Native American Imagery in the Minors

(Case Study: Syracuse Chiefs)


Hi everyone. I’m a daily reader and occasional contributor here at Uni Watch. My truly geeky obsession is minor league baseball history, and I’m pleased that I can share this history of the Syracuse Chiefs’ branding and uniforms. During this summer of big changes for racially-insensitive branding in sports, I’ve felt sparked to learn more about some of the minor league team identities that have had complex and multifaceted histories with Native American imagery. For twists and turns, it’s hard to top the Syracuse Chiefs. Here’s their story.

In the early Thirties, a new ballpark was built in the city of Syracuse, NY, and local boosters worked to find a minor league tenant. They made out well after the 1933 season, when they secured the rights to the International League’s Jersey City Skeeters and moved them to Upstate New York. By the start of the ’34 season, the team was branded as the Syracuse Chiefs. As tempting as it is to assume that they intentionally chose the name in honor of the local Onondaga Nation, the heartland of the famed Iroquois Confederacy, I have not found any evidence that this is the case. In all likelihood, the name was chosen for similar reasons that countless teams across all sports settled on names like “Chiefs,” “Braves,” or “Indians”– it was simply popular at the time.


Throughout the Thirties and up through the WWII years–while serving as a top level affiliate of teams like the Red Sox, Reds, and Pirates–Syracuse’s branding aesthetic was relatively conservative. Their visual style had similarities to what the Boston Braves were wearing in those pre-Bees Babe Ruth days, with red railroad-font jersey script and a left sleeve patch featuring the profile of a generic “Chief,” i.e. a somewhat cartoonized Indigenous American man wearing a feathered headdress. Slightly different versions of the chief profile showed up on the team’s promotional materials from the time, such as scorebooks and booster club pins.


In the post-War era, the Chiefs returned to the Reds as a parent club and rolled out spartan uniforms with thin-gauge cursive chest lettering and no sleeve patch whatsoever. However, their use of Native American imagery in promotional materials expanded. When I look at Syracuse’s branding from the late 40s and early 50s, I’m reminded of the “Myth of the Noble Savage.” Art is subjective, but I suspect that those responsible for images like that seen on this 1947 program weren’t necessarily doing so in mean-spiritedness, but rather out of ignorance. In those days, it was easier for mainstream America to think of Native Americans as part of the nation’s bygone folklore rather than living, breathing citizens.


The Fifties were a tumultuous decade for the Chiefs. They lost their affiliation with Cincy and operated independently (still common at that time) for a few years and then briefly signed on with the Phillies. After the ’55 season, the International League franchise was uprooted and moved to Miami, where they became the first iteration of the Miami Marlins. At a time when it was common in the minors for a city’s team identity to survive franchise relocations, a new version of the Syracuse Chiefs emerged in the Eastern League as a Single-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. After only two years, this team was moved to Allentown, PA, becoming the Allentown Chiefs. Team branding took a few turns during this decade. New uniforms had a bulkier cursive script and a chief sleeve patch returned, albeit smiling and facing the opposite direction this time around. The Chiefs also started using new print logos–there was very detailed, noble-looking chief that appeared on scorebooks, and there was a similar image used for letterhead. Within this mix, we also start to see blatantly cartoonish and derogatory imagery, such as on this Wahoo-esque scorebook from ’55.


In the Sixties, the International League’s fabled Montréal Royals franchise was moved south of the border, and the Syracuse Chiefs were resurrected at the Triple-A level–staying for good this time. Syracuse had brief affiliation stints with the newly minted Twins (’61) and Mets (’62–a year in which the Chiefs were also a “Co-op team” that took on additional players from the second version of the Washington Senators) before reconnecting with Detroit. In the early part of the decade, Syracuse introduced pin-striped uniforms with red lettering and a new version of the chief sleeve patch for a look that had similarities with the then-Milwaukee Braves. In ’62, the sleeve patch faced outward, but in ’63, it was facing inward like the Braves. By mid-decade, the Tigers connection would inspire Old English lettering, and the overall affect conveniently transitioned into an eleven-year stint with the Yankees, replete with midnight blue and pinstripes as well as gray road tops.


While the Tigers/Yankees look (spilling over into the Seventies) toned down the Native imagery on the field, promotional materials sunk to a new low, with cartoonish images like thisthis, and this. The absolute nadir was surely this 1968 score card with a cartoon chief holding a baseball bat/war club in one hand while the other holds what appears to be a severed scalp. Yikes.


In time for the 1978 season, the Syracuse Chiefs forged a Player Development Contract (PDC) with the Blue Jays, fresh off Toronto’s first foray in the American League. Immediately, the Chief motif returned to the diamond, appearing on both home and road double-knits, as well a crudely-rendered logo featured on two-tone caps. The Jays’ influence was more apparent by 1983 (the IL’s famous pillbox season) when jersey script adopted Toronto’s double-line font and the cap logo was a lower-case letter S. By the time the Crime Dog was in Syracuse, the S was an uppercase sort of racetrack looking thing, and Native imagery was mostly absent from promotional materials.


This changed in ’87, on the precipice of the great branding boom in the minors, when the Chiefs tested out a new logo. It was yet another chief profile, but this time it was designed with a minimalist graphic style that converted the face and headdress into six geometric shapes. It was the type of logo that a person needs to squint at for a moment before the full effect comes into focus–not unlike what the Atlanta Hawks or Hartford Whalers were wearing in those days. By ’89, the logo had replaced the racetrack S on the cap, and the team’s look was solidified for the next eight seasons.


