Utica Blue Sox
The Utica Blue Sox of Utica, New York, was an identity used by two separate 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
The first iteration of the Blue Sox began when the Eastern League’s Utica Braves signed on with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943, and changed their name shortly thereafter. At the time, the Phillies were more commonly known as the Blue Jays (read more here) and so Utica paid homage by taking on a colorful moniker that played on the other Sox-based clubs in baseball. 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.
The Blue Sox played in the Class A Eastern League, which is 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. Various versions of their jerseys had Blue Sox spelled out in both cursive and block lettering, and had sleeve patches with a blue jay perched handsomely.
Utica’s 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 Schenectady Blue Jays, and the Blue Sox were hung out to dry.
Blue Sox II
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.
In time for the 1981 season, the franchise was sold to a new ownership group that included minor league luminary Miles Wolff, actors Bill Murray and his brother Brian Doyle Murray, and celebrated baseball writer Roger Kahn. 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. The new Blue Sox and their colorful ownership group immediately attracted national attention, including a Kahn-centered write-up for People Magazine in 1983.
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. Though People magazine described the uniforms as being baby blue, the black-and-white photos that accompanied the article seem to indicate navy blue for both the double-knit pullovers and pants–at least for the home uniforms. This photo spread also revealed 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. It bears mentioning that both the cap and the winged sock patch were also used by the Knoxville Sox, who played in the Southern League during the same time period. 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.
What did it mean to be an independent baseball team playing within the NABPL 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. Larry Walker, who would go on to a wildly successful and borderline hall-of-fame career, had his pro debut with the Blue Sox.
Change came Utica after the 1985 season. 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 a pinstriped white-and-maroon look that was heavily inspired by what their parent club wore at the time. A simple block-letter U adorned maroon caps. The blue was not fully absent from their brand, though, and at some point around this time, they introduced a logo that would last for quite a few years–a sock within a baseball with UTICA 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.
In 1988, the Blue Sox linked up with their hosiery brethern, and signed 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. Speaking 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.
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. Now, 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 1997 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. That’s the hardest proof I can find. There might have been a push on the part of ownership to change the name, but it didn’t seem to take. Every source out there says that by 1997, the team was officially called the Blue Sox.
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-guaged, 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 the great Miguel Cabrera, Josh Willingham, and Adrián González.
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.