If you remember your high school U.S. History class, you know about the Cold War and Joseph McCarthy. A Republican senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy was relatively unknown when he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950 in which he purportedly pulled out a paper with a list of known Communists in the state department. With the post-World War II tensions between the United States and Soviet Union building -- the Soviets had developed their own nuclear weapon in 1949 -- fear of Communism was a concern, and McCarthy exploited it.
In what became known as "McCarthyism," the government created various committees and hearings to root out Communists, usually with scant evidence. It wasn't too dissimilar from the infamous Salem Witch Trials -- and not too dissimilar from a lot of the fear-mongering we see from politicians today. Thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists. In Hollywood, a suspected Communist blacklist prevented some entertainment professionals from getting work. The fear -- and for a few years, McCarthy's popularity -- continued to grow.
It was in this context that the Cincinnati Reds officially changed their name to Redlegs in April 1953 because they didn't want to be associated with the Red Scare. It’s not that anybody actually thought slugger Ted Kluszewski was a Communist; those were just the times. An Associated Press article from April 9, 1953, reports that Cincinnati general manager Gabe Paul preferred that the team be called the Redlegs, although the article admitted it would be difficult for fans and writers to change their habits. Still, from 1953 to 1959, the team was officially known as the Redlegs.
The interesting thing is that even after the official name change, the club kept "Reds" inside the "C" on jersey fronts through 1955. In 1956, the team removed the "Reds" on its home uniforms and used a Mr. Redlegs logo on the road uniform. Mr. Redlegs lasted just one year, as the team went to a plain "C" on both its home and road unis through 1960, bringing back "Reds" in 1961.
Of course, the most famous bit of Reds uniform trivia during this time period was Kluszewski's cut-off sleeves -- as seen above, here and here -- which revealed his 15-inch biceps. By the way, to show how the game has changed: From 1953 to 1956, Kluszewski hit 171 home runs ... and struck out 140 times. Twenty-six players struck out 140 times or more last season.
Here's a letter on club stationary from 1954 that only refers to the "Cincinnati Baseball Club Co." without mention of any nickname. The team's yearbook from 1953 still called the team the "Red Stockings," its original name from the 1800s. By 1957, however, the yearbook did call the team "Redlegs." And here's a Sports Illustrated cover from 1956 lauding the "Redleg Musclemen."
The Reds never won a pennant in the '50s, saving America from a "Reds beat Yankees" headline. In 1961, they won their first pennant since 1940 but lost the World Series to the Yankees. The Cold War was still on, of course, but the Reds were back to being the Reds.
As for McCarthy, he died in 1957 at age 47 of alcoholism, his reputation long since dissolved. Richard Rovere's biography, published two years after McCarthy's death, asserted that "like Hitler, McCarthy was a screamer, a political thug, a master of the mob," and that he "usurped executive and judicial authority whenever the fancy struck him." We remember Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death for espionage, but only 108 Communists were convicted under antisubversion provisions as allowed in the 1941 Smith Act, and fewer than a dozen were convicted of espionage. Another 20 or so were jailed under local or state laws.
It was an important period in American history, however, and a reminder of the fear politicians can create -- enough to force a baseball team to change its name.