Soccer Out of Context: the NL Central

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There’s no doubt about it - there’s an appetite for more Soccer Out of Context work. I am thrilled to keep designing. Last time we tackled baseball’s A.L. East; today, we’ll change leagues and locales to see what National League Central division teams would look like if they played soccer for a day. The N.L. Central is a very tradition-heavy division; its youngest team is nearing the half-century mark, and its elder statesmen aren’t that far from their sesquicentennials. When you have a group of clubs that were officially created in 1969 (the Pilots/Brewers), 1883 (the Pirates) 1882 (the Cardinals), 1881 (the Reds) and 1870 (the Cubs), you have a lot of identity heritage to sort through. But despite (or possibly because of) their long histories, the clubs of the N.L. Central have shown remarkable visual consistency. Only the Brewers have had a few wholesale identity revamps in the post-war era (Motre Bame, anyone?), and even they seem to be trending back towards the blues and golden yellows that defined their original identity.

Author’s note: This is part of a recurring series on the soccer design aesthetic applied in other contexts. When you’re done here, feel free to read on.
The A.L. East
The N.L. Central
The A.L. West
The N.L. West
The A.L. Central
The N.L. East

imageDone with all 30 baseball identities? Soccer Out of Context continues with the Ghosts & Grandfathers League series.

imageIf you love American soccer, check out The Gadsden, a shirt made for US Soccer fanatics, over at my brand new design shop, Clean Sheet.

For more, including how to purchase future design work from the author, follow @m_willis on Twitter or leave your email at the very bottom of this page. Thanks for reading!

The challenge, then, is to create an interesting soccer-style look for each club while respecting both tradition and the playfulness that soccer jerseys often exhibit. In exploring the Yankees and Red Sox, two clubs with roughly the same amount of history and brand equity as the older N.L. Central teams, I hewed close to tradition. Today I’m going to expand the boundaries of the experiment just a bit - if only because it’s not that difficult to imagine, say, a Cubs baseball jersey that already translates pretty well into a soccer-style top. Here were my rules from last time; all of that stays the same, but I’ll add one more:

  • Grant some traditional identities permission to have fun with soccer’s visual style.

I tried to find just the right balance between fun and respect for tradition with these designs - and I hope you enjoy. Let’s get started.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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The Pirates exemplify another interesting trait that teams in the N.L. Central share: they’re all pretty tough to dislike. The Cubs are America’s cute little buddy, the Cardinals are good and Ned-Flanders-nice about it, and the Brewers, Reds and Pirates are all on the small-market side of the equation, making them easy to root for if they’re having a season for the ages, or even threatening a big team in the playoffs.

The Pirates are likable, blue collar, and have some memorable success attached to their black and gold identity. The We Are Family teams of the late 70s are instantly identifiable for both their classic qualities and their novelties. Depending on your perspective, you could put the team’s stovepipe-style "Civil War" hats in either category. This jersey look incorporates that image memento of Pittsburgh sports design history, with horizontal piping running across the jersey front and behind the iconic yellow “P” that becomes the team’s crest in a soccer context. (Even though “three stripes” are traditional Adidas territory, the Pirates seem like a clean Nike identity to me - so the swoosh sits across from the crest.)

Also woven into the triple piping design are stars for Pittsburgh’s five championships.  Four black stars note older trophies, imageand the red star stands for the most recent (and possibly most sentimental) title: the aforementioned Stargell / Family 1979 club.  Willie and the ‘79 team get a special star because they actually awarded stars to each other - well, Stargell to his teammates, anyway - which is both very cool and a perfect soccer tie-in.  Pirates have adopted red of late to set off their traditional palette, and this seemed like the right place to incorporate it. I imagine that when the happy day marking a sixth Bucs championship comes, the red star would shift to the left (standing for five championships), and a new black or yellow star could mark the new title.

