  In this case, “official” refers to when the nickname was stitched onto the uniforms in 1932.

While documenting the early Brooklyn Dodger footprints in Florida, we thought we would also take a look at the origins of one of the team’s early nicknames, the “Superbas,” which was a nickname for the team more than 100 years ago.

In researching the history of all the early Dodger nicknames, sports writers were still referring to them as the “Superbas” when they first came to Florida for spring training, to Jacksonville in 1907 and then later to Clearwater in 1923.

Early nicknames for the Dodgers that were commonly referenced by newspaper writers in the late 1800s and early 1900s were the “Grays,” the “Robins,” the “Grooms,” the “Bridegrooms,” the “Trolley Dodgers” and the “Superbas.”  

The legal name for the team back then was simply the “Brooklyn Base Ball Club,” so none of the nicknames mentioned above were ever official.

Sometimes the team would be called by two different nicknames within the same article. For example, as Alex Remington noted on his website,  the shorter version of the “Trolley Dodgers,” that is, the “Dodgers,” was already in use by sports writers in 1916, but then so was the still-popular nickname “Superbas.”

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A New York Times article from 1916 mentions a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher trying to dash the National League pennant hopes of the Brooklyn Dodgers, then points out that the only thing that saved the “Superbas” was a loss by another team in the league.

For some reason, sports writers were free-wheeling with their use of different nicknames for the ball clubs. Well, that was certainly true in Brooklyn.      

My first encounter with the Superbas was in an article in a 1908 Brooklyn Eagle, when the team took a steamship to Jacksonville for spring training (see graphic).

I then followed “Superbas” chronologically as far back as April 23, 1899, where I found what seems to be the first time that nickname was attached to the Brooklyn Base Ball Club.

Oddly enough, it was a poem about the team, published in the Eagle and written by Lawrence William Westholm, titled “Our Baseball Winners.”  

The poem was written about mid-season in 1899, when everyone was predicting that Brooklyn (at the time also called the “Bridegrooms”) would end up in third place, although Mr. Westholm’s poem expected them to win the pennant.

“I see them Western guessers are predictin’, every word,

That at the very finish the Superbas, will be third.”

Prior to the 1899 season, future Hall of Fame manager Ned Hanlon had financially merged the Baltimore and Brooklyn teams, and sent most of the really good players (the stars) from Baltimore to Brooklyn.  

As Remington noted in the Fangraphs blog; “…as the ownership groups in Baltimore and Brooklyn swapped part shares in each other’s clubs, the Orioles effectively merged with the Dodgers, with the class [players] of the two ball clubs going to Brooklyn and the dregs staying in Baltimore.”

That’s when I found the source of the Superba nickname. According to Remington, the nickname came into use simply because Ned Hanlon had the same last name as the Hanlon Brothers from England, who wrote the immensely popular vaudeville theatrical production “Superba,” which had premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music almost a decade earlier in 1890 (see graphic).  Eventually the vaudeville production made its way to Broadway during that same decade.  

By the way, that poem that Lawrence Westholm wrote ended with these lines:

“And let me emphasize the fact, and say it once again,

That we’re bound [to] win the pennant with Hanlon and his men.”

Westholm’s prediction came true.  The Superbas won the pennant under Hanlon’s management that year  with a record of 101-47, as well as the National League pennant in 1900 with a record of 82-54.

It was not until 1922 that the Superbas agreed to officially train in Clearwater for the 1923 season.  (See graphic from 1922 Eagle.)

This agreement was based on the stipulation that the City of Clearwater “clear a field” and build grandstands for the spectators.

Apparently the Brooklyn Base Ball Club owner, Charles Ebbets, the namesake of Ebbets Field of course, would not agree to bring the Superbas to Clearwater unless the city improved the training facilities.

So the City of Clearwater voted on a bond issue of $25,000 for improvements and the construction of new grandstands.  The future Brooklyn Dodgers then became the seventh Major League Baseball team to conduct spring training in Clearwater.  

Of course, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was there to cover the first game played with the renovated field and new grandstands in place. The use of the grandstands by the Brooklyn Dodger brass was apparently considered a big deal in Clearwater.

As you see in the image captured from the original Brooklyn Eagle, sports writer Abe Yeager called it a “Clubhouse Porch.”

Yager got a little carried away and presented the event like a play with one of the main characters being, of course, Charles Ebbets. At the time Ebbets, was part-owner of the Dodgers.  The Mayor of Clearwater asked Ebbets about becoming a permanent resident of Clearwater, and Ebbets replied: “I’m game.”  

The first exhibition game played on the new field was a matchup between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves, who were training in St. Petersburg just south of Clearwater.  On the day of the game the City of Clearwater sponsored a parade to the ball park and the city commissioner threw out the first ball to the Mayor. More than 4,000 fans were on hand to see the Dodgers beat the future Boston Red Sox 12 to 7. 

Although a lot of this material is familiar to die-hard baseball fans and historians, for the record, the “Dodger” name was not official until it was stitched on the uniforms in 1932.

This name was the abbreviated version of the original “Trolley Dodgers.”  That nickname was more about the fans than the ballplayers.  When electric trolley cars were introduced, Brooklyn pedestrians were accustomed to the slow and methodical horse-and-buggy mode of transportation (the horsecar).  They then found themselves having to acclimate to frequently dodging the faster-moving trolley cars, hence, the “Dodgers.”

It is said that the Brooklyn Dodgers had by far more nicknames than any other team in sports history.  Even when the official name was stitched on the uniforms, fans were also affectionately calling the team “Dem Bums,” which continued until the late 1930s because from 1925 to 1938 they never finished higher than fourth place in the National League except once;  in 1932 they finished third.

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