These days, logos are the centerpiece of a sports team’s branding campaign, a vital component in its merchandise marketing mix.
They’re now the result of extensive and expensive design research, unveiled to great fanfare, and accompanied by florid descriptions as to how and why each element contained therein was assembled. It’s all enough to put a contrived tear in any publicist’s or Chamber of Commerce member’s eye.
With the possible exception of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and their cleverly obtuse ‘PB’ artistry, most logos are quite straightforward in linking their visage to the team they represent. For instance, the Miami Marlins have the pertinent fish leaping above the letter ‘M’ in multi-colored hues typical of the area’s art-deco scene. Minnesota has its uniformed Twins happily acknowledging each other from each bank of the Mississippi River that separates Minneapolis from St Paul. And then there’s the array of iconic fonts that give imagery to the letters symbolizing longer-standing teams such as the New York Yankees, St Louis Cardinals, and even the transplanted San Francisco Giants, among others.
Logos began appearing on baseball uniforms around the turn of the century. Detroit put a running tiger on their caps in 1901. Other clubs gradually followed suit so that by 1945, only the St Louis Browns didn’t have a logo or lettering adorning their lids.
By that time, logos had become a fixture on jerseys, as well, for a practice purpose. They served to make a player’s attire even more distinctive, leaving no doubt as to which team on the field was which. Thus, logos weren’t really projecting anything but identification.
With such a simple mandate, logo design was fertile ground for overactive minds. Here is the story behind five such creations.
5. New York Mets
Virtual forests have vanished to provide the paper for printing elegies to the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants departing the Big Apple, but the fact remains those teams barely drew flies to their home games.
In 1955, for example, after a run of four National League pennants in seven years, Brooklyn’s season attendance totaled just over a million fans. Compared to the league average of 950,000 or so, this was simply unacceptable. In contrast, the team’s first season in Los Angeles in 1958 whirred the turnstiles to the tune of 1,855,556 against the league average of 1,270,575.
The Dodgers made the right decision, as did the Giants, who were coaxed into following them westward for the same reason.
Ultimately, the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club arose to return the National League back to Gotham, thwarting attorney William Shea’s threat to begin a third major circuit – the Continental League – in 1961 and anchor it in the nation’s largest market. Shea wanted to make it crystal clear that this team was in town to stay and turned to the team logo to make his point.
Sports cartoonist Ray Gatto was hired to accomplish this task. He opted for a circular design that featured a church spire – Brooklyn is known as the borough of churches – and the Williamsburg Savings Bank, which was the borough’s tallest building. Gatto added other noted New York landmarks – the Empire State Building and the United Nations Headquarters – for good measure, and as the coup de grace, hued it all in blue and orange.
It’s no coincidence the State of New York’s official colors are also blue and orange.
As in Dodger blue and Giant orange.
The Mets, by their logo, have made a subtle statement that the heart and soul of the city’s National League traditions have returned.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
Like many teams with histories dating back to the 19th century, this franchise went by many names. The monikers included Greys, Robins, and a few that would have made Lewis Carroll and other drug-trippers of the time proud, such as Bridegrooms and Superbas. However, one remained constant through time, and it became the official nickname in 1932: Dodgers.
It was a tribute to those Brooklynites who weaved through the trolleys when crossing busy streets and, just possibly, those riders who ‘dodged’ the conductors who were collecting fares, ie- riders who were literally bums.
To this day, Dodgers and Bums remain interchangeable, especially in sports headlines and articles. One reason, of course, is the latter term is shorter.
In 1937, Willard Mullin – named Sports Cartoonist of the Century by whoever does those things – was so taken by Dodgers fans referring to their team as the Bums that he drew one in the image of famous clown Emmett Kelley. The Dodgers promptly trademarked it, and similar visages of bums have appeared ever since.
The Bums may be a secondary logo, but the Dodgers take it seriously. In 2010, they sued a Brooklyn bar and restaurant for using their Brooklyn-based logos. They lost on the grounds that they abandoned Brooklyn 52 year earlier, but the outrage it caused gave new life in the borough to an old joke from 1957:
Q: You’re in a room with [Dodgers owner] Walter O’Malley, Hitler, and Stalin and have a gun with only two bullets. What do you do?
A: You shoot O’Malley twice to be sure he’s dead.
Apparently, they’re still just as serious about “dem Bums” as the franchise is.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa-St Petersburg area served as MLB’s tethered goat from 1988 – when the White Sox, Rangers, Twins, and Mariners all threatened at one time or another to move there unless they got new stadiums – until 1997, when they finally fielded an expansion franchise. New owner Vince Naimoli did the obvious and launched a name-the-team contest and received no fewer than 7,000 entrants with a wide spectrum of suggestions.