Simple deference to tradition marks the rest of the design. Crisp white, pure black, and yellow-gold image accents prevail; the proprietary Olde Pirate font face is used for numbering, and a stock MLB block face for lettering. A two-tone logo sleeve patch shows off the team’s dashing Buccaneer logoimagethough I couldn’t bring myself to use the current version, which befits a mini-golf establishment more than a major league ball club. The final callback to tradition are the sleeves themselves - stark black, to recall the vest-style uniforms that good Pirate teams of the 1960s wore. When applied in a soccer context, the effect is striking - kind of a reverse-Arsenal - that would no doubt become just as notorious and beloved.

I chose U.S. Steel for the Pirates’ corporate sponsor for a few reasons. As is self-evident, Pittsburgh and steel are tightly linked. So, too, are the histories of American soccer, Pennsylvania and steelworking. imageAnd since the Steelers already use the industry’s diamond “steelmark” product logo (which Chile’s fútbol Club Deportivo Huachipato sneakily borrow), I gave the Pirates the beautiful U.S. Steel corporate logo. It works brilliantly as a soccer-style sponsor.

In a soccer world, the Pirates would be a plucky, hardworking club like England’s West Ham or Reading, bouncing between divisions, hoping to survive in a landscape where they were being outspent - but like those well-loved clubs, they’d never have to worry about being out-supported. The Pirates are a great team with great fans, and a fun identity to recontextualize.

St. Louis Cardinals

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The Cardinals have a classic baseball brand. With a successful history, bright colors, a distinctive cap mark, and that giant baseball bat bisecting the front of their jerseys, the identity is almost as much “baseball Americana” as it is “St. Louis Cardinals” - and because of those factors, if one considers only the preservation of tradition, the brand is a tough one to translate to soccer. I did not take the traditional approach. Instead, I thought about the Cardinals as a concept - how well they seem to wear success, how nice their fans seem, the pride that radiates easily through the organization. This design is where I landed. The jersey is a re-thinking of the identity’s core elements.

imageThe dominant theme is a strong multi-colored vertical panel that showcases the team’s cardinal and navy colors. Dual red stripes surround a single blue strip at the very center of the jersey, a nod to the blue Mississippi river that weaves past metro St. Louis, and the two banks (and two states) it touches as it flows along. At the top, the blue strip passes underneath the famous “St.L” insignia, one of the best marks in the game, which, enclosed in a plain circular space, becomes the club’s crest. I’ve always believed that navy, not bright red, was the real key to the power of the Cardinal’s identity, the bedrock that enabled the brighter tones to shine. Here, navy gets its due, and gives the crest insignia a simple, timeless weight that red might not match.

To the right of the crest sit two white stars (each representing five championships, to total 10), and a gold star to represent the most recent title in, in 2011. The center panel is completed by a small detail - complimentary stripes in grey and very light blue that bridge the primary colors to the vintage-white jersey base. These colors aren’t arbitrarily chosen, either; they have historical importance to the Cards as base colors used for their away jerseys (both recent and retro).

Below the crest, also floating above the blue strip, is the only possible corporate sponsor for a St. Louis club, Anheuser-Busch. I’ve chosen the company’s flagship Budweiser brand and represented it with the recently-created “crowned B” logo, which works perfectly with the general spirit of the uniform. image Other details include two-toned sleeve piping, a navy Nike swoosh, an an inverted arch collar that very subtly calls back another piece of the St. Louis landscape. Around the back, simple block lettering (letters in navy, numbers in cardinal red) maintains the visual effortlessness.image

This soccer identity is very different than a baseball “look” - the closest fútbol analog I can think of is Paris St. Germain - but then, why try to recreate the bird-and-bat design that’s so perfectly suited for a baseball context? Because they have such a core baseball brand, the Cardinals present the opportunity to stretch the idea of a baseball-as-soccer identity, and I think this result honors the club.

