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 Southern
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 Southern League's Chattanooga Lookouts. (Previous installments: Rochester Red Wings | Nashville Sounds | Harrisburg Senators)
On a clear day, a person can purportedly see seven states from the summit of Lookout Mountain. Its ridge spans three of them: Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. It is the ancestral home of the Cherokee and Creek, among others, and Native language provided the name for the city that would later grow at the foot of the mountain: Chattanooga.
In November 1863, the Union Army under the command of Gen. Ulysses S Grant routed Confederates on the mountain in the "battle above the clouds," beginning to turn the rebels back from their siege of the city. And while that may all seem like ancient history, it was only 22 years later that a team called the Chattanooga Lookouts stepped onto a baseball field for the first time. They've rarely been absent since.
From the old Southern League and Southern Association through the South Atlantic League and back to the modern Southern League, the Lookouts have been a Chattanooga staple for generations, and -- with one understated but monstrous splash made nearly three decades ago -- trendsetters in the Minor Leagues.
It was the early 1990s and the Lookouts needed an infusion of energy.
"At that time, we played in a 62-year-old baseball stadium that was already crumbling," longtime Lookouts radio voice Larry Ward said recently, referring to Engel Stadium, the team's home from 1930-99. "The field was in fantastic shape, except when it rained two inches and flooded you out for several games. New ownership came along and splashed $100,000 worth of paint on the bricks every year. People got their cars broken into in the parking lot. It just was one thing after another, and Frank Burke, the owner (from 1995-2014) -- I think that was what it was."
"It" was the spark the team needed. Something different. Something that would start the snowball rolling on an eventual avalanche of creativity in the renaissance of the Minor Leagues. Chattanooga had long had an evolving set of team uniforms and wordmarks. What the venerable Lookouts needed was a true logo.
In 1991, assistant general manager Matt Riley came up with the change. Today, it looks like as tame as a Minor League redesign conceivably could be, yet it was one that rocked the game. Two sketched eyes peering out from inside the "C" that Chattanooga fans already knew and loved. Simple as that. Yet the redesign -- along with others at the time like the Carolina Mudcats, the Lookouts' former Southern League foes -- ensured the Minors would never be the same.
"If I remember correctly, it seems to me that there were about five or six different sketches, ideas presented," Ward said. "The staff was asked for their opinion, and so I think it came down to two, maybe three different ones."
It came out of a straightforward line of thought. Chattanooga's team had long sported a "C" on its caps and uniforms. How to capture the spirit, concept and history of the name "Lookouts?"
"Some of them were pointed one way," Ward said. "The others were looking to [its] right instead of to the left, which didn't make any sense. It was like you're looking over your shoulder like somebody's going to clunk you on the head or something. There was a difference in darkness; were they supposed to be dark eyes or light-colored and comical? It had a cartoon look not being a cartoon. That was the difference. With the big 'C' as the head and the eyes, it tells you exactly what it is: the Chattanooga Lookouts.
"When it was first changed, people thought, 'Oh, my god.' The Chattanooga 'C' had been ensconced since 1885, when the team was first born. ... People thought that was just the end of the world. Then all of a sudden, the sales of the caps and shirts [with] logos ... I don't think any of us ever knew what you could do with souvenirs just by tweaking your logo, and it exploded. It exploded for all the teams, all the new teams."
The Lookouts went from a local mainstay to a national sensation. Merchandise with the new mark flew off the shelves, so much so that the need created new shelves.
"The locals, not so much, but around the country the orders started flowing in," Ward said. "We didn't have enough inventory. After that, we created a gift shop at Engel Stadium and started merchandising the way it needed to be done. That was when Frank Burke bought the ballclub in '95, and it had exploded to the point where we had to expand the gift shop. We took out two old ticket windows that were never used anyway and expanded the gift shop. The rest, as they say, is history.
"I think it was a precursor of what was to come. I think one or two teams had already started on a small scale, and this was something that needed to be done for improvement, to bring to the forefront all the changes that were about to happen over the next 10 years. And, boy, did it happen fast."
