This afternoon, postseason baseball will commence as the Cardinals take the mound against the Pirates. But in a different time, it would have been the Brown Stockings versus the Alleghenys. Here's how they—and the other six playoff teams—got where they are today, as told by their ever-evolving logos.
In the early days, a team’s logo was the thing printed on the pennant flag of the league champions, to be flown over the field and collected by fans. Many early pennants even downplayed the team name for a large pictograph of, say, the team in action (here’s a great collection). A logo was more than a mark on a cap—it was the thing that would represent victory.
So, since many of them were established in the 19th century, MLB logos tend to be some the oldest around, predating any other symbol of professional sports in the world. It takes a bit of digging, but it’s possible to see some incredible history buried within the logos plastered across every bit of available merchandise on the stand. Thanks to Chris Creamer’s incredible logo archive, we took a look below at how—and why—they've evolved over the last century or more. Keep in mind, these are the official logos, not the alternates or throwbacks!
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are actually one of the earliest examples of a strategic rebranding. Originally known as the Brown Stockings, the team changed hands a number of times in the 1870s and 80s, leading the two men who eventually took control in 1898 to overhaul the team's look. The new owners—two brothers by the names of Frank and Stanley Robison—decided it was time to switch things up. And because the team had recently worn red stockings, they chose the Cardinals as a name (legend goes that a lady observer remarked that their uniforms were a "lovely shade of cardinal").
But the Cardinals easily could been the Spiders. When they fell into the hands of the Robinsons, the brothers also owned the Cleveland Spiders. Rather than consolidate the Browns and the Spiders, they cherry-picked players from Cleveland and renamed St. Louis as the Cardinals. But if you want, you could still root for the St. Louis Brown Spiders tonight and be, technically, sort of correct.
The Tigers were an original charter team in 1894, and they borrowed their name from a local group of legendary war heroes—the Detroit Light Guard. Formed in response to Abraham Lincoln's declaration of war, the Light Guard (nickname: the tigers) went on to become heroes in Michigan. The members of the legendary fighting squad would have been in their 70s when Detroit's baseball team was chartered, so the name was a natural nod to a local tradition. According to A Place for Summer: A Narrative History of Tiger Stadium, the team even petitioned the group for permission to use their logo.
So Detroit’s titular Tiger isn’t just another random animal mascot—it’s a nod to Detroit’s Civil War heroes.
Since they hail from a city situated on three rivers, you'd think that the Pirates' name is somehow related. But no: In fact, it hails from a scandal perpetrated in 1890. The team—then roughly 15 years old, having gone through a multitude of reshufflings and renamings—was scouting a player named Lou Bierbauer who had played for the Philadelphia Athletics. Bierbauer was due to return to Philly after a disastrous season in Pittsburgh, but according to Philly's managers, Bierbauer was accidentally left off of their roster. The Pittsburgh team (then known as the Alleghenys) snatched him up anyways. And in a letter condemning their actions, a league official called the team's act "piratical." Pittsburgh embraced it.
It didn't hurt that the Pirates were known for their swashbuckling antics. For example, in 1887, a particularly bad season was capped off by the burial of one player's pet monkey beneath home plate in what Pittsburgh City Paper writer Chris Potter calls "moving pre-game ceremony."
Boston Red Sox
The history of the Red Sox is intertwined with an unexpected team: The Atlanta Braves. When the "Red Stockings" emerged in Boston in 1871, they were formed mainly from a team that had folded in Cincinnati the year before. But five years later, when Cincinnati started another team, Boston was obligated to "give back" the Stockings nickname. (Stay with me here.) Instead, they went by the Red Caps and other nicknames—like the Braves. In 1966, the team moved to Atlanta after a stop in Milwaukee, and they remain there today. Boston's other pro team, who traditionally had worn blue and went by the simple moniker "the Bostons," quickly snapped up the chance to change their team's colors to red and their name to Sox.
So whether you're cheering for the Sox or the Braves, keep in mind that they've shared a name, town, and logo over the years.
You can see the relationship between Boston and Atlanta in this GIF. As the oldest continuously running team in the country, their history makes them seem like nomads: Originating in Cincinnati as the Red Stockings, moving to Boston (where they adopted the name "Braves"), then onto Milwaukee, and finally, to Atlanta. While some will argue that we should've only included the Atlanta Braves logos, there was a fair amount of carry-over between the two cities—so it seems only appropriate that we include it.
The A's were a Philadelphia team for 50 years—see: their beef with Pittsburgh above. And the name "Athletics" dates back even further, to before the leagues we know today, when baseball teams were more loosely organized around "athletic clubs." The A's have stuck with the tradition, but they've also attempted some forward-thinking updates. For example, the short-lived name change you see in 1968, above. "The Swingin' A's?" Yep—that was someone's idea of a disco/baseball pun.
Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay is by far the youngest team in the playoffs this season. When the team was promoted to the big leagues, it adopted a decidedly modern approach to branding: A slick nickname (the Devil Rays!) and uniforms slapped with a neon gradient and chromed typography. In a sport where history is revered, it stood out as an attempt to bring a sense of 90s flash to the game—and it was not well received.
So after a number of dismal seasons, in 2007, the team's owner dropped the "devil" and overhauled the color scheme. Instead of the neon gradient, the Rays wore somber grey and light blue; instead of a flashy devil ray, their logo became a simple, traditional-looking diamond that recalls the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1920s and 30s. In other words, since they don't have their own rich history, Tampa has had to fabricate it.
The Dodgers' name and logo have nothing to do with dodging balls (or LA cars). In fact, they're a reference to a diss that New Yorkers would often aim at Brooklynites in the 1890s. Manhattanites often referred to their eastern neighbors as "trolly dodgers" because Brooklyn was covered in street-level trolly tracks.
But the pejorative nickname wasn't officially adopted for more than 40 years—mainly because, until the 1940s, newspaper writers and fans used all sorts of nicknames for their favorite teams. It was definitely different than today's highly-regulated branding schemes, that's for sure. And when the team moved to LA in 1958, the in-joke stopped being a joke and became a way to shed the "B" of the Dodger's traditional logo.
Check out hundreds of other logos on Chris' website, SportsLogos.net.