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A Case Study of the Syracuse Chiefs

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[Editor’s Note: This article was originally scheduled to be run in 2020 — during the height of the pandemic. I had worked with reader Alan Filipczak {who posts as AlMaFi} who did an excellent deep-dive into the uniforms and history of the then-Syracuse Chiefs. Some of the imagery below contains what are now considered racist or offensive images, but I felt then and still do now that this is all part of the historical record. After consulting with Paul back then, he felt it best if the article did not run. I’m running it today because I feel it is an excellent research effort and we can all likely agree the names and imagery would never fly today.

The article was scheduled to be run during the month of August, when Paul was taking his annual uni-cation — although in 2020 with the pandemic, he did a few articles that month. You’ll note from the introduction I make references to “Thursday” — which is the day of the week it would have run — and other remarks that indicate it occurred during the pandemic.

What follows is the article as I had planned to run it — nothing has been changed, and you’ll see some of the formatting is “off.” That’s because it was written before Uni Watch was redesigned in July of 2022. Additionally, there is some link rot, especially from Alan’s site. My apologies.

I hope you enjoy this piece as it was written, and realize that after some of the events of the summer of 2020, why we decided against running the piece then.

Thanks.

I’ll be back out to the rink to work/play in my bonspiel — I’ll probably be there before most of you are reading this, so this will be the only post for today. If there’s any breaking uni news today, Jimmer will handle it for the weekend.

–PH

• • • • •
Good Thursday, Uni Watchers! Hope everyone is doing well — we’re almost done with the week (in fact, after today, I am done, as Paul will return tomorrow for a special, one-day only, column, and then I’ll finish out the August weekdays starting next Monday). So if you miss Paul (and we all do!), make sure to check back in tomorrow morning.

Now then. To close out my week, I have another really well-researched column from today’s guest author Alan Filipczak. Alan actually has a blog he runs called minorleaguegeek.com, which he describes as “a hobby site devoted to minor league baseball that has been in conception and development since about 2012.” When I put out the call for reader assistance, Alan reached out to me and offered to pen a story just for the Uni Watch audience. It’s a case study of the Minor League team, the Syracuse Chiefs (who are actually the Syracuse Mets now). I love MiLB, but I don’t get to too many games, but one game I did attend was back in 2018, when Paul threw out the first pitch for the “Syracuse Devices” (named for the Brannock Device — a tattoo of which Paul has on his right shoulder). Back in 2018, the team was then known as the Chiefs, although they played the special game as the “Devices.” It was a really fun time — not just because a whole bunch of UWers were there, but because Minor League baseball is sooooooo different from the bigs, and the whole atmosphere is much more relaxed, fan- and family-friendly.

I didn’t do much digging into the history of the team before that game — after all, I was there to party with Paul and the assembled UWers, but I’m glad Alan has done such a deep dive into the team. As you may have surmised from their (now former) moniker, the team originally derived its name and imagery from Native Americans. Much of the early imagery is horribly offensive (surely now, and certainly then), but it is a part of the historical record. Thankfully, the team put that behind them, but it’s a reminder that in the not-too-distant past, cultural appropriation and the use of horribly racist and offensive imagery was prevalent in the world of sports. Alan delves deep into all the grisly details.

I’ll let Alan take it from here.

• • • • •
Native American Imagery in the Minors: A Case Study of the Syracuse Chiefs
By Alan Filipczak

Hi everyone. I’m a daily reader and occasional contributor here at Uni Watch. My truly geeky obsession is minor league baseball history, and I’m pleased that I can share this history of the Syracuse Chiefs’ branding and uniforms. During this summer of big changes for racially-insensitive branding in sports, I’ve felt sparked to learn more about some of the minor league team identities that have had complex and multifaceted histories with Native American imagery. For twists and turns, it’s hard to top the Syracuse Chiefs. Here’s their story.

