101 years later, Hustlers return to Rochester

Red Wings revive dormant identity with beer, billiards, Big Jawn

Randy Dobnak and the Rochester Red Wings took the field as the Hustlers on Saturday. (Catie Ihrig/RedWingsBaseball.com)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | May 27, 2019 10:00 AM

On Saturday, after a 101-year hiatus, the Rochester Hustlers took the field. 

The Hustlers served as Rochester's professional team from 1909-18, switching to the International League in 1912 after three seasons in the Eastern League. Rochester has fielded a team in the IL in every season since the Hustlers' 1912 arrival, the longest continuous marriage of league and locale in all of Minor League Baseball.

Rochester's IL team has been known as the Red Wings since 1928, but on Saturday it suited up as the Hustlers as part of a throwback celebration. It turned out to be an unfortunately brief celebration; the Hustlers scored six runs in their half of the first inning against Pawtucket but the game was suspended in the second due to rain. 

"Baseball in Rochester goes back to 1877, and there have been a lot of different names for the team," Red Wings general manager Dan Mason said. "We want to celebrate those different names every year. We had a lot of sucess with the Hop Bitters last year, so we thought we'd try it again." 

The Red Wings played as the Hop Bitters on May 26, 2018, celebrating a team that played in the National Association in 1879 and 1880. To explain the history of that franchise, Red Wings broadcaster Josh Whetzel starred in a "Drunk History"-inspired video entitled "Tipsy Tales." He reprised that role in advance of Saturday's game as the Hustlers, boozily explaining the colorful history of a team led by player/manager "Big Jawn" Ganzel. Ganzel, in partnership with a local businessman named Fred Blum, opened a billiards hall in Rochester that featured a dedicated room for fans to talk about baseball." 

"I was definitely sober when we taped that," Whetzel said. "I want to make sure that's in the story. I'm good at acting." 

Tweet from @RocRedWings: 📽��� Tipsy Tales Season II: The story of the Rochester Hustlershttps://t.co/0NFhgZSEip pic.twitter.com/AJaX97wWhY

As with last year's Hop Bitters promotion, Saturday's Hustlers Night featured what Mason called "fauxback" uniforms. 

"We call them that because the jerseys and logos are designed to look like what the teams would wear if they were still playing today," Mason said. "We worked with [design firm] Brandiose on both Hop Bitters and Hustlers. There were two schools of thought with Hustlers. Was it a Hustler like a baseball player literally hustling? Or a Hustler like a card shark, a pool player?

"As we looked more into the history of the team, it became clear to us that we should incorporate billiards into the logo somehow. That's how we came up with the the billiards-playing guy in the Bowler hat where, instead of a cue ball, he's playing baseball. The wordmark has the color green, like a pool table. And it has that ornate 1900s look to it." 

Furthering the theme, the contest between the Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox was preceded by a vintage "base ball" demonstration. The Red Wings also partnered with Genesee Brewery -- located a short distance from the team's Frontier Field home -- to create a one-night-only specialty brew called "Hustlers Ale." 

A vintage "base ball" exhibition preceded Saturday's game in Rochester

The Red Wings planned to add an old-time feeling to the entire evening. Public address announcer Tim George stood atop the dugout while introducing the batters, shouting their names into a megaphone. The team even procured artifacts from a local museum, in order to lend authenticity to retro-themed between-inning contests such as a sack race and one that Mason described as "hitting a metal circle with a stick" (also known as hoop rolling.)  

"Now batting for the Hustlers..." (Catie Ihrig, Redwingsbaseball.com)

The weather didn't cooperate on Saturday, leading the surreal sight of a tarp pull conducted in period attire.

Tweet from @TobyMotyka: Minor League sports professionals wear many hats. Tonight, in true Hustler fashion, the @RocRedWings also wore top hats pic.twitter.com/MuXCsBBjfy

The Red Wings plan on bringing the Hustlers back at a later point in the 2019 campaign. They also plan on extending their "fauxback" promos into the 2020 season and, possibly, beyond. After all, there are still a quite a few Rochester baseball stories waiting to be told.

"We have a lot of different names to choose from," Mason said. "We had a team named the Beau Brummels. And there are names like the Colts and the Broncos. We'll see which ones we can come up with a logo for, and, of course, which one will make for the best Tipsy Tale."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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