Most people know that the blue-hatted Los Angeles Dodgers were once the Brooklyn Dodgers. But while you may have assumed that the “Dodgers” moniker referred to avoiding a tag or stealing a base, the true story is more complicated. That’s because the Brooklyn Dodgers were once the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers — and those trolleys were deadly.
But before we get into the etymology of “Dem Bums” from Brooklyn, it’s useful to review a little bit of baseball history. It all started in the mid-19th century, when baseball was not yet a national pastime. It was a leisure activity and, initially, a way to build community and camaraderie in a country full of immigrants.
In many ways, New York City had become an epicentre of baseball fervour after the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York played the first full game against the New York Nine in 1845. (The New York Nine won 22-1.) The game’s popularity spread across the country, of course, but teams formed in other boroughs, including Brooklyn. In fact, the Atlantic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn won the very first national championship in 1857 and dominated the game for years to follow.
Here’s a fantastic photograph of the Brooklyn Atlantics, “champions of America,” in 1865:
Building on a tradition of success, real estate magnate Charles Byrne formed another baseball team in 1883: the Brooklyn Grays. At this point in baseball history, teams were largely known by their colours, and it was up to the newspaper writers to come up with their names. The Brooklyn Grays became the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1888, for instance, because six members of the team got married during the season. A few years later, however, another name started appearing in the press: the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers.
There’s a bit of confusion surrounding the exact origins of the name “Trolley Dodgers”. As one sports history blog explains, the team moved in 1891 to Eastern Park which was surrounded by horse-drawn trolley lines. These slow-moving cars didn’t really require dodging, though. It wasn’t until the 1890s, when the Brooklyn Rapid Transit started to replace the rickety old trolleys. These fast-moving trolley cars were powered by a new-fangled thing called electricity.
This is where the story gets dark. In the late 19th-century, Americans weren’t accustomed to fast-moving vehicles running down city streets. Brooklyn was actually the second city in America to get an electric trolley line. As such, pedestrians hadn’t learned the habit of looking both ways when crossing the street. After all, if you stepped out in front of a horse, the horse would typically just stop in its tracks. An electric trolley car, however, would plough right over you.
Nevertheless, the speedier electric technology prevailed, and before long Brooklyn was completely covered in streetcar lines. The death toll from trolleys hitting pedestrians quickly rose. In the first year, 1892, five people died after being hit by trolleys. The Evening World reported that year:
[A] new precaution is necessary for the suffering Brooklynite. In addition to being always prepared to dodge the trolley wire, he must always be careful to step clear of the trolley rail.
There were 51 deaths in 1893 and 34 in 1894. By the time 1895 rolled around, Brooklyn had earned itself a reputation, and the newspaper writers across the country bestowed a new title on the city’s baseball team. The first use of the team name Trolley Dodgers actually popped up in print over a hundred miles away from Brooklyn. From The Scranton Tribune on May 11, 1865:
The “Rainmakers” and the “Trolley Dodgers” are the latest terms used by base ball writers to designate the Phillies and Brooklyns respectively.
The name stuck. Soon many newspapers were referring to Brooklyn’s baseball team as the Trolley Dodgers. One magazine called it a “playful descriptive term,” though some might think it somewhat derisive towards Brooklynites. Inevitably, however, the city — which became a borough of New York City in 1897 — embraced the term.
Over time, the Trolley Dodger moniker was shortened to Dodgers. The baseball club officially acknowledged the nickname in 1933, when it put “Dodgers” on its jerseys. Five years later, the now familiar Dodgers script appeared. It’s the same script that Jackie Robinson wore when he became the first African-American player in the major leagues in 1947. In 1958, the Dodgers moved West, but the Los Angeles Dodgers kept the name, as well as the same iconic logo.
In the years that followed, trolley cars disappeared from the streets of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. But the legend lives on as a lasting memory of how technology and city culture collide, sometimes to a deadly degree.