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In the early Thirties, a new ballpark was built in the city of Syracuse, NY, and local boosters worked to find a minor league tenant. They made out well after the 1933 season, when they secured the rights to the International League’s Jersey City Skeeters and moved them to Upstate New York. By the start of the ’34 season, the team was branded as the Syracuse Chiefs. As tempting as it is to assume that they intentionally chose the name in honor of the local Onondaga Nation, the heartland of the famed Iroquois Confederacy, I have not found any evidence that this is the case. In all likelihood, the name was chosen for similar reasons that countless teams across all sports settled on names like “Chiefs,” “Braves,” or “Indians”– it was simply popular at the time.

Throughout the Thirties and up through the WWII years – while serving as a top level affiliate of teams like the Red Sox, Reds, and Pirates – Syracuse’s branding aesthetic was relatively conservative. Their visual style had similarities to what the Boston Braves were wearing in those pre-Bees Babe Ruth days, with red railroad-font jersey script and a left sleeve patch featuring the profile of a generic “Chief,” i.e. a somewhat cartoonized Indigenous American man wearing a feathered headdress. Slightly different versions of the chief profile showed up on the team’s promotional materials from the time, such as scorebooks and booster club pins.

In the post-War era, the Chiefs returned to the Reds as a parent club and rolled out spartan uniforms with thin-gauge cursive chest lettering and no sleeve patch whatsoever. However, their use of Native American imagery in promotional materials expanded. When I look at Syracuse’s branding from the late ’40s and early ’50s, I’m reminded of the “Myth of the Noble Savage.” Art is subjective, but I suspect that those responsible for images like that seen on this 1952 program weren’t necessarily doing so in mean-spiritedness, but rather out of ignorance. In those days, it was easier for mainstream America to think of Native Americans as part of the nation’s bygone folklore rather than living, breathing citizens.

The Fifties were a tumultuous decade for the Chiefs. They lost their affiliation with Cincy and operated independently (still common at that time) for a few years and then briefly signed on with the Phillies. After the ’55 season, the International League franchise was uprooted and moved to Miami, where they became the first iteration of the Miami Marlins. At a time when it was common in the minors for a city’s team identity to survive franchise relocations, a new version of the Syracuse Chiefs emerged in the Eastern League as a Single-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.

After only two years, this team was moved to Allentown, PA, becoming the Allentown Chiefs. Team branding took a few turns during this decade. New uniforms had a bulkier cursive script and a chief sleeve patch returned, albeit smiling and facing the opposite direction this time around. The Chiefs also started using new print logos – there was a very detailed chief that appeared on scorebooks, and there was a similar image used for letterhead. Within this mix, we also start to see blatantly cartoonish and derogatory imagery, such as on this Wahoo-esque scorebook from ’55.

In the Sixties, the International League’s fabled Montréal Royals franchise was moved south of the border, and the Syracuse Chiefs were resurrected at the Triple-A level – staying for good this time. Syracuse had brief affiliation stints with the newly minted Twins (’61) and Mets (’62–a year in which the Chiefs were also a “Co-op team” that took on additional players from the second version of the Washington Senators) before reconnecting with Detroit. In the early part of the decade, Syracuse introduced pinstriped uniforms with red lettering and a new version of the chief sleeve patch for a look that had similarities with the then-Milwaukee Braves. In 1962, the sleeve patch faced outward, but in 1963, it was facing inward like the Braves. By mid-decade, the Tigers connection would inspire Old English lettering, and the overall effect conveniently transitioned into an eleven-year stint with the Yankees, replete with midnight blue and pinstripes as well as gray road tops.

While the Tigers/Yankees look (spilling over into the Seventies) toned down the Native imagery on the field, promotional materials sunk to a new low, with cartoonish images. The absolute nadir was surely this 1968 scorecard with a cartoon chief holding a baseball bat/war club in one hand while the other holds what appears to be a severed scalp. Yikes.

In time for the 1978 season, the Syracuse Chiefs forged a Player Development Contract (PDC) with the Blue Jays, fresh off Toronto’s first foray in the American League. Immediately, the Chief motif returned to the diamond, appearing on both home and road double-knits, as well a crudely-rendered logo featured on two-tone caps. The Jays’ influence was more apparent by 1983 when the jersey script adopted Toronto’s double-line font and the cap logo was a lower-case letter S. By the time the Crime Dog was in Syracuse, the S was an uppercase sort of racetrack looking thing, and Native imagery was mostly absent from promotional materials.

