Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Anson and McNeill – Why the Chicago Cubs were “Orphans”

Before 1888, Chicago’s National League baseball team was primarily known as the White Stockings.  A change in uniform and a young roster in 1888 ushered in two new names; the “Black Stockings” (or “Black Sox”) for the uniform, and the “Colts,” for their relative youth.[i]  “Black Stockings” came and went, but “Colts” survived as their primary nickname for a full decade, even as the core of the team aged. 

The name was frequently rendered as “Anson’s Colts,” in reference to Adrian “Cap” Anson, sometimes referred to as “Pop”, their long-time player and manager who assembled the young team.

Ferndale Enterprise (Ferndale, California), April 19, 1898, page 2.


“Cap” Anson played professional baseball for twenty-seven years.  He first played professionally for Rockford, Illinois (later the home of the Rockford Peaches) in 1871, which was just the third season of professional baseball, the Cincinnati Red Stockings having established the model for the profession in 1869.  His final game was in October of 1897.  A poem in his honor, published at the start of the 1897 season, reflected the public perception of his longevity and out-sized importance to the game and team.



Who was it at creation’s dawn

Awoke to scratch himself and yawn;

“I’ve slept so long my back is lame;

It must be time to start the game?”

Pop Anson!


Who coached young Abel, Adam’s son,

And taught him how to hit and run?

In Adam built an umpire’s nerve,

And showed Cain how to pitch a curve?

Pop Anson!


Who on the ark with Noah sailed,

Tried to sign Ham and Shem, but failed,

Surveyed the flood, said “I regret

The game’s postponed – the ground’s too wet?

Pop Anson!

            . . .


Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), March 19, 1897, page 7 (crediting The Baltimore News).

The name “Colts” was so closely associated with Anson that when he left the team before the 1898 season, they were ripe for a new nickname – they were “Anson’s Colts,” and no one else’s.  But old habits die hard.  Hometown newspapers were still calling the team the “Colts” when the team returned to spring training, even resorting to the sacrilege of substituting the new manager, Burns, for the irreplaceable Anson, referring to the team as “Burns’ Colts.”

Chicago Inter-Ocean, March 9, 1898, page 4.

Chicago Tribune, March 11, 1898, page 4.

The players tried out a couple new nicknames of their own during spring training in Waycross, Georgia.  The names were pretty dark, reflecting their dissatisfaction with the lousy field conditions, lousy food, and lousy town. Fortunately (or predictably), “Reconcentrados” and “Cannibals” never caught on with the public. 

Manager Burns went to Savannah this morning in search of better food for his hunger-stricken crew.

In the afternoon the reconcentrados went out on to their sandpile and plowed through nine innings. . . .  In the sixth round Chance, the new catcher,[ii] turned down his ankle while chasing a fly in the rough center field and injured himself so badly that he retired.  A local colored player replaced Chance and furnished the fun for the natives who saw the game. . . .

The ex-Colts seem to have settled the question of nickname among themselves.  They call each other reconcentrados, because they are cooped up in an inland town in a starving condition.  This morning Kittridge awoke the whole crew by a series of yells and dashed into the hall in a state approximating the Adamic.  When questioned as to the uproar he vowed that Bill Everitt had attempted to eat him.  Since then the ex-Colts have referred to one another as cannibals.  Griffith is agitating a scheme to hold up a dynamite car en route to Jacksonville and obtain something to eat.

Chicago Tribune, March 22, 1898, page 4.

“Reconcentrados” was a Spanish term for concentration camp inmates in Cuba who were in the news at the time, during the run-up to the Spanish-American War.[iii]   “Cannibals” is more obvious – they were hungry.

Luckily, a “prominent baseball fan” from New York City suggested a name that resonated with fans and sportswriters, and was eventually embraced by the team – the “Orphans.”

John T. McNeil, a prominent baseball fan from New York, submits the following: 

Being aware that the patrons of the national game in Chicago are at a loss for a suitable name to bestow upon their pets, allow me to christen them. ‘Pop’ Anson, the step-father (if not the father) of baseball having left the team, and with it, for the most part, a band of players whom he ruled as a good father does his children – stern and unrelenting when occasion called for discipline; and, instructive and appreciative when their efforts or behavior merited the same.  He has shown his fatherly qualities, as many players in the profession developed under him can attest.  Since the death of Harry Cartright Anson has indeed been the ‘grand old man of baseball,’ and as his loss not only to the game, but to the Chicago players in particular, will be a blow, the effect of which they will feel for some time to come, I hereby christen what is left of it the Orphans.’”

St. Louis Dispatch, March 28, 1898, page 6.

John T. McNeill, a baseball fan of New York, submits the following: “Being aware that patrons of the national game in Chicago are at a loss for a suitable name to bestow upon their pets, allow me to christen them the ‘Orphans.’ They have lost their Papa Anson.”

