The A’s and Their Elephants, Together Since July 10, 1902

I recently received a Twitter inquiry about the Oakland Athletics’ uniform sleeve patch. The A’s sport the symbol of an elephant on their uniforms, a visual association that dates back to the franchise’s second season.

Why an elephant? Hardly a symbol of athleticism, the Athletics’ elephant has a unique story attached to it, one that dates back to July 10, 1902.

Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack explained it all in his 1950 autobiography, “My 66 Years in the Big Leagues:”

The insignia of our Philadelphia Athletics, as you know, is the White Elephant. The story of acquiring it is an interesting one. In 1902 the Baltimore Club forfeited its franchise in the newly formed American League. Its spot was filled by the New York Highlanders, “the acorn from which sprung the mighty Yankee oak.”

The astute John McGraw took advantage of the opportunity and jumped from the crumbling Orioles to the New York Giants, a leap to fame and fortune. When the sportswriters gathered around McGraw to fire a barrage of questions, one of the questions was, “What do you think of the Philadelphia A’s?”

“White elephants!” quickly retorted Mr. McGraw. “Mr. B. F. Shibe has a white elephant on his hands.”

Research shows that McGraw made these remarks on July 10, 1902, and the elephant connection has endured, albeit with many twists and turns.

McGRAW_A's_1902

Within weeks of McGraw’s comments, the “white elephant” tag that he bestowed on the Philadelphia franchise started to take hold in the public imagination:

1902 A's

The “white elephant” designation became a rallying point for the young franchise in 1902. It was already being described as “famous” less than three weeks after McGraw made his remarks. The Athletics responded by winning the American League championship that season, the final one before the birth of the modern World Series the following year.

The team and their fans continued to embrace the symbol, and when they appeared in their first World Series in 1905—against John McGraw’s New York Giants—they defiantly presented McGraw with a miniature elephant statue.

Although New York won that World Series, “white elephant” and the Philadelphia Athletics were now strongly attached to one another, a bond that would literally follow the team across the United States as it moved twice—first to Kansas City in 1955, then to Oakland in 1968.

1905 A's ELEPHANTSMcGRAW_1905

1911 A's

The club formally adopted the elephant as a part of their visual identity in 1909, when they wore sweaters featuring a simple white elephant. The above logo dates to 1911 and was used by the team as part of their World Series press pin that season. It was also utilized on letterheads for many years.

After the heavily-favored Athletics lost 1914 World Series to the Boston Braves, Mack broke up the perennially contending team. The A’s fortunes immediately plummeted—they finished in last place for the next eight consecutive seasons. Perhaps looking for a change of luck, the team put the elephant on their uniforms in 1918—in the form of a sleeve patch. It remained there for two seasons. This article, dated August 2, 1919, shows just how far from favor the previously lucky elephant had fallen:

1919 ATHLETICS

Whatever the case, in 1920, the elephant made it to the front of the team’s uniforms. Three distinct elephant variations were utilized in this decade. The first was a one-year wonder, worn only in 1920. It featured a crudely drawn blue pachyderm in a standing position. The 1921-23 version, also blue, was a bit more detailed. Finally, the version worn from 1924-27 depicted the white elephant as a white elephant. This jersey is associated with a franchise renaissance. After a decade of insignificance the Athletics returned to contention, finishing in second place in 1925 and 1927.

1920-27 A's

The seeds of a renewed A’s dynasty were sown at this time. The 1928 team featured no less than seven future Hall of Fame players—plus Connie Mack, a future Hall of Fame manager. The team would win three straight pennants from 1929-31 and would come to be recognized as one of the great dynasties in the history of the sport. Perhaps anticipating this return to dominance, the club reverted back to their iconic Old English “A” uniforms for the 1928 season. Though still a big part of the visual identity of the franchise, the elephant would not make a return to the team’s uniforms for more than two decades.

A Renewed Logo

PHILADELPHIA-A's-LOGOThe team’s elephant symbol evolved. When the Athletics appeared in the 1931 World Series, the cover of the official program depicted a confident elephant, a saddle on its back with the familiar Old English “A.” This illustration became the basis of what would eventually become the team’s official logo. In the late ’30s a baseball was added to the elephant’s trunk.

 1931 WORLD SERIES COVER1937 A's   1946 ATHLETICS

1950 marked the golden anniversary of Connie Mack’s managerial tenure in Philadelphia. The normally austere Athletics uniforms literally took on new color for that one season as part of the team’s celebration. Also, for the first time since 1927, the elephant was returned to the uniform as part of a commemorative sleeve patch.