This changed in ’87, on the precipice of the great branding boom in the minors, when the Chiefs tested out a new logo. It was yet another chief profile, but this time it was designed with a minimalist graphic style that converted the face and headdress into six geometric shapes. It was the type of logo that a person needs to squint at for a moment before the full effect comes into focus–not unlike what the Atlanta Hawks or Hartford Whalers were wearing in those days. By ’89, the logo had replaced the racetrack S on the cap, and the team’s look was solidified for the next eight seasons.

Like many aspects of the sports world, things got a little weird in the Nineties. I’ve tried to find the inside story of what specifically spurred change for the Chiefs, but thus far, newspaper archive searches have not borne fruit. For whatever reason, after the 1996 season, as the team prepared to move into a brand new ballpark, they completely redesigned their brand–including the team name. Using the camel case method, Syracuse tacked the word “Sky” onto their nickname, and shifted to an aviation aesthetic. Logos featured baseball bats styled into somewhat disturbing WWII-style bomber planes with sharp-toothed nose art. The perturbed-looking bat-plane and accompanying pinstripes didn’t fly for very long.

After the 2006 season, Syracuse chose to be the Chiefs once again. There is a lot to unpack in this article that Ben Hill wrote at the time, but the choice quotes come from Syracuse’s then-GM John Simone: “The reason we changed the name in the first place was because political correctness came about. But all along we knew the fans didn’t want to let go of the Chiefs. Now, we’re bridging the gap by bringing back the name, but placing it in an entirely different context.”

Hmm. I’ll try to stay off the soapbox, but tossing out the phrase “political correctness” doesn’t hold much weight when your team once published a cartoon character holding a severed scalp. And just what was that “different context” that John Simone was alluding to? Well, the new Chiefs hired Plan B Branding (now the famous Brandiose) to rework their visuals, and they came up with a railroad-themed set. As in: railroad chief. The new Chiefs stuck with Toronto’s color scheme at the time and introduced graphics heavy on trains as well as a laughing, mustached, baseball-head railroad chief mascot.

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This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen retconning of sports team identities that were originally based on Indigenous imagery. The Golden State Warriors’ 1990s pivot to the generic lightning bolt-wielding warrior (“hey, this name can mean any type of warrior, man”) is a prime example, but it has also been done many times in the collegiate ranks. The practice comes up regularly in concept ideas for rebranding teams like the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks. It’s a thing. But I want to take a moment to look at an especially relevant team, the Midwest League’s Peoria Chiefs. Long story short: Peoria began using the name Chiefs as a Cubs affiliate in the 1980s and their logo, a very generic chief profile, survived through the 1994 season, when it was replaced by a cartoonish baseball wearing a headdress. This ridiculous little baseball was phased out around 2001 in favor of a red bird (they were a Cardinals affiliate) in a batting stance with a few feathers tucked in its headband. When the Chiefs switched back to the Cubs in 2005, the red bird was necessarily replaced, but they went an extra step and retconned the entire identity, implying that Chiefs is a reference to fire chiefs. To this day, their logo and mascot depict a firehat-wearing Dalmatian.

So for a good chunk of time, there were two MiLB teams called the Chiefs that finagled the name to mean something other than what it was originally. OK, back to Syracuse…

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In 2009, the Syracuse Chiefs had signed on with the Nationals and eventually added splashes of red to their color scheme. They drew deeply from their rich history, using alternate logos that updated and re-colored both the Old English S and the arty chief logo from the pre-SkyChiefs days. They also threw back to previous eras of heavier Native American imagery, such as wearing replicas of early Blue Jays-era uniforms.

Syracuse worked to reclaim the Chiefs, but it was all very short-lived. In 2017, the New York Mets announced that they were purchasing the Chiefs and would operate them in 2018 – despite the irony (conflict of interest?) that they would have to fulfill their division rival’s PDC and run the team as a Nats’ affiliate for one last season.

