Baseball’s Five Worst Rebrands
Remember the Boston Bees or the Philadelphia Blue Jays? Of course you don’t. Here’s five branding decisions by major league baseball teams that just never made sense.
The art of branding has taken on increased importance in recent years, but Major League Baseball, as with most corporate societies, has understood its value for over a century. Well, more or less.
Some teams get it. There was no need, in 1913, for the New York Highlanders to continue calling themselves that once they stopped playing at Hilltop Park, so they reinvented themselves as the Yankees; and when the Houston Colt .45s moved into the space-age Astrodome in 1965, a switch to “Astros” was a no-brainer. Sometimes, the brand can even transcend the team name; if the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs suddenly stopped playing at, respectively, historic Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, their image would take a hit.
But what follows are five examples of teams who failed the test at branding. They include missed opportunities, half-hearted follow-throughs and schizophrenic identity. In some cases, these studies may not have hurt the team’s bottom line, but they risked damage to the very soul of who they are.
Cincinnati Redlegs (1953-58)
“Red” was a dirty word during a time when the Soviet Union—which saturated everything it branded in red—emerged as America’s archenemy. Headlines nationwide constantly screamed “Reds” as a nickname for the Russians. What rotten dumb luck this would become for the Cincinnati Reds, who had gotten away with it ever since Karl Marx began shouting in defense of the proletariat. But as Senator Joe McCarthy intensified his obsessive witch hunt in the early 1950s to snuff out and shame American communists (alleged or otherwise), the Reds had to believe that it wasn’t beneath McCarthy—who wielded significant power at this time—to try and link the Reds to Red Square simply because of their name. So, starting in 1953, the Reds modified their nickname to “Redlegs.”
The change hardly ticked off the fan base in Cincinnati, a conservative slice of 1950s Americana who by and large jumped on the McCarthy bandwagon at first. The new tag also became synonymous with the sleeveless crew of muscle-bound sluggers (led by Ted Kluszewski) who bombed away—you certainly wouldn’t want any “Reds” doing that in Middle America—at a home park whose fences were brought in. The fans responded, buying over a million tickets for the first time in franchise history by 1956.
By 1959, McCarthy had long since shown himself to be a fool in fearmonger’s clothing, ruining innocent lives while America calmed down, stopped worrying and learned to tolerate the Soviets, albeit guardedly. The anti-communist hysteria ebbed to the point that the Redlegs officially went back to being the Reds after six years.
Washington Senators (1961-71)
By the end of the 1950s, the original Washington Senators had become a major league joke. The saying went: Washington—first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. Rather than blame himself for years of misery, Senators owner Calvin Griffith bolted the Nation’s Capitol and moved to Minneapolis, where the team became the Minnesota Twins. Meanwhile, back in D.C., baseball placated angry politicians—threatening to revoke the game’s sacred antitrust exemption—by hastily giving the city one of two expansion franchises in 1961 to replace the departed Senators.
Most marketing experts would have surveyed the situation and come to the new Washington owners with an obvious brand strategy: Wash away all those years of losing by picking anything but “Senators” for the new team name. After all, when you build a car called Edsel and it bombs, you don’t start from scratch a year later and keep calling it Edsel. Call it Barracuda, Falcon, Alowishus…anything but Edsel.
Stupefyingly, the new Lord of Washington baseball, one General Elwood Quesada, stuck with the fear of the known and “Senators”; he didn’t even bother to change the look of the old team’s caps and uniforms. Maybe they had no time to scurry focus groups, marketing committees and graphic designers together to develop a new look and feel, given the franchise was literally born a mere five months before its first game.
Familiarity bred incompetence. The new Senators were just as bad as the old ones, trudging through ten losing seasons in 11 years in front of miniscule crowds before moving on themselves, this time to Texas. When baseball gave Washington a third shot at succeeding in 2005 with the Montreal Expos’ relocation to D.C., it wisely stood clear of the Senators’ brand, choosing “Nationals” as the new name.
Boston Bees (1936-40)
The Boston Braves were an awful team early in the 20th Century; they weren’t called the Miracle Braves for nothing when, in 1914, they were miraculous enough to win their only pennant (amid only eight winning seasons) in a 48-year stretch. In 1935, the team desperately tried to shake things up by bringing in Babe Ruth to boost the team’s fortunes both on the field and at the gate. The ruse failed spectacularly; a 40-year-old Ruth was beyond rust, the fans stayed home (or just went to Fenway Park across town to watch the revived Red Sox) and the team collapsed to a modern NL record-worst mark of 38-115.
