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. Next up: the Eastern
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. Next up: the Eastern League's Harrisburg Senators. (Previous installments: Rochester Red Wings | Nashville Sounds)
The Double-A Harrisburg Senators are on an island in the Eastern League in more ways than one. And they like it that way.
FNB Field is perched on City Island, a mile-long droplet in the middle of the Susquehanna River. It's Harrisburg's ancestral baseball home.
"Baseball's been played on City Island in that same spot for 100 years, 120 years," Senators vice president and general manager Randy Whitaker said. "Home plate hasn't moved more than five feet the whole time it's been there. The baseball history is incredible in this city."
Beyond just the location, the Senators are distinctive among their colleagues. Since joining the Eastern League over three decades ago, the Sens have held on to one of the oldest and most traditional names in baseball as the circuit changed into a colorful contemporary Minor League loop around them. The Norwich Navigators became the Connecticut Defenders and then the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The Akron Aeros became the RubberDucks. Binghamton Mets, Reading Phillies, New Britain Rock Cats? Rumble Ponies, Fightin Phils, Hartford Yard Goats.
Through it all, Harrisburg's team has remained, now boasting the league's longest-tenured identity.
The Senators moved into Pennsylvania's capital in 1987, the Double-A team's fourth city in just over a decade but one that finally stuck and paid homage to Harrisburg's history.
"Bringing a team back in '87 was pretty much the sole dream of the mayor [at the time], Mayor [Stephen] Reed, and I think he decided the name would carry on from the last professional baseball that had been in town," Whitaker said. "It'd been 35 years; 1952 was when the last Harrisburg Senators folded. I think he just picked it up from there. The first Senators [team] was in 1893. It wasn't solid from 1893 until 1952, but it was mostly the Senators there, and that just continued. That predates the Washington Senators."
Harrisburg hosted various franchises for nearly a century before its modern club, home to teams in the Pennsylvania State League, Atlantic League, Tri-State League, International League and New York-Penn League, among others. The newest built on that legacy.
"Because we're a capital city and there's a lot of government involved ... the population turns over rather frequently, but the longtime people here, we've got a very, very recognizable brand because of that," Whitaker said. "It's been around for that long. The hardcore baseball fans appreciate the history behind it all, especially going back to beyond the '87 team."
In their infancy, the Senators created a brand behind a patriotic-themed script and character. "Uncle Slam" leaned on a bat with a hand on his hip, a wink and beautifully tailored high stirrups. Harrisburg partnered with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1987-1990 before joining the Montreal Expos organization in 1991.
Success followed. Lots of it.
The Sens won the league title under the Expos in 1993 and then became the circuit's first team to rack up four straight crowns from 1996-99. Future Montreal stars such as Vladimir Guerrero, Cliff Floyd and Ugueth Urbina rolled through town in the championship years.
In the early 2000s, Montreal's situation became untenable in the big leagues. The Expos decamped for Washington, D.C., in 2005, and with their parent club on the move, the Senators seized the moment for a redesign.
"I think the team wanted to take advantage of that connection with the Nationals," Whitaker said. "We're both capitals. We're only two hours apart down the road, so we had that good association, and we're pretty committed as far as that affiliation because we had been with them, the Expos/Nationals since 1991. So it's one of the longest affiliations, maybe second only to Reading in our league."
Harrisburg's revamp took its lead from Washington's. While the Senators' script felt familiar to its original look, with the city name perched and centered atop the nickname, its heavily beveled typeface was pure Nationals.
The club's "H" logo also changed. Gone was Uncle Slam, the new primary letter logo featuring a baseball sweeping across its front, trailing stars and stripes. It's a look that has stood for a decade and a half in Harrisburg, marking a pivotal moment in the franchise's history. The club added a keystone-inclusive alternate logo seven years later.
"I think they decided the logo needed freshening, and it made the most sense to go with what the Nationals looked like [in 2005]," Whitaker said. "That's not at all what the Nationals look like now. They've changed many times since then, but we've kind of maintained that look that was the 2005 Nationals."
Harrisburg's challenge, especially in an era of constantly morphing Minor League monikers, is to stay fresh with an identity some could see as stale. By embracing its history and surroundings, the club has widened its brand while staying true to it.
