The Syracuse Chiefs of Syracuse, New York, was a team identity that existed for a cumulative total of 72 years within the affiliated minors. Teams called the Chiefs played in two leagues and in four distinct eras, variously serving as a farm club for the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, Washington Senators, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Washington Nationals.
In the early days of baseball, the Syracuse Stars competed in various circuits, including a stint in the National League. In the twenties, the Stars played in the International League before being moved to Montréal to become the famed Royals. Another Stars club reformed in the New York-Penn League and played for a year and a half before old Star Park collapsed.
Syracuse was without baseball for a few years as fans waited for the brand new Municipal Stadium (later renamed MacArthur Stadium) was completed. Following the 1933 season, the new park found and occupant when the International League’s Jersey City Skeeters moved to upstate New York. The new team called themselves the Syracuse Chiefs. It’s possible that they intentionally chose the name in honor of the local Onondaga nation, the heartland of the Iroquois Confederacy, but more likely, they chose it for similar reasons that many teams chose names like “Chiefs,” “Braves,” or “Indians”–it was simply popular at the time.
The first Syracuse Chiefs team took to the field in 1934. Though the farm system concept was fairly new in those days, the Chiefs served as a top level affiliate of the Boston Red Sox for their first three seasons. The biggest name alum from the Boston days who would go on to a notable MLB career is Babe Dahlgren, though the Chiefs also had former MLB standouts on their roster, such as Andy High and Ray Starr.
Those three years were followed by three more with the Cincinnati Reds, who were building toward a championship dynasty. As such, this was a productive period that saw several future All-Stars pass through Syracuse en route to Cincinnati, including Frank McCormick, Eddie Miller, Eddie Joost, and Johnny Vander Meer.
We are lucky enough to have images from the early days of the Chiefs, and it appears that they favored a conservative visual aesthetic. Jerseys were the typical spool-lapel styles of the era, with the team name sprawled across the chest in a serifed, old west typeface. A sleeve patch featured the profile of Native chief, fairly similar to the Boston Braves’ logo. Ebbets Field Flannels recreated the patch in recent years, and their version suggests that the patch was multi-colored. Caps had a simple small letter S, in a dark color over dark color crowns–with the letter barely discernible in black-and-white photographs.
The Chiefs had a one-year stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1940, followed by an unaffiliated season just prior to the breakout of World War II. The Reds returned in ‘42, however, and remained with Syracuse through the decade. The biggest names from this stretch with Cincy are Hank Sauer, Jim Konstanty, Ewell Blackwell, and Joe Nuxhall–who pitched for Syracuse the year after making his historic one-game major league debut as a 15-year-old in 1944. In 1946, the Chiefs fell to Jackie Robinson and the Montréal Royals in the International League’s Governors’ Cup Championship.
In the late forties, Syracuse had some new uniforms sewn together. The old west font on the home jerseys was replaced by a simple cursive rendering of Chiefs, and for a few years, the sleeve patch disappeared. The S on the cap logo was made with white felt, making it much more visible. This clean look was short-lived, though, and by the end of the decade, the patch was back, more stripes were added throughout the set, and the cap logo was a larger, block-style S.
The fifties was a tumultuous decade for the Syracuse Chiefs, to say the least. The Reds abandoned them again in 1950, and they were without a parent for two seasons. In spite of this, there were a handful of future MLB standouts on those independent rosters, including Vic Power, Hank Foiles, and Bob Keegan. Syracuse briefly linked up with the in-state Yankees in ‘53, and then the Phillies for the following two seasons. Alums from the Phillies years include Jack Sanford and Turk Farrell.
Following the 1955 season, the franchise was uprooted and moved to southern Florida, where they became the first iteration of the Miami Marlins. Syracuse was dropped from the International League, but this would prove to be only a temporary arrangement.
For the 1956 season, the Chiefs found a new temporary home in the Eastern League, taking a step down on the minor league ladder. It’s hard to say if this was a franchise relocation or simply a case of one team ending and another beginning, but the Chiefs took the place of a version of the Elmira Pioneers.
Syracuse forged an affiliation with the Detroit Tigers, which lasted through their Eastern League days. The one alum worth mentioning from this short stretch is Bob Shaw, who was on the 1962 American League All-Star roster. Though I’ve yet to find any player images that are specifically from the Eastern League era, a piece of letterhead shows a Native American logo that would be used by other iterations of the Chiefs.