To his credit, he opted for uniqueness, and the Devil Rays were born. The logo featured the designated fish (Mobula mobular) – a denizen of the local waters – couched in the neon shades of modern times.
It was a controversial decision. A local and vocal contingent of Christians protested that – fish or no fish – any inclusion of the word devil was a tribute to satanic forces. As such, there was no way they could ever support the team, going so far as to say it was cursed.
Not many others did, either, but a more compelling reason they didn’t go to games was most likely that the team was lousy.
While no protester could ever connect the team’s colors – green and black – and logo to any vestige of Beelzebub’s sartorial symbolism, Naimoli finally caved in 2007. He went with hues of heavenly blue and abbreviated the name to Rays.
The new logo borrowed from yet another Dodgers logo – the diamond that encompassed a whooshing Dodgers written in script – and added one other subtle touch: a golden burst of light emanating from the R in Rays.
No one will come out and say it, but that burst looks inspirational. Divinely inspirational, in fact. And the team’s been winning ever since. Coincidence?
Then again, about that time, Joe Maddon also arrived on the scene with a winner’s mentality and a talent for handling low-budget rosters. But he did come from the Angels.
2. Oakland Athletics
Billy Beane’s Moneyball tactics are designed to tweak the noses of bigger-budget ballclubs, and there is no team more appropriate to host his iconoclasm than the Athletics.
Oakland is the franchise’s third stop, having failed to make a go of it in Kansas City and, before that, having surrendered Philadelphia to the National League’s Phillies.
The team has had its moments, though. The Swingin’ A’s won three straight World Series titles from 1972 to 1974 and the Bash Brothers – Mark McGwire and José Canseco – led the charge to three AL crowns and another World Series win in 1989. But surrounding those successes, until Beane appeared on the scene, were more nadirs than apexes. The A’s were chronically cash strapped and paid for it in both the standings and at the gate.
Frankly, this paucity of dosh has been part of the franchise’s DNA since its early days, so much so that the New York Giants’ storied manager John McGraw chided the Philadelphia Athletics’ then-owner Ben Shibe about having a “white elephant” – ie- something that costs more than it’s worth – on his hands. Upon hearing this slight, the A’s just-as-storied manager Connie Mack immediately ordered that a white elephant’s image be added to the team’s uniform.
It was, and it has been there off and on throughout the franchise’s travels. Look for it on the left sleeve of A’s uniforms, balanced on a baseball, bat being wielded by its trunk, ready to continue its tradition of tweaking big-buck clubs.
1. Montréal Expos
Granted, the Washington Nationals aren’t going to revive this logo anytime soon, but it still must be recognized for the work of art that it is.
In one of North America’s most bi-lingual cities, pro sports franchises are faced with a unique set of branding challenges. Foremost among them is creating a name and logo that resonates equally within each demographic. And it must be equal. After all, La Métropole is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world; at last look, that’s the primary language for approximately 56% of its citizens.
When the city became host to MLB’s first Canadian franchise in 1969, its baseball fans overwhelmingly favored Expos for its nickname. It had a uni-lingo spelling, it reflected the recent world’s fair held there, and it conveyed a carnival atmosphere that typified the city’s attitude toward the game. In fact, the latter trait was the inspiration for the team’s red, white, and blue pinwheel cap design.
But the logo itself was the team’s masterpiece. And it’s taken a life of its own.
Basically, it’s a pop-art acronym. And like good art, its meaning is in the eye of the beholder.
Officially, here was the team’s media guide description:
The Expos logo is composed of three letters, the largest of which is the overall stylized “M” for Montreal. Represented in the lower left of the logo is a lower case “e” for Expos and on the right hand side of the logo, in blue, is the letter “b” for baseball.
However, like any good conspiracy theory, the design itself has become greater than the sum of its parts. Allegedly, original owner Charles Bronfman – of the Seagram’s distillery dynasty – first doodled it on a napkin. Since then, perhaps only the Da Vinci Code contains more clues to what it all means, real or imagined. Here is a random sampling of interpretations:
- The eMb represents [les] Expos [du] Montréal baseball.
- The jb represents jeu de baseball, the game of baseball.
- The ejb represents the initials of Bronfman’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in 1969, the same year as the Expos.
- As Bronfman is Jewish and Hebrew script is written right-to-left, the ble represents baseball les expos. Yes, they see an l in there. Don’t ask.
- The overall image portrays a bat hitting a ball.
All can agree, though, that the logo screams ‘Expos!’ to all who gaze upon it. The team may be gone, but the logo remains. According to New Era, Expos caps are now the third-most popular sellers in Canada, behind only the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees. They’re also still common sights in virtually any baseball crowd throughout the continent.
Who knows? Perhaps the Expos will rise again someday. If they ever do, popular sentiment will be to retain its logo, which may or may not have more history than anyone will ever know.