Milwaukee Brewers

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The Brewers are just plain fun. The name “Brewers.” The playful, classic ball-in-glove logo from the club’s most successful days. The fun-to-visit, fun-to-say city of Milwaukee. The mascot who slides into a mug of beer. This is an identity that can support some levity. They have tradition, too: not much club-level success, but the Brewers have been around for forty-plus years now, and the city of Milwaukee is rightly famous for cold winters, rich food, great beer and the German / Bavarian influence that goes hand in hand with all of those things. The Brewers themselves started as the Seattle Pilots, then brought their blue and yellow color scheme to Milwaukee after a year where they generally, with some exceptions, developed a style.  Though they don’t have a century of visual and cultural tradition like the other teams in the division, the Brewers aren’t a virtual blank slate like, say, the Rays, either.  They’re somewhere in the middle.

This jersey translation calls back to the Brewer’s visual past and Milwaukee’s history at once. The blue and yellow palette is preserved, but the tones are deepened to midnight and a rich daisy gold. The crest uses Milwaukee’s biggest contribution to baseball history, the clever “m-b” mitt logo that single-handedly (I’m convinced) led countless sports-loving children of the 1980s to explore graphic design. I’ve modified it slightly with a golden outline; the city name and stalks of wheat remain from the club’s current implementation of the logo.

The image jersey itself has a few important details. First, and most prominently, the sleeves are hooped with blue and gold, mostly to call out the celebratory nature of the Brewers’ identity. It doesn’t hurt that the design also calls back another very important Milwaukee institution - the Green Bay Packers, and their visual history, which has often included variations on blue and gold hoops. The hoops pair with another attribute - a subtle diamond-hatch jersey texture (which would manifest as a slightly shimmery pattern) image that pays homage to the flag of Bavaria (see also: Bayern Munich; BMW) and the local cultural history it represents.

Final points include a jersey manufacturers logo, in gold, marking the involvement of Puma - a Bavaria-based brand well-known for merging soccer and the German aesthetic - and a sponsor logo, image in white, promoting Miller brewing, who (like Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis) is the only natural sponsor for a club based in Milwaukee. The jersey back uses the current baseball jersey’s serif font face for both letters and numbers, enhancing the crossover connection and lending some distinctiveness to the design.

The Brewers deserve an out-of-context jersey that’d be fun to wear, unique, and unmistakably Milwaukee. I think this version solves those design challenges in style.

Cincinnati Reds

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The Reds are, to me, synonymous with olde-tyme baseball. Tobacco cards. Fancy mustaches. Louisiana boys named “Rebel Oakes”. Whistle-stoppers and barnstormers. Baseball as an entertainment competing with the traveling carnival and gathering ’round the parlor piano. A pastime, more than a sport. I’ve designed a look for the Reds that pays homage to these visions of yesteryear, but in a soccer context.

First, the obvious: the jersey is split into harlequin halves, deep, brilliant red and bright white. This is a style you find every now and again in the soccer world, but almost never in modern American sports. I think it suits the idea of the Reds perfectly. There’s a carnival-esque quality to the idea of a halved shirt that seems to capture the spirit of turn-of-the-century ball. Pure black is the third color featured on the shirt, as the Reds have employed in recent years, and its use is designed to span the white and red with elegance and authority.

Cincinnati’s “C” - the first of many like-minded monograms - stands alone as the crest above the heart. imageThough the modern club logo includes image the word “Reds” in block caps, I chose to use the standalone cap version in a nod to simplicity. A single gold star - for the club’s five championships won - sits boldly beneath the crest. The Reds feel like an Adidas brand to me, speedy and workmanlike (vs. Nike’s air of sleek perfection, for instance), so mirroring the crest, red against white, sits the Adidas logo. Each design item is crisply shadowed in black, helping each to pop against their respective background colors.

Proctor and Gamble, image a large consortium of brands headquartered in Cincinnati, gets the nod as corporate sponsor, and that sponsorship is expressed through its Braun line of consumer electronics. Besides being relevant to an audience of sports fans, and having a logo that looks dead fantastic in black, the Braun brand has a special place in design history and has just the right feel for a jersey like this. The dark black collar, sponsor mark and logo outlines - all stark and crisp - tie a look that could be busy together quite simply.