In his January 2018 State of the State Address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked Mets’ COO Jeff Wilpon to stand up in the crowd. Cuomo then hilariously (and completely unnecessarily) spilled the beans, stating that the Mets would be changing their new minor league team’s name to the Syracuse Mets later in the year. After the speech, Syracuse GM Jason Smorol conceded that the name would be changing after the season, but declined to disclose what the new name would be. As it happened, Cuomo was in the know from the get-go. That 2018 season, which featured the team playing a Uni Watch-influenced game as the “Syracuse Devices,” was the last chapter of the Chiefs. After a cumulative total of seventy-two seasons, plus another ten as the SkyChiefs, Syracuse hung up the appropriated headdress and changed their name to the COTOB (Chip Off The Old Block) Syracuse Mets.

It’s the summer of 2020 and change is in the air. This is a time when statues of Columbus and Oñate are coming down and teams in major sports are taking remedial steps away from Native American imagery. Despite Syracuse’s extensive history of returning to the identity, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen the last of the Syracuse Chiefs. We may not even see throwbacks moving forward. If/when they feel that there is a need to goose the brand, my guess is that they are more likely to go with something involving menacing food (Syracuse Biting Apples?) or whatever gets them traction on social media and moves merchandise. The story of the Chiefs, meandering and often regretful, seems to have truly come to its merciful end.

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If you are interested in reading more about the Syracuse Chiefs, particularly their star players over the years, check out the page I made for them on my website. A year ago, when I last wrote for Uni Watch, I said: “I don’t promote the site (till now, I guess) but maybe in a year or two, I can do a more full-scale rollout on Uni Watch and share some of the many cool uniform details that I’ve found in the vast annals of the minors.” I still want to do that (saving lots of good stuff!) but I’ll have to kick that can down the road a little more. Whether it’s due to the pandemic or due to the black hole that is the upcoming PBA, my attention is diverted and the site still feels like a construction site. But feel free to tiptoe around the piles of building materials and don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments. Many thanks to the Uni Watch crew and all of you for reading!

• • • • •
Thanks, Alan, for that thoroughly researched history of the team (sadly, much of it involving the use of Native American caricatures and imagery). I was a little reticent to run this piece, but it is an historical account, so it’s not something that should be swept under the rug. Thankfully, we live in a much more enlightened time now, but as there are still many teams (professional and amateur) out there that still use this kind of imagery, it shows we still have a long way to go.

Readers, what say you?

 
  
 

Guess the Game from the Scoreboard

Guess The Game…

…From The Scoreboard

Today’s scoreboard comes from Colin Kubic.

The premise of the game (GTGFTS) is simple: I’ll post a scoreboard and you guys simply identify the game depicted. In the past, I don’t know if I’ve ever completely stumped you (some are easier than others).

Here’s the Scoreboard. In the comments below, try to identify the game (date and location, as well as final score). If anything noteworthy occurred during the game, please add that in (and if you were AT the game, well bonus points for you!):

Please continue sending these in! You’re welcome to send me any scoreboard photos (with answers please), and I’ll keep running them.

 

 

Guess the Game from the Uniform


Based on the suggestion of long-time reader/contributor Jimmy Corcoran, we’ve introduced a new “game” on Uni Watch, which is similar to the popular “Guess the Game from the Scoreboard” (GTGFTS), only this one asked readers to identify the game based on the uniforms worn by teams.

Like GTGFTS, readers will be asked to guess the date, location and final score of the game from the clues provided in the photo. Sometimes the game should be somewhat easy to ascertain, while in other instances, it might be quite difficult. There will usually be a visual clue (something odd or unique to one or both of the uniforms) that will make a positive identification of one and only one game possible. Other times, there may be something significant about the game in question, like the last time a particular uniform was ever worn (one of Jimmy’s original suggestions). It’s up to YOU to figure out the game and date.

Today’s GTGFTU comes from Frank sanders.

Good luck and please post your guess/answer in the comments below.

