The Louisville Redbirds of Louisville, Kentucky, played seventeen seasons in two minor leagues–the defunct American Association and the International League. For the Redbirds’ first sixteen seasons, they served as Triple-A affiliate of their namesake St. Louis Cardinals. In their final season, they were with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Before the Redbirds, the city of Louisville had a storied baseball history–including a short major league stint–with the various versions of teams called the Colonels. The Louisville Colonels had most recently been a Boston affiliate in 1972, playing in Louisville’s Fairgrounds Stadium. In a bit of baseball trivia, that park nearly became the home of the Kansas City A’s in the sixties, but the American League vetoed Charlie O’Finley’s relocation plan. After the Colonels were moved to Rhode Island, becoming the Pawtucket Red Sox in ’73, the city of Louisville was devoid of pro baseball for nine years.
After the 1981 season, the American Association’s Springfield (IL) Redbirds franchise, a DimDer Cardinals’ affiliate, were moved to Fairgrounds Stadium. The re-christened Cardinal Stadium became the home of the new Louisville Redbirds. The “Redbirds” nickname used by Springfield was a bit serendipitous for Louisville. In that time period, taking the same team nickname as the MLB parent club was the trend, but “Louisville Cardinals” wasn’t an option. In a weird coincidence, it was already being used by the local university, and the Louisville Cardinals and Louisville Redbirds shared a ballpark.
Beyond the name, Louisville managed to signal their affiliation while maintaining some originality. While cardinal red was a must in their color scheme, they eschewed navy blue in favor of a bright royal. Out of the gate, they introduced a logo that was based on St. Louis’s batting bird, but looked like a younger and friendlier sort of cardinal. Hovering in space near the twenty-something bird was a fleur-de-lis, a symbol that is apparently associated with the city of Louisville. The fleur also appeared in its simple form on large, sewn-on sleeve patches in the early years of the Redbirds. Later uniforms hewed close to that of the parent club, including a riff on St. Louie’s birds-on-bat wordmark. Throughout the course of their seventeen seasons, Louisville used four different emblems on their caps. The first was an artfully-intertwined L and R that almost resembled a tangle of barbed wire. The second, which was only used for the 1988 season, was a very basic block L. From 1989-1992, the Redbirds had an elegant cursive capital L, looping on both ends. From ’93 through the rest of their days, they put a simplified version of their primary logo–the old batting bird with fleur–on the caps, which were variously red, royal blue, and even white.
As one would expect from a Triple-A team, the Redbirds suited up a respectable list of future big-leaguers who would go on to star for St. Louis and other clubs. While there are no Hall of Famers in the bunch, there were many solid future All Stars and award-winners such as Willie McGee, Andy Van Slyke, Todd Worrell, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton, Tom Pagnozzi, Joe Magrane, Lance Johnson, Jeff Fassero, Ken Hill, Todd Zeile, Bernard Gilkey, Ray Lankford, Brian Jordan, Dmitri Young, and Matt Morris. Being a Triple-A locale in relative proximity to the parent club, Louisville also hosted some big-name players on rehab stints or trying to hold onto the dream. Of these, the most notable are César Cedeño, Dan Driessen, and Andrés Galarraga.
The minor leagues went through some major changes in the 1990s, due in no small part to the two rounds of expansion that MLB underwent in the decade. In the run-up to the 1998 season, the Triple-A level expanded by two in order to accommodate the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays, and in a concurrent move, the American Association was dissolved. The eight teams in the circuit were allocated to either the increasingly-misnomered Pacific Coast League or, as in the case of Louisville, the International League. One of the new Triple-A expansion teams was the Memphis Redbirds, created under the watchful eye of St. Louis. Louisville, poised to lose their namesake, apparently did not have enough time to craft a unique team identity. In the 1998 season, the Triple-A level had two teams called the Redbirds, and only one was a Cardinals’ affiliate. Louisville played one season as a rare “vestigial DimDer” affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Ironically, 1998 was the first season that Milwaukee was a member of the National League Central, meaning that high-level Brew Crew prospects spent that season playing for a team that took its name and visual aesthetic from one of Milwaukee’s new NL divisional rivals. Ronnie Belliard and Geoff Jenkins were the two future MLB All Stars on that erroneously-named Redbirds roster of Brewers prospects.
By 1999, Louisville was ready with a brand new, very nineties identity. The Louisville RiverBats, bedecked in purple and green, spent one season with Milwaukee before finding a regional partner in Cincinnati. A shiny new ballpark–Louisville Slugger Field–was opened in 2000. By 2002, the RiverBats had removed the “river” from their moniker, and took on a simplified name that had a clearer connection with Louisville Slugger’s famous product. In today’s world, the Louisville Bats are the Reds’ International League affiliate, and the Memphis Redbirds remain with the Cardinals. The Louisville Redbirds, meanwhile, flew off to a distant branch of minor league lore long ago.