The Columbus Clippers of Columbus, Ohio, is a minor league baseball team that currently plays in the International League, serving as Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. The Clippers have been an even-keeled franchise in the International League since their founding in the 1970s, and have also been an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, and Washington Nationals.
At the time when the Clippers raised their mast, metro Columbus had been devoid of professional baseball since 1970, when the International League’s Columbus Jets had moved from Ohio’s capital to West Virginia’s, playing as the original version of the Charleston Charlies. During those fallow years, Columbus’s local governments secured taxpayer funding for an extensive renovation of the city’s Great Depression-built Cooper Stadium. In the lead-up to the 1977 season, the Charleston franchise was moved back to Columbus. Incidentally, the “Charlies” identity was seamlessly continued when the IL’s Memphis Blues were moved to Charleston in the same off-season. That franchise, after a remarkably byzantine series of relocations and rebrandings, now plays as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Under the watchful eye of General Manager George Sisler, Jr., son of the storied Hall of Famer, the transition back to Columbus was a rousing success. In the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, the story of the Clippers’ inception is highlighted as an early harbinger of what the Encyclopedia calls “The Revival” of minor league baseball: “In 1977, Columbus, Ohio, without baseball for six years, saw its county government pump more than five million dollars into its old park, refurbishing the stadium and bringing back a team. It was a remarkable sum for a government to spend on a minor league park, but the results were immediate. Seventh place Columbus drew 457,251 fans, a total almost unheard of since the boom days of the late 1940s.”
Sisler and company organized a committee tasked with establishing a brand identity. Reportedly, hundreds of possible names were submitted to the local newspaper, and the committee narrowed it down and selected “Clippers.” Reasons cited for the selection include alliteration and the connection between Columbus (as in Christopher Columbus) and a nautical theme. It was a curious choice for a city in the center of a state in the center of the nation, but a successful one nonetheless. It should be noted that Columbus’s use of Clippers predates that of the NBA franchise (then in San Diego) by one year, and the two names have coexisted for several decades now.
The Clippers, perhaps riding a wave of post-Bicentennial patriotism, chose red, white, and blue as team colors. The team commissioned a sharp-looking logo (for its time) consisting of a clipper ship with sails supported by a giant baseball bat and a ball in place of a crow’s nest. The ship’s multi-colored sails, proudly swelling with air, propelled the ship forward at a 45 degree angle of progress. The ship was often seen encircled by a letter C for Columbus–similar to the Chicago Cubs’ letter but more ovaline. The logo appeared on the chest of pinstriped home white uniforms and on the sleeve of powder blue double-knit road tops. Original caps were blue with the oval C, sans ship logo.
The first MLB team to captain the Clippers was the Pittsburgh Pirates. The nautical connection between the two teams may cause some to think the pairing was an influence on Columbus’s identity, but avast, no, this was a case of a “non-DimDer with incidental affiliation.” The Pirates/Clippers connection only lasted two seasons, but those happened to have been in the lead-up to Pittsburgh’s run at “We Are Family” Championship glory. Some of the young players who passed through Columbus en route to notable big league careers are Al Holland, Don Robinson, Ed Whitson, and Pascual Pérez.
In 1979, on the heels of another World Series run, the New York Yankees signed on with the Clippers in what would be a 28-year marriage that proved immediately successful. Led by future MLB All Stars like Dámaso García, Ron Davis, and Dave Righetti, Columbus sailed to their first of three consecutive Governors’ Cup championships. The Eighties were a bountiful decade for prospects, and included the likes of Don Mattingly, Buck Showalter, Otis Nixon, Tim Burke, Stan Javier, José Rijo, Bob Tewksbury, Doug Drabek, Jay Buhner, Roberto Kelly, Randy Velarde, Al Leiter, Bernie Williams, and even football star Deion Sanders. As they were a Triple-A team, the Clippers also hosted last gasps for washed up baseballers like Bert Campaneris, who donned the striped pillbox cap and olde tyme baseball uniforms in the International League’s centennial celebration in ’83.
Throughout their first full decade, Columbus had a remarkably consistent branding aesthetic–made easy by the fact that their original pinstripes matched the Yankees’ preferred home look. Eventually some changes came into play, such as switching the road jerseys from powder blue to New York-esque gray and midnight blue (almost black), but the main colors and logo remained intact for what is an eon by minor league standards. But as the eighties gave way to the promotional and branding boom of the nineties, some updates were in order. Firstly, the oval C on the cap was switched out for the full logo–the C with the clipper ship tucked into it. Navy blue jersey tops were used here and there. And in 1990, the Clippers introduced a swashbuckling mustached mascot named Captain Clipper. Apparently he terrified children. Columbus, in a midguided attempt to make him more friendly, crafted a new, clean-shaven face for the Captain that made him look like a psychotically-smiling doll come to life. Mercifully, the Captain was phased out in the mid-90s in favor of Lou Seal, a lovable pinniped that exists (in updated form) to this day, where he prowls the park with a parrot sidekick.
