The Diablo is in the Details

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 names and branding from their parent club, subjecting their 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 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. 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 under the distant ownership of Gene Autry, who was running the California Angels at the time. Among other notable players from these years was actor Kurt Russell, who donned the Sun Kings duds in ’73, for his last stop in professional baseball. (He tore his rotator cuff in El Paso that summer, and hang up the spikes for good.) He told Sports Illustrated that he was on his way up to the bigs before tearing his rotator cuff in El Paso. 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.

Paul 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–exposed via social media–owes a lot to Jim Paul.

Screen Shot 2020-10-18 at 1.00.23 PM

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–still Angels prospects, ironically enough–ran out of the dugout and into the blazing sunlight in 1974. Using a non-English word for a nickname is a rarity in sports, even 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, like 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 down in the shadow of the much larger Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. In branding the team, Paul was able to draw from the local well while also creating a unified aesthetic with Southwestern hues of red and gold.

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One of the archive-diggers that I collaborate with (shout out to Leo!) came across these 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 sense of the uniforms and logos that Paul had commissioned for his club. Team colors were red and gold, and there seems to have been uniforms with both of those as base colors. In both versions, the chest had the city name rendered in a very Me Decade font along with a logo patch.

[gold jersey, logo patch]

That rounded logo, which would survive until the nineties, had a three-pronged devil’s trident rising menacingly above the team name. Another early Diablo logo, painted on Dudley Field’s entrance facade, appears to have been a cartoon devil–possibly winged or wearing a cape–in a left-handed batting stance. I’m not sure if this was a one-off painting or if it was used in any other promotional materials.

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Early team caps were two-tone beauties with the loopy letters E and P linked together in golden stitching. A picture of Carney Lansford, who manned the hot corner for the ’77 squad, shows the EP logo surrounded by a golden ring. That same season, El Paso was skippered by future MLB manager Buck Rodgers–who was only with the Diablos that year. Rodgers, at least when the cameras were flashing, was sporting the old-style EP cap sans golden ring.

rodgers and lansford cards]

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

[full carney image]

In the eighties, the Diablos were about as whimsical with uniform changes as minor league teams are today, minus the promotional mish-mash that has clearly reached its saturation point. By the time future Angels like Mike Witt and Tom Brunansky were toeing the Dudley Field mound, thick, brick red pinstripes were on the gold uniforms. New caps were bright yellow with gaudy white horizontal stripes and the team name framing a simplified version of the trident logo in red.

[witt, brunansky,]

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

[jones, more? – ready? higuera?]

As the years advanced, so did the variations. A red pillbox 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. These white jerseys continued the TNOB tradition. 

[riles, higuera, thomas]

By ’86, the Diablos still had the red pillbox, but 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 block-style font.

[EP]

Change came to the lids again in 1988, 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. Maybe it was the same sort of pressure faced by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the years to come, but the 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 the caps, and the primary logo saw a baseball replace the pronged circle.

[sheffield, vaughn? listach]

In the early nineties, gold all but disappeared from the uniforms, with bright red, white, and black becoming the new combo. Future Brewers like John Jaha, Pat Listach, and Jeff Cirillo wore jerseys with a new diagonal script underlined across their chests.

[jaha, listach, cirillo]

Whether it was the excitement of brand new Cohen Stadium’s opening in 1990, the 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 a wonderful and 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 great snapshots of the squad showed up in SI–including one of fans holding up promotional giveaway Bart Simpson masks.

[two SI shots]

Most memorably, the Diablos got on the cover of National Geographic for their 1991 “A Season in the Minors” piece, with a player named Greg Edge (he never got above Triple-A) with head bowed as he listens to the National Anthem ring through the partly cloudy El Paso sky. Some other great shots are in those pages, including one Diablo counting cash donated by fans and another chugging a Coke during his on-field marriage ceremony.

[nat geo shots]

[dudley field][red hot baseball]

Let’s get personal.

In the early nineties, it was hard to have a comprehensive understand of something as obscure as the minor leagues. As Homer Simpson once said of that time period, “the information superhighway showed the average person what some nerd thinks about Star Trek.” Unless you had a subscription to Baseball America in those Web 1.0 days, your knowledge of the minors came in drips and drabs–the fine print on the back of Topps cards, backpage ads in Beckett, or the occasional magazine article. I grew up in rural northern Wisconsin, and despite living a world away from El Paso, the Diablos were my favorite team. Part of it was the Brewers connection, but more than that, I was blown away that there was a team called the Diablos. It was just plain cool.

By the mid-nineties, digitally reproduced logos emblazoned on New Era caps became a lucrative side-income for minor league teams, and maintaining an eighties look was leaving cash on the table. The Diablos held off on introducing a cartoon character or resurrecting the trident. Instead, they updated their wordmark to make it composed of burning hellfire and continued their tradition of having lots of writing right on the caps.

[jenkins, cap logo, d’amico]

As the new millennium loomed on the horizon, some big changes to the Diablos. The nascent Arizona Diamondbacks signed on to have El Paso be their first Double-A affiliate. To go along with this change, the Diablos dramatically overhauled their brand and adopted several elements of Arizona’s branding. The purple and teal-ish southwestern motif fit 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.

[full wordmark]

The new uniform package also included a cartoon logo of a red-orange, ornery-looking chile pepper with bat cocked back in a left-handed stance. As this was in the thick of the steroids era, the vegetable’s arms appropriately had muscles on top of muscles. Young players like Jose Valverde and Brad Penny wore these duds, as did the Big Unit in a rehab stint.

[Valverde, Penny, Johnson]

Another big change right around this time was that Jim Paul sold his old Texas League franchise 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 selection, and his group stayed busy buying and selling minor league teams. After the 2004, the Diablos found themselves in the latter category. The Texas League franchise was bought up by the St. Louis Cardinals, who moved it to southwest Missouri and dubbed it the Springfield Cardinals.

The Cardinals didn’t take the old trademarks along with the team, however, and an independent 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.  In sort of post-script to this saga, the Chihuahuas front office waited three years for the Diablos trademarks to expire, and then began using the old identity for merch and “Diablo Days” promotions complete with a variety of old throwback unis. Lord knows that they have a deep fiery well to draw from.

[throwbacks, diablo days, etc.]

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.

If you would like to read more about the Diablos, check out the page I made for them on the Minor League Geek website.