The 3 of 4 Rule is an MLG creation–a theoretical way to handle a tricky topic. The rule is used to determine the identity continuity for a given team. It is still evolving, but the basic formula is that two possible identities are “merged” or are “the same team” if they meet at least three of the following four criteria:
- Geographic location. Simply put, this where a team is physically located. A continuous geographic identity is maintained if a team continues to play in the same stadium, of course, but also within the same city or general geographic area–including when teams build new stadiums in the suburbs of their previous city.
- Place name. The part of the team name that usually, but not always, comes first. The place name can be the city, the county, the whole state, the region (e.g. Lehigh Valley or Piedmont), or even nicknames for a city. Occasionally there have been instances where a team will take on a conceptual/gimmicky place name, with an example being the short period of time where the Stockton Ports rebranded as the Mudville Nine. In this case, “Mudville” would be considered an acceptable place name.
- Nickname. This is pretty straightforward–the other part of the team name, usually coming after the place name.
- Visual aesthetic. The team colors, logos, uniforms, etc. This is more loose and subjective. Like if a team switches from a cap with red crown and blue bill to a blue crown with red bill, it doesn’t mean their overall aesthetic has changed. Visual aesthetic is a fancy way of describing the “gist” of a team’s look.
As mentioned at the top, the rule requires three of the four criteria to be continuous in order for the overall team identity to be continuous. If there are less, such as only two of four, the two teams would be considered distinct identities. Let’s run through a couple of real-world examples.
A new identity was created in 1989 for a team called the Prince William Cannons, with Prince William being the name of the county in Virginia where the team played. Eventually, they would take on the colors black, silver, and burgundy, and have a smiling cannonball as logo. In 1999, the team changed their name to the Potomac Cannons, with “Potomac” being a reference to the nearby Potomac River and surrounding region. They played in the same stadium and kept the same basic aesthetic, including the smiling cannonball. Were the Prince William Cannons and Potomac Cannons the same identity or two distinct identities?
Verdict: Same identity. Only the place name changed, so 3 of 4 criteria were met. This same scenario has played out numerous times in the minors, with the Fox Cities/Appleton Foxes and Hardware City/New Britain Rock Cats being a few examples.
Following the 1992 season, the Denver Zephyrs moved to New Orleans. The new team was called the New Orleans Zephyrs, and not only did they use the same nickname, but they kept similar uniforms and logos. Same team or two distinct identities?
Verdict: Two distinct identities. Only 2 of 4 criteria (nickname and visuals) were met, and the team changed both their geographic location and place name. The 3 of 4 Rule essentially determines that all franchise relocations make for a new team identity.
Scenario # 3
Following the 1996 season, the Syracuse Chiefs changed their name to the Syracuse SkyChiefs. At the same time, they dropped their Native American imagery and replaced it with baseball bat-shaped fighter plane motif, as well as changed their team colors. In 2007, the team began calling themselves the Chiefs again, but they opted for a railroad chief-based visual identity. So what do we make of this?
Verdict: Two distinct identities. And only two. Despite the missing years in the sky, there is identity continuity between the older Chiefs and the newer Chiefs, because the 3 of 4 (location, place name, nickname) provide continuity. The SkyChiefs, however, have their own distinct identity due to the changed nickname and changed visuals.
Though I can’t think of any real-world examples off the top of my head, I’m fairly certain that there have been instances in the minors where only the team nickname changes, yet the other three criteria remain the same. The limiting factor here is that if the team retained their logos and such, the new nickname would have to be shoehorned in. Let’s imagine that the Ogden Raptors were to change their name to the Ogden Velicoceraptors, but kept everything else the same. Or if the Lansing Lugnuts were to become the Lansing Bolts, but retained the iconic disgruntled bolt logo and team colors. In either case, 3 of 4 is maintained and there is identity continuity.
It’s heady stuff, but this is the 3 of 4 Rule in a nutshell. The MLG will be using this, as needed, as a guiding principle throughout the process of creating team pages. Naturally, this is not a perfect rule. There are some fairly easy to identify loopholes, and I’m sure I’ll uncover more as I drill back in time with the DIA.
Here’s one loophole that I’ve thought of. There are two distinct team identities that have been called the Jackson Generals; one a current member of the Southern League playing in Jackson, Tennessee, and the other, a defunct Texas League team that played in Jackson, Mississippi up until 1999. Now, if the current Generals had (for some reason) bought the same trademarks as the old Texas League Generals, and trotted out an identical visual aesthetic, then we would have a problem. If that unlikely event were to happen, I suspect that I would call it two separate identities. But then the 3 of 4 Rule would be broken.
Rules are meant to be broken, right?
