This Is How The Washington Nationals Got Their Name

The 2021 season was a rough one for fans of the Washington Nationals. After winning their first-ever World Series in 2019, the Nationals struggled, finishing last place in the NL East with a 65-97 record in the 2021 campaign (via Baseball-Reference) as their longtime star pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, barely played due to injuries. That still doesn't change the fact that the team has had far more playoff success in 17 seasons than its predecessor, the Montreal Expos, did in 36. And Strasburg is far from the only player to establish himself as an MLB star during his time playing in the nation's capital — Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Max Scherzer all had successful stints in Washington before moving on to other teams, while the 2021 Nationals had their share of standouts, such as first baseman Josh Bell and right fielder Juan Soto (pictured).

As noted above, the current Nationals didn't start out in the MLB as a brand new team per se — the Expos entered the MLB as part of the majors' 1969 expansion, and stayed in Canada for the next three-plus decades, with players such as Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Vladimir Guerrero all thriving north of the border. And it should also be pointed out that before the Nationals, Washington had a few other MLB teams that eventually moved to other cities, including one that was officially known by that very same name. So why is Washington's MLB team called the Nationals and not known as, say, the Washington Baseball Team?

Today's Nationals aren't Washington's first team with that name

In order to trace the origins of the Washington Nationals' team name, one has to go back to 1859, well before the birth of Major League Baseball as we know it. In November of that year, the Washington Nationals Baseball Club was established, though it wouldn't be another 10 years before they played their first game. That team was among those that made up the National League when it was founded in 1885, but when the National League reduced its membership from 12 teams to eight in 1900, the Nationals were one of the casualties.

Just one year later, the American League formed with another Washington team — the Senators — among its inaugural clubs. Officially, the team became known as the Nationals in 1904 and would retain that name until the 1955 MLB season. This may come as a surprise to some — after all, this team, which featured the likes of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Walter "Big Train" Johnson (pictured above) and won the 1924 World Series, was still widely known as the Senators during that timeframe. Their Baseball-Reference history page also refers to them as the Senators from 1901 to 1960. However, the MLB's website explained that from 1904 to 1955, newspapers "interchangeably" called Washington, D.C.'s MLB team the Nationals, Nats, or Senators. This does sort of make sense — "Nats" can be short-hand for either Nationals or Senators.

An old name for a new team

The Washington Senators went by that name from 1956 to 1960 before moving to Minnesota for the 1961 MLB season and becoming the Twins. That same season, the AL debuted a new expansion team based in the nation's capital, once again using the Senators name; that club failed to make a splash, and by 1971, they headed west and became the Texas Rangers. This kicked off more than three decades in which there was no Major League Baseball presence in Washington, D.C., though there were a few close calls, most notably when the NL's San Diego Padres nearly relocated to the capital ahead of the 1974 season, only for new ownership to save the day and keep the team in California.

The long wait finally ended in September 2004, when the MLB chose Washington as the new home of the Montreal Expos, a long-suffering club that made the playoffs just once in their 35-year existence, per Baseball-Reference. Due to Washington's lack of voting representation in the U.S. Senate, "Senators" was eliminated from contention during the search for a team name. Instead, the club opted for a throwback to the distant past and went with the Nationals name.

According to the Nationals' then-president, Tony Tavares, the choice boiled down to a desire to make a "fresh start" separate from the Expos and Washington's previous MLB teams. "For example, in our media guide, we're talking about having a page of records from the old Senators, a page of records from the Expos and a blank page writing our own records in Washington," he explained. "This is a new team. The record is going forward here. We'll start with that."