1950 A's

Interestingly, the team name—”Athletics”— didn’t appear on the team’s uniforms until their final season in Philadelphia, 1954. Team owner Connie Mack’s half-century run as manager came to an end after the aforementioned 1950 season. Several disappointing years, combined with cutbacks in team expenditures and Mack family ownership discord, led to fan apathy. After the conclusion of the 1954 season the Athletics moved to Kansas City.

1954 A's UNIS

Typical of team management at this time was confusion regarding the team name and visuals:

1954 A's ELEPHANTS

West to Kansas City

KC-A's

When the franchise moved to Kansas City in 1955, they arrived with a refreshed elephant logo and a new set of uniforms. The new emblem bore a close resemblance to the one that represented them in Philadelphia, but instead of a baseball curled in its trunk, the new logo featured the elephant clutching a baseball bat, balanced atop a baseball. The Old English “A” was still there, a tangible connection to the team’s earliest days in Philly.

The new uniforms were decorated with red “Athletics” script, both at home and on the road. Also gracing the uniform was an elephant—once again in the form of a sleeve patch.

 1955 A's PATCH

The play of the Kansas City Athletics was no better than that of their Philadelphia predecessors. Within a few years of their arrival, local politicians grew vocal in their efforts to retire the elephant in favor of a more relevant local symbol.

1959 A's KC UNIFORMS

On January 20, 1961—the day that John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States—the Athletics announced that they were retiring the elephant logo from their uniforms. Additionally, a city name would be added to the team’s road uniforms for the first time in the history of the franchise.

1961 A's_DEMOCRATS    A's_01.21.1961

Any signs of the elephant were few and far between in the early 1960s. The club slowly disassociated itself from the symbol in these years, a rare exception being this whimsical team letterhead from 1964:

1964 A's LETTERHEAD

The A’s dropped their elephant mascot altogether in 1965 in favor of a Missouri mule, named in honor of team owner Charles O. Finley. This seems ironic, considering the political sentiments expressed only four years before. Finley had reimagined the team uniforms two years earlier, outfitting the club in green and gold, a revolutionary move that further served to distance the franchise from its Philadelphia roots.

1965 A's

Further West—on to Oakland

In 1968 the team was once again on the move, this time to Oakland. A talented nucleus of young players began to emerge at this time, something that certainly did not happen when the club moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City 13 years earlier.

The Athletics—more commonly known as “A’s” during this era—won three consecutive World Series titles in 1972, 1973, and 1974.

History repeated in the late 1970s. The club fell on hard times and Finley once again sought a franchise shift, this time to Denver. That fell through, and the team was sold to Walter A. Haas, Jr., president of Levi Strauss & Co.

The A’s enjoyed a successful first season under new management, finishing strike-split 1981 with the best record in the American League. A few more lackluster years followed, and in 1987 the team went back to basics, aesthetically speaking. New uniforms were unveiled which featured script “Athletics” letterforms, dark green trimmed in yellow gold. The typography was very reminiscent of the old Kansas City Athletics uniforms worn decades earlier. Abandoning all traces of modernity, the club reintroduced button-down uniforms and belted pants, arguably the most traditional look that the club had sported since the early days in Kansas City.

In early 1988 the Athletics announced that they were returning the elephant to their uniforms for the first time since 1960. This return to tradition coincided with a new golden era for the A’s, culminating in (yet another) three consecutive World Series appearances, starting that season.

1988 A's

The elephant has remained a vital piece of the team’s visual identity ever since.

One can drive from the site of A’s former home in Philadelphia at 21st Street and Lehigh Avenue to their current home, the Oakland Coliseum, via Kansas City. The trip would span 2,930 miles. It would also span over 110 years of Athletics history, the whole journey connected by a visual homage to an offhand insult, dropped to a group of reporters on a summer day in 1902.

On Cuba, Baseball, Design, and a Smaller World

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The eyes of the world are on Cuba this week as President Obama makes his historic visit to the island nation, the first for a sitting US President in nearly nine decades.

I had the good fortune to have visited Havana more than fifteen years ago, in December 1999. That year I designed Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball, the definitive pictorial history of Cuban baseball. I traveled there  with authors Peter Bjarkman and Mark Rucker, friends who knew the place, knew people there, and knew how to navigate the unique dynamics of visiting the country.

Armed with a license from the US Treasury Department, we ate, slept, talked, and watched baseball. We went to several games at Estadio Latinoamericano (site of the Rays vs Cuban National Team exhibition game on March 22,) as well as youth league games at ballparks in the Guanabacoa and Regla sections of Havana. The designer in me found visual inspiration everywhere. My having worked on the book for the better part of a year provided me with some small sense of what to expect.

We visited the Cuban Parliament and presented the book to the Vice President of the Council of Ministers, José Ramón Fernández (also the President of the Cuban Olympic Committee. A historic figure of Cuba’s revolution, he commanded defenses during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.)