Oh, and there were players. The new decade brought more Yankees prospects to aging Cooper Stadium, including Jim Leyritz, Brad Ausmus, J.T. Snow, Bob Wickman, and Sterling Hitchcock. 1994 was a watershed year for Columbus alums, as two future Hall of Famers–young Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera–stopped by on their way to their Bronx debuts, as well as standouts like Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. The Yankees were building a dynasty, and the Clippers were happy to be towed along for the ride.
In 1996 (in which Columbus won their 7th Governors’ Cup) they underwent a relatively conservative brand redesign. The ship logo, though still facing the same direction, was refreshed for the digital age. A second row of sails made the ship more clipper-like and elegant, though the lines were thick and easily reproducible on replica caps and print media. The baseball bat on the ship was unmistakably standing in for the bowsprit rather than ambiguously hovering on the deck. The baseball design was moved down to the sails, which were changed to white with the ball’s seam pattern on them. That seam pattern was about the only hint of red in the new color scheme–navy blue, royal blue, and silver. The C in the logo was fully rounded–very Cubs-like–yet still enclosed the ship. Eventually, some alternate logos were made, including one with the C-logo inside of a ship’s steering wheel and another with an italicized C with the ship superimposed over it.
Some of the standout players who rounded out the decade and played into the new millennium include Mike Lowell, Hideki Irabu, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Jake Westbrook, Robinson Canó, Melky Cabrera, and Tyler Clippard. But by the mid-Aughts, the Yankees had different plans. Cooper Stadium was over seventy years old at that point, and even with the costly renovations in the 1970s, New York was getting a wandering eye. In the 2006 PDC season, they signed on with the IL’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons franchise, renaming them in their image. The Yankees eventually bought a controlling interest in the Pennsylvania team and got a new stadium built. They now play as the RailRiders, the latest iteration of the old franchise that left Columbus in 1970.
The Clippers, in need of a new MLB parent club, signed on with the Washington Nationals in their early years. On the diamond, this was an unremarkable two-season stint that pre-dated the Nats’ prospect surge by a few years. Bret Boone briefly came out of retirement to take a few hacks alongside his brother Aaron. Some other somewhat notables during these years were Marco Estrada, Joel Hanrahan, and Craig Stammen. There were some slight uniform tweaks during the Washington years. A splash of red found its way back into the set, it became more common to see the italicized C logo on caps, and new uniforms copied the Nationals’ old beveled, arching font. But it was all very short lived. In 2007, the Franklin County government broke ground on a brand new ballpark, and the local fanbase anticipated another grand era of Clippers baseball on the horizon, with hopes set higher than a random affiliation with an unfamiliar MLB team on the east coast.
In the 2008 PDC season, the Cleveland Indians broke with the Buffalo Bisons (who went to the Mets in sort of a win-win) and signed on with the Triple-A club in their state capital. The all-Ohio connection dovetailed with the opening of Huntington Park and a resurgence in fan interest. To commemorate the changes, the Clippers revamped their visual brand. They kept the same basic color scheme, emphasizing the navy blue and silver, but swapped the royal for a bright light blue. Red was retained as a alternate color. The clipper ship was updated yet again, though the 45 degree angle was maintained. This time, the baseball elements (bat, ball seams, etc.) of the ship were eliminated, and the new clipper was more of a menacing battleship-with-sails. The italicized version of the C was kept, but altered to be more angular and hooked at the top, with the curve hinting at the shape of a full sail. The hook-like C became the primary cap logo, though another emblem was designed with the C cradling an anchor.
As the winds of fate would have it, this proved to be the most productive era in Cleveland’s farm system in a generation. Many core players on the 2016 AL Pennant-winning team spent time in the state capital, and other one-time Clippers have gone on to star in recent years for Cleveland and other clubs. Some of the bigger names are Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, Jesús Aguilar, Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber.
This is where we are today. The Columbus Clippers are (and have been) one of the most successful minor league teams in all of baseball, and a model Triple-A team. They typically rank near the top of the list of per-game average attendance among all minor league teams, and fans have the opportunity to become familiar with young players before they make the trip up the road to the big league club, as well as see familiar faces on rehab stints. We doff our tricorn hats and salute the Columbus Clippers, an anchor franchise in minor league baseball.