New Britain Rock Cats
The New Britain Rock Cats of New Britain, Connecticut, played 21 seasons in the Eastern League. For all but their final season, the team was the Double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
The Rock Cats identity was born after the 1994 season, when the Boston Red Sox and the New Britain Red Sox went their separate ways. The New Britain franchise needed not only a new parent club, which they found with the Twins, but also a new, original identity. In the 1995 season, the team began identifying as the Hardware City Rock Cats, and kept the nickname-for-place-name through the ’96 season before abandoning it in favor of the proper city name. “Hardware City” is New Britain’s nickname due to the city being the home of both the Stanley and Black & Decker tool companies. The Hardware City Rock Cats and New Britain Rock Cats easily meet the 3 of 4 rule, and as such, I consider them to be same identity.
According to this article, the team turned to Connecticut-based cartoonist Guy Gilchrist to furnish the visual brand. Gilchrist was most famous for his work on the Nancy comic strip, and he also designed the iconic logos of two other Eastern League teams–the Portland Sea Dogs and Norwich Navigators. For New Britain, Gilchrist put together a logo featuring a 50s-era Rock and Roll cat named Rocky–complete with a leather jacket, shades, and a pompadour. In the original Hardware City primary logo, Rocky appears to be strumming a barre chord on a guitar that features home plate as the bridge and baseballs for tuning pegs. In the background, a building forms the letter H and a crescent moon makes a C. On the cap logo, the crescent moon was phased out and a simple letter C appeared on the on the opposite corner of the H-shaped building.
While the team only played as Hardware City for two years, Rocky became synonymous with their team identity. The primary logo switched to simply Rocky’s head in front of an NB for New Britain. By downplaying the musical elements in the logo, the meaning behind the Rock Cats nickname was further obscured–blending right in with other new minor league identities in the nineties (BayBears, Hillcats, etc.) that used the natural feature + animal formula. New Britain was content to keep the same name and color scheme for their entire lifespan.
On the field, the Twins affiliation proved to be an embarrassment of riches throughout much of the Rock Cats’ existence. Many of the biggest names on Minnesota’s playoff teams in the early aughts came through New Britain, including Torii Hunter, A.J. Pierzinski, Matt Lawton, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, and Doe Mientkiewicz. Another Rock Cat alum who rose through the ranks in the nineties, and suited up in the first post-Hardware City season, was none other than David Ortiz.
One famous story in Rock Cat lore centers around a day in 1997 in which a young Torii Hunter played catch with a 7-year-old Rock Cats fan from New Britain. The kid, a pint-sized George Springer, would use this experience to fuel his interest in the sport, and go on to become an All-Star and World Champion.
In the 1998 film Major League: Back to the Minors, the Rock Cats have a brief cameo. The protagonist of the film (played by Scott Bakula) goes to a game in order to scout a young prospect in the Minnesota Twins’ system. Though it is accurate to depict the Rock Cats as a Double-A Twins’ affiliate, the movie was shot in South Carolina, and Rock Cats logos were plastered up among a backdrop of deep south foliage. The faux-opponent in the game was the Class-A South Atlantic League’s Cape Fear Crocs.
As the Rock Cats rolled into the new millennium, the Twins continued the steady stream of prospects. Fresh faces in New Britain included Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Kyle Lohse, Jason Bartlett, Michael Cuddyer, Pat Neshek, Denard Span, Matt Garza, and Francisco Liriano.
In 2007, the team went through a modest redesign of their visual aesthetic. A new version of Rocky was created, with his sunglasses removed and pompadour hiding underneath a ballcap. The rock-n-roll was gone from Rocky, but by that point, the cat could stand on its own. In the primary logo, his face was obscured by his glove, as if he is a pitcher waiting for the sign. The new cap logo featured a cat’s paw formed by the letters RC. The Rock Cats would wear this set through the remainder of their years.
In their final stretch, it would not have been easy to peg New Britain as an obvious candidate for relocation. Their attendance was respectable, and typically in the middle of the pack within the vital Eastern League. Higher profile prospects continued to trickle in, including Brian Dozier, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Sanó, Byron Buxton, Wilson Ramos, Jorge Polanco, José Berríos, and Liam Hendriks. They kept creative on the marketing side, notably producing a cap with an interlocking HC (for Hardware City) in a style similar to that their parent club’s TC cap; as well as a cap with the NB initials arranged to form a symbol very similar to the eighties/nineties-era Twins’ M cap.
Considering all these factors, it came as surprise when it was announced in the middle of the 2014 season that the team would eventually be moving to nearby Hartford. Following the news, the Rock Cats and Twins broke their affiliation in the Fall 2014 PDC shake-up, making for an even twenty seasons of partnership between the two clubs. Rocky and company landed (appropriately enough) with the Colorado Rockies for their last lame-duck season in 2015. As brief as the Rockies era was, it did feature some future major league standouts like Trevor Story and David Dahl.
In their final years, New Britain also commissioned an alternate logo with Rocky in an Elvis jumpsuit. Designing that logo may have been a waste of money, but it was a neat way to tie back to the early days of the rockin’ Rock Cats. As expected, they moved after that Colorado season, and the franchise now plays as the Hartford Yard Goats.