CUBA_SMOKE_02

This project and the experiences attached to it provided me with some deep insight into what the sport of baseball means to fans outside of North America.

The marketing of baseball has grown exponentially since my visit to Cuba—the world has gotten both smaller and flatter. In 2004 I was approached by MLB to assist in branding what would eventually become the World Baseball Classic. Our work has stood the test of time—2017 will mark the third WBC tournament, and the original look has endured, evolved, and has prospered.

Global opportunities abound. #Let’sWorkTogether

How TV and Roy Rogers Helped Put Logos on NFL Team Helmets

NFL-HELMETS_1959_62

Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when few NFL teams featured a logo or decoration on their helmets. At the dawn of the 1960s, only four of the league’s twelve teams—the Baltimore Colts, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Washington Redskins—wore something other than a blank helmet.

Today, there are several reasons why every NFL team (with the notable exception of the Cleveland Browns) features a decoration of some sort on their lids. Reason number one is aesthetics. The Rams became visual pioneers back in 1948 when running back Fred Gehrke hand-painted ram horns on his team’s leather helmets.

Reason two is television, and reason three would be licensing. In a span of a few short years, TV broadcasting and licensed merchandise would conspire to necessitate the development of distinctive and discreet team logos.

The explosive growth of television in the 1950s gave rise to a renewed emphasis on sports graphics and uniform design. The National Football League’s 1958 Championship Game, which pitted the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants, was the turning point in catapulting the NFL to the top of America’s sports heap. Despite being blacked out in the New York City area, the game was viewed by an estimated audience of 45 million Americans, a huge number when one considers the fact that the entire population of the United States then was approximately 175 million people.

Three years later, Congress enacted the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which ruled that leagues could effectively negotiate their own group television contracts (prior to this, individual teams negotiated individual broadcast deals.) In 1962 the NFL scored its first national television contract, worth $4.7 million annually. Television was king, and teams needed visible logos in order to differentiate themselves.

Modern sports licensing was being born at the same moment.

In 1959, an executive at Roy Rogers Enterprises, Larry Kent, contacted Los Angeles Rams general manager Pete Rozelle, about marketing Rams team merchandise through the “Roy Rogers Corral” at area Sears stores. Roy Rogers was Hollywood’s “King of the Cowboys.” He was also the face behind a licensing powerhouse. Rogers started his merchandising arm in the early 50s. Within a couple of years Roy Rogers Enterprises was producing an 80-page catalog of officially licensed merchandise, grossing $35 million annually.

Rogers and the league formed NFL Enterprises in October 1959 as a subsidiary of Roy Rogers Enterprises. Rogers received half the revenues, with NFL team owners splitting the rest of the pot. Their first venture was a deal with Standard Oil in the form of glassware with team logos, given away with fill-ups at Standard gas stations.

A 1998 Sports Illustrated article said that “(w)ithin a year Rogers had lined up 45 manufacturers, churning out about 300 NFL products—cigarette lighters, dolls, vacuum bottles, ties, blankets, coats, pajamas and more. The strange marriage between branding iron and gridiron, however, didn’t last. When the contract came up for renewal in 1962, Kent leaped from Roy Rogers Enterprises to the burgeoning NFL.”

By then Rozelle had been elevated to NFL Commissioner. In 1963 the owners of the league’s 14 teams agreed to assign all rights to their team’s trademarks, thus forming NFL Properties. Things started out a bit slowly, with gross revenues that year coming in at $36,647. Today the NFL generates more than $3.2 billion a year in sales of licensed merchandise.

The dual influences of television and merchandising in the early 60s are borne out in the fact that more than half of the old-guard NFL franchises added helmet logos between 1960-62.

More than half a century later, the Browns remain the lone NFL team without a logo on their helmets (the league developed an emblem for them in 1965, but it was never worn.)

Unless you’re from Cleveland, it’s difficult to imagine a world without logos on NFL helmets. Broadcasting, licensing, and the King of the Cowboys helped shape this perception, even before the Cowboys—the Dallas Cowboys—bolted NFL Properties and decided to take back their own brand and go it alone. Which is another story for another day.

ROY-ROGERS-NFL

Beauty in the Details—Finding Art in Vintage World Series Tickets

Before bar codes, before StubHub, before we printed tickets out at home and were forced into joylessly scanning them ourselves upon entering a stadium, we had tickets. Real tickets. Pasteboards, ducats, rain checks.

And these tickets were, more often than not, chock full of copious and wonderful details, customized letterforms, and all sorts of archaic references that are seemingly frozen in time. How about background patterns? Like banknotes, these were included in order to fend off potential counterfeiters in the days before photocopiers, much less scanners.

