The Charlotte Knights of Charlotte, North Carolina is a minor league team that currently plays in the International League, serving as Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. The Knights have competed in two minor leagues since their founding and have also had affiliation stints with the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, and Florida Marlins.
The first Knights began following the 1987 season, when the Double-A Southern League’s Charlotte O’s were sold to local sports mogul George Shinn, the man who founded the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. The Knights played their home games at Crockett Park–renamed Knights Park–right in the heart of Charlotte proper. Perhaps owing to the quick turnaround of a franchise sale, the Knights had spartan branding that first year. They used Oriole orange and paired it with a dark blue/black. The primary logo was the team name and baseball superimposed on an orange diamond, and the cap logo was a cursive letter C.
In addition to using the same ballpark as the O’s (an Orioles DimDer) the Knights retained the Baltimore affiliation for that 1988 season. It was only one a one-year stint with the Orioles, but that inaugural season had a stacked roster that included Curt Schilling, Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch, and Gregg Olson.
While the Knights played the 1989 season at Knights Park, Mr. Shinn was busy getting a brand new ballpark erected in Fort Mill, South Carolina, a Southern suburb of Charlotte. While the park went up, the team made some strides toward establishing a unique brand identity. A logo was drawn, and for its time, it was a refined graphic for the minor leagues. A knight in full armor and helmet rode astride a steed (also in full armor) while shooting a baseball from what seems to be a crossbow. It was a 3D rendering, with the ball in the foreground of the picture with motion lines, giving the impression that it was heading for the viewer’s face. Close inspection of the logo revealed the horse was wearing a helmet complete with horn. Or it was a unicorn. This logo appeared on the players’ caps, which at least for the ’89 season were still black and orange.
That color scheme was merely a vestige of the Orioles era, because another change for 1989 was a new affiliation with the Chicago Cubs. The Knights were the Double-A affiliate of the Cubs for four years, and this was not the most bountiful period for Chicago prospects. In those four seasons, only two players would go on to make a single All-Star game each: Heathcliff Slocumb and Steve Trachsel.
The Knights were finally able to move into the new park–dubbed Knights Castle–in time for the 1990 season. By all accounts, Knights Castle was quite the stadium. Here’s a baseball card quote from the time: “One of the country’s most unique parks, Knights’ Castle was built with the help of designer Alexander Julian. It features a stone, castle-like façade with 13 different colors speckling the 9,917 permanent seats. Opened in 1990 at a cost of $14 million, the park will host the ’92 Class AA All-Star Game.” Alexander Julian, a North Carolina-based clothing designer, had made his mark in sports with the Charlotte Hornets and North Carolina Tar Heels’ basketball uniform designs. George Shinn must have appreciated Julian’s boldness with the Hornets as well as the marketability of the famous teal/purple/pinstripes look. Not only was Julian tasked with designing seat colors for Knights Castle, he also designed the team’s uniforms.
And boy, what uniforms those were. The Knights wore black jerseys with very thick white pinstripes paired with black pants with thick white racing stripe on the side. Teal, purple, royal blue, and green were thrown in as accent colors. The shirts had large printing across the chest in the sort of font that would become more normalized later in the decade, but was audacious in 1990. This particular look was flash-in-the-pan. By the following season, the team had toned it down a little. Blue and green became the primary colors. Home jerseys were white-with-pinstripes and roads were simple gray with block lettering. Even with the changes, the Knights were one of the more stylish and forward-thinking teams of the time.
The larger baseball certainly took notice of this new team identity sparkling with vitality in a growing metro area, and the Knights were perfectly poised for a rare opportunity. Here’s another quote from a 1992 baseball card: “Since the opening of Knights’ Castle in 1990, Charlotte has led Class AA in attendance. Beginning in 1993, the Knights will become an even bigger attraction when the team moves up to Class AAA.” The National League expanded with the additions of the Marlins and Rockies in 1993, and there was a need for more minor league teams to go around. One new Triple-A team–the Ottawa Lynx–was added to the International League as a straight expansion team. The other new IL team was the Charlotte Knights. In this instance, the Knights were a perfect example of a multi-level mover, with the franchise itself being promoted a level. Their spot in the Southern League was filled by the short-lived Nashville Xpress, but that franchise (now the Rocket City Trash Pandas) is better described as an expansion team in my opinion. Either way, Charlotte was ready leave Double-A behind and move to the top level of the minors.
