Why Aren’t the Boston Yankees in the 2017 Baseball Playoffs?

Boston’s professional basketball team is naturally called the Celtics. The great wave of Irish emigrants forced out of their homes by the famine of 1846–50 hit all the East Coast ports, but nowhere harder than Halifax and Saint John, and especially Boston, which became almost half Irish in a very short time, with long-lasting effect. Boston’s professional football team, which plays in the suburb of Foxboro, is called the Patriots. No surprise here, either, given the close connection of the American Revolution to Boston and New England. But - and here is the puzzle - why is the professional baseball team named the Red Sox, while the team called the Yankees has resided in New York City for a century and more? Surely the ‘Boston Yankees’ and the ‘New York Red Sox’ is a better allocation of team nicknames. Everyone knows that the word “Yankee” was once a synonym for New Englander.

Well, yes and no. “Yankee” is a corruption of a derogatory term used by the Dutch of their seventeenth-century colony of New Netherlands to stereotype the English Puritan settlers who had moved onto Long Island. They apparently provided the Dutch with agricultural products, including cheese, and so were called “Jon Kees,” or “John Cheeses.” The townspeople of New Amsterdam, now New York City, considered them real bumpkins, and applied the term to them with particular scorn for intruding into fertile land claimed by the Dutch. In short, the Dutch needed the Puritans’ produce but resented their presence. Finding some group that deserved to be looked down upon is a constant human tendency. The English bumpkins were labeled Yankees, and Yankees they are.i Yet the story does not stop there.

Over the centuries since the 1650s, the definition of who is a Yankee has broadened. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Yankees were people who lived in New England. Then, descendants of Yankees spread westward across upstate New York into Michigan, northern Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Even Uncle Sam looked like a Yankee patriarch in artists’ renditions - accurately so, as the man whose nickname began this tradition was a Yankee, an Albany-area meatpacker from Massachusetts named Sam Wilson who supplied the army in the War of 1812. During the Civil War, the Confederates applied the term to anyone who lived in the non-slave states. In the First World War, “The Yanks are coming” meant American troops, no matter where they might live or what their ethnic or racial backgrounds were. Still later, Yankee and American – such as expressions “Yankee Imperialism” or “the ugly American” - became fixed as synonymous. Yankee, as it had been in seventeenth-century New Amsterdam, is still often an epithet meaning common, uncouth, and rather pushy.

My point is that what began as an identifier of a people who originated in a particular part of America eventually came to represent a set of qualities and ideas originally propagated by that people. These attributes subsequently were absorbed by larger groups of Americans - immigrants who came in the millions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and then by groups of people all over the world, a point that my The Yankee Road book explores, perhaps not to prove, but to make it seem plausible.

Both the Yankees and the Red Sox are in the baseball postseason playoffs this year and that brings us back to that nagging question of team names. Author Cait Murphy, in her Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, tells it this way:

‘In the American League [in 1908], John Taylor, owner of the Boston team, decides to redesign the team’s uniform, switching from light blue stockings to red ones. Taylor jokes, “You newspapermen will have to pick a new nickname for my team, then known as the Pilgrims, and previously as the Collinsites, Puritans, Somersets and even Yankees (!). He modestly proposes one possibility: Red Sox.’

i Apparently, the first official use of the term was by General James Wolfe during the British expedition against Quebec in 1759, when mentioning the Yankee soldiers who accompanied it. Sixteen years later, the British soldiers sent out to seize American arms thought to be located in Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts, sang the tune “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to mock the country bumpkins they found there. The song had been in derogatory use by British troops at least since the 1745 assault on the French Fort Louisbourg in Cape Breton, now part of Nova Scotia. See Connecticut State Library, “Yankee Doodle, the State Song of the State of Connecticut” (Hartford, 2004), available online at http://www.cslib.org/yankeedoodle.htm. See also Linda S. Watts, The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (New York: Facts on File, 2007), 425–6.