Ward first traveled to Chattanooga in 1981 while working with Double-A Jacksonville and first served as the Lookouts' voice in 1985. After a brief hiatus working in college sports, he returned in 1989 and was there to witness the franchise's rebirth, which soon won over even the most hardened, old-school supporters. By Ward's return to Chattanooga, "the whole concept of uniforms and logos and everything else was starting to change."
"If I recall right, [fans] were reluctant at first to swap their old 'C' -- that they had just bought the year before," he said with a laugh, "because it's a very conservative town, very conservative area.
"Once they [had] determined in their minds that this was now the new logo and this was going to become the way, what it created was a lot of new fans who wanted to wear the logo and started coming to the games. And they had to come by the stadium to buy the logo, so they bought tickets. The next thing you know, we went from very, very slow -- 120,000-130,000 attendance -- up into the 230,000. That's what happened with the logo, and then, of course, we moved out of Engel and took the logo with us to then-BellSouth Park, and the attendance was just incredible for the first five, six years."
While the Lookouts are now known for that iconic pair of peepers, Chattanooga's look has progressed through the years, often evoking parent clubs like the Mariners (1983-87), Reds (1988-2008, 2019-present) and Dodgers (2009-14).
"[The Lookouts] had blue and gold," Ward said of the Seattle era. "They were very snappy uniforms, and I think the Seattle Mariners paid for the uniforms then. That was one of the first times that that happened because they were waist-banded.
"The only thing new was the letter [on the hats] was not just black; it was gold on the cap. That was, 'Ooh, wow. Spiffy!'"
Burke, who sold the team in 2014, took it a step further.
"His edict was our team will wear the same style of uniform as the Major League team so that when they step on our field and they play in Chattanooga, we want them to feel like they're in the big leagues," Ward noted. "That's the whole idea. We kept that tradition up until probably five years ago, four years ago.
"The 22 years with the Reds, we had the same uniforms that the big league club had. It was really kind of cool. The players really enjoyed that."
As the logo and franchise have grown even more storied, Ward has done the same. In 2016, he was elected to the Southern League Hall of Fame, and his connection with the Lookouts' fan base is a broadcaster's dream.
"They do tours before the game," he said. "You get the VIP package and you got to tour the stadium, watch a little BP, skirt through the locker room or whatever, and the final part of the tour is to the press box. There was a family of a grandmother, grandfather, son, wife, grandson, grandson. When the grandfather says, 'I've been a lifelong fan of Lookouts baseball. I've listened to you for a long time ... '"
An emotional Ward paused.
" ... Then the son says, 'I've listened to you since I was 8, 9 years old when my dad would turn it on, and my son listens to you as well,' and here's an 8-, 9-year-old. That kind of says it all. That tells you the loyalty, not just to my broadcasts but the loyalty to the team, when three generations have been following the Lookouts since I've been there, over 30 years. What do you say? You say thank you."
As with their longtime radio voice, the Lookouts know when they've got a good thing with their logo -- even as the industry trends toward ever bolder and wilder changes as the continuation of a movement Chattanooga helped spark some 30 years ago.
"I think there's been some discussion [of updating the logo]," Ward said. "The eyebrows or eyelids were darkened a little bit [several] years ago. What do you change? How do you make it better? You're the Chattanooga Lookouts. Everybody knows the Chattanooga Lookouts."
In recent years, the Lookouts have boldened the outlines of those eyes, updated the wordmark and tweaked their uniforms [adding a "'Nooga" alternate and participating in Copa de la Diversión, for example], but a hit is a hit. They're not messing with a good thing.
"Here's a quick story," Ward said. "My father, who's been gone about 10 years now, lived on the Oregon coast. I grew up in Oregon, and they moved to the Oregon coast. My mom and dad were at a Costco ... just south of Astoria on the coast, shopping. He had the eyes logo cap on that I had given him that fall when I was out there. He's shopping around Costco and a guy stops him and goes, 'Chattanooga Lookouts! I love that hat! How do I get a hold of one of those hats?'
"My dad says, 'I'll call my son.'"
Special thanks to Lookouts public and media relations manager Dan Kopf and marketing and promotions manager Alex Tainsh for their help with this story. Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.