How the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons got their names

The Fort Wayne Pistons sported this logo during their successful years in the NBL and NBA, before relocating to Detroit.

The Fort Wayne Pistons sported this logo during their years in the NBL and NBA, before relocating to Detroit. The “Z” stood for the team owner, Fred Zollner.

In the second scene of the second act in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Willie may have been correct.

But would we love the Tigers as much if they went by another name? Or if the Lions were the Spartans, as they originally were known? Here’s a look at the origins of the names for each of the four main professional sports teams in Detroit.

How the Pistons Became the Pistons

It took a man from tiny Little Falls, Minnesota to secure the merger between two professional basketball leagues that resulted in the NBA. What does that have to do with our Pistons? That man’s name was Fred Zollner and he was the owner of the Fort Wayne team in the National Basketball League when he gathered team owners to his kitchen table and brokered the deal that launched the new National Basketball Association. Zollner made his money as the owner of a foundry in Fort Wayne, a foundry that produced automobile parts, including Pistons. He and his sister ran the business and lent the name “Pistons” to the basketball team. The original logo for the Fort Wayne Pistons was a robot dribbling a basketball. The Pistons won the championship twice in Fort Wayne, in 1944 and 1945, and twice more they reached the NBA Finals, in 1954 and 1955. In 1957, realizing he needed a larger market for his team, Zollner moved them to Detroit. His team didn’t fare as well in Motown but Zollner held the team until 1974 when he sold it to William Davidson, who had much more success. Zollner died in 1982 and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, commonly referred to as “Mr. Pro Basketball” for his integral role in the birth of the NBA. But it was his “other business” that led to the name of the pro hoops team that resides in Detroit where it’s won three NBA titles.

Why the Detroit Football Team is Called the Lions

Folks in Michigan aren’t going to like this, but the Lions trace their roots to Ohio, where the team was originally known as the Portsmouth Spartans. But Portsmouth was a tiny town (larger only than Green Bay among NFL cities), and by the early 1930s the franchise was looking for a new home. In 1934 a group of Detroit businessmen bought the team and renamed them the “Lions” in a nod to the Tigers.

“It made sense with the popularity of the Detroit Tigers,” said owner George Richards. In addition, the new ownership group explained that the club would be the “king of the NFL”, just as the lion is the king of the jungle. They delivered on that promise – the Detroit Lions won their first NFL championship in 1935.

How the Wings Got to be Red

Had they enjoyed little more luck and success in their early years, Detroit’s hockey team may have remained the Cougars, giving the city three pro teams named after big cats. The first Detroit NHL team was named the Cougars, from 1926 to 1930. But poor showings in the 1920s led ownership to change fortunes with a name change and they opted for the Falcons. The Falcons they were for two more seasons, but the franchise was still drifting in mediocrity. That’s when James E. Norris bought the team and made a lot of changes (thank goodness). Norris had tried to buy the team in ’26 when Detroit was awarded a franchise, but he lost the bidding war. During the early days of the Depression however, Norris was a man with vision. He not only wanted to be the man who owned a pro sports team, but he also wanted to make money and win. He hired wise men with great hockey minds to lead the franchise, and immediately he also renamed his club. A Montreal native, Norris had been active in a sporting club in that city in the late 19th century, a team known as the “Red Wings.” Their teams wore jerseys with a winged wheel on their chest and Norris adopted that logo and the white and red color scheme. The name had an impact – in their first season as the Red Wings, the team won their first playoff game. Two years later they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals and two years after that Norris and his Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup title. The Red Wings logo is one of the mos popular and recognizable in all of sports.

How the Tigers Got Their Name and Their Stripes

In the 19th century most “base ball” teams didn’t have nicknames. A team was usually just known by their city and league, as in “the Boston Nationals.” The Detroit ballclub was a member of the Western League from 1894 to 1900, eventually playing their home games at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the future site of Navin Field/Briggs Field/Tiger Stadium. But the team didn’t have an official nickname during that period. However, as early as 1895 a Detroit newspaper referred to them as the “Tigers” in reference to the Detroit Light Guard military unit, which had gained fame for their bravery in the Civil War and whose members were called “Tigers”. The Detroit Light Guard was one of the most popular organizations in the history of the city and it seemed natural to call the Detroit baseball team by the same name. When the Detroit Light Guard distinguished itself by its service in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the name Tigers was solidified even more. In the early 20th century when the franchise became a charter member of the American League, the name followed them. But it wasn’t until the 1904 season that most newspapers were using the name consistently. There are some sources that claim the striped socks worn by the team were the source of the nickname, but the socks came much later than the first mention of “Tigers” in print. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the team sported orange stripes and first had a Tiger on their uniform.

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