Buffalo Evening News, March 30, 1898, page 14.

Since the names John and McNeill are relatively common, it may be impossible to determine the identity of the prominent baseball fan with certainty, but there is one prominent John T. McNeill from New York City who makes a promising candidate.  He was active in New York City Republican politics in the 1890s with direct connections to prominent newspaper editors, who later held prominent positions in the state “excise” department (tax collection) and drivers’ license bureau.  He was also apparently a sports fan, working for more than a decade for the New York State Athletic Commission, with jurisdiction over boxing and wrestling matches.  More than a thousand people attended his retirement ceremony in 1936, including a former mayor, and discussions held at his retirement dinner made headlines. In short he was the kind of person who would have been prominent enough to catch the ear of a sportswriter, and he is the only prominent “John T. McNeill” from New York City identified after an exhaustive search of online archives. 

John T. McNeill, Special Deputy Commissioner of the New York Excise Department, as pictured in Edgar Murlin’s New York Red Book, An Illustrated Legislative Manual, Albany, B. Lyon Company, 1916.

John T. McNeill was active in Republican politics in New York City as early as 1892, when he was a founding member and officer of the “First Presidential Voters’ Republican Club of Harlem,” comprised of young men (women would not be eligible to vote in New York State until 1917), presumably under the age of 25, who were eligible to vote in their first Presidential election.  He served on the “executive committee” and the “speaker and press committee” for the club, which would have put him in contact with various press outlets in New York City. [iv]

Over the next few years, he had a hand in founding at least two more Republican clubs, including the Independence Club,[v] and his namesake John T. McNeill Association, which would then merge back into the Independence Club of which he had been a charter member.[vi] 

McNeill also played a role in more formal political organizations, as the secretary of the 28th Assembly District Republican Organization in 1893, and as secretary of the Central Republican Club of the 31st Assembly District in 1896.[vii]  As secretary, he would presumably engaged in correspondence with local newspapers regarding various political positions or issues.

In 1898, John T. McNeill ran the re-election campaign headquarters of Congressman Lemuel Quigg, who had been elected to Congress in 1896 (he would lose in 1898).  Quigg was an old newspaperman who had been the editor of the Flushing Times in 1883 and 1884, was on the editorial staff of the New York Tribune from 1884 through 1894, and was the editor-in-chief of the New York Press for one year before running for Congress in 1896.[viii]  Interestingly, Quigg’s paper, the New York Tribune, carried several items related to McNeill’s various republican club activities, suggesting they could have had a pre-existing relationship.

In 1903, McNeill was an officer of the local organization of US Senator Thomas C. Platt of New York, and one of his contacts in the Excise Department (tax collection).[ix]  In 1904, he attended the New York State Republican Convention, where he pulled a fake-candidate gag, enlisting a number of delegates to support the supposed appointment of “Louis N. Smock, of Rensselaer, for the office of State Engineer and Surveyor.”  There was no such person, but “the boom was so skillfully sprung by John T. McNeill and Bryant Willard, of the Thirty-first district, New York, that many delegates were taken in and actually pledged themselves to vote for him in the convention.”[x]

John T. McNeill worked as a clerk, cashier, and eventually Deputy Excise Commissioner in the New York City offices of the state’s Excise Department from at least as early as 1896, until the position of Deputy Excise Commissioner was legislated out of existence in 1921.  In 1896, his name was listed as one of a number of clerks Thomas C. Platt sought to transfer from the Excise Department to the newly formed Liquor Tax Department.[xi]

When he lost his position as deputy commissioner in 1921 through no fault of his own (the position was legislated out of existence[xii]), he quickly found new employment in a different state agency, as the Deputy Director of the Motor Vehicle Bureau in New York City.

New York has an auto tax collecting office, where John T. McNeill, deputy director, issues licenses to all who can pass a test. 

New York Daily News, April 16, 1923, page 2.

McNeill held that position for about two years,[xiii] after which he scored a position as Deputy Commissioner with the Athletic Commission of New York[xiv] (a position he had coveted since at least as early as 1921[xv]).  The Athletic Commission was a division of the Department of State of New York with “sole direction, management and control of all boxing, sparring and wrestling matches in the State, where admission is charged.”  He stayed in that position until his retirement in 1936.

John T. McNeill attended the weigh-in of a young, future multi-weight class world champion, Tony Canzoneri, before his bout against California Joe Lynch in July 1927.  Canzoneri would win the bout on points, improving his record to 37-2-6.


“The weighin (l. to r.) Canzoneri, Deputy Commissioner John T. McNeill and Lynch,” New York Daily News, March 8, 1927, page 36.

