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Onomastics (Ono-what?) of Baseball Team Names and Mascots: What's In a Name?
Equipment & Supplies
  • A computer with internet access for: Merriam-Webster Online (for defining words) and other online resources A dictionary if computer is not available in the classroom. One copy per student of: Photo of Player "Stolen" by the Pirates, Worksheet 1: Onomastics of My Name, Worksheet 2: Class Name and Mascot, Worksheet 3: Onomastics Lesson Check-list/Evaluation Pictures of mascots of Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, and Philadelphia Athletics found at Major League Baseball: Kids" Club

Day One:

Begin the lesson by writing the word of the day on the board: onomastics. Ask the children if anyone knows the meaning of this word. To help the children identify the meaning of the word, introduce the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website designed for kids, Wordcentral. Here the children can type in the word, and it will provide students the definition and the pronunciation. This is also a good practice for the children because they may use this website for future activities. If, however, a computer is not available in your classroom, ask the students to look up the word using a dictionary. According to the Wordcentral Dictionary on the Merriam-Webster website, the definition of onomastics is: the study of the proper names of people and places. (A more comprehensive definition is the following: the science or study of the origins and forms of words especially as used in a specialized field; the science or study of the origin and forms of proper names of persons or places.) Write the simple definition on the board and give an example. You can use your name as an example. How was it that you received your name? (Was it a name handed down through generations in your family? Did your parents simply like the name? Did the meaning of the name influence their decision? Did someone else name you? Do you have a nickname you prefer to be called?) For homework, ask students to find out and write down how they were named–the onomastics of his/her name. Then explain to the students that "we will be using onomastics today in our study of the names of baseball teams and mascots, as well as in the naming of a team and mascot for our class."

Explain to the students that the naming process can be very powerful. Words can be used to suggest both good and bad things about a person, or place, or in this case, baseball team. Sometimes people use words to suggest negative (bad) things about the team. However, when the team uses the very same words as their name or mascot, they turn the word around into a positive and empowering one. Let's see if you can see that happen in any of the three baseball names and mascots we study today.

Now, write the following three teams on the board: Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Athletics (now Oakland Athletics). Ask the children which team name they believe is the easiest to understand. Point them first to Pirates.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Brainstorm why "Pirates" may be a good team name. Write ideas on the board. (Looking at positive traits, Pirates are considered strong, loyal to each other, swift, smart, and aggressive.) Read to students or summarize the section of the link called Baseball in Pittsburgh that details the story of how the Pirates received their name. Handout Source 1: Photo of Player "Stolen" by Pirates. They "stole" a player, Louis Bierbauer, from another team. Looking at the photo, ask them if they can tell from Bierbauer's jersey who the other team was? (The Philadelphia Athletics.) When the other team took the matter to a judge (arbitration board), their spokesperson claimed "The action of the Pittsburgh club in signing Bierbauer was piratical [like a pirate]." Pittsburgh not only won the player, but changed their name from the Alleghenies - the Allegheny river runs through Pittsburgh - to the Pirates. Ask students if they think naming a team "Pirates" is an appropriate decision. Why or why not? Is this an example of a team that took a negative comment and powerfully turned it into a positive image for the team? Ask students to volunteer an answer and explanation. The official mascot of the Pirates is a parrot. Why was a parrot chosen? What is the correlation between a pirate and a parrot? Throughout history, pirates have carried parrots on their shoulders. To show your students the Pirates mascot, go to Major League Baseball: Kids" Club and click on the Pirates logo. You will see a color version of Pirate Parrot and to the left are several coloring book versions. You may wish to print these out before class and give them to your students to color if they choose.

