Butte Copper Kings
The Butte Copper Kings of Butte, Montana, was a team identity that existed in the Pioneer League for a cumulative total of 22 seasons. Those seasons were played across 23 years, which were broken up by one fallow season. The Copper Kings had a few stints playing as an independent/co-op team, and they served as a Rookie level affiliate of six MLB teams–the Brewers, Royals, Mariners, Rangers, Devil Rays, and Angels.
The Copper Kings were raw ore in 1978, when they were added (along with the Helena Phillies) to the Pioneer League as an expansion team. Their team name was an historical reference to the Copper Kings, a handful of competing mining magnates who struck their fortune in Butte in the late 1800s. The new team did not have an exclusive MLB affiliation, and filled out their roster with a ragtag mix of both free agents and draft picks from the Mariners, Phillies, Rangers, and A’s. Only one player from that inaugural squad would go on to the majors, and remarkably, it was three-time All-Star Julio Franco.
In ’79, Butte signed on exclusively with Milwaukee. This affiliation lasted for three seasons, and produced future Brewers as Bill Schroeder, Dion James, Randy Ready, and Bill Wegman. A new affiliation was forged with the Kansas City Royals in ’82, and that one lasted only through ’83. Those two seasons produced two future major league All-Stars in Cecil Fielder and Kevin Seitzer.
I have yet to find images providing clues about what Butte’s branding looked like their earliest days, but by the Royals era, we have some clear images of uniforms. Team colors were blue and (of course) copper, and they managed to have some copper-colored pullovers manufactured, reading Copper Kings across the chest. Caps were blue with a simple copper B.
In 1984, the Copper Kings linked up with the Seattle Mariners for one season, and there was only one future major leaguer to suit up for Butte that year: the great Omar Vizquel. Vizquel immortalized his time in Butte while being interviewed for Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Baseball-The Tenth Inning documentary. Here’s the link for the page with the video clip, though those type of pages tend to expire in 404s over time. Just in case, here’s what Omar said: “You say ‘Wow, I’m going to America. I’m going to play baseball in America.’ And you’re expecting all these big buildings and big highways–the stuff that you see in movies and magazines–and you were dreaming to come to a huge city like New York or Chicago or something like that. And when we got to Butte, Montana, we really didn’t see too many people. I remember that I went there with a friend of mine. We both signed from Venezuela, and we got there, and we were like ‘are we really in the United States or what?'”
1985 was another independent/co-op year, and not a single player from the Copper Kings’ roster would go on to even a cup of coffee in the majors. This was the low point in the franchise. Following that season, the Pioneer League contracted from eight to six teams, with the Copper Kings and Pocatello Gems winking out of baseball existence. Butte did not field a team for the 1986 season, but it wouldn’t stay like that for long.
In 1987, the Pioneer League reinstated both Butte and Pocatello, and the Copper Kings identity was revived. Yet again, the team was an independent/co-op outfit, and while most of the players were undrafted free agents, there were a handful who were in the farm systems of the Brewers, Pirates, and Rangers. Of the two Copper Kings on that year’s roster, Rey Sánchez is the one who would go on to a nice major league career.
One of those co-op parent clubs, the Texas Rangers, must have like Butte well enough, because they became an exclusive parent club in 1988. This affiliation would last a solid five years, and produced alums like Robb Nen, Roger Pavlik, Jeff Frye, Rusty Greer, and Rich Aurilia. The team’s uniforms during this time frame owed a lot to the Rangers, and Butte took on a red and blue-based color scheme, with some copper thrown in for good measure. In the late eighties, jerseys had Texas-esque racing stripes on their sleeves. There aren’t many player images from this era, but some baseball cards have them wearing carbon copies of the Rangers’ T caps. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these were Butte’s regular caps, though, and Texas may have merely provided them early in the season.
The truly iconic branding element of this time is the elevation of a crudely-drawn Copper King logo. This logo had been used for print merchandise since at least the mid-eighties, but first appeared on the teams’ caps during the Texas days. The logo was a king with a large black beard, hair, a copper crown, red neckerchief, and a big toothy grin/grimace. His hands held a large bat cocked back over his shoulder, though the rest of his arms were nowhere to be seen. In some iterations, the copper king was nestled in the old copper B, but often, he would have exclusive cap territory. Original caps with this king logo are highly sought-after on the collector market, and Ebbets Field Flannels has produced replicas.
The Copper Kings had one more stint as an independent/co-op team, and this one lasted three seasons, from 1993-1995. Minor league luminary Miles Wolff was a part owner of the club during this period. Players were organizational members of many MLB organizations, and remarkably, only one player in those three years would go on to have a major league career, and it was a no-name who was only in the bigs for a bit. This was another low point for the Copper Kings, but fortunes were brighter than they had been ten years previous.
1996 was a positive year for Butte. The team was sold to the Goldklang Group, meaning that actor Bill Murray became a part owner of the Copper Kings. Furthermore, even though the team was still independent on paper, and had a ragtag pocket of free agents, they were essentially a farm club of the yet-to-play Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In fact, the very first draft picks of the Tampa Bay franchise had their pro debuts in Butte.
1997 brought a new affiliation and a new look for the Copper Kings. The Anaheim Angels took them under their wing, and the relationship lasted for four seasons–right up until Butte’s last days. Alums from this time include future MLB All-Stars Mike Napoli, Bobby Jenks, and Francisco Rodríguez. The team also redesigned their visual aesthetic, swapping out blue and red for hunter green and copper. They used two logos during this era, and one that appeared on their jerseys was a copper K, with the interior portion bent into a C-shaped horseshoe. The horseshoe motif was extended to the cap logo, where two interlocking horseshoes formed the letter B for Butte. This design was essentially a ripoff of a different Pioneer League logo. In the 80s, the Billings Mustangs had an M logo formed by two horseshoes, and Butte basically took this design and rotated it 45 degrees. The Mustangs got the last laugh, though. After Butte was kicked to the curb, they took the updated horseshoe logo and rotated it back to form an M that they use today.
Even lucky horseshoes couldn’t save the Copper Kings. After the year 2000 season, the franchise was sold to an ownership group that moved them to Casper, Wyoming, where they played a few seasons as the Casper Rockies. They later changed their name to the unforgettable Casper Ghosts, before being sold to the Colorado Rockies and moving to Grand Junction, Colorado. The Grand Junction Rockies play in the Pioneer League to this day, and the Butte Copper Kings abdicated their throne long ago.