 

 

Uni Tweet of the Day

One of these is not like the others…

 

And finally...

…that’s all from me for today. I will also have Anthony’s Ticker, which will follow shortly.

I hope everyone had a great 4th of July and a good day today. Everyone have a great weekend and I’ll catch you all right back here bright and early on Monday. Enjoy Jimmer’s weekend content!

Peace,

PH

Comments (30)

    GTGFTS. April 8th, 1969 . Montreal Expos first game ever. They hold on to beat the Mets 11-10.
    Expos homer three times: Pitcher Dan McGinn, Coco Laboy and Trusty Rusty Staub.

    Anyone know why the US flag was at half mast? I had Expos reminiscing yesterday. On July 4th 1977 they played a double header at Wrigley Field and slaughtered the Cubs in both games. Hard to believe its 47 years ago. That was at the early beginning of thinking Dawson, Carter and Valentine could be something special. I remember listening to the games on radio. IMO, baseball on radio vs. television, is the equivalent of reading a good book vs. watching the adaptation on television. You use so much more of your brain listening on radio.

    Flags would have been at half mast due to the death of former President Eisenhower, who’d died on March 28. There’s a 30-day mourning period for former presidents.

    Ahh, nice call. The flag had me stumped.

    I haven’t looked at the box score but the double-moves were typical of Mets manager Gil Hodges. Back when managers could get creative.

    I know it’s the odd one out, but I think the Iverson era was Philly’s best uniforms. There are sooooo many teams in red, white, and blue. And yes, I was aged 2 to 14 during that era :)

    Counterpoint: if any team should be wearing red, white, and blue, it’s a team called the Philadelphia ’76ers.

    Valid! Put the Pistons in their 90s teal look, the Clippers back in orange (or something entirely new), drop the red from the Pelicans’ wardrobe, and put the Wizards back in their 2000s look, and you have a deal!

    One could just as easily say that Barkley’s uni is the odd one out, because it’s red while the others are blue, or that Embiid is the odd one out because the wordmark is “Phila” and not “Sixers”. I don’t have a reason why it’s Dr. J’s, though.

    Good article, well-researched – although I would love to know the difference between a lowercase S and an uppercase S on a cap logo.
    More importantly, thank you for leaving the historical record unaltered, and allowing the reader to see history as it was. Times change and cultural sentiments evolve over the decades. I grew up in a different world than did my parents, and the world of my children’s youth is different from my own, 1 generation prior. But instead of whitewashing, retconning and papering over the unpleasantness of our past like it never happened, it is refreshing that we saw how the team’s identity evolved, and why. We can take it. So thanks again.

    I was going to echo the same comments re offering the article as is. I understand the prior concerns about posting it with the images in question, but why not show what we’re talking about? I think doing so makes the article much more meaningful.

    Hey MJ,

    The original 2020 article had a link to that design. If you have a wordpress login, you can see all the original links here. link

    Most of those links are to my old website that I made private back in January 2021. But for the lower-case s design, check this out and compare to the one McGriff wore.

    link

    Interesting Article, I know this might be vaguely inappropiate but I always thought they should have been the Syracuse Orangemets with an inverted Orange to blue uni. Would have been fun, the Orange Order isn’t really a thing in the US so I don’t it would ruffle too many feathers. Just would be more fun than the current setup.

    I went to Syracuse University 1968-72 (we were the Orangemen then. More Native American imagery that changed with the times) and went to some Chiefs games. The season ended before I arrived in the city in 1968. In 1969 went to one game before the stadium caught fire. Reopened in 1970. During that time the International League tried out using the DH, which they called DPH, the Designated Pinch Hitter.

    The link to Alan’s website isn’t working for me. It says its a private site. Anyone else having this issue?

    Hey Lindsay,

    I made my old website private back in early 2021. (see reasons below) It’s still accessible with a WordPress login. I hope to revive and reopen the site at some point. And it would be fun to do more articles for Uni Watch too. Some day…

    I enjoyed and appreciate the work that went into today’s project.
    However, there are only 3 pictures of actual uniforms : LHP, CrimeDog, and batter with umpire.

