Aw, Rats! The Story Behind the Charleston RiverDogs

Written By:  •  Saturday, October 10, 2015

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There’s a whimsical anecdote on a Wikipedia page dedicated to the Charleston RiverDogs about how the team’s owners, the Goldklangs, had a chocolate lab named Taco, or possibly Chazz, and how the neighbors called Taco/Chazz a “RiverDog.” The story goes that the Goldklangs took a liking to the phrase “RiverDog” and decided to name their baseball team after it. The thing about Wikipedia, though, is that it also says Rob Lowe was raised by wolves in the Siberian tundra, that the Minions movie is a documentary, and that the government is controlling our brains through microwave ovens.

Okay, maybe not, but those are the sort of things you might see on Wikipedia, because Wikipedia itself tells you, “please do not use Wikipedia to make critical decisions” because “some articles may contain errors.” Given that the citation for the Taco/Chazz story is (no joke!) a text message to the author, I thought I’d ask about it to confirm.

Noel Blaha, the team’s director of marketing and new media, who has been with the team for almost a decade, told me this: “This story was new to me when I first noticed it in 2014 suddenly appearing on the RiverDogs Wikipedia page. I won’t completely discount it but not one that I’ve ever been told first hand.”

The real story is much, much less cute: The team was likely named for huge rats.

Port of Charleston.

The city of Charleston, South Carolina, is situated on a peninsula at the convergence of two rivers, the Cooper and the Ashley, near the east coast. As such, it’s a natural location for a port, and the shipping industry has played a significant role in the city’s history dating back to the late 1800s

“The urban legend I was told when arriving in Charleston in 2006,” Blaha said, “was that the sailors would notice large rats scuttling along the banks of the rivers and colloquially nicknamed them river dogs.” Blaha is quick to point out that this story could be “hogwash,” but I’m thinking if someone would just text it to a Wikipedia editor, we could get it chiseled in internet stone.

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r6x3bftedvpgefviealce45yvThe RiverDogs nickname was chosen from a name-the-team contest conducted in 1993 by the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, “with the winning submission winning a jon boat,” Blaha said. Since their debut, the RiverDogs have had conceptually the same logo (featuring a dog rather than a rat), but just this offseason, the team unveiled an updated look and a suite of new alternates designed by Studio Simon. The original is at right, the redesigns above.

One issue that comes up repeatedly in minor league baseball names is the phenomenon of mashing two capitalized words into one word. Blaha, who worked for the Toledo Mud Hens (two words) prior to his tenure with the Charleston RiverDogs (one word, two capital letters), had some thoughts on the matter. The RiverDogs are a Yankees affiliate in the Single-A South Atlantic League, where the practice is on full display.

“In our league we have the Augusta GreenJackets, Lakewood BlueClaws, and the now-defunct Savannah Sand Gnats,” he said. “Why aren’t we the Riverdogs or the River Dogs? Is it to balance the typeset? To look more intimidating? Why wasn’t Savannah the SandGnats? Blue claw crabs are separate words, like sand gnats. How come they joined together, yet Sand Gnats didn’t?” (These are all rhetorical questions, unfortunately, as for now, it’s a mystery that has not been solved.)

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rainbows2The RiverDogs franchise debuted in 1980 as an affiliate of the Kansas Royals. They were the Charleston Royals for five seasons before switching parent clubs to the San Diego Padres and becoming the awesomely named Charleston Rainbows in 1985, which they remained until 1993. After switching to the RiverDogs nickname for the 1994 season, the team basically pretended that the whole Rainbows thing never happened, until fans started making their voices heard.

“For quite some time the feeling was to forget this now-laughable nickname and chalk it up to silly ’80s fad marketing like New Coke and jelly shoes,” Blaha said. “But around 2009 or so, we began to get more and more people asking for throwback merchandise, and subsequently in 2011 we brought in snapbacks that sold very well, which then led to an expanded lineup of T-shirts and more hats.”

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Merchandise sales went so well, in fact, that the team had throwback nights each of the last two seasons where they took the field in Rainbows uniforms.

“I think that name resonates with so many people locally because it brings them back to their youth and the days of seeing Carlos Baerga and Roberto Alomar play at the old College Park,” Blaha said. “When we have the merchandise on display or if I’m wearing the gear around town it really elicits two responses—one of bemusement or confusion that a pro ball team actually had that name, but those that remember the Rainbows get really excited to see the old logo and wordmark.”

SALS

Via The Charleston Museum

Rebels

Via The Charleston Museum. Donated by Joye Wall and Patricia Bowers in memory of Wightman J. & Lorraine S. Kinsey.

Before the Rainbows and the RiverDogs, the city of Charleston already had a rich baseball tradition dating back more than 125 years. “In fact,” Blaha said, “Abner Doubleday was a Union soldier stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the city’s team was the Seagulls, Sea Gulls, or Gulls (note the lack of a “SeaGulls” permutation). In the photo above, from the archives of the Charleston Museum, the SALS across the jersey likely stands for South Atlantic League Seagulls. For a brief period in the 1920s, the team in Charleston was called the Palmettos, later shortened to the Pals. There was no baseball in Charleston for almost two decades, then in the 1940s and early ’50s, the Charleston Rebels were born, winning a couple South Atlantic League championships before closing up shop in 1953.

Looking back over history, all of these historical Charleston teams have one thing in common with the Rainbows and the RiverDogs. “What I’ve found so interesting,” Blaha said, “is that long before brand identities and marketing and, shoot, even merchandise sales, Charleston baseball teams had really cool nicknames.”

Even the ill-fated ChaSox (a White Sox affiliate who played the 1959 season before becoming the Charleston White Sox) and the Charleston Patriots (a Pittsburgh affiliate who went by that name in 1976 and ’77 to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial) bucked the trend of boring names for minor league teams.

The RiverDogs, whether they are named for disease-infested vermin or an adorable family pet, are carrying on a long and varied tradition of interesting baseball team nicknames in their hometown—a city that has hosted everything from Rebels to Rainbows. With a polished new take on one of minor league baseball’s classic logos, the RiverDogs are writing their own chapter in Charleston’s lengthy baseball lure.



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Paul Caputo

Paul Caputo is a grown man who collects plastic ice cream helmet sundaes from minor league baseball stadiums because he likes logos that much. He is the author of the first book published by SportsLogos.net, The Story Behind the Nickname: The Origins of 100 Classic, Contemporary, and Wacky Minor League Baseball Team Names. He can be found on Twitter at @Count2Baseball and he maintains the Countdown to Spring Training on Facebook. Paul is a Philadelphia sports fan, but he's not so bad.