Oversized, beautifully designed World Series tickets still exist today. I have the ticket stubs to the more than 30 World Series games that I have attended, dating back to 1977, and some of the more recent examples are some of the best, colorful and stunning pieces of art. But I get the feeling that the days of actual World Series are numbered, not only because of changing technology but also because of our own wants, needs, and desires for convenience and portability.

Consider this. On October 30, 2013, I was at Fenway Park in Boston, where I saw the Red Sox win the World Series at home for the first time in 95 years. Exiting the ballpark into a raucous sea of celebration, I spotted a piece of paper on the ground. It was an electronically-generated ticket to the game, a souvenir of a historic moment, trampled under foot, sadly discarded. Or not so sadly discarded, because it was an ugly mess, at best. QR code. Bar code. Six or seven dense paragraphs of five point type, informing the bearer that the paper in question is a revocable license, and that the user accepts the risk of injury. See where I am going here? Function sweeps form in four games, Series over.

The earliest World Series tickets were no better than the sad piece of barcoded paper that I have just described, utilitarian in nature, devoid of visual specificity or charm. Things began to change in the late 20s. By the mid to late 40s they really hit their stride. Each participating team was responsible for their own designs until 1974, when MLB took over with a standardized design for both American and National League champions.

Here are some pieces of Octobers past, all much more enjoyable to look at than a QR code.

1940 Cincinnati Reds

1940_TICKET

There’s an abundance of charm contained within the typographic details of this 1940 ticket from the Cincinnati Reds. Script type on a curve is always an unconventional choice, but this example retains legibility, despite the all the funkiness. Note the fact that the letters are straight up and down until you hit the “n” in “Championship.” Then, like a downward roller coaster, they descend from there. The Reds defeated the Detroit Tigers in seven games, their first World Series championship since 1919.

 

1950 Philadelphia Phillies

1950_TICKET

Phillies? Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies represented the National League in the 1950 World Series. They got their butts handed to them by the New York Yankees. But what’s really interesting about this ticket is what lies beneath. Look at the lettering in the background. The Phillies also declare themselves to be “Fighting’ Phils,” and “Whiz Kids” here. The team could also have added “Blue Jays” into the mix had they printed these at the beginning of the calendar year.

 

1935 Chicago Cubs

1935_TICKET

There’s some fantastic Art Deco typography here, along with two great lockups—look at the “Chicago Cubs” thing at right, almost a logo unto itself.

 

1967 St Louis Cardinals

1967_TICKET

The pennant illustration conveys all the information one would need, albeit in a very formal way for the NL champions from the Summer of Love. How about a “World Series” here? The Gateway Arch is depicted too, it was brand new then.

 

1969 New York Mets

1969_TICKET

The 1969 World Series belonged to the Miracle Mets and their mascot, Mr. Met. 1969 also marked the first appearance of the MLB silhouetted batter logo on a World Series ticket; it was created in conjunction with that year’s centennial celebration of professional baseball.

 

1972 Oakland A’s

1972-TICKET

In 1972, the Oakland A’s made the wise choice to highlight their mascot, Charlie O., on their World Series ducats. As I wrote in the Sporting News:

A mule had been suggested as an Athletics mascot as early as 1959, reportedly by a Kansas City councilman of the Democratic persuasion. The A’s had utilized an elephant as their trademark starting in 1902, when they were the Philadelphia Athletics. A Republican symbol would clearly not cut ice in heavily Democratic Missouri — enter “Charlie O.,” the Missouri mule, introduced in April of 1965.

Another noteworthy visual lies to the left of Charlie O.—the MLB “bannermark,” a logo that was used alongside the MLB silhouetted batter emblem during the term of commissioner Bowie Kuhn. This logo last appeared on World Series tickets in 1976.

 

1949 Brooklyn Dodgers

1949_TICKET

There are at least nine or ten different typefaces nestled within this charming 1949 ticket to Ebbets Field. Balance, symmetry, and minimal color usage all combine to prevent it from falling into utter chaos. The Dodgers dropped the World Series to Yankees that year.

 

1947 New York Yankees

1947_TICKET

The Yankees’ classic top hat logo was created by legendary artist Lon Keller in 1946. The Bombers would have to wait until the following year to use it on a World Series ticket. The emblem would appear on World Series tickets fourteen more times over the following seventeen seasons.

 

1931 Philadelphia Athletics

1931_TICKET

The 1931 World Series saw a rematch of the previous Fall Classic, and it featured the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals. There are several items of note here. Shibe Park, was, of course, the home ballpark of the A’s. The club referred to their stadium as “Greater Shibe Park” after renovations were undertaken in 1925. There’s lots to chew on here from a visual perspective, the most obvious being the logos of the participating clubs. Typographic overprints and the wonderful “S” letterforms within the club names help complete the picture.