When Sox Were Blue

 

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Here is a history of the Utica Blue Sox, with special emphasis on their branding and uniforms. For my money, the Blue Sox are one of the most unusual stories in in modern minor league history, due in no small part to their visual aesthetic. Let’s begin at the beginning.

 

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Preceding the Blue Sox were the Utica Braves, a team that began competing in the Canadian-American League in 1939 and took their name from their Boston-based parent club. Boston abandoned Utica after just one season, but the Utica Braves continued to use the erroneous name for a few more years–playing as a Detroit Tigers affiliate in ’41 and going indy again in ’42.  In 1943, when the minors were drastically pared down due to World War II, the Utica franchise was shifted from the Can-Am to the Eastern League. The Philadelphia Phillies signed on with the Utica Braves and sent their young prospects to play for a team that still carried the name of one of Philly’s National League rivals. After the season, it was time for a change.

Philadelphia Blue Jays

In 1944, Philadelphia bought their Eastern League affiliate and had renamed them in their own image. But they weren’t called the Utica Phillies. As I’m sure many Uni Watch readers know, Philadelphia made an honest and protracted effort to completely overhaul their brand in the 1940s, attempting to call themselves the Philadelphia Blue Jays. For more on that, check out Todd Radom’s brief history. The minor leagues were a convenient testing ground for the new name, and some of Philly’s affiliates in this era were the Schenectady Blue Jays, Salina Blue Jays, and Bradford Blue Wings. For Utica, they chose a name that was sort of a hybrid between a parent club-based name and a unique moniker: the Utica Blue Sox.

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Tommy Lasorda (left) and the 1948 Schenectady Blue Jays

The history of the Blue Sox is rife with weird coincidences, and the Phillies’ farm system in the Forties was about as weird and coincidental as it comes. Another one of their farm clubs, the Green Bay Bluejays, were also in the Philadelphia Blue Jays’ system in 1946, but Green Bay had already been using that name independently since 1940, when the Phillies were still content to be the Phillies. In 1941, Green Bay briefly changed their name to the Blue Sox, but that appears to be completely unrelated to Utica’s name change a few years later. The Wilmington Blue Rocks were also in the developmental chain alongside the various Blue Jays, Bluejays, Blue Wings, and Blue Sox, but the Blue Rocks (literally named after blue granite) began using that name as an Athletics’ affiliate a few years earlier. Lastly, Philadelphia’s Triple-A team in the late Forties was the Toronto Maple Leafs, another blue-hued club that played in a city that would later host a different team called the Blue Jays who would eventually defeat the Phillies in the World Series. Now that our minds are melted, let’s get back to the Blue Sox.

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Nick Piccuito played for the Blue Sox from 1944-46

From 1944-1950, the Utica Blue Sox were a Phillies/Blue Jays affiliate in the Eastern League. Their home ballpark was Utica’s McConnell Field, which was named after Amby McConnell, a Utica resident and former big leaguer whose playing career was split between the Red Sox and the White Sox. The Blue Sox were a successful club in their own right, winning the ’47 Eastern League championship, but they are best remembered for their alumni. Blue Sox rosters in the later Forties were stacked with many of the famed “Whiz Kids” Phillies, including Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, Granny Hamner, Stan Lopata, and Willie Jones. Minor league journeyman Lee Riley was with the Blue Sox in the summer of ’44. That was about nine months before his son, noted basketball-man Pat, was born.

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Like just about every baseball team in that time period, the original Blue Sox had some cool uniforms. According to one report, they had dark blue socks, so despite having only black-and-white photos from this time period, we can probably extrapolate that the dark tones were dark blues and formed the basis for the team color scheme. When Ebbets Field Flannels replicated the 1945 Utica cap, it was indeed dark blue with a simple white block letter U. When I think about the uniforms of these Blue Sox, what stands out the most are the avian sleeve patches. At one point, the patch was the same bent-over blue jay logo that Philadelphia was using, but by the time Richie Ashburn was in Utica, the patch that most players wore was a small dark-colored bird perched on a branch–somewhat similar to the St. Louis Cardinals’ single-bird-on-bat logo.

