Exactly how common are COTOB identities compared to unique identities, and how has this changed over time? I’ve given this a good amount of thought over the years, and decided to go ahead and crunch some numbers. The anecdotal observations of myself and others include things like “there are so many unique identities these days” and “in the Eighties, just about every team took their parent club name.” These were some of the assumptions I had going into this project that I wanted to test.
I decided to pull my samples by taking the full measure of one year within a given decade, starting with the 1960s in the post “Upheaval” period. My goal was to get a sample from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s, with equal duration between the years. Since my 60s sample had to happen after 1963 and my 20-teens sample had to be before 2018 (time of this writing), I chose to pull from the years ending in 5 within each decade–’65, ’75, ’85, ’95, ’05, and ’15. Picking from the middle of the decade is a nice way to get a cross-section as well.
For each sample year, I used Baseball Reference’s pages of minor league affiliates within a given year, such as this page for 1965. These pages list every minor league affiliate for each MLB team that year. It should be noted that this doesn’t include every team to have played within National Agreement/affiliated ecosystem, since the earlier decades would typically include a few independent or co-op teams per year. So for this study, these teams weren’t included. Some day, I may undertake the painstaking process of adding these teams in, but I don’t expect it would change things more than a percentage point or two, and we’re looking big picture here anyway.
Each team identity within a sample year was sorted into one of three categories: 1. COTOB, 2. Unique, and 3. Other. COTOB in this sense means a straight copy of the parent club’s moniker/identity, with a clear connection between the name origin and MLB affiliation. Unique means that the team has a stand-alone identity, and was, by all appearances, uninfluenced by the identity of any MLB team identity. The Other category generally means that the team name is either one (or both) of two things:
- Diminutive/derivative, or DimDer for short. DimDers can take many forms, but the simplest explanation is that they are identities which are unique/different from the parent club, but are clearly influenced by the parent club. Examples of diminutives include the Moultrie Colt .22’s (for Houston Colt .45’s) and Rockford Cubbies (for Cubs). Derivatives include the Memphis Redbirds (for Cardinals) and Salem Avalanche (for Rockies). Furthermore, I consider a team to be a DimDer if the minor league team takes their name from a player who made their name with the MLB affiliate, so long as there is a name origin connection with that parent club. Two current examples of this are the Aberdeen IronBirds (for Cal Ripken Jr./Orioles), and Round Rock Express (for Nolan Ryan/Rangers and Astros). It can venture into the subjective at times, but I feel that I have a reasonably clear sense of when something is classified as a DimDer.
- Vestigial COTOB. This rare phenomenon occurs when an COTOB (or DimDer) continues to use the same name even when they get a new parent club. An example of this happening with a straight COTOB is the San Antonio Brewers, who took on the identity of their one-year (1972) parent club, yet continued to operated as the Brewers until 1977, despite having the Indians and Rangers as parent clubs. An example of a vestigial DimDer is the aforementioned Salem Avalanche, who took on the regionally-inappropriate moniker when linking up with the Rockies in 1995, and kept it during their time with the Astros (2003-2008).
In 1965, there were 109 total affiliated minor league teams. Of these 109, 46 were COTOB and 61 were unique. There were also two DimDer identities–the Columbus Confederate Yankees and the Clinton C-Sox. The significant majority of unique identities is a hint of how the minor were once a veritable cornucopia of fun nicknames. In ’65, there were a few leagues that are now defunct, including the Northern League and the Western Carolinas League. The FSL’s Sarasota Sun Sox, despite being with the ChiSox in ’65, do not qualify as a DimDer because the identity was forged when they were a farm club of the Kansas City A’s.
By the seventies, the minors were in an advanced stage of what the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball called the “Subsistence Years,” and indeed, 1975 only saw 102 teams take the field. In the span of only ten years, the identity makeup took a swift turn. Of the 102, 60 were COTOB and 39 were unique–a near exact reversal of the ’65 proportion. I remember reading once that there was an unsuccessful movement in the late 70s/early 80s to have all the minors be “complex leagues” wherein all of a team’s affiliates simply play in one location, such as a spring training facility. There were three Other category teams in ’75–the Knoxville Sox (DimDer), San Antonio Brewers (vestigial COTOB), and Newark Co-Pilots (vestigial DimDer). The Clinton Pilots, despite having been affiliated with the Seattle Pilots in ’69, do not qualify as a vestigial COTOB because they had the Pilots identity before Seattle came along.
