This story is part of our “Beyond Sacramento” series, a reader-driven initiative that lets you ask questions about our region that The Sacramento Bee explores and answers. Scroll to the form at the bottom of this article to submit your question.
The question, submitted by Anthony Johnson, is about Lincoln High School: “How did they get the nickname the ‘Fighting Zebras’?”
Johnson said he was coaching a tournament at Lincoln High School when the question about the team’s nickname occurred to him.
Someone told Johnson that the school got its name because it couldn’t afford uniforms and had to use referee shirts.
Given that zebras are not native to this hemisphere, let alone Lincoln, Calif., the story seemed plausible. But the truth is a little less imaginative.
The earliest newspaper reference to a Lincoln team called the “zebras” is in a Dec. 21, 1922, article in Lincoln High School’s student paper El Eco, published as part of The Lincoln News Messenger.
The week before, the Lincoln town basketball team and the Lincoln High School basketball team had both won their games against Sacramento teams.
“Although both the games were very exciting, the most dramatic moment was when the town team filed into the gym dressed in their new black and orange ‘zebra’ suits,” El Eco reported then.
“No doubt the new suits enabled their wearers to play better than they otherwise could have,” El Eco concluded.
The name appeared to stick. Within a month, The Sacramento Bee was referring to the Lincoln town team as the “Lincoln Zebras” in articles.
As for when the high school acquired the name, the best information comes from a former player at the time, Ellis “Park” Schuler, who was on the high school team in the 1920s.
According to a letter he wrote in August 1995, the high school team asked town team players if they would be OK getting new uniforms similar to theirs.
“The same salesman then sold the high school the same suits but used the blue and gold stripes,” Schuler wrote.
“From there it seemed just automatic that the school team be named the ‘Zebras,’ “ he said.
The first time “Fighting” was affixed to the zebra name in print was in reference to Lincoln High’s mascot Abraham, in a December 1957 student editorial in the News Messenger. (Note: The mascot’s name is a bit of a misnomer — the true namesake of the town is Charles Lincoln Wilson, not America’s 16th president.)
The editorial quoted several students on the apparent need for “constant attendance of games and participation in organized cheers” in light of “empty grand stands.”
“’School Spirit’ it seems, as an object of such importance, would receive more respect than the downtrodden soul of Abraham, Lincoln’s ‘Fighting’ Zebra,” the editorial stated.
Though the Lincoln High School basketball team has since shed its stripes for more modern uniforms, for nearly 100 years the Zebra name has remained.