While we’re on the subject of Native American imagery, it bears mentioning that the by the 1950’s, much of Syracuse’s branding was derogatory in nature. Programs and scorecards were particularly offensive, with the scorecard at left being an exception to the trend. This continued for a good chunk of the middle part of the 20th century.
In the middle of the ‘57 season, the Chiefs were moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where they finished the season as the Allentown Chiefs. That Eastern League franchise would move to new cities several times over the ensuing sixty-ish years, and they now play as the Hartford Yard Goats. Syracuse, meanwhile, was without affiliated ball for three years.
The Chiefs were reborn in the International League following the 1960 season, when the Montréal Royals franchise was moved south of the border to Syracuse. Ironically, this was the same franchise that had been in Syracuse (as the Stars) up until the late twenties. The new team didn’t hesitate to take back the old Chiefs identity, and one would be forgiven for not noticing the five-year gap in the middle of the century when the International League did not have a team called the Syracuse Chiefs.
The new Triple-A Chiefs wore pinstriped uniforms with the team name in red cursive script across the chest. A sleeve patch featured a Native chief in headdress that was very similar (if not identical) to what the Milwaukee Braves had on their sleeves at the time. Caps had a simple block letter S rendered in red.
That first season, they linked up with the brand new Minnesota Twins, who had just relocated themselves. That ’61 roster was well-stocked, with future All-Stars Mike Cuellar and Rich Rollins coming through as youngsters, plus last gasps for former All-Stars Bob Porterfield and Rip Repulski.
Syracuse must have had a thing for expansion teams, because in their second season, the Twins were gone, in favor of a co-op squad consisting of members of both the expansion New York Mets and the similarly fresh second Washington Senators franchise. The one player worth mentioning from that co-op roster is Ed Kranepool–future All-Star and key member of the Miracle Mets.
In 1963, the Chiefs were back with the Detroit Tigers. Shortly thereafter, they introduced new uniforms that were clearly influenced by their parent club. Their new logo, which appeared on caps and some jerseys, was a simple old English S, similar to Detroit’s D. This affiliation lasted four years, and generated many core components of the Tigers’ ’68 championship squad: Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, Don Wert, Pat Dobson, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, and John Hiller.
1967 brought the New York Yankees, who had last left Syracuse in ‘53. They kept the same basic branding scheme that they had had with the Tigers, though midnight blue and pinstripes were worked into the mix, and the old English S was refined a bit. This relationship lasted a solid eleven seasons, and was mutually beneficial from a geographic standpoint. The Yanks were able to keep tabs on their prospects and send players to Syracuse as they worked through their ails and issues, including Jim Bouton, who spent the Summer of Love upstate–not long before the events of Ball Four.
Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry both suited up for Syracuse during the Yankees days, as well as other future All-Stars like Stan Bahnsen, Ellie Rodriguez, Tippy Martinez, and Scott McGregor. Hall-of-Famer Bobby Cox played for the Chiefs in 1970, before transitioning to a much more successful career as a manager. He returned to Syracuse to manage the Triple-A club from 1973-1976.
In 1978, the Chiefs linked up with the still-fresh Toronto Blue Jays, and this affiliation had some real staying power. The Chiefs altered their brand to a Jays-esque blue and white look with some red detailing. A version of the old Chief logo moved from the sleeve to a more prominent place in the center of polyester pullover jerseys—white for home and powder blue for the road. The logo also found its way onto the center of contrasting blue and white panel caps similar to what Toronto wore in those days. In ’81, the team must have had a tight budget, because they wore very cheap-looking mesh jerseys that were white with blue sleeves and had the full team name on the chest spelled out in generic lettering. Also, the color red disappeared from their uniforms altogether, with a the chief logo stamped in all-blue on trucker caps. By ’82, some of their previous styles reappeared, plus they added a new dark-blue jersey with Chiefs in cursive typeface.
Toronto and Syracuse are only about 250 miles (or 400 km) apart, so the Chiefs jumped from one regional relationship to another. For the Jays, this was useful for Triple-A player shuttling, and they funneled their top prospects through the International League, as well as sent players across the border for rehab assignments. In the first few years of the Toronto affiliation, some new names were added to Syracuse’s long alumni list, including Danny Ainge, Dave Stieb, Ken Schrom, and Lloyd Moseby.
