This article was written by Bill Nowlin
This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)
My 2003 article, “The Boston Pilgrims Never Existed” was published in The National Pastime (#23) and covered the year 1903 press accounts in five Boston dailies and three other newspapers. I failed to find even a single reference to a Boston baseball team known as the Pilgrims.
On December 18, 1907, owner John I. Taylor decided that his 1908 team would wear red stockings and be known as the “Red Sox,” as they have been since that time on.
A handful of readers have approached me, pointing out newspaper stories in the intervening years (between 1903 and 1908) where the team was indeed called the Pilgrims. Tom Spaulding was the first, and then Charlie Bevis, Glenn Currie, and Ed Coen all directed me to items they had located. Using SABR’s access to ProQuest, I undertook a fresh look.
The first references to the Pilgrims, and the most frequent, turn up in the Washington Post. The moniker seems to have been one that writers for the Post enjoyed more than those in other cities, and around June 1906 there appear occasional usages. The first time I could find the Boston Globe use the term in a baseball story was an April 26, 1907, sports page cartoon declaring “There is no joy in Pilgrimville” following a particular defeat administered the Boston ball club by the Athletics. The Globe’s game account on May 15 used the nickname in both the fourth and fifth paragraph.
There is another mention of “Pilgrims” in the July 12, 1907, story and about another 10 uses before the year was out, more or less a baker’s dozen of mentions in the one year-many fewer than in the Washington Post. The first use in the Chicago Tribune was found in the June 21, 1907, edition. The Times used the word “Pilgrims” an indicated 182 times during the 1907 base ball season, but never once in connection with baseball.
The 1907 Boston Journal interchangeably referred to the team as the Americans or Pilgrims throughout 1907, though more often as the Americans. The Boston Herald used the Pilgrims fairly frequently as well, probably a little more than half the time.
My conclusion? Sometime in 1906, perhaps influenced by the name of a touring soccer team, the Washington Post began to apply the nickname “Pilgrims” to Boston’s American League baseball team, and during 1907 it caught on sufficiently in some Boston newspapers to be a short-lived nickname for the team. Had your time machine landed in 1903, and you were to ask, “Hey, how ‘ bout them Pilgrims?”, Boston’s baseball fanatics might not have understood the allusion. If you stuck around to catch a few more seasons, in 1907 they likely would have-though the 1906 team (49-105) is not one that any fan found engaging. And after the spring training suicide of skipper Chick Stahl, the 1907 team suffered through four managers while winning only 59 games. Taylor was no doubt right in thinking it was time to refashion the team, even as to its name.
So, the Boston Pilgrims actually did exist, at least in the minds of some writers for a while in 1907. By no means is there any indication that the nickname was commonly used, though it appears it might have been sufficiently familiar to have been understood at the time. It remains a wonderful name, but its appeal seems to have grown dramatically as the decades have passed. For clarity, Boston Americans remains unchallenged as the choice until 1908 and the Red Sox.