On the left sleeve, there’s a callout to another piece of baseball antiquity: the club’s start as the Cincinnati Red Stockings, image in 1869, before there were major leagues, pennants, or (until the Reds created them) professional players.  (Yes, the club was officially founded in 1881, but can trace its lineage back to the 1869 organization.)  The club’s first logo, an old english ‘C’, is honored in red on a field of white, accompanied by a small outline and an “1869” figure in black. The rear of the jersey keeps the halved design alive, with lettering and numbering in black, each in the Reds’ current typeface - one that also lends a historic sensibility to the jersey. Though it’s a visual departure, I hope it’s one that the Reds and their fans would embrace.

Chicago Cubs

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Our final club to discuss today is perhaps the N.L. Central’s (and baseball’s) most beloved: the dear Cubbies of Chicago’s North Side. The Cubs, as a baseball identity, are neither old nor new; they’re just timeless, with a summer-afternoon feel to them that has carried them through decades of title-less baseball. Though the club isn’t without its glories, it has had little success since its last title over a century ago. The club’s visual style has remained consistent if not etched in stone over the years; royal blue, white (often with pinstripes) and touches of red define the Cubs’ identity. This soccer version of the jersey captures much of that spirit.

First, the jersey base - it’s just to the aged, vintage side of pure white, befitting the city and the charming, elderly ballpark the club plays in. Next, the crest: the Cubs’ bright red, rounded, sans-serif ‘C’ combines with the somewhat retro-feeling “rambling bear cub” mark to form a perfect crest. Two simple blue stars, above the blue cub figure, mark the two ancient championships the team should take some pride in. image A right-aligned vertical sash, consisting of four blue pinstripes, calls out the club’s frequent use of the device without overwhelming the jersey with the full pinstripe design. The use of exactly four stripes also carries civic meaning - Chicago’s city flag features blue stripes and four stars - each standing for an important historical event in the city’s history. This design pays some homage to both the Cubs’ current style and to one of the best city flags in the country. (Quick aside - I didn’t mention this earlier, but go less than a hundred miles north and the idea of what makes a good city flag changes considerably).

The image jersey is manufactured by Illinois-based Wilson Athletic (yup, that Wilson) and sponsored by Chicago-headquartered Allstate insurance - both national brands with local ties. The collar is open and in the club style - deep blue colors the collar leaves, and white-grey on the v-neck base to play nicely with the clean jersey. (The darker white also finds a home on the sleeve caps to balance the neckline.) image The rear of the kit uses the Cubs block typeface for names and numbers, in a clean blue style; the only piece of red on the jersey, in fact, is the bold C in the crest. As is the case with every out-of-context design to date, the MLB logo anchors the rear of the jersey beneath the collar and above the player image name.  A uniform fit, one would hope, for a first-in-a-century championship (or a summer afternoon in the bleachers).

So, that’s the N.L. Central. Thanks for reading. If you have feedback, I’m listening on Twitter (using #soccercontext) or over on Reddit at /r/baseball. These jerseys are created purely for fun; I’ve had a bunch of requests to buy these designs, and I wish I could sell them, but they include licensed MLB property, so I can’t. Soon, though, I’ll have some wearable designs you might enjoy purchasing if you like soccer aesthetics and clean design work like this. If you’d like details when they’re available,

  • follow me on Twitter (@m_willis), or
  • leave me your email address in the form at the very bottom of this page.

And drop any time by for more soccer and design discussion (both in and out of context). 

If you made it this far, you might enjoy a few other uniform, soccer and identity-related pieces I’ve put together. First, you can buy original soccer-inspired t-shirt designs at the just-launched Clean Sheet Co - our first shirt is for US Soccer fans, and it’s called The Gadsden.  Also check out the series Re-booting the New England Revolution and What Makes a USA Soccer Kit?. I’m also tracking seasonal soccer tables, beautifully, at the Seasons project. If you like tech writing, I do a little of that too now and then. Thanks again!