More than a thousand people showed up for his retirement party in 1936, including the former mayor of New York City, James J. Walker.[xvi]  Comments unrelated to his retirement made headlines.  One of the attendees, the manager of then-heavyweight champion of the world Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe portrayed Braddock in the Ron Howard film, Cinderella Man) squelched rumors that former champion, Jack Johnson, would help train Braddock for a title defense against Joe Louis.  Louis would win the fight and hold on to the title for more than a decade – perhaps Braddock should have listened to Johnson.

All of which is neither here nor there, but it does go to show that John T. McNeill, athletic commissioner, was a sports fan who may have been prominent enough, even as early as 1898, to be the same John T. McNeill named as the “prominent baseball fan” of New York who suggested the name “Orphans.” 

Regardless of which John T. McNeill suggested the name, his suggestion has largely been lost to history.  Some discussions of the origin of the nickname suggest merely that “Chicago newspapers began calling the team the Chicago Orphans” [xvii] in 1898.  It may be true that Chicago newspapers began calling the team the “Orphans” in 1898, but they do not appear to have coined the name, and they were not the first ones to adopt its use. 

The Chicago Tribune’s account of opening day at St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park avoided the use of any new nickname or reference to any ex-nickname. 

Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1898, page 7.

Likewise, the Chicago Inter-Ocean avoided all nicknames.

Chicago Inter-Ocean, April 16, 1898, page 6.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s account of the same game referred to them simply as, “the Chicagos.”

Elsewhere, old habits died hard, with several outlets referring to them as the “Colts.”

The teams were preceded by a band to the park and escorted over to the farthest corner, when they piled out of the busses.  There were 18 browns and 16 colts.

Boston Globe, April 16, 1898, page 9.

The Buffalo Enquirer, April 16, 1898, page 6.

Tom Burns and his stalwart Colts from Chicago won one of the prettiest contests ever played in St. Louis.  The Browns were defeated by a score of 2 to 1.

The Indianapolis News, April 16, 1898, page 16.

The St. Louis Browns would get a new name the next year, after changing their uniforms for a deep red, or “cardinal,” following a wholesale swap of players from the Cleveland Spiders.  Following a perfect 7-0 start to the 1899 season, St. Louis would be known as the “Perfectos” for most of the 1899 season. They were renamed the Cardinals early in the 1900 season, perhaps inspired by comments from a “Windy City Lass” on a road trip to Chicago.  For the full story, see Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, “Sunday Baseball and the Cleveland Spiders – How the St. Louis Browns Became the Cardinals.[xviii]

As for the erstwhile “Colts,” change was in the offing.  Even before opening day, a newspaper in Buffalo, New York referred to the Chicago team alternately as “Colts” (capital ‘C’) in one column and as “orphans” (small ‘o’) in another.

Buffalo Courier, April 15, 1898, page 7, column 1.

It is not, however, to the managers of the club alone that Anson lays the failure of his attempt to assume control of the orphans.

Buffalo Courier, April 15, 1898, page 7, column 2.

Another newspaper from the same city referred to them as the “Orphans” (capital ‘O’) about one week into the season.

Probably the best move Tim Hurst made since his advent as a baseball manager was when he procured Decker from the Chicago Orphans.

Buffalo Commercial, April 22, 1898, page 6.

In Philadelphia, they ushered in the new and ushered out the old.

The erstwhile Colts – now the orphans – presented a different line-up from what the patrons of the game had been accustomed to seeing. . . .  The tall form and argumentative tongue of Anson were missing.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 1898, page 4.

Over the following weeks, newspapers across the country adopted the capitalized “Orphans” as a nickname for the team.

The name appeared in headlines as early as May.

Pittsburgh Press, May 8, 1898, page 14.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, the Inter-Ocean picked up the name by early May and the Tribune by early June, cementing the new nickname as a quasi-official name

Chicago Inter-Ocean, May 3, 1898, page 8.

Chicago Inter-Ocean, May 14, 1898, page 8.

Struggling down to the last ditch, Brooklyn finally succumbed to Chicago today, and for once the Orphans turned the tables and applied the one run hoodoo to the other fellows. The score at the end was 6 to 5.

Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1898, page 4.


Chicago Tribune, July 15, 1898, page 4.

The name remained Chicago’s primary nickname for four seasons.  In 1902, a new manager, and a new crop of particularly young players brought another name change, which, like the ‘Colts,’ borrowed from the name of a young animal, this time a bear.  Over the course of several years, the team would gradually become known more and more regularly as the “Cubs,” a name they still carry today, with the transition complete by about 1907.[xix]

But in 1899, the team flirted with another new name which, like the players’ suggestions of “Reconcentrados” or “Cannibals,” reflected the nature of their spring training experience, although this time in a more positive light.  