The change to the International League was about seamless as such a transition can be. The Knights made some amendments to their uniforms, though the blue-and-green branding era continued. However, the change in level in ’93 pretty much guaranteed a change in MLB parent club, especially as the Cubs were as entrenched in Iowa then as they are today. The brand new Rockies signed on with their in-state Colorado Springs Sky Sox, and this left the Cleveland Indians in need of a Triple-A club. Enter the Knights.
Charlotte and Cleveland were only affiliated for two seasons, but they were fruitful years on the farm. Among others, Manny Ramírez and Brian Giles suited up for the Knights on their way to productive major league careers. Hall of Famer Jim Thome, working to find his stroke at the major league level, spent the ’93 season at Knights Stadium, helping to power Charlotte to win the Governors’ Cup championship in their first year with the International League.
Fresh off their victory, the Knights opted to try out a fresh new look. Funny enough, they returned to the teal and purple they had set aside at the beginning of the decade when they were ahead of their time. In ’94, all sports were awash in teal and purple. They kept the same old knight-on-unicorn logo (now in its third coloration) but added a new cap with teal crown and purple bill. The logo on the cap was a white letter K with castle turrets on the top and a purple pennant flapping in the North Carolina breeze. The castle-K cap kicked around for a few years in the mid-nineties, but never supplanted the unicorn knight.
As it turned out, teal was the perfect color choice. In 1995, Charlotte signed on to be the Triple-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins. This affiliation lasted four years and included the narrow sliver of time between the Marlins finding their footing as an expansion team and becoming world champions. Though a major chunk of Florida’s ’97 World Series roster was composed of veteran free agent acquisitions, two key players from that squad paid some dues at Knights Stadium: Edgar Rentería and Liván Hernández. In the later nineties, the Knights phased out the castle K logo and put the old unicorn knight back on the cap. When compared with the old Double-A design, the C was removed and the team nickname was added. Some notable players from those later Marlins years include Ryan Dempster, Álex González, and Kevin Millar.
A few changes came to Charlotte in 1999, as the Knights forged a lasting bond with the Chicago White Sox. In a concurrent move, they dropped the very nineties teal-and-purple color scheme in favor of hunter green and navy blue, not unlike their early-nineties combo. The unicorn knight left too, replaced by the side profile of a horse. I’ve long-assumed that this horse was knight of the chess variety. If so, kudos to Charlotte for going the nerd route. A new typeface included the a sword replacing the T in Knights. Pretty cool.
Chicago committed to Charlotte fully, and not only moved young players through, but also many big-name big-leaguers for rehab assignments and last gasps at holding onto the dream. Jim Thome returned to Knights Castle for a couple of games, as did fellow Cooperstowners Frank Thomas and Harold Baines. They certainly didn’t skimp on the prospect front either, and some of the future big leaguers to don the horse gear include Carlos Lee, Chad Bradford, Jon Garland, Joe Crede, Aaron Rowand, Daniel Hudson, Chris Sale, and Marcus Semien.
By the early teens, the old castle in Fort Mill was starting to show its age, and Charlotte was very far from being the toast of the International League. Though some in the city were hoping to hold out for a major league team, Charlotte citizens decided to pony up for a new uptown ballpark overlooking the Queen City skyline. BB&T Ballpark opened up in 2014, and the Knights quickly went from being the lowest attendance draw in the IL to being the highest. As many teams do, the Knights decided to redesign their brand as they settled into their new home. New team colors were black, silver, and gold, and a variety of medieval-themed logos were introduced.
The White Sox initiated a massive rebuilding process around the the time the new park went up, and some promising young players have worked their way through Charlotte in recent years. Lucas Giolito is the only one to have yet made an All-Star team, though Tim Anderson, Carlos Rodón, and Yoán Moncada have all made some noise. The next wave of Knights alums could make a splash yet–Eloy Jiménez, Michael Kopech, Luis Robert, and Nick Madrigal.
And this is where we stand as we look forward to the 2020 season. Charlotte is one of the strongest and most vital franchises in all of the minors, and the only threat to their existence is the occasional chat about MLB expansion into the Carolinas. For now, the Knights have a stable relationship with the White Sox and looked poised to thrive in the International League for many years.