The Diablo is in the Details

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The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball describes the time period of minor league history from 1963-1977 as “the Subsistence Years.” Whether due to the ubiquity of televised major league baseball, the rise of interest in football, or societal changes writ large, the minors had fallen precipitously from their post-WWII peak. After the 1962 season, dozens of teams and a few whole leagues were removed from the system and the classification system that we more or less see today was put into place. Affiliation with a major league parent club became all but a prerequisite for team survival, and on the aesthetic side, it came at a price. 

MLB teams routinely supplied their affiliates with hand-me-down or surplus uniforms from the big club, whether from previous years or leftover from spring training. In some cases, these repurposed uniforms would have their logos or lettering replaced with those of the minor league club. In many others, the stitching remained in place. By the mid-seventies, about two-thirds of all minor league teams took their nicknames and branding from their parent club, subjecting their entire identity to the whims of their overlords. Tacoma Cubs today, Tacoma Twins tomorrow.

Despite all this, the minors never fully succumbed to the practical efficiency of a developmental system existing solely for the purposes of MLB player development. Excluding some short fallow periods, teams like the Asheville Tourists, Chattanooga Lookouts, and Toledo Mud Hens carried the torch for the wacky and hyper-regional minor league identities that have been a fundamental part of the bush leagues since the 19th Century. Even in the blandest of times, rogue clubs from all corners of the continent experimented with new promotional ideas and building a local fanbase around a unique identity.

One of these was in El Paso, where the Sun Kings had toiled in the Texas League throughout the sixties under the distant ownership of Gene Autry, who was running the California Angels at the time. (Incidentally, El Paso was one of the stops in actor Kurt Russell’s baseball career. He suited up for the Sun Kings in ’73 before tearing his rotator cuff.) In the early seventies, Autry lost interest and the franchise was tossed around like a hot tamale for a few years before landing in the steady hands of a visionary Vietnam vet named Jim Paul.

[Image 1 – 1974 Jim Paul]

Paul and his crew brought a sort of Boomer passion to baseball, blasting Creedence and Janis Joplin during games, ponying up for Famous Chicken visits, selling cheap beer and hot dogs and generally doing whatever he could to pack old Dudley Field and pay off the debts he inherited from the Sun Kings. Paul’s innovations proved very influential, helping to pave the way for the revitalization and boom of the minors in ensuing decades. He started the El Paso Seminar in 1977, which eventually became the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar and Innovators Summit. For better or worse, the promotional homogeneity (Star Wars day for everyone!) that we see in today’s cross-pollinated minor leagues–now exposed via social media–owes a lot to Jim Paul.

[Image 2 – 1974 team photo]

For my money, Paul’s most inspired idea was immediately changing El Paso’s team nickname to one that crackled with originality and rebelliousness. The first El Paso Diablos ran out of the dugout and into the blazing sunlight in 1974. These players were still Angels prospects, and I’m not sure if naming the the team after the Spanish word for “devils” was an intentionally cheeky reference or mere coincidence. Either way, the moniker was one for the ages. Using a non-English word for a team nickname is a rarity in minor league baseball. The San Diego Padres, who booted up in the Pacific Coast League in the thirties, are a prominent example. Beyond that, there are only a handful of instances, such as the Eastern League’s 1970s-vintage Trois-Rivières Aigles or the Florida State League’s current (for now) Daytona Tortugas. El Paso is a decent-sized Texan city in its own right, but it’s also a bilingual border town in the shadow of the much larger Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. In branding the team, Paul tapped into a sense of place and created a unified aesthetic with southwestern hues of red and gold.

[Image 3 – Dudley Field]

One of the archive-diggers that I collaborate with (shout out to Leo!) came across some great newspaper clippings from the earliest days of the Diablos. These shots, as well as a few color images from the later seventies, give us a glimpse of the uniforms and logos that Paul had commissioned for his club. Although it’s hard to be 100% sure when looking at black and white photos, it appears that there was a light and dark uniform, presumably for home and road. The light-colored double-knit uni was gold with red trim, and I suspect the dark-colored one was the reverse. In both versions, the jerseys had the city name rendered in a very Me Decade typeface on the chest alongside a distinct logo patch.

