Utica Blue Sox

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1944-2001

 

The Utica Blue Sox of Utica, New York, was an identity used by two separate minor league franchises in two different eras, for a cumulative total of 28 seasons. The first version of the Blue Sox existed for seven seasons as a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate in the mid-Twentieth Century, and the second version was around for 21 years in the back end of that century; representing four MLB teams, as well as being independent of affiliation for a stretch of time. The story of the Blue Sox identity is one rife with anecdotes and coincidences, making them one of the more unusual teams in the annals of the minors.

 

 

Blue Sox I

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The first iteration of the Blue Sox began after the 1943 season, when the Eastern League’s Utica Braves were bought by the Philadelphia Phillies. At that time, the Phillies were attempting to change their name to the Blue Jays (read more here) and Utica’s new, colorful moniker played on the other Sox-based clubs in baseball, while also hinting at the Philly Blue Jays. It’s hard to say if the Blue Sox should be considered a DimDer, but since their nickname was a derivative of a major league team’s nickname, I suppose they qualify.

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The Blue Sox played in the Class A Eastern League, which is roughly comparable to the Double-A designation that the EL has today. Their seven quick seasons with the Phillies/Blue Jays were bountiful, and a handful of successful future major leaguers suited up in Utica, led by Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn. Other alums who would go on to All-Star careers include Granny Hamner, Stan Lopata, and Willie Jones. The Blue Sox had a clean visual aesthetic, and their caps, which Ebbets Field Flannels has replicated, were navy blue with a simple white block-letter U. According to one report, their socks were also dark blue. Various versions of their uniform tops had the team name spelled out in both cursive and block lettering. Perhaps the most notable uniform element was the sleeve patch–one version of which was the same Philadelphia Blue Jay logo while another (the one Ashburn wore) had a blue jay on a perch. By 1950, Philly had given up on trying to be the Blue Jays, and though the Blue Sox were still called as such that season, their uniforms were basically hand-me-downs from the Phillies.

Utica’s McConnell Field was named after Amby McConnell, a former big-leaguer (who humorously played for two teams–the Red Sox and White Sox) who booted up the Utica Braves in the Thirties and passed away in ’42.  McConnell Field wasn’t considered a good facility, even by the standards of the day, and the sun would set over centerfield making it difficult for batters to spot the ball. This may have been one of the reasons that led to the Blue Sox playing their last season in the Eastern League in 1950. By ‘51, the Phillies were affiliated with the recently-promoted Schenectady Blue Jays, and the Blue Sox were hung out to dry.

 

 

 

Blue Sox II

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Utica was without affiliated ball for about a quarter century, but it returned in 1977 when the expansion Toronto Blue Jays needed a place to stash their first crop of draft picks. They took on a COTOB identity and played four seasons in the Class A-Short Season New-York Penn League as the Utica Blue Jays. After the 1980 season, Toronto set up a Gulf Coast League team, and apparently satisfied with having two Rookie-level affiliates, decided to stick with Medicine Hat and abandon Utica.

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The franchise was held in place by a new ownership group headed by minor league luminary Miles Wolff and included actors Bill Murray and his brother Brian Doyle Murray. The team operated in the New York-Penn League independent of major league affiliation, and took on the old identity from the Eastern League franchise. After the ’82 season, the reins of the team were handed over to celebrated author and sportswriter Roger Kahn, who later wrote a book, Good Enough to Dream, about the experience. The new Blue Sox attracted national attention, including a Kahn-centered write-up for People magazine in 1983.

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Naturally, the team built their visual brand around the color blue. An early logo was a blue sock with wings on the back, somewhat reminiscent of depictions of the Greek god Hermes’s winged sandals. Team uniforms, pictured and described in People (as well in a more recent article) consisted of polyester pullover jerseys and pants that were navy blue at home and baby blue on the road. The photos also reveal Utica’s caps from the era, which appear to be a straight copies of what the Chicago White Sox wore in the late Sixties and early Seventies–a style of the diagonal “Sox” logo with the S and O merging together more than the style that the White Sox wear these days. The earliest color images we have of the Blue Sox are from a set of baseball cards from 1985, their last season as an independent team. In these, players indeed wear pullover navy blue jerseys emblazoned with the Utica place name, as well as navy caps with a white old English letter U front and center. Though I haven’t been able to confirm this, I did find an auction listing for a white button-down jersey with a similar Old English U on the chest that purports to be from the earlier part of the Eighties.

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What did it mean to be an independent baseball team playing within the NAPBL ecosystem in the early Eighties? Well, the roster composition was similar to that of what you might see in independent ball today–a ragtag mix of undrafted young players and over-the-hill guys trying to work their way back into the game. In their five independent seasons, the Blue Sox had only four players go on to major league careers. However, in 1985, Utica struck gold with a young unknown player from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, who the Expos had signed for a couple thousand dollars. Larry Walker, who would go on to a wildly successful Hall of Fame career, had his pro debut with the Blue Sox.

