With so much focus year after year on the newest and wildest rebranding projects in Minor League Baseball, MiLB.com takes a look at the flip side. This spring and summer, we will be profiling teams with some of the longest continually used nicknames in each league. First up: the International
With so much focus year after year on the newest and wildest rebranding projects in Minor League Baseball, MiLB.com takes a look at the flip side. This spring and summer, we will be profiling teams with some of the longest continually used nicknames in each league. First up: the International League's Rochester Red Wings.
It was 1928. Mickey Mouse made his debut in "Steamboat Willie." Delta Air Service (later Air Lines) was incorporated. Big league legends Billy Martin and Whitey Ford were born, as was Muriel Bevis, a future member of the Kenosha Comets in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Republican Herbert Hoover carried 40 states to roll to a presidential election win. The stock market crashed 11 months later, marking the start of the Great Depression.
And on the shores of Lake Ontario, a team that could already trace its origins back nearly a half-century adopted the moniker "Rochester Red Wings," now one of the longest-held in American professional sports.
"Professional baseball in Rochester started in 1877, and amateur baseball in Rochester actually goes back much farther than that," said Paul Bielewicz, vice president and co-founder of the Rochester Basebal Historical Society. "It traces its roots to around the year 1825, so we've actually had organized baseball in one manner or another for almost 200 years. There's a historical record that talks about baseball being played at a location called Mumford's Meadow in the city of Rochester in the summer of 1825."
From the 1870s through the 1920s, Rochester's teams evolved. There were the Rochesters and Hop Bitters, the Brownies, Patriots and Bronchos, the Hustlers, Colts and Tribe. While some may see modern Minor League rebrands and the controversies surrounding them as new, they're actually anything but. The Hop Bitters name was a nod to then-team owner Asa Soule's "purported cure-all medicinal aid which claimed to treat everything from indegestion to sleeplessness." According to the Red Wings' official franchise history, the Hustlers moniker drew this review from a detractor: "To call a ball club in one of the most important leagues in the country by the name Hustlers is a disgrace. Hustlers! Why don't you call them the Busy Little Workers. … No name suggesting a condition of the club should be picked."
But in 1928, as part of a developing system that would come to be known as Minor League Baseball, Rochester's team took on a new identity that has stood on its own for nearly a century.
In the 1920s, St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey, mindful of how his club regularly came up short when bidding for services of players from then-unaffiliated Minor League teams, took matters into his own hands. Rickey and the Redbirds took over Class A Houston in 1924, thus beginning the process of establishing their own farm system -- something never before seen in the game. Rochester was soon to follow, purchased into the St. Louis organization four years later.
"Where the nickname Red Wings came from was actually a name-the-team contest that was sponsored by the local newspaper," Bielewicz said. "The franchise encouraged readers to submit suggestions. Ultimately, a handful of different people submitted the suggestion of Red Wings, and the reason the ownership liked that was a few different reasons.
"It was somewhat related to the parent club, Cardinals. It was something that no other franchise at the time was called. Obviously, now there's the Detroit Red Wings, but we actually had the nickname first. The other aspect they liked was that it was a loose allusion or reference to Native American culture or Native American history, which is very rich in this area."
The Red Wings identity -- established four years before Detroit's hockey team took the same name -- meant something new and bigger than what had preceded it.
"Team nicknames [prior to the Red Wings era] were really kind of informal compared to the way that team names are today, a formal part of the team's identity," Bielewicz said. "[Back then], nicknames could've come from almost anywhere. They were literally nicknames. They were what the fans might have called the team or the sportswriters."
With a new parent club, new purpose and new name, the Red Wings took off. A logo was concocted with bright red wings flying off a baseball and sewn proudly onto the club's uniforms.
"That logo appeared on the uniforms beginning in 1928," Bielewicz said. "It was on the chest and remained on the chest right up through 1934. One little fun fact that's interesting about that, unless I'm mistaken, I think that you are not allowed to depict a baseball anywhere on a jersey now, so that's interesting that in those days either that rule didn't apply in the Minors or it just wasn't around yet. For the first six or seven years of the team's existence, they did wear that ball-with-wings logo at home and on the road."
Bielewicz is correct. Official Baseball Rule 3.03(g) states that "No part of the uniform shall include a pattern that imitates or suggests the shape of a baseball." For Rochester, it wasn't an issue and a classic logo was born, although the team's look -- like all teams of the era -- constantly changed.