[Image 4 – patch]

That rounded logo, one with strong staying power, had a three-pronged devil’s trident rising menacingly above the team name. Another early Diablo logo, painted on Dudley Field’s entrance façade, appears to have been a cartoon devil–possibly winged or wearing a cape–in a left-handed batting stance. This is the only place I’ve yet to see this hellish character, and the painting could have been a one-off. 

[Image 5 – Wheels Team]

Early Diablo caps were two-tone beauties, possibly mesh-backed, with the loopy letters E and P linked together in golden stitching. The primary source of this information comes courtesy of a commemorative trading card set released years later that used cut-and-pasted color images of some 1970s Diablos. A shot of pre-stache Carney Lansford, who manned the hot corner for the 1977 squad, shows the EP logo surrounded by a golden ring. Another photo of Floyd Rayford, who was on both the ’77 and ’78 Diablos rosters, also has the encircled EP cap. The angle of Rayford’s picture confirms that it was gold on the side of the cap and also reveals some red and white shoulder stripes on the jersey. El Paso was skippered by future MLB manager Buck Rodgers for only one season–1977–but for whatever reason, Rodgers was sporting the old-style EP cap sans golden ring. It’s anyone’s guess when the ringed EP was introduced and for how long it was around. 

[Image 6 – 1977 cards]

The most striking uniform detail from the late-seventies Diablos comes courtesy of a 1977 El Paso Herald Post clipping of Lansford playing third base with his back turned to the flashbulbs. I believe the Uni Watch term for this is “TNOB.” At least on the home jersey, the all-lowercase team name was applied above the numbers in the space typically occupied by the player’s name. 

[Image 7 – TNOB clipping]

In the eighties, the Diablos were about as mercurial with uniform changes as minor league teams are today. At the start of the decade, some thick, brick-red pinstripes were added the gold uniforms, which retained the same letter and number styles of the late seventies. New caps had white horizontal stripes that blended awkwardly and brought out the yellow side of “athletic gold.” Within the broadest of these white stripes was fine print–city name on one end, nickname on the other–bookending a simplified version of the trident logo in red. 

[Image 8 – Brunansky and Witt]

The Milwaukee Brewers became the new parent club in ’81, and though the jerseys remained the same, the white-stripe caps were swapped out in favor of zeitgeisty pillbox-style lids that retained the trident but dropped the words. The first pillbox cap was gold with horizontal red stripes that matched the rest of the uni.

[Image 9 – pillbox trio]

As the years advanced, so did the variations. A red cap with white stripes and trident was used for much of the eighties, trading time with an all white (including cap!) home set with thin pinstripes and red/gold racing stripes on the shoulders. A closer look at the pinstripes shows that they were red with a subtle yellow accent stripe. These white jerseys continued the TNOB tradition. 

[Image 10 – white jerseys]

By ’86, the Diablos still had the red pillbox, but they also used another standard cap with the letters E and P fused together. Unlike they had been a decade earlier, this time the letters were a basic uppercase block-style font.

[Image 11 – EP cap and schedule]

Change came to the headwear again in the late eighties, with the Diablos winding down their time at Dudley. In contrast to some of the more experimental minor league uniform styles of the Bull Durham years (the Charlotte Knights come to mind) El Paso swerved in a more conservative direction. For whatever reason, the more overtly devilish imagery was gradually phased out of the branding. The team nickname–in that same old font–took the place of the trident on standard red caps, and the pronged circle on the primary logo was reconfigured into a baseball.

[Image 12 – Sheffield and Montoyo]

Whether it was the excitement of brand new Cohen Stadium’s opening in 1990, the sweeping influence of Jim Paul, or simply having the coolest name in the minors, the El Paso Diablos were showered with national attention around this time. Sports Illustrated ran an extensive cover feature on the minor leagues in 1990, something that wouldn’t happen again until thirty years later. The Diablos were one of dozens of minor league clubs that pop up in the issue, and some wonderful El Paso snapshots appeared in SI, including one of fans holding up promotional giveaway Bart Simpson masks.

