The Ocean Blue? The Story Behind the Columbus Clippers

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The city of Columbus, Ohio, is named in honor of the first European to set foot in North America, Norwegian explorer Leif Erikson. JUST KIDDING. We never talk about Leif Erikson because we don’t know exactly what date he first landed on coastal North America, so we can’t write catchy poems about him. (“In circa year 1,000, Leif Erikson sailed the ocean blue…”)

Now 1492, there’s a number we can rhyme some things with. And because of that, there are lots of cities named Columbus, including those in Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas, Wisconsin, Montana, and, of course, Ohio—not to mention places with Columbia in their name, including cities, counties, and rivers, as well as a Canadian province and a certain “District of” in the United States. (Never mind that Columbus never set foot on mainland North America. JUST NEVER MIND THAT.)

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History remembers Christopher Columbus either as a brave explorer who opened up the New World to trading and cultural exchange, ushering in a new era of global economy, or a money-grubbing villain who wantonly introduced infectious disease and enslaved and slaughtered indigenous populations for his own personal gain. One thing we can all agree on is that Columbus loved fast, sea-faring boats.

Exactly 484 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue (those precise numbers are just so satisfying), the connection between that Ohio city’s namesake and fast boats led to the birth of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, then a brand-new affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1976, Ohio’s Franklin County purchased Cooper Stadium, which was built in 1929, and an as-of-yet unnamed minor league baseball team.

“They refurbished the old ballpark, making it into the nicest minor league stadium in the country,” said Joe Santry, historian, media director, and director of communications for the Columbus Clippers. “They had a contest to name the new team. Hundreds of people sent their ideas into the newspaper. A blue ribbon committee narrowed it down to three names and then picked the name Clippers.”

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There were two reasons the committee picked the name. “They liked the alliteration and the nautical theme for Columbus’ team,” Santry said.

The particular qualities of this kind of ship also played into the selection of the name. “Clippers ships were slick and extremely fast sail ships,” Santry said.

Indeed, clipper ships (as in, ships that move along at a good clip) saw their heyday in the mid-19th century. They were known for their speed and sleek appearance. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “The emphasis on speed came partly from the desire to bring the first tea of the season back from China, partly from the competition with the overland route across North America to the California goldfields.”

In defining clipper ships, 20th-century Australian author and sailor Alan Villiers wrote, “To sailors, three things made a ship a clipper. She must be sharp-lined, built for speed. She must be tall-sparred and carry the utmost spread of canvas. And she must use that sail, day and night, fair weather and foul.”

Of course, Christopher Columbus never knew this particular brand of ship, as they were separated by several hundred years of history. “Christopher Columbus’ three ships were not actually clippers ships,” Santry said. “They were modest-sized merchant vessels.”

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Via Dan Brady’s Bunch of Lorain County Nostalgia.

At first glance, it might seem odd that a city in central Ohio would name its baseball team for 19th-century sailboats best known for racing lightweight goods across oceans, but connecting the dots from the city’s namesake to a later sleek historical boat, you arrive at the Columbus Clippers. They join the city’s other baseball teams dating back to the late 1800s, including the Buckeyes (named by journalists, as was the custom at the time), the Senators (for three decades in the early 1900s), the Red Birds (because the Cardinals bought the team in 1931), and in honor of the city’s aviation industry, the Jets (from 1955 to 1970).

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Primary logo, 1996-2008
Primary logo, 1996-2008

The Clippers have been affiliated with the Pirates (1977-78), Yankees (1979-2006), Nationals (2007-08), and the Indians (current since 2009). They have had a number of logos over the years, the most recent of which (above) was created in 2009 to coincide with the team’s move to their new home, Huntington Park. Their logos are notable for the fact that they incorporate actual clipper ships, unlike a certain NBA Clippers team that recently unveiled some new logos.

The Columbus Clippers have become a paragon of success on and off the field. They won their 10th International League championship this season, Forbes ranks them as the fourth most valuable franchise in the minors, and they were just this week ranked the top game-day experience in minor league baseball by SmartAsset.

While it takes some digging to understand why they’re called the Clippers, after almost 40 years in action, the name is firmly entrenched in the Columbus and minor league baseball communities.