The baseball team now known as the Cubs was playing some thirty years before the present name was adopted (and playing before the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs was founded in 1876).
The team debuted on April 29, 1870, soundly thrashing the Louisville Unions by the score of 47-1. As described by the Chicago Tribune, the players wore “stockings of pure white British thread [and] shoes of white goatskin.” Although many teams at this time were simply referred to by the names of their cities (Chicagos, Bostons, Worcesters), because of the “showy purity of the hose,” both journalists and fans started calling the Chicago ballplayers the “White Stockings.” (Genealogically speaking, there is no connection to the present-day White Sox, who took the name after the Cubs dropped it.)
This poster honors the White Stockings of 1876, who clinched the National League’s first pennant with a 7-6 victory over the Hartford Dark Blues on September 26, 1876. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, the game was “close and exciting” and was “hardly surpassed by any contest of the year.” The Chicago team finished the season with a 52-14 record.
The name “White Stockings” lasted until 1889. Based on the relative youth of the players, the team was next called the “Colts” (1890-1897). When the club’s owner refused to renew manager Cap Anson’s contract in 1898, the leader-less ballplayers were dubbed the “Orphans” (1898-1901).
Other names made sporadic appearances in Chicago’s newspapers. The first mention in print of “Cubs” was in the March 27, 1902, issue of the Chicago Daily News (click on image to enlarge). The lead sentence in the article “Selee Places His Men: Manager of the Cubs Is in Doubt Only on Two Positions” reads: “Frank Selee will devote his strongest efforts on the team work of the new Cubs this year.”
As Glenn Stout writes in his book, The Cubs: A Complete History: “The term ‘cub’ was common slang for a young ballplayer, and it very well may be the typesetter who should get credit, for had the word not appeared with the capitalized ‘C,’ it might not have stood out.”
The name did indeed stand out, though “Colts” was still used by some newspapers and sportswriters. According to Cubs historian Art Ahrens in his book Chicago Cubs: Tinker to Evers to Chance, by 1907 the team was “universally called the Cubs by all the newspapers. That year, the name Cubs first appeared on the club’s scorecards.”