[Image 13 – SI shots]

Most memorably, the Diablos and their pinstriped uniforms were immortalized on the cover of National Geographic for David Lamb’s 1991 “A Season in the Minors” piece. The cover shot is of a player named Greg Edge (he never got above Triple-A) standing with head bowed as he listens to the Star-Spangled Banner ring through the partly cloudy El Paso sky. Some other great shots are in those pages, such as players counting money donated by fans and one of current Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo chugging a Coke during his on-field marriage ceremony.

[Image 14 – NG shots]

Shortly after the magazine shoots, gold all but disappeared from the uniforms, with bright red, white, and black becoming the new combo. The new button-down jerseys had the team name spelled out diagonally above a broad underline. 

[Image 15 – Jaha Listach Loretta]

By the mid-nineties, digitally reproduced logos emblazoned on New Era caps became a lucrative side-income for minor league teams, and maintaining a leftover eighties look was effectively leaving cash on the table. The Diablos held off on introducing a cartoon character or resurrecting the trident. Instead, they rolled out a new wordmark logo, going from all-lowercase to all-caps, with sharp-pointed typeface composed of burning golden hellfire. El Paso continued their tradition of having lots of fine-print lettering right on the baseball caps. 

[Image 16 – Belliard and Jenkins]

As the new millennium loomed on the horizon, some big changes came to the Diablos. The nascent Arizona Diamondbacks signed on to have El Paso serve as their first Double-A affiliate. To go along with this change, the Diablos dramatically overhauled the old brand and adopted several elements of Arizona’s aesthetic. The purple, copper, and teal-ish southwestern motif dovetailed nicely with both parent club and affiliate, and El Paso cleverly used the snake-tongue A to serve double-duty where the letter appeared in both city name and nickname.

[Image 17 – snake tongue logo]

The new uniform package also included a cartoon logo of a red-orange, ornery-looking chili pepper with bat cocked back in a left-handed stance. As this was in the thick of the steroids era, the vegetable’s anthropomorphic arms had muscles on top of muscles. Young future D’Backs wore the different iterations of El Paso’s new threads–white home, gray road, alternate purple–as did the Big Unit in a rehab stint. 

[Image 18 – Penny Valverde Johnson]

Another dramatic change right around this time was that Jim Paul sold the Diablos to Brett Sports & Entertainment, a group backed by George Brett. Brett was on a bit of a victory lap around the time of his Hall of Fame induction, and his group stayed busy buying and selling minor league teams. After the 2004 season, the Diablos found themselves in the latter category. The old Texas League franchise was bought up by the St. Louis Cardinals, who moved it into southwest Missouri and dubbed it the Springfield Cardinals. 

[Image 19 – pepper and cardinal]

The Cardinals didn’t take the old trademarks along for the ride, however, and an independent/non-affiliated team called the El Paso Diablos dusted off the chili-D caps and competed in the now-defunct Central Baseball League in 2005. They later joined the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball and existed up until 2014, when El Paso got a new stadium and a new affiliated Triple-A team in the Chihuahuas. 

[Image 20 – chihuahua and diablos days]

In sort of postscript to this saga, well-chronicled here, the Chihuahuas front office waited three years for the Diablos trademarks to expire, and then began using the old identity for salable merch and “Diablos Days” promotions complete with a variety of old throwback unis. Lord knows that they have a deep fiery pool to draw from. 

[Image 21 – throwbacks]

Today, the El Paso Diablos are best remembered as a team that brought spice and fire to the minor leagues at a time when it was needed the most. It is also a testament to how one hard-working guy with a bucket of red paint and good taste in uniforms can change an entire sports institution. 

[Image 22 – Jim Paul]

If you would like to read more about the Diablos, with a bit less emphasis on uniforms and a bit more on players, check out the page I made for them on the perpetually under-construction Minor League Geek website. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments. Many thanks to Phil & the Uni Watch crew and all of you for reading!