Origins of the YU Maccabees
Have you ever stopped to wonder about the origins of your favorite sports team’s name? It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasoning behind some organizational and school decisions, and any attempt to retrace their steps may wind up leaving you with more questions than answers.
There are those who link their team name to the sport in which they play, such as the Brooklyn Nets. Others choose to connect it to a part of their local culture — like the official state bird — as is the case with the New Orleans Pelicans and Baltimore Orioles.
Yeshiva University’s basketball team has long been a staple of the school’s identity. The Maccabees have created a long list of memorable moments for the school and its supporters, mostly while bearing the four-letter MACS as a symbol across their chest.
It wasn’t always that way. Just like so many of America’s greatest sports teams, the YU basketball squad went through its own name change back in the 1970s, one that wound up leaving a lasting impression on the school for longer than anyone could’ve possibly imagined at the time.
Like most origin stories, this one started out simple. Originally known as the Quinhooplets, the YU basketball team took on the moniker The Mighty Mites in the late 1930s, a nickname that had been bestowed upon miniature guard Julie Wagner and would eventually spread to the rest of the team.
Fast forward to Nov. of 1974 when the Mites were coming off their worst season to date, posting an abysmal record of 1-19. While not a point of concern, their name was a weird fit. A mite is a tiny insect-like creature — not exactly the type of persona a team would like to exude before going head to head in any competitive battle.
The name didn’t sit well with one person, in particular, David Gleicher. Gleicher had recently become the Sports Editor of The Commentator, and like most Mites fans he wound up in a discussion about YU’s prospects for the upcoming season with the Editor-in-Chief of The Commentator, Steve Reisbaum. Only while Reisbaum seemed to be more focused on the Xs and Os, Gleicher had other ways to make improvements.
“Is there any team in America with a wimpier name?” Gleicher asked Reisbaum. “Maybe if the team changed its name, it would play harder, more aggressively and with more pride.”
It was an interesting stance to take, and one that wasn’t devoid of logic. As NFL Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders put it, “You look good, you feel good. You feel good, you play good.” A name change wouldn’t magically increase YU’s field goal percentage or limit turnovers, but it could spark an increased level in confidence, which is a known attribute to some of the worlds most successful people in any industry, especially athletes.
But what would that new name be? Picking one was easier said than done. The Commentator had actually sponsored a contest to rename the team in Nov. 1959, but the results weren’t very encouraging, with the potential names ranging from the Knickerbockers which would result in copyright issues with the professional NBA team to the inaesthetic sound of the Sarachuckers.
Ironically enough, it was not Gleicher — the student who brought this issue to light — who came up with the solution. Gleicher had suggested adopting the name of the Yeshiva University High School for Boys teams, the MTA Lions, the fiercest of animals and kings of the jungle. However, that idea was quickly shot down by Reisbaum on the basis that an animal name was too bland and common. They needed something new and original to ignite a fire of confidence under the players after such a horrible season in the prior year.
Reisbaum suggested something much more unique and on brand for the school: The Maccabees. “That’s it,” Gleicher said as if a lightbulb had immediately gone off inside his head. “From now on, the team will be known as the Maccabees.”
When choosing the name for a sports team, there are three rules of thumb one should attempt to follow. It has to have a connection, it has to evoke confidence and most important of all it has to sound good. The newly proposed name appeared to be a hand in glove fit.
The original Maccabees were a Jewish army in the time of Antiochus who fought back against the Seleucid Empire in order to liberate parts of Israel. Opponents of the team may not know what it meant, but the players would certainly take pride in the tale as a fitting representation of the underdog persona the team had taken on in the sports world being the “Jewish school.” And for the university, it was an excellent idea to connect the school’s basketball team to the annual story of one of the greatest miracles in Jewish History. It seemed to be a win-win proposition for both the school and the team.
“You can’t just change the team’s name” Reisbaum mentioned through laughter. “You have to get permission, though I don’t know from whom.”
True, Gleicher did not have the authority to officially change the team’s name, but as the recently appointed Sports Editor, he had a platform with which to experiment. In a column published in The Commentator on Nov. 20, 1974, Gleicher proclaimed the change of the team name from Mighty Mites to Maccabees.
“As Sports Editor, I made sure that only the new name appeared in the articles,” Gleicher wrote. “The next year, I prepared the athletic department’s media guy, and the team’s name was listed as the Maccabees. I never got permission from Red [Sarachek] or Jonny [Halpert] or even Mrs. Miller, who really ran the athletic department. I just did it.”
Indeed he did, and as history would have it, the name would stick, becoming official in the late 1970s when a student by the name of Mitch Merlis gave a petition to Athletic Director Arthur Tauber in the hope that all the sports teams could officially be designated as the Maccabees. However, the transformation really began roughly a decade earlier with a singular student and his desire to help his school in any way possible.
Photo Caption: YU Maccabees Logo
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University Athletics