Philadelphia Phillies:

Next, ask the children how the words Philadelphia and Phillies are similar. Emphasize the "Phil" in pronunciation of both words. Students will identify the beginning of both words as being phonetically similar (they sound the same). Explain that the Phillies received their name because Philadelphia wanted to create a team with a name that was derived from the city itself - the city that supported and loved the team. The team's mascot was the Phillie Phanatic (write this on the board), who made his debut in 1978. It was named after the fanatical fans in Philadelphia. Ask students if they notice anything unusual about the spelling of these words, particularly the last. What? Why is fanatic misspelled? Well, phor phun, of course (and perhaps to emphasize Philadelphia ties).This well-beloved mascot is purely fictional - green and hairy with purple eyelashes, blue eyebrows, and a beak-like snout, and hails from the Galapagos Islands. The Phanatic catches the crowd's attention with his all-terrain vehicle stunts and launching hotdogs into the stands. For background information on the The Phillie Phanatic, go to Philadelphia Phillies Community: The Phillie Phanatic. In addition to an article on the debut of the Phanatic at this site, there is a link to a photo gallery which offers some great pictures of the Phanatic in action to share with students. As with the Pirate Parrot, you may also use Major League Baseball: Kids" Club to print out coloring book renditions of the Phanatic.

Philadelphia Athletics:

The last team is the Philadelphia Athletics, who are now the Oakland Athletics. They played in the city of Philadelphia until 1954. Ask students to guess why a team would be named the Athletics? The Athletics received their name in the late 19th Century when sports fans who worked at various Philadelphia Athletic Clubs came together and formed a baseball team named Athletics (as many similarly formed teams were known).

The Athletics" mascot is the white elephant. Ask students if they think a white elephant is a good mascot. Why or why not? What is something you know about white elephants? What positive traits does the white elephant hold? Some positive traits may include:

  • rarity

  • association with royality (In Thailand the white elephant was a sign that the king had a divine right to rule)

  • status symbol of wealth

  • wise and sacred in Buddism tradition

  • powerful

  • strong

Inform students that the origin of the white elephant was from a remark that was not positive. A gentleman by the name of Muggsy McGraw, told the owners of the team that they "had a white elephant on their hands." You can have students look up "white elephant" at the Wordcentral site. Basically, it is something that is more trouble than it is worth. Explain that the owners had the last laugh on McGraw. They adopted the white elephant as a mascot and proved him wrong by becoming a successful team. For information on the white elephant team mascot, refer to Philadelphia Athletics History Society: History: The Story Behind the White Elephant that details the story titled "Why the Athletics Are Called ‘White Elephants"". Pass out pictures of the white elephant mascot retrieved from Major League Baseball: Kids" Club (Oakland Athletics).

At the end of class hand out Worksheet 1: Onomastics of My Name for homework. This assignment is to find out and write down the onomastics of their name. What is the story about how they received their name? Tell them tomorrow the class will be creating their own name and mascot, so start thinking about what they would like to be named and the mascot they would like to represent their class.

Day Two:

Class Name and Mascot:

Begin the lesson by asking anyone if they would like to share what they found out about their naming. Allow a few students to share their stories with the rest of the class, and then collect their homework assignments. Next remind the class what was learned in the last lesson. Ask the class for the definition of onomastics again. Ask students to name one of the team names and their mascots from yesterday. What were the other two? (Pittsburgh Pirates/Pirate Parrot, Philadelphia Phillies/Phillie Phanatic, and Philadelphia Athletics/White Elephant). After studying the three Pennsylvania baseball team names and mascots, explain to students that they are now going to use what they know about onomastics to create a team name and mascot for the class. As a class, discuss various ideas and why they may be valuable. Stress that a strong team name and mascot hold value. In your discussion consider the following questions:

  • What do you want your name to reflect? (the geographical area/location of your school? A trait of your class?)

  • Is your name going to have alliteration – that is two words that start with the same letter and sound? (In Pittsburgh Pirates, for instance, both words start with "p."

  • Do you want to choose a person, animal, or fictional character as a mascot?

  • If you choose an animal mascot consider if the animal should be one that is independent or one that lives with others and works as a team.

  • Will you select a person/animal/thing that possesses characteristics that you want your class team to demonstrate?

Brainstorm those traits and write them on the board. Now give students Worksheet 2: Class Name and Mascot. Students will create a class name and mascot and record them on the worksheet. They will also explain the reasons for their selection with five appropriate statements about their choice. Give time for students to complete this assignment. Now, have each student share his/her selection of a valuable class name and mascot. Ideas should be recorded on the board. Finally, the class will vote on the official class name and mascot.

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