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 Midwest
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 Midwest League's Peoria Chiefs. (Previous installments: Rochester Red Wings | Nashville Sounds | Harrisburg Senators | Chattanooga Lookouts | Asheville Tourists)
In 1982, the Danville Suns put together an unspectacular one-year showing in the Midwest League, going 57-80 to finish with the third-worst record on the 12-team circuit. The following season, they stayed in Illinois but relocated to Peoria, where the on-field product didn’t improve. The then-California Angels affiliate went 54-85, the worst mark in the loop.
But they had found a home. In the transient era of Minor League Baseball, that was an accomplishment on its own. For nearly four decades, Peoria’s franchise has been one of the most stable Class A clubs in the game and one with one of the level’s longest consistently used nicknames.
The franchise arrived in Peoria in 1983 with its “Suns” name and kept it in place for that year, playing at Meinen Field, but by 1984 it was ready to introduce itself to its now longtime home under a new moniker. The Peoria team would be known as the Chiefs and led by manager Joe Maddon. After one season with a merely tweaked logo featuring “Chiefs” as the centerpiece of the old “Suns” wordmark, the franchise redesigned with Native-themed logos of the time one would expect.
From 1985-2001, Peoria’s look was commensurate with other Native-derivative team identities of the time with a headdress as its focal point, first on a stylized man for 10 seasons, then on a baseball from 1995 onward.
In 2002, the franchise began to reimagine its visual identity. From its cartoonish baseball clad in Native iconography, Peoria looked for something new to accompany its move into O’Brien Field -- now known as Dozer Park. Since 1995, the club had been the Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals and decided upon settling into its new surroundings to make that partnership its most visible element.
The Chiefs rolled out an entirely new look for the new ballpark. A Cardinals-esque redbird -- wearing a feathered headband ostensibly to evoke the team’s previous logos -- became the character of choice, taking a swing from the left-handed side. The redesign came in a splash of a season. Led by Yadier Molina, who turned 20 midway through the campaign, Peoria won the 2002 Midwest League crown.
Peoria made its most creative change three years later, though one somewhat muted in impact due to its similarity to the 2002-04 redbird look. With the 2005 season came an affiliate change from one rival to another. With the club’s longtime St. Louis partnership expiring, the Chiefs made a parent club switch to the Cubs. No longer appropriate to have a Cardinals-themed logo, Peoria could’ve gone back to Native iconography if it chose.
Instead, the Chiefs took a different route. “Chief” can mean many things, and while the name has widely been chosen throughout sports as a cornerstone of controversial Native-derived identities, Peoria chose a different concept for its new era. The character swinging the bat in Peoria’s logo was no longer a cardinal but a dalmatian. Instead of a headband, he sported a firefighter’s helmet. On his right sleeve was a Cubs “C” patch. The new Chiefs had arrived.
Though Peoria hasn’t won a Midwest League championship since that 2002 squad, it has produced a legion of big league stars. The Chiefs returned to the St. Louis organization in 2013 after eight years under Chicago (and removed that “C” patch on the logo).
Since the year 2000, the club has helped develop future big leaguers like Molina, Albert Pujols, D.J. LeMahieu, Javier Baez and Jack Flaherty.
Over the years, the Chiefs have dabbled in alternate identities including the Peoria Distillers, a nod to the area’s whiskey-making heritage and teams of that name that existed from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Ahead of the 2020 season, Peoria announced its plan to join Minor League Baseball’s Copa de la Diversión initiative for the first time. En El Rio de Peoria pays homage to the Illinois River’s “economic and cultural significance in Peoria” as well as the Greater Peoria Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s annual festival that shares the name.
Tyler Maun is a reporter for MiLB.com and co-host of “The Show Before The Show” podcast. You can find him on Twitter @tylermaun.