Take its insect problem.
"Because we're on an island sitting in the middle of a river, we have a unique task of dealing with several billion mayflies every year," Whitaker explained. "We fight it off. People complain about, 'What are you going to do about the mayflies? Can't you spray for mayflies?' You can't do that. Especially in this era of environmental friendliness and cleanliness, you can't just pump a bunch of chemicals in the river and kill off the mayflies. There are environmental balances that have to be maintained, so rather than fight that, we decided, OK, why don't we do something else with this and instead of fight them, let's join them?"
In the late 2000s, the Sens added a mayfly-inclusive logo to their set and to their apparel. Back in 2014, the team announced -- on April Fools' Day -- that it had rebranded totally to the Harrisburg Mayflies. Some feel it's really a pretty good idea.
"We just say obviously the mayflies are the Senators' biggest fans," Whitaker continued. "They show up every night to the games. We kind of built a secondary identity around that."
Ahead of the 2016 season, their 30th in Harrisburg, the Senators revealed the official on-field return of Uncle Slam, putting the character's face on their batting practice caps and later on an alternate lid.
"When the real hat craze started with all the hat collectors and everything, that just seemed like a natural," Whitaker said. "It's a little bit different from the classic 'Slammy' back in the late '90s, but it's able to express his enthusiasm and his wink of understanding that a smaller logo couldn't do. It was a good bridge. It was a cool, fun logo and yet it was historic at the same time."
Last season, the Nationals won their first championship, and a month later, their oldest affiliate got in on the celebration with one of the hottest logos of the baseball offseason: George Poppin' Bottles.
"That's the kind of thing we can extend our brand," Whitaker explained. "It's governmental a little bit. It's historic. It's tied to our affiliate. It's fresh. It's a huge success. We sold tons and tons of hats and shirts off of that, and this is in the offseason. We didn't even do this until November and December. We probably sold as many hats and shirts with that as we did with any of our conventional Senators apparel. There are ways to keep it fresh and successful with your current brand, and that's what we're trying to do."
Over the years, Harrisburg has been tempted to join MiLB's waves of change but instead has held fast, emphasizing creativity within its own space.
"We have considered -- because everybody does -- doing a rebrand," Whitaker said. "We just haven't pulled the trigger yet, I think, because the history's important. The reason we've considered it is government is, well, government's not the most popular thing in the world anymore. To get out there and root for those government guys doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes, but we're riding it out. People know who we are, and like I say, we've got one of the most recognizable brands in town of any local brand. Everybody knows who the Harrisburg Senators are.
"[Possible rebranding] hasn't gotten far along at all. What we've tried to do is find as many ways to freshen our current identity rather than just completely blow it up and start all over again."
This year, the Senators were set to participate in MiLB's Copa de la Diversión for the first time as the Playeros de Harrisburg, building a new wing on their stately identity structure.
"Thank you to all of those teams that went before us (in Copa) because they did the hard work of figuring out how to do this right," Whitaker said. "We did a lot of research, met with a lot of people in town. We don't have a vast Latinx base in town, but they're prideful, so we wanted to make sure we talk to them, find out what would be the best identity, the best way to connect with them, bring them into the process instead of just throwing something at them."
Again, City Island was at the forefront.
"Trying to mix that with our identity and our venue, that's where Playeros, which is a beachgoer, came in," the GM said. "Since we're on an island, we've got a couple of kind of public beaches. It's not really what people do there, but you get the idea that we're kind of an island team. That's where that came from, kind of 'beach bums.'"
A classic outlook can balance its contemporary counterparts. Harrisburg is proud to do just that.
"I think it's a real good mix of the baseball history and the classic baseball history and then of just the fun atmosphere that having a ballpark sitting in a middle of a river projects," Whitaker said. "For most people to come to a ballgame, they're just coming for the fun. They don't even know the score when they leave at the end of the night. It kind of projects that whole fun thing about it, but for the hardcore baseball people, they connect well with the history of the team in the logo with the number of stars we've had come through with the Senators and also the Eastern League. It's a fantastic developmental place.
"There's just not better baseball than here."
Special thanks to Senators assistant general manager of marketing Ashley Grotte for her help with this story. Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.