List of ongoing challenges
New Britain Rock Cats and Hardware City Rock Cats. In this scenario, the Rock Cats began their identity by taking on the nickname of the city itself for their first season. They then switched to New Britain, and even though they made some slight changes to the visuals, they retained the overall cartoon cat motif. As such, I decided that they are one identity.
Oklahoma City RedHawks and Oklahoma RedHawks. This was a tricky one, because they changed their place name at the same time that they changed their visuals–so only 2 of 4, right? After some hemming and hawing, I decided to bend the rule and grant continuity. Their refreshed branding in the OKC years was subtle and generally unmemorable, and it could be argued that they merely updated and added on rather than completely redesigned.
Princeton Devil Rays and Princeton Rays. What happened here is that the parent club changed their name, so the COTOB affiliate followed suit. I was all set to add the Princeton Devil Rays to the DIA, but it just didn’t feel right. In fact, the team’s primary logo actually said “Princeton Rays” even when they were known as the Devil Rays. It only seems appropriate to consider both of these Princeton teams to be one identity, especially since I combine the two Tampa Bay identities into one on the “browse by parent club” page. Tough call, but for now, the Princeton Devil Rays are not defunct.
Burlington Indians and Alamance Indians. This was an interesting case. The Alamance Indians (based in Burlington, Alamance County, North Carolina) played in the long-defunct Central Association for two years in the forties. Contemporary reference sources (Baseball Reference, Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, etc.) uniformly refer to the Alamance Indians as the Burlington Indians, which would mean identity continuity with the team of the same name, in the same city, that played in the Appalachian League from 1986-2006. I was set to combine these two identities, but when my historic researcher went looking for images of the old team, he discovered that the local newspapers of the time referred to the team as the Alamance Indians. That could be written off as journalistic freewheeling, but there was a smoking gun in the pictures–a capital letter A on the team’s caps. Why would the team fashion caps with an A if their place name was truly Burlington? Also, the A cap tips the visual aesthetic scale to a point where we only have 2 of 4 factors (geographic location and nickname) in common. Verdict: two separate identities.
Lakeland Tigers and Lakeland Flying Tigers. In this case, the only major change was the addition of the “Flying” adjective to the place name. However, the team also tweaked their brand from straight COTOB to a more creative military-themed aesthetic. Though neither nickname nor visuals were a wholesale overhaul, they both changed just enough to tip the scales toward two distinct identities.
Greenville Braves and Greenville Braves. Believe it or not, this is probably the most difficult case I’ve yet to encounter. The first Greenville Braves played two seasons in the Class A Western Carolinas League in the sixties, and were a Milwaukee affiliate. The second Greenville team played in the Double-A Southern League from 1984-2004, and were an Atlanta affiliate. By the standards of the 3 of 4 Rule, this is easy–same city, same place name, same nickname, and both (likely) had uniforms that were somewhat similar in style. The main hitch here is that the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves are distinct identities in my mind–as in, separate identities if the 3 of 4 were applied to them. Still, after much rending of garments, I decided to stick to the rule and lump the two Greenville Braveses together.
Orlando Rays and Orlando SunRays. The only thing that makes this one a little tricky is that the SunRays were sometimes called just the Orlando Rays–sort of nickname for their nickname. Despite being the same franchise and despite playing in the same ballpark, these were two separate brands. The SunRays were a unique identity that became the Orlando Cubs for a few years, and then became a pre-emptive DimDer for the yet-to-play Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Definitely distinct identities.
Great Falls Dodgers and Great Falls Dodgers. The Pioneer League has had two teams based in Great Falls, Montana, that have used the COTOB Dodgers nickname. The more well-known version was a Los Angeles affiliate from 1984-2002 and had Pedro Martínez as an alum. The other version was a Brooklyn affiliate that used “Dodgers” for only one season (1957) bookended by stints as the Great Falls Electrics. Same location (1), same place name (2), and same nickname (3) gives us continuity between the two GF-Dodgers. But it seems like a stretch given the Los Angeles/Brooklyn difference and the sizable time gap between the two versions. Still, I went with identity continuity.
Knoxville Smokies and Tennessee Smokies. In the year 2000, a new ballpark was opened in Kodak, TN, an unincorporated town just outside of Knoxville. The Southern League’s Smokies moved in, and as part of the process, they changed to a whole state place name. Since Kodak is definitely in the Knoxville area, I consider the location to have more or less stayed the same. The place name was changed while the nickname remained the same. This is where it gets interesting. Though the Tennessee Smokies changed some branding elements in 2000, including adding an alternate “TS” logo, their overall brand took some time to transition from a green/blue Nineties look to the various red/blue combinations the team has used over the past twenty years or so. But for at least one season, the Tennessee Smokies were virtually visually indistinguishable from their 1999 predecessor. It’s a toughie, but I went with continuity. I mean heck, they’re trying to move back into Knoxville proper.