Braves owner Emil Fuchs threw up his hands and gave up, giving the keys of the tarnished kingdom to Bob Quinn—who for the second time was picking up the pieces of a shattered franchise in Boston; in 1923, he bought the Red Sox from the infamous Harry Frazee in 1923 and made no progress with the club over the next ten years. Quinn figured he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice in one respect: By shedding the nightmare of recent times (and 1935 in particular), he asked the fans to come up with a new team name to replace “Braves.” It’s not known if “Bees” was the most popular choice or just the one Quinn fancied the most, but “Bees” it was. The new uniforms subtly reflected the change only in a color scheme that moved from blue and red to blue and gold; there was no mention of “Bees” anywhere on the jerseys, as if Quinn was hedging his bet that the new identity would ever succeed. Other opportunities were passed up: There were no bumblebee stripes, no antennae, no naming of the bleacher seats as the “Hive.” It’s a shame Bill Veeck wasn’t running the promotional department.
The Bad News Bees the old Braves weren’t, at least at first; the team finished above .500 from 1937-38. But attendance hardly rose, and things only began to get worse when the team started to sink again in the standings to end the decade. Complicating matters, a teenage marvel named Ted Williams was quickly emerging as a one-of-a-kind star across town with the Red Sox, leaving the Bees looking like a silly, unwatchable cartoon-like alternative both in name and in play. In 1941, Quinn wisely reverted back to tradition and returned “Braves” to the uniform.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2005-present)
There had always been something of an identity crisis for the Angels from their 1961 beginnings. Originally they were the Los Angeles Angels, which led to no debate since they actually played in Los Angeles. When they moved to Anaheim Stadium in 1966, they became the California Angels—opting for a statewide identity as Anaheim was still more orange groves than suburbia and, it may have been thought, didn’t yet warrant attention on the big stage. Perhaps the Disneyland Angels would have registered better on people’s virtual compasses, but when Disney actually bought the team in 1996, it accepted a switch to the Anaheim Angels as part of a deal in which the city would financially contribute to a redo of Anaheim Stadium back into a baseball-specific ballpark.
Then along came Arte Moreno. When he bought the Angels from Disney in 2003, Moreno had geographical ambitions beyond Orange County; so to appeal to the greater Los Angeles Basin, he officially relabeled the team with a tongue twister of a name: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Huh? What? Nobody had quite heard that one before. And nobody much liked it, either. People in the OC were incensed that their local team now shared billing with a city to the north they cared little to associate with. Officials in Los Angeles weren’t thrilled, either—believing Moreno was profiting off the name without giving back. And sports editors across the country scratched their heads over how they were going to fit such a long name into the daily standings, so they conveniently shortened it to the Los Angeles Angels—which was probably just fine for Moreno.
The City of Anaheim was particularly ticked off at what they saw as a demotion of their identity within the team name and sued the Angels. But Moreno argued that by keeping Anaheim in the title, he was abiding by the terms of the deal earlier struck between Disney and the city. The case went to trial and a jury sided with Moreno, and so he legally got to have his cake and eat it, too. The local fans still cringe at the bi-locality of the name, but it apparently hasn’t kept them—and perhaps others from L.A.—from turning the turnstiles at the rate of three million and change every year. Perhaps the locals look at the “A” on the team’s caps and will their minds to think “A” for Anaheim...not Angels, not Azusa, not Adventureland—and certainly not Arte.
Philadelphia Blue Jays (1944-45)
It’s one thing when your fans don’t care for your new name; it’s another, altogether bizarre thing when the very team that came up with it doesn’t care, either. That’s essentially what happened when the Philadelphia Phillies, staggered by a recent period of rotten ownership and bankruptcy, decided to officially change their name to the Blue Jays. Only thing was, the team never seemed to take it seriously—a fact made nakedly clear when the players continued to wear uniforms with “Phillies” splashed on it. Perhaps new owner Robert Carpenter, like his predecessors, didn’t have the cash flow to splurge for new jerseys.
Fanfare did surround the rebrand. At Carpenter’s behest, over 5,000 Philadelphians sent in suggestions to the Phillies for a new name; the winning “Blue Jays” moniker came courtesy of the wife of a caretaker, with a prize of $100 in war bonds and a season’s pass to Shibe Park to watch the Phillies, er, Blue Jays. Her hubby might as well as taken a shovel to the new name and buried it; no one probably would have noticed. For two full years, the Philadelphia identity crisis labored along, with newspapers often using both names in the same articles as if they themselves weren’t sure what the team was really called.
The Sybil-like schizophrenia ended after the 1944 season when Carpenter officially went back to “Phillies.” Over 30 years later, “Blue Jays” would get a second chance when Toronto embraced it for its American League expansion team.
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