"There was really not a lot of consistency either," Bielewicz said. "Now you think of teams, when they release a new logo or a new uniform, it's a very consistent package. There's a book that shows how the logo is to be used, here's the official Pantone values for the colors, things like that. In those days, there was a lot of inconsistency. What you see on the uniform is not necessarily exactly the same as how they depict the logo on the cover of a yearbook, for example. That actually poses a little bit of difficulty when trying to research what year each logo was used because they never really were official until much later."
A year after taking on their new name in 1928, the Red Wings moved into a new stadium, largely funded and built by the Cardinals. For almost seven decades, they called Silver Stadium home, sending players like Johnny Mize, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. to the big leagues -- and the Hall of Fame. Over the years, the logo underwent several tweaks but largely kept the same look. The uniforms adopted a script "Red Wings" in the 1940s and kept some variant of it through the 1990s.
In 1981, the logo took on its first modernization, going from the flowing, Art Deco-evocative wings of its early iteration to a stylized, point-and-streak look with a new wordmark (below). That logo and the uniforms that accompanied it were the first that Bielewicz could definitively nail down to a specific date range after uncovering an article about their unveiling in the team's 1981 yearbook.
Silver Stadium began to show its age. Despite an extensive renovation following the 1986 season, the franchise began the process of saying goodbye to its longtime home in the mid-1990s and unveiled a new logo in 1995 as part of that process.
"It was intended that 1995 would be the last year at old Silver Stadium and 1996 would be the first year at new Frontier Field," Bielewicz said. "This logo, the ball with wings with the 'R' in front of it, was designed to be a one-year commemorative logo which would be used just for the 1995 season to showcase the history of the team. There were a lot of promotions throughout the 1995 season to embrace the throwback uniforms and hats. They did Turn Back the Clock days and really tried to embrace the history. The logo itself was a new logo, but it was based on a couple of different things."
The mark tied together Rochester eras, incorporating a cap logo the Red Wings wore in the 1960s and '70s with the script 'R' of the '90s teams, and it got extra life when construction delays pushed the opening of Frontier Field back to 1997. The team held the logo over for '96, repeating its promotions and taking a victory lap to again honor its history.
As seen across the Minors with regularity, new homes often mean new identities, and even Rochester wasn't immune to the idea.
"They even looked at changing the team name at the time in the late 90s to coincide with moving into the new ballpark," Bielewicz said. "I don't know how seriously they ever really considered it, but it was one of those things where every option was on the table. By the late '90s, it was starting to become a little more prevalent in Minor League Baseball where logos and nicknames were starting to get a little more wacky, and it was a little bit more about merchandising and sales than it was about embracing history or tradition."
An outcry of public support for the Red Wings name preserved it, he said.
"Ultimately in this case, tradition won out. By '96, they had almost 70 years of history in using the Red Wings name and they didn't want to throw all of that away and go with a new name."
While the name didn't change, the look did. Along with their move into Frontier Field, the Red Wings revealed a new logo set centered around an anthropomorphic bird known as Spikes, now present at home games as the team's beloved mascot. In the redesign, Rochester did something else befitting its new era, too.
"That black jersey was not an alternate jersey," Bielewicz noted. "It was actually their primary home jersey. They did wear that for most of their home games. As part of that uniform set in the late '90s, they did have a white sleeveless jersey that they wore occasionally, like on weekend games, on Sundays, but that black one actually was their primary home uniform. As far as the traditionalists were concerned, that was the part that was a little unnerving, not so much that the logo was different but that they were wearing these black jerseys for every home game and actually most of the road games, too."
In 2014, Spikes got an update from renowned designer Studio Simon, and the team brought back a traditional primary home white uniform. As the years have passed, the Wings dipped their toes in the waters of alternate identities -- the Rochester Plates are a regional phenomenon, and the team dressed in "fauxback" uniforms as the Hop Bitters in 2018 and the Hustlers last year.
But for the Rochester community, nothing compares to the original.
"I think part of what illustrates the sense of pride that the local community has in the Red Wings name is a couple of times when we actually have messed with it a little bit," Bielewicz said.
"It's a great sense of pride."
Uniform renderings created by Craig Brown. Uniform photos by photos by Joe Territo and Paul Bielewicz. Special thanks to Red Wings director of communications Nate Rowan for his assistance with this story. Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.