Louisville RiverBats and Louisville Bats. I didn’t go too batty trying to figure this one out. After the 2001 season, the International League club dropped the “River” from their name and changed their branding enough to justify identity separation. The only caveat is that they kept the same purple bat logo mascot, albeit relegated to alternate cap status.
South Georgia Waves and South Georgia Waves. This was an easy one, but I’ll put it here for interesting illustration. After the Wilmington (NC) Waves crashed and burned after only one season (2001), the franchise was moved to Albany, Georgia. They took on the South Georgia designator, possibly because they knew the Albany location was temporary. In 2003, they moved to Columbus, Georgia, but kept the same name and brand elements, even though Columbus (80 some miles northwest of Albany) is only Southern Georgia in a general south-of-Atlanta-metro sort of way. Despite playing in clearly disparate locations, both versions of the South Georgia Waves used the same place name, nickname, and branding elements. 3 of 4 is easily met.
Quad City River Bandits and Quad Cities River Bandits. From 1992-2003, the Quad City River Bandits competed in the Midwest League, building their brand around the colors red and black and featuring a baseball-with-bandana-facemask logo. In 2004, they got weird, rebranding as the Swing of the Quad Cities. The Swing (though immortalized in Sugar) were only a thing for four years, and then then the team went back to being called the River Bandits. Though they kept the same basic red-and-black color scheme as the old River Bandits, they made some significant upgrades, including an adorable raccoon-with-facemask logo. Another change, however tiny, is that they kept the Quad Cities place designator from the Swing years, pairing it with the old nickname from the Quad City era. Technically, that’s only 2 of 4, but I’m saying that they’re the same team. Not only is the name almost identical, but branding elements were carried through from the old River Bandits. I grant continuity based on the existence of the red bandana.
Tri-City Triplets and Tri-Cities Triplets. Here’s another city cluster naming conundrum; this coming out of the Northwest League. After the 1972 season, the Tri-City Padres lost their parent club. Needing an independent identity, went with the place name-referential Triplets. It only lasted one season, followed by one more as the Ports, and then the team was moved again. Flash forward to 1983, with the Tri-Cities of Washington State having been deprived of minor league baseball for eight years. The Walla Walla Padres franchise came to town, and the team resurrected the old Triplets nickname and wore it proudly for four seasons. One big difference? They went from being the Tri-City Triplets to being the Tri-Cities Triplets. It’s a very similar situation to the River Bandits (above) but am I granting continuity? No. Even though I have not yet been able to find any images of what the ’73 Triplets wore, I have to imagine it was something different than the Texas Rangers hand-me-downs worn the Eighties team. Unless proven otherwise, I’m counting them separately.
Tampa Tarpons and Tampa Tarpons. Shortly after I launched this site, started building up the DIA, and developed this 3 of 4 Rule, my brain was melted by an anomaly that I’ve since grown accustomed to. The Tampa Yankees identity was unexpectedly phased out in favor of Tarpons, an old Tampa name that had last played in the Eighties. Even though I hadn’t come close to hitting the Tarpons in DIA’s reverse chronological order, it made me think about what would happen if a defunct identity that I had already covered were to be resurrected. Would all that work be in vain? It was one of the early catalysts to get me to make pages for current teams, and have the ability to switch a team page from active to defunct, or vice versa. Anyway, as for the Tarpons? You bet there is continuity. The only one of the four factors that is different is the branding. Just ignore the, uh, thirty-year time gap.
Arkansas Travelers and Little Rock Travelers. Here’s one that has caused me some consternation. The Little Rock Travelers was the name given to a few separate baseball teams starting in 1895, including an unbroken stretch in the Southern Association from 1915-1961. After taking a season off, the Travelers nickname popped back up in the post-Upheaval era, but there were a few changes. One was the league, as now the city of Little Rock was at the Triple-A level. Another change was the place name, with the Travelers becoming the first professional sports team to use a whole-state place name. In lieu of imagies, I’ll assume that the one-year gap–along with the place name and league/level changes–caused the team to switch uniforms. As much as it may make sense to grant continuity, for now, I’m considering the Little Rock Travelers to be a different team identity than the current Travelers who play in Little Rock.
Burlington Rangers and Burlington Rangers. Here we have a rare instance of Same Name, Different City that really pushes the 3 of 4 to a ridiculous place. The first Burlington Rangers were based in Burlington, North Carolina for one season in 1972, taking their name from the Texas Rangers and wearing hand-me-down duds with a big block B on the caps. The second Burlington Rangers were based in Burlington, Iowa, from 1982-1985, taking their name from the Texas Rangers and wearing hand-me-down duds with a big block B on the caps. Check out this photo comparison between the two. The visual aesthetic criteria is where I can leverage some subjective judgement in these cases, and there’s no way that I’m going to call two teams the same when they were separated by ten years and a few states.