Some Blue Sox unis had the team name rendered in cursive script across the chest, while others (both home and road) used a basic, sans-serif font. In one mid-decade team photo, players wore spoon-placket tops with a large collegiate-lettering U on the left breast. In another team shot from 1950, by which point the Philadelphia Blue Jays experiment was formally abandoned, the Blue Sox players wore parent club-supplied Phillies unis and their caps appear to have been two-toned (red bills?) with a larger-sized U for a cap logo. This would be the last season of this version of the Blue Sox.

1950 Utica Blue Sox

From 1951 to 1976, a wholly uneventful time period in which nothing really changed in American society, Utica was devoid of minor league baseball. Fortunes turned in 1977, when the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, in need of teams in which to stash their young players, set up shop in Utica. This new team, dubbed the Utica Blue Jays, played in the Single-A New York-Penn League. The U-Jays were only around for four seasons, and their list of notable alums pretty much starts and stops at a 17-year-old Jesse Barfield. While they made a token effort to add some flair to the Toronto logo, removing the maple leaf and shaping the head-feathers into an era-appropriate slicked-back bird mullet, their uniforms were parent club-supplied duds that were carbon copies of Toronto’s, including the maple leaf in the cap logo.

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History repeats itself. While one team called the Blue Jays paved the way for the Utica Blue Sox in the Forties, another team called the Blue Jays paved the way for the Utica Blue Sox in the Eighties. When Toronto left town, the Utica franchise was held in place by minor league front office legend Miles Wolff. Rather than scramble for an MLB parent club, Wolff (the man who basically invented what we now call “indy leagues”) stocked the team with unsigned players from a Texas-based talent company. The old Blue Sox moniker was dusted off and the cash-strapped club kept on playing as the only non-affiliated team in the rapidly-growing NY-Penn League. Despite remaining competitive in the early Eighties, even winning the 1983 league title, only one player in these years would go on crack the bigs: Tom Romano, who appeared in seven games with the ’87 Expos.

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Things were more interesting behind the scenes. Wolff had assembled a group of team stakeholders that included Bill Murray, who reportedly sang the national anthem at the ’81 home opener. In ’83, Wolff handed the team president reins over to venerable sportswriter and author Roger Kahn, who ran the team and wrote a book (Good Enough to Dream) about the experience. Kahn and his Blue Sox were profiled in the August 29, 1983 issue of People magazine, which I was able to grab on eBay a few years back. Although I have never seen any pictures of what these Blue Sox definitively wore in the Wolff years, 1983 is well-covered. The photos in People are black-and-white, but a recent article about one of the ’83 players confirms the color scheme. Utica’s polyester double-knits appeared in both navy and powder blue. Bafflingly, the team caps seem to have been exact copies of what the Chicago White Sox wore in the late-60s and early-70s, almost as if the team found a bunch of old unsold Sox caps at a sporting goods store.

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People magazine photo shoot, 1983

1985 was the last season of Utica’s non-affiliated streak, and they managed to pull off what amounts to a near-miracle for an indy club at the bottom levels of the minor leagues: they hosted a future Hall of Famer. Larry Walker was a young anonymous slugger from British Columbia who was signed by the Expos on a whim. The ‘Spos sent him to Utica, which may as well have been the Island of Misfit Toys–a place where baseball careers typically ended. Instead, he managed to impress his bosses just enough to stick around pro ball, and the rest is history.

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On the uni side, a set of ’85 baseball cards indicate that Walker and his cohort were still wearing a similar style of jerseys as the ’83 club, but the cap logo had been swapped out to an Old English U. I found an auction listing with a white button-down uniform top featuring a similar U that purports to be from this time period, though I have yet to find other confirming evidence.

1980s uniform

In 1986, the Philadelphia Phillies picked up the new Blue Sox as an affiliate. Although they kept the nickname intact, somewhat rare given the time period, the uniforms were swapped out. Much like in 1950, the Blue Sox wore button-down Philly-issued suits. This time around, the uniforms were maroon-accented, pinstriped numbers with a large varsity-letter U on the chest. In some cases, the tops didn’t even have the chest emblem switched and displayed the aspirational maroon P on players who would never reach the grandeur of Veteran’s Stadium. The only remaining blue element of the uniform was a dark blue cap with a simple white U. The second coming of the Phillies lasted a quick two seasons, and the biggest-name Blue Soxers were Andy Ashby and Jason Grimsley.