In 1983, the International League celebrated 100 years, and to commemorate the occasion, the teams within the league sported striped pillbox caps. The Syracuse version was dark blue with white stripes and a small italicized white S in the center. They also took the occasion to change their uniforms to include a double-stripe typeface similar to Toronto’s unique font. In ‘84, they kept the same S from the pillbox caps, but rendered in the double-stripe font. For ‘85, they made the S wide and non-italicized–making it look almost like a racetrack. This look stuck with the Chiefs through the 1988 season.
Syracuse baseball fans were treated to an embarrassment of riches in the eighties. The Blue Jays were developing young players who would go on to major league success, whether in Toronto or in other cities across North America. Some of the bigger names to pass through Salt City in those days are Tony Fernández, George Bell, Jimmy Key, Mitch Webster, Kelly Gruber, Fred McGriff, Cecil Fielder, Duane Ward, David Wells, Todd Stottlemyre, and Pat Borders.
Toward the end of the eighties, the Chiefs developed a new Native-themed logo. They stopped using the old, intricate Braves-esque logo, and came up with a simplified Chief wearing a headdress with contrasting color headband. The face was solid blue and featureless, and I’m certain that many fans had to squint to make out the intention of the image. By 1989, a white version of this logo had replaced the racetrack S on the caps, and it continued in that position into the nineties and through the rest of this era of the Chiefs. Some of the bigger-name alums from this stretch are Juan Guzmán, Derek Bell, Ed Sprague, Al Leiter, Pat Hentgen, Woody Williams, Carlos Delgado, Alex Gonzalez, Mike Timlin, Shawn Green, and Shannon Stewart.
After the 1996 season, Syracuse completed a new ballpark to replace old MacArthur Stadium. To go with the change in venue, the team decided to update their brand to something more aligned with the branding trends of the nineties. They tacked the word Sky onto their their nickname (with camel case styling) and completely overhauled their uniforms and visual brand. It’s debatable, but using MLG standards, I consider the Syracuse SkyChiefs to be a distinct identity from the Chiefs.
Syracuse dropped the Sky from their name following the 2006 season, and restarted the old Chiefs identity once again. This time, however, they put a twist on the identity. Distancing themselves from Native imagery, the new Chiefs used a railroad theme, led by a new train conductor mascot who was sort of a Teddy Roosevelt-looking character with a baseball for a head, complete with wire-rim glasses, striped cap/neckerchief, and a handlebar mustache. Team colors were blue jay blue and silver. Typefaces resembled railroad fonts, and trains appeared throughout their logo sets.
The SkyChiefs, like the old Chiefs before them, were a Blue Jays affiliate. This continued on with the new Chiefs as well, and future Jays from these first few years include Adam Lind, Brett Cecil, Shaun Marcum, and Ricky Romero.
In 2009, after more than thirty consecutive years with Toronto, the franchise had a new MLB affiliate. Cleveland opted to sign on with their in-state brethren, the Columbus Clippers, leaving the Washington Nationals without a Triple-A club. Perhaps the Nats made a good offer, or perhaps Syracuse was lured by the prospect of well, prospects, but either way, the PDC was signed. The Chiefs and Nationals were together for an even ten seasons, and during that time, the team added more red into their color scheme, including an all-red cap with the SC initials sewn in. They also made liberal use of alternate jerseys, including throwbacks to old uniforms and logo used by the Chiefs in the 20th century.
Washington had the top pick overall in both the 2009 and 2010 drafts, and both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper suited up for the Chiefs. Other notable future major leaguers to spend time in Syracuse during these years include Ian Desmond, Marco Estrada, Jordan Zimmermann, Anthony Rendon, Blake Treinen, Lucas Giolito, and Trea Turner. As of this writing, the Syracuse Chiefs are a recent addition to the Defunct Identity Archive, and as such, there may be other alums who need to be mentioned as they continue to make their mark in the big leagues.
After the 2017 season, the New York Mets announced that they had purchased the Syracuse franchise, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spilled the beans at a press conference that the name would be changing to reflect their new parentage. The PDC with the Nationals still had one more year on it, so 2018 was a lame duck season in which a team stocked with prospects of one NL East team was owned by a division rival. After the 2018 season, a new agreement was inked with New York, and the team was renamed the Syracuse Mets. It is certainly possible that the Chiefs identity could be resurrected as it has been many times before, but so far, there have only been 72 seasons in which a team called the Syracuse Chiefs played minor league baseball.