Following a spring training camp among the cowboys and rancheros of the American Southwest, Chicago’s National League baseball team would be regularly referred to as Cowboys, Rancheros or Rough Riders throughout the 1899 season.  For a more detailed account of the circumstances that resulted in the new names, see Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, “Rancheros and RoughRiders – why the Cubs were Cowboys (if only for a year)”.[xx]


[i] The word “colts” was then commonly used to refer to young, up-and-coming baseball players.  See, for example, Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1887, page 3 (veteran Joe Gerhardt, discussing his dissatisfaction with being asked to practice with the youngsters, instead of the first team of the New York Giants, “I told Mr. Watrous I would sign with the Mets if permitted to do so, and I will.  Why, when I would report for practice Ward would not ask me to work with the nine, but kept me with the colts.”).

[ii] The new catcher would be immortalized as a first baseman twelve years later, as part of the famous line, “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” in the poem, Baseball’s Sad Lexicon, written when the Cubs clinched the National League pennant over the New York Giants late in the season.  See my earlier post, “Another Tinker to Evers to Chance Double Play – Two Poems.”

[iii] W. Joseph Campbell, PhD, The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents (2005), Introduction, available online at  (“The reconcentrados , the Cuban non-combatants, were badly cared for and suffered greatly. Tens of thousands of them fell ill and died. The plight of the reconcentrados were thoroughly—and at times extravagantly—reported in American newspapers, many of which took to calling Weyler “the Butcher.” One historian has perceptively written that the mistreatment of the Cubans may have done more to bring about war with Spain “than anything else the Spanish could have done.” (citing Musicant, Empire by Default)).

[iv] New York Tribune, October 2, 1892, page 20 (“Anybody wishing to see what a real lively Republican meeting is should attend a weekly mass-meeting held under the auspices of the First Presidential Voters’ Republican Club of Harlem . . . .  These young men will cast their first Presidential ballot for Harrison and Reid. . . . . The officers of this lively organization are . . . John t. McNeill . . . executive committee. . . .; John T. McNeill . . . speaker and press committee.”).

[v] New York Tribune, January 15, 1893, page 20 (“At the close of the campaign, when the club was about to be disbanded, a movement was started o form a permanent social and political organization. . . the new club was named the Independence Club. . . .  John T. McNeill, the first vice-president of this club, also did good work for the First Presidential Voters’ Republican Club.  He is a convert from the Democracy, and he is now secretary of the XXVIIIth Assembly District Republican Organization.”).

[vi] New York Tribune, October 12, 1893, page 3 (“Two of the largest republican clubs in the XXVIIIth Assembly District united on Tuesday night for the purpose of acting in harmony and presenting a better front to the enem.  They are the John T. McNeill Association and the Independence Club.”.

[vii] The New York Times, August 27, 1896, page 2 (“The Central Republican Club of the Thirty-first Assembly District met . . . last evening . . . .  The officers of the club are: . . .  Corresponding Secretary – John T. McNeill. . . .”).

[viii] Biographical Directory of the United  States Congress, .

[ix] The New York Times, April 19, 1903, page 3 (“These are the office holders in the Platt local organization. . . . John T. McNeill, Excise Department . . . .”).

[x] The Buffalo Commercial, September 20, 1904, page 10.

[xi] New York Tribune, April 24, 1896, page 5 (In 1896, when T. C. Platt was the managing director of New York City, his son, H. B. Platt organized a surety company to handle bonds for “liquor-tax certificats under the Raines law” which had just gone into effect.  T. C. Platt was trying to arrange for a number of clerks from the Excise Department to be transferred to the new liquor tax department, and John T. McNeill was one of those agents requested by name.  It is unclear whether he ever was transferred, but the connection is one more between McNeill and prominent people in New York City.

[xii] Buffalo Evening News, January 22, 1921, page 11 (“Friends of John T. McNeill of the 21st district have quietly spread the information that he would make an efficient state prohibition agent.  He is now deputy excise commissioner, and for many years has been connected with the department which is about to be legislated out of office.”).

[xiii] Buffalo Commercial, August 28, 1923, page 3 (“Charles Harnett . . . succeeds John T. McNeill New York, who held this position [(assistant deputy director, motor vehicle bureau, New York City office)] the past two years.”).

[xiv] New York Daily News, December 8, 1925, page 37 (“Deputy boxing commissioners Daniel Skilling and John T. McNeill will visit Delaney’s camp at Bridgeport today for a thorough examination of the big fighter.”).

[xv] New York Herald, June 1, 1921, page 14(“Gov. Miller at the Plaza Hotel yesterday refused to say who the three members of the new state Boxing Commission would be . . . Three men have been mentioned for the third position [including] John T. McNeill of Manhattan. . . .”).

[xvi] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 27,. 1936, page 29.

[xvii] “What’s in a Name, National League Edition,” Frank the Tank,, June 16, 2017, 10:58 PM, .