By 1985, the minors were just a few years away from the revival era and marketing revolution of the late eighties/early nineties. The total number of affiliated teams jumped up to 129, and indeed, the percentage of unique identities had ticked up a bit from 1975. The majority (56%) of teams were still COTOBs, but the gap was starting to close quickly. The three DimDers in ’85 were the Louisville Redbirds (Cardinals), Niagara Falls Sox (White Sox), and Charlotte O’s (Orioles). Another Redbirds team, based in Salem, Virginia, took the field this year, but they were never affiliated with St. Louis.
Oh, what a difference ten years makes. By the mid-nineties, the total number of affiliated teams had ballooned to 150 and unique identities had shot up from 42% to 64%, wresting away the majority of teams from the clutches of the COTOB. By ’95, companies like New Era were hawking their minor league merchandise coast-to-coast, and the more unique the identity, the better. There were four Other category teams this year: the Redbirds, Salem Avalanche (DimDer, Rockies), Rockford Cubbies (DimDer, Cubs), and Idaho Falls Braves (vestigial COTOB).
By the aughts, the total number of teams had settled at the current 160, and unique identities had jumped up an additional nine percentage points. There were five Other category teams yet again. The Cardinals had switched their Triple-A team from Louisville to Memphis, but retained the Redbirds moniker. The Avalanche had switched affiliation to the Astros, meaning their identity was now the rare vestigial DimDer. The Diamondbacks’ Triple-A team was now the Tucson Sidewinders (also called the Baby ‘Backs) who shared the snake motif and color palette as Arizona. Two new teams had become player-based DimDers–the Aberdeen IronBirds (Cal Ripken Jr./Orioles) and the Round Rock Express (Nolan Ryan/Rangers).
In the most recent sample, the percentage of unique identities had ticked up once again, from 74% in ’05 to 78%. In the Other category, the Redbirds, IronBirds, and Express were joined by the Reading Fightin’ Phils (DimDer, Phillies) and the Lakeland Flying Tigers (Detroit). The Sidewinders had slithered back to their cave by this time.
Though I wasn’t bowled over by any of the results, there were a few points that surprised me a bit.
- The 1970s and 1980s were not as ubiquitously COTOB as they are often made out to be. Though they were the majority, it is much closer to 50/50 than just a sea of COTOB. Even in the lowest point for unique monikers, there was still teams like the Mud Hens, Diablos, and Tourists–more than enough to carry the torch until the Uniques regained control.
- It’s a little shocking to see how pronounced the rise of unique identities has been. For instance, in the span of twenty years from 1985 to 2005, Uniques shot from 42% to 74%.
- It’s also significant to note how the rise of Uniques continues, despite inertia in the Appalachian League and other pockets throughout the minors. It makes one wonder if there will ever be a COTOB backlash.
Despite running into some natural limits, the trend toward the unique continues its march forward in the Brandiose era. There was a time many years ago when the occasional lovable new identity (such as the Carolina Mudcats) would get recognition through articles in USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Nowadays, each new season features a few new wacky identities, and just about each change goes viral on social media. We may see a saturation point, and in recent years, there have been a few new identities (South Bend Cubs, Oklahoma City Dodgers, etc.) that took the conservative COTOB approach. Still, for the 2018 season, the Uniques had ticked up one percentage point (to 79%) from 2015, and there are a mere 28 COTOBs remaining among the 160 total teams.
In the near future, we can expect yet another small tick upward. Reviewing the Endangered Teams list, it’s clear that the Buies Creek Astros and Helena Brewers will be kaput by 2019. The Syracuse situation is hard to read, but there’s certainly a chance that they offset things a bit by going the COTOB route. And, of course, there are always surprises.