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Let’s talk about Utica logos from the Eighties. On the back cover of my Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (2nd Edition), there is a Blue Sox pennant littered in with several other pieces of minor league memorabilia–most of which have some relation to the tome’s co-editor, one Miles Wolff. As such, I suspect that the logo on the pennant–a crudely-rendered blue sock with Hermes-style wings–is from the early Eighties, when Wolff ran the team. By mid-decade, however, Utica was using a logo with the city’s name spelled out in white within the space of a new blue sock which was superimposed on a baseball. This logo was used at least as early as the Phillies era, and was altered shortly thereafter–paired with lettering that was similar their new parent club in 1988, the Chicago White Sox.

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Everyone is happy when Sox match up, and Chicago stayed with Utica through 1992. Chicago’s navy/red color scheme was adopted by Utica, and their uniforms were heavily influenced by the ChiSox. For their first cap logo of the White Sox era, the Blue Sox made a bold attempt to extend the lines of Chicago’s curlicue C to make it into a cursive letter U. The famous Morganna the Kissing Bandit became a part-owner of the Blue Sox around this time, and she sports the unwieldy U on an iconic misspelled baseball card from 1990.

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When the White Sox underwent a brand redesign in ’91, the Blue Sox quite literally followed suit. Young stars like Ray Durham and Mike Cameron got to wear uniforms that were essentially the same as those they would wear once they reached the American League. When the logos already say “Sox,” there’s no need to alter them. Heck, the ’83 Blue Sox were wearing similar caps, and they had no relation to the ChiSox whatsoever.

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We all like to change our Sox from time to time, and Utica was no exception. After the ’92 season, the Blue Sox swapped out the White Sox in favor of the Red Sox. The Blue Sox were once again able to make use of sock-based convenience for their cap logo. Boston’s red pair o’ socks was recolored light blue and surrounded by a large, thin-gauge red block letter U. The entire works was plopped onto navy caps and paired with jerseys featuring the team name rendered in Boston’s “Tuscan” font.

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After three unremarkable years with the BoSox, the Blue Sox landed the Florida Marlins, who still had that fresh-fish scent. There are some sources that say that Utica used a different team nickname in ’96, their first year with Florida. I’ve seen suggestions that they were called the Utica Marlins, the Utica Blue Marlins, and even the Utica Teal Sox. If you want to hear the whole story, click here, but suffice it to say that hard evidence shows that the team ended up being called the Utica Blue Sox that year–even if some people were trying to push for a name change. Speaking of “teal sox,” Boston apparently allowed (or were oblivious to) a re-coloration of their famous logo and its continued use by a non-Red Sox farm club.

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The Marlins era brought yet another new U to the (now black) cap, this time with flaring at the top and the teal-ish socks tucked in. Utica’s uniforms were also very fishy, with both home and road unis borrowing the unforgettable Florida font. The affiliation with the Marlins lasted six solid years and the Blue Sox boasted the likes of Adrián González, Josh Willingham, and baby-faced future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera. To connect the full Blue Sox history to present day, consider that Cabrera, who is still taking hacks for the 2020 Detroit Tigers, once played for a team that was named after another team that took their name from an alternate name for a major league club.

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Miguel Cabrera, 2000

As it happened, the Blue Sox were pulled up for the last time in 2001, when the franchise was purchased by the Ripken family and moved to Maryland, where they exist today as the Aberdeen IronBirds. Or was it the end of the Blue Sox? In 2016, the Utica franchise in the summer wood-bat Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League began using the old Blue Sox identity, even designing a logo that resembles the Morganna-era U if it were partly composed of a blue sock. Does this version of the Blue Sox count toward the overall history of the team identity? I mean, the PGCBL is like the third or fourth most prominent summer collegiate wood-bat baseball league in the Northeastern United States, so that’s something, right?

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Either way, it would darn tough to ever fully unravel the legendary legacy of the Utica Blue Sox, one of the great weird minor league baseball teams of all time.

This article was also published on Uni Watch