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Change came to Utica in 1986. After five independent seasons, Utica inked a PDC with the Philadelphia Phillies, the major league team that the original Blue Sox were tied to. Though they kept the Blue Sox identity, their uniforms were changed to maroon pinstriped look that was heavily inspired by what their parent club wore at the time. A simple block-letter U adorned navy blue caps. At some point around this time, they introduced a logo that would last for quite a few years–a sock within a baseball with the city name reading down from shin to toe. The Phillies affiliation lasted only two years, but produced a nice crop of alums, considering their low level status. Andy Ashby is the biggest name, but journeymen Jason Grimsley and Chuck McElroy merit mention.morgana1

In 1988, the Blue Sox linked up with their hosiery brethren, signing on with the Chicago White Sox. Their uniforms changed again, and followed Chicago’s midnight blue and red color scheme of the day. They also copied the curlicue cursive C that the ChiSox used in those days, but they got creative and added another line onto it, transforming it into a capital letter U. With a similar look to the parent club, and a similar nickname, one might mistakenly think that the Blue Sox were a DimDer of the White Sox. But no, let’s remember that Blue Sox was a take on Blue Jays, which was a nickname of the Phillies in the mid-Twentieth century. Oh yes, this team is weird. 60197-3533893FrSpeaking of weird, Morganna the Kissing Bandit was a part owner of the team in the White Sox era.

The White Sox were with the Blue Sox for a solid five years, and when Chicago switched to a new visual look in 1991, Utica followed suit. This time, the uniforms were basically carbon copies of Chicago’s black-and-white duds, complete with pinstripes and diagonal text “Sox” logo caps. Future White Soxers who suited up for the Blue Sox in this time period include three future All-Stars in Ray Durham, James Baldwin, and Mike Cameron.60214-3548060Fr

After the 1992 season, the Blue Sox switched from the White Sox to the Red Sox. Naturally, they changed their uniforms again, going with a conservative Boston-esque navy and red combo. The team’s new primary logo was a knockoff of Boston’s, but with the hanging red socks colored in baby blue. On the caps, these hanging blue socks were enveloped by a large, thin-gauge red letter U. The affiliation lasted for three seasons, and only handful of players would go on to have their cups of coffee at the major league level–none of whom are notable names.

1996 brought a new affiliation in the still-fresh Florida Marlins. The Marlins were a hot brand in the mid-Nineties, and the Blue Sox jumped on board. Whether or not the Red Sox were aware of it (or cared about it) the Blue Sox kept the same hanging socks logo, yet changed the color of the socks from baby blue to Marlins teal. img_0140.jpgNow, there’s some certainly some mystery about what the team was called in the 1996 season. On Wikipedia, I’ve seen them referred to as both the Utica Teal Sox and just the COTOB Utica Marlins. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball lists them as the Utica Blue Marlins. Baseball Reference just has them as the Utica Blue Sox, though BR Bullpen lists them as the Blue Marlins. As you can imagine, this is a bit of conundrum to me, especially as it relates to identity continuity. As of this writing, I am in camp Blue Sox, and my Exhibit A is a Utica pocket schedule from 1996 (left) that makes no mention of a name change. There might have been a push on the part of ownership to change the name, but it didn’t seem to take. For more details, check out this Unsolved Mystery page. Either way, every source out there says that by 1997, the team was called the Blue Sox.

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Whatever they were called, they certainly took on elements of Florida’s brand. Though they occasionally used the bright teal hanging socks that I mentioned earlier, on their caps, the sox were still baby blue, but now nestled in a thick-gauged, serifed, silver U. Pinstriped uniforms had the team’s name rendered the same curvy teal font that the Marlins used in those days. The Florida affiliation lasted six seasons, and carried the Blue Sox to the end of their days. In 2000, the Blue Sox had an incredibly stacked roster, including Josh Willingham, Adrián González, and futuer Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera.

The end of the Blue Sox came following the 2001 season, when none other than Cal Ripken, Jr. purchased the franchise and moved them to his Maryland hometown and named them after himself. The Aberdeen IronBirds play in the inaccurately-named New York-Penn League to this day, and the delightfully weird Blue Sox, despite becoming a summer collegiate vampire identity, have been absent from the affiliated laundry basket ever since.

 

 

Ephemera

 

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1946 Blue Sox

 

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1947. Ashburn is at lower left

 

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Richie Ashburn and Nick Picciuto. Note the smaller blue jay patches.

 

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1950 Utica
1950, the last season of the old Blue Sox

 

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Rebirth of the Blue Sox in the early eighties
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More from the People magazine shoot

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Close up of Kahn with some Blue Soxers. The Bill Murray lookalike is Larry Lee, longtime manager of the Cal-Poly Mustangs.

 

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1980s uniform
Uniform that was possibly worn in the early to mid Eighties

 

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The curlicue-U (and old NY-Penn Logo!)

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’95

 

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“Teal Sox” era

 

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Exhibit B: it seems they were still just the Blue Sox

 

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The Florida font makes it to Utica

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’98

 

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Future All-Star in 2000
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Another future All-Star in 2000

 

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A future Hall of Famer in 2000

 

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