In the bigger picture, we are reaching a point where COTOBs themselves are becoming endangered. The Appalachian League, and their 10 perennial COTOBs, form a huge chunk of the total remaining COTOBs. Though there are no indications of the Appy League breaking tradition (as they once did, in 1995 with the River City Rumblers) the league does have a new president in 2018. Could regime change mean a marketing bonanza?
Of the remaining 18 non-Appy COTOBs, I’ll take a stab at their likelihood to change to unique identities.
Unlikely to change anytime soon: Iowa Cubs, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Springfield Cardinals, San Jose Giants, Palm Beach Cardinals, South Bend Cubs
Likely to remain, but could change based on other ongoing changes: Pawtucket Red Sox (could move, and move could bring new identity), Dunedin Blue Jays (stadium/complex renovation could mean new brand)
Neutral/Inertia: Salem Red Sox, St. Lucie Mets, Connecticut Tigers, Grand Junction Rockies.
Wouldn’t be surprised to see change: Potomac Nationals (likely to be moving within region, but name-change could go either way), Mississippi Braves/Rome Braves (Atlanta is loosening its COTOB grip–see Stripers, Fire Frogs, etc.), Staten Island Yankees
Expected to change within a year or two: Buies Creek Astros, Helena Brewers
SUMMER 2019 UPDATE:
Well, a few things have changed since this “Looking Forward” section was first posted. Following the 2018 season, we lost two COTOBs (Helena Brewers and Buies Creek Astros) but also gained one in the Syracuse Chiefs. That brings the current total (as of this writing) to 17 non-Appy COTOBs. Also, a few other changes make me want to update the list above. Changes are in red.
Unlikely to change anytime soon: Syracuse Mets, Iowa Cubs, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Springfield Cardinals, San Jose Giants, Palm Beach Cardinals, South Bend Cubs
Neutral/Inertia: Salem Red Sox, Grand Junction Rockies, Dunedin Blue Jays (stadium issue resolved).
Wouldn’t be surprised to see change: Pawtucket Red Sox (will move, and move could bring new identity), St. Lucie Mets, Mississippi Braves/Rome Braves (Atlanta is loosening its COTOB grip–see Stripers, Fire Frogs, etc.), Staten Island Yankees
Expected to change within a year or two: Potomac Nationals (moving, getting a new name by 2021), Connecticut Tigers (getting a new name by 2020).
Things are definitely getting more unique. Right now, we’re at only about 17% straight COTOB, and that includes the Appalachian League.
I’m going to resist the temptation to make a specific number prediction for 2025. After all, there could be new MLB teams by then. I will say that I would be shocked to see the Uniques go anywhere but upward in total percentage.
On that note, I’ll close with this multi-decade line graph for you to consider.
Note: I did this study in the early days of the MLG site, and as I’ve researched more teams, primarily while compiling the DIA, a few have been reclassified. It’s not enough to move the needle in any significant way, so I’ll let the article and graphs stand as they are for the time being, and simply keep a running list of the reclassified teams right here:
Erie SeaWolves. Reclassified from Unique to Other. I consider the SeaWolves to be a DimDer of the Pittsburgh Pirates, since they were with the Pirates at their inception. This has a minor impact on the 1995, 2005, and 2015 numbers.
Evansville Triplets. This one is a bit debatable since there were multiple reasons for the Triplets nickname, but still, I consider it to be a DimDer of the Minnesota Twins. The other two reasons? 1.) Triplets and Triple-A and 2.) the tri-state area of Indiana-Illinois-Kentucky. This would only have the slightest impact since the Evansville Triplets were only around from 1970-1984, and by ’75, they were a Tigers affiliate and thus, a (sort of) vestigial DimDer.
Rochester Red Wings. Despite being aware of the Red Wings for nearly my entire life, I never knew until recently that the year (1929) the nickname was born, they also began an affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ding ding, DimDer! Who knew? Again, this would have only a minor impact on the year samples, with Unique ceding one entry to Other–in this case, for each of the six sample years. Still, not enough to move the needle more than 0 to 1 percentage points.