    Hey Jerry, the original article from 2020 had a bunch of hyperlinks to other uniform images. If you have a WordPress login, you can see it on my old website here: link

    Obviously the Native American imagery angle is unique to only certain teams, but I would honestly enjoy this kind of deep dive into any team’s uniform history. I just really enjoy that type of journalism. You could pick any pro or college team at random, and I’d be interested!

    Really cool story on the Syracuse team. Minor league baseball has such a great history with its uniforms and iconography: from COTOB, close community ties, celebrations of localism, frequent affiliation changes, hand-me-downs, and more. Once the minors started to make their big comeback in the 1980s the teams started to have higher budgets for that sort of thing, and started to get more of their own bespoke styles.

    That script-S uniform with the pinstripes is amazing. The scalp on the cover of the scorecard is… certainly something.

    I collected minor league souvenir pennants when I was a kid, and I’m pretty sure I had one for Syracuse that had that blocky head logo, although I tend to conflate that with a similar Memphis logo from the time.

    This site has always had good tidbits from MiLB in the ticker, but it would be really great to see more stories like this.

    I grew up going to Chiefs and SkyChiefs games—really enjoyed this look back at some of the unis and logos from the past, and while I wish they would be something more creative than the Mets, I am glad that the name has been retired.

    The “Mid-60s” Syracuse uniform is an exact replica of the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rico except for the sleeve stripes. I’d be interested in know which came first.

    Not certain, but I believe it’s both. The S on the cap for Santurce has been the same or very similar going back to the days when Clemente played for them. But the jerseys were a mashup, looking much like the Dodgers, but adding a bat with a crab on each end (Cangrejeros is Spanish for ‘crabbers’, if you didn’t know) like the Cardinals. I believe the current team is a different franchise altogether, and they adopted the pinstripe look that Syracuse wore in the lede photo.

    It’s a shame you have to preface the article with a sort of “trigger warning” about the “racist imagery”. Most people on this site are adults, and should be able to admire the uniforms without needing to be forewarned. The “trigger warning” feels like a very unnecessary ticked box. Not trying to start any arguing, just pointing out something I noticed.

    By your comments, are you assuming that no one visiting this site is of Indigenous descent?

    You’re right, it is a shame. But the shame has nothing to do with you having to read a disclaimer.

    I recall when Syracuse rebranded to the Sky Chiefs and was perplexed about the logo. An angry flying baseball bat? I know players sometimes have their bats fly out of their hands but…what?! I was also wondering if their was some sort of aviation tie-in to the city. However, I have no recollection of the railroad chief logo. And that’s probably a good thing.

    Disregarding the problematic use of Native American imagery, I gotta say the 80’s block logo chief’s head logo is pretty cool.

    Hello to anyone seeing this. My name is Alan and I wrote this article once upon a time. I used to be a daily Uni Watch reader and semi-regular contributor. Now I check more like 1x/month, so you can imagine my surprise today when I saw that I had the lede a few days ago. Wowza!

    Phil, if you’re reading this, just want to say thanks for letting this one see the light of day. I remember some debate between you and Paul at the time, and I could easily understand why he chose to spike the article. It’s easy to forget how emotionally charged and confusing things were in summer 2020.

    Regarding the lack of images and confusing references points – a lot of that seems to be due to link issues. Back at the time I wrote this, I also posted it on my old website. It can be viewed here if anyone is interested and has a WordPress login. link

    I made Minor League Geek a private site in January 2021. The restructuring of the minor leagues that happened at the time threw about 1000 monkey wrenches into the works. That, coupled with changes to WordPress and other technical challenges, made me put the whole project on the shelf. I keep paying each year to keep the site alive but it hasn’t changed at all in the past 3.5 years. One of these days I hope to revive it.

    I miss doing these articles for Uni Watch. The Utica Blue Sox and El Paso Diablos ones were especially fun and I had so many cool people reach out with personal stories afterward. There was at least one more that I never got around to doing. Maybe some day…

    But thanks to Phil and everyone else for reading this. Cheers to the rest of the summer!

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