Minor league baseball teams called the Suns operated in Jacksonville, Florida, in three separate eras, for a grand total of 48 seasons. The first Suns team played in the Triple-A International League from 1962-1968. The second Suns played in the Double-A Southern League from 1970-1984, and, following a six-season stint as the Jacksonville Expos, took on the Suns identity once again from 1991-2016.
The original Suns franchise came into being as a footnote in world history. Following the Cuban Revolution, the International League’s Havana Sugar Kings were abruptly moved from Cuba to Jersey City, New Jersey halfway through the 1960 season. This Jersey time would prove to be a stopgap arrangement. After the following season, the team was sold to the Cleveland Indians, who moved them to Jacksonville. The first Jacksonville Suns game was in 1962 at Sam W. Wolfson Baseball Park, which would be used until 2002.
The Suns’ original uniform set featured navy blue and orange colors, with a cursive J for a cap logo and a memorable patch featuring a smiling, sunglasses-clad sun. This Smiling Sun logo would be used until the 1980s.
For those seven years at the Triple-A level, the Suns were affiliated with the Indians, Cardinals, and Mets. In the first two years with the Indians, both Tommy John and Mike Cuellar ate up innings for Jacksonville. In ’64 and ’65, the team was affiliated with the Cardinals, and they once again featured Cuellar, who had been coincidentally traded to St. Louis. The Triple-A Suns, however, are best remembered for the three years they spent with the New York Mets.
The Mets era saw many key members of the later 1969 “Miracle Mets” championship roster pay their dues at Wolfson Park. Jacksonville alumni from this era include Hall of Fame hurlers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, as well as Tug McGraw, Amos Otis, and Jerry Koosman.
In the grand scheme, this would be little more than a time capsule. After the 1968 season, the Triple-A team was moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, where they became known as the Tidewater Tides. Tidewater became the Norfolk Tides in the nineties, and they play in the International League to this day.
The next version of the Jacksonville Suns began play in the Southern League in 1970. Though this was a new team by any conventional measure, it is clear that there was an effort to provide continuity of identity. Not only was the name the same, but both the J cap logo and Smiling Sun were retained.
One of the few images of the early-seventies Suns that I’ve found is a team photo from 1970. Judging from a 1970 team photo, orange was given a more prominent role in the uniform sets of these new Suns, and at least in ’70, it seems that the Smiling Sun logo was on the caps. During that first year, the new Suns were a co-op affiliate of both the Montréal Expos and the brand new Milwaukee Brewers. Tom Kelly had his last gasp as a player on that squad before switching tracks to become a very successful baseball manager.
In 1971 (which was incidentally the Dixie Association year) the Suns spent a single season back with Cleveland, their original parent club. Then came an affiliation with the Kansas City Royals from 1972 to 1983, and in that good chunk of time, future stars such as Frank White and Dan Quisenberry passed through Jacksonville.
In 1984, Jacksonville re-affiliated with Montréal, and in doing so, took on a COTOB identity. The Suns set for the rest of the decade, and the franchise played as the Jacksonville Expos.
The Suns peeked up from the horizon once again in the 1991 season. The Expos affiliation was broken, and the COTOB identity was necessarily scrapped. Seattle became the new parent club and Jacksonville returned to their roots.
A new Suns meant a new look, and the team adopted navy, red, and gold as team colors. By this time, the Hagerstown Suns had blatantly copied the Smiling Sun–with only slight modifications–so that particular logo never quite came back to Jacksonville. Throughout the nineties, the team wore home caps with a simplistic baseball superimposed on a sunburst and road caps with a sweeping gold letter J front and center.
The new Suns were affiliated with the Mariners through the 1994 season. Though they were a few years late for Ken Griffey Jr., they did have his brother Craig–as well as Aaron Boone, Mike Hampton, and a few other big league notables. Without a doubt, the biggest name during this time was Álex Rodríguez.
Jacksonville affiliated with the Detroit Tigers from 1995-2000, with guys like Phil Nevin, Gabe Kapler, Dave Roberts, Francisco Cordero, and Brandon Inge paying their dues at old Wolfson Park. In the year 2000, the team switched their colors to blue and yellow, and in some uniform sets, there wasn’t a hint of red.
From 2001-2008, the team was a Dodgers affiliate, a productive period for LA’s farm that raised many future MLB All-Stars, including Joel Hanrahan, Shane Victorino, Edwin Jackson, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, and the great Clayton Kershaw. During this era, the Suns unveiled sleek new uniforms and logos, but used the same navy/red/gold color scheme from the nineties. The new cap had the JS initials and a new logo was introduced with…perhaps a more grizzled version of the smiling sun. Also during the Dodgers years, the team created an alternate cap with JS arranged in white on Dodger blue.
The Suns signed on with the Marlins in 2009, and would remain with their in-state counterpart for the rest of their days. The alum list swelled during these years, with future MLB standouts like Giancarlo Stanton, Brad Hand, AJ Ramos, Nathan Eovaldi, Jake Marisnick, Marcell Ozuna, JT Realmuto, and Christian Yelich. Attendance soared during the Marlins years, and considering the size of Jacksonville, it should come as no surprise that the Suns topped the Southern League in average draw year-to-year.
In 2010, the Suns switched their team colors once more, this time to gold and black. They kept most of the previous logos and wordmarks, including the grizzled sun. They also introduced new elements, such as a bright yellow cap with J reminiscent of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ typeface.
The Suns went down for the final time after the 2016 season when it was unexpectedly announced that the team would be henceforth known as the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Perhaps some day we will see a fourth version of the Jacksonville Suns, but it looks like it’s peel-n-eat for the time being.