Like many aspects of the sports world, things got a little weird in the Nineties. I’ve tried to find the inside story of what specifically spurred change for the Chiefs, but thus far, newspaper archive searches have not born fruit. For whatever reason, after the 1996 season, as the team prepared to move into a brand new ballpark, they completely redesigned their brand–including the team name. Using the camel case method, Syracuse tacked the word “Sky” onto their nickname, and shifted to an aviation aesthetic. Logos featured baseball bats styled into somewhat disturbing WWII-style bomber planes with sharp-toothed nose art. The perturbed-looking bat-plane and accompanying pinstripes didn’t fly for very long.


After the 2006 season, Syracuse chose to be the Chiefs once again. There is a lot to unpack in this article that Ben Hill wrote at the time, but the choice quotes come from Syracuse’s then-GM John Simone: “The reason we changed the name in the first place was because political correctness came about. But all along we knew the fans didn’t want to let go of the Chiefs. Now, we’re bridging the gap by bringing back the name, but placing it in an entirely different context.” Hmm. I’ll try to stay off the soapbox, but tossing out the phrase “political correctness” doesn’t hold much weight when your team once published a cartoon character holding a severed scalp. And just what was that “different context” that John Simone was alluding to? Well, the new Chiefs hired Plan B Branding (now the famous Brandiose) to rework their visuals, and they came up with a railroad-theme set. As in: railroad chief. The new Chiefs stuck with Toronto’s color scheme at the time and introduced graphics heavy on trains as well as a laughing, mustached, baseball-head railroad chief mascot.


[Sidebar] This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen retconning of sports team identities that were originally based on Indigenous imagery. The Golden State Warriors’ 1990s pivot to the generic lightning bolt-wielding warrior (“hey, this name can mean any type of warrior, man”) is a prime example, but it has also been done many times in the collegiate ranks. The practice comes up regularly in concept ideas for rebranding teams like the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks. It’s a thing. But I want to take a moment to look at an especially relevant team, the Midwest League’s Peoria Chiefs. Long story short: Peoria began using the name Chiefs as a Cubs affiliate in the 1980s and their logo, a very generic chief profile, survived through the 1994 season, when it was replaced by a cartoonish (if admittedly cute) baseball wearing a headdress. This ridiculous little baseball was phased out around 2001 in favor of a red bird (they were a Cardinals affiliate) in a batting stance with a few feathers tucked in its headband. When the Chiefs switched back to the Cubs in 2005, the red bird was necessarily replaced, but they went an extra step and retconned the entire identity, implying that Chiefs is a reference to fire chiefs. To this day, their logo and mascot depict a firehat-wearing dalmation.


So for a good chunk of time, there were two MiLB teams called the Chiefs that finagled the name to mean something other than what it was originally. [OK, back to Syracuse]

In 2009, the Syracuse Chiefs had signed on with the Nationals and eventually added splashes of red to their color scheme. They drew deeply from their rich history, using alternate logos that updated and re-colored both the Old English S and the arty chief logo from the pre-SkyChiefs days. They also threw back to previous eras of heavier Native American imagery, such as wearing replicas of early Blue Jays-era uniforms.


Syracuse worked to reclaim the Chiefs from the alleged dastardly PC zealots, but it was all very short-lived. In 2017, the New York Mets announced that they were purchasing the Chiefs and would operate them in 2018–despite the irony (conflict of interest?) that they would have to fulfill their division rival’s PDC and run the team as a Nats’ affiliate for one last season.

In his January 2018 State of the State Address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked Mets’ COO Jeff Wilpon to stand up in the crowd. Cuomo then hilariously (and completely unnecessarily) spilled the beans, stating that the Mets would be changing their new minor league team’s name to the Syracuse Mets later in the year. After the speech, Syracuse GM Jason Smorol conceded that the name would be changing after the season, but declined to disclose what the new name would be. As it happened, Cuomo was in the know from the get-go. That 2018 season, which featured the team playing a Uni Watch-influenced game as the “Syracuse Devices,” was the last chapter of the Chiefs. After a cumulative total of seventy-two seasons, plus another ten as the SkyChiefs, Syracuse hung up the appropriated headdress and changed their name to the COTOB Syracuse Mets.


It’s the summer of 2020 and change is in the air. This is a time when statues of Columbus and Oñate are coming down and teams in major sports are taking remedial steps away from Native American imagery. Despite Syracuse’s extensive history of returning to the identity, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen the last of the Syracuse Chiefs. We may not even see throwbacks moving forward. If/when they feel that there is a need to goose the brand, my guess is that they are more likely to go with something involving menacing food (Syracuse Biting Apples?) or whatever gets them traction on social media and moves merchandise. The story of the Chiefs, meandering and often regretful, seems to have truly come to its merciful end.

If you are interested in reading more about the Syracuse Chiefs, particularly their star players over the years, check out the page I made for them on my website. A year ago, when I last wrote for Uni Watch, I said: “I don’t promote the site (till now, I guess) but maybe in a year or two, I can do a more full-scale rollout on Uni Watch and share some of the many cool uniform details that I’ve found in the vast annals of the minors.” I still want to do that (saving lots of good stuff!) but I’ll have to kick that can down the road a little more. Whether it’s due to the pandemic or due to the black hole that is the upcoming PBA, my  attention is diverted and the site still feels like a construction site. But feel free to tiptoe around the piles of building materials and don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments. Many thanks to the Uni Watch crew and all of you for reading!