Soccer Out of Context: the Minneapolis Millers

imageGhosts & Grandfathers League Member #2: The Minneapolis Millers

Though I’ve never been, I have a very distinct impression of Minneapolis. (And no, it’s not just weather clichés and Fargo accents.) It’s something innate that comes across when I meet people from the area, or even when I’m watching a Minnesota-based game on TV and the cameraman pans across the hometown crowd. I always sense that Minneapolis is a contented, self-aware city. Unlike some metro areas I could name, its residents don’t seem to have much of an inferiority complex or spend much time wishing their city was bigger or more important. Minneapolites seem proud but not desperately so, without too much of a need to justify themselves to a national audience. They seem patient, modest, smart, cultured, friendly - and above all, happy.

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 the original series, on Major League Baseball teams.
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!

And why wouldn’t they be? Sure, it can be cold, but beyond that Minneapolis is a pretty fascinating place. The city has a famously great cultural scene. It’s a “big 4” American sports city, and each of the four teams is beloved. Improbably, it’s poised to become a soccer hotbed with the new, saved-from-oblivion-too-many-times Minnesota United F.C., a lower-level team that enjoys passionate support, a better visual identity than most M.L.S. clubs, and has some honest-to-goodness American soccer history on its side.

Sporting history, in fact, is always just around the corner in Minneapolis: the Vikings’s N.F.L. membership predates the A.F.L. merger and the Super Bowl, and though the hockey Wild and basketball Timberwolves are expansion franchises, each replaced a legendary club that had moved away (the North Stars to Dallas; the Lakers to L.A.). And then, baseball, where the Minnesota Twins have arguably the most history of all. The Twins date back a century to their founding in Washington, D.C.; the club set up shop in 1961 toting 50 years of memories from the east coast. Twin Cities residents were primed to receive the franchise, of course; prior to their arrival, they had two of their own clubs with decades of proprietary baseball history. Minneapolis’ half of that history, the Minneapolis Millers, were formed in the 1890s, and were a continuous presence in the city from the mid–1920s until Major League Baseball arrived. During that era, the Millers were a staple of Minneapolis civic culture.

From time to time I ask myself: “Why do I do projects like these?” Consider: a few weeks ago, the Millers won our online balloting (by a single vote over the New York Highlanders) and the right to be featured as the next Soccer Out of Context club. I knew next to nothing about them. When they prevailed, I skimmed over some basics: ok, formed in 1894, part of Ban Johnson’s renegade Western League, then the American Association in the early 1900s and a spotty history until the 1930s, when Ted Williams, and later, Willie Mays passed through. Then it was time for some quick visual searching - yep, pretty ‘M’ logo, orange and charcoal, classic look, ooh, there was a hockey club by the same name too! Great. Then I put the Millers aside and moved on to a few other pressing items. At that point, I had what I’d consider a novice’s knowledge of the Millers’ identity. This week, it was time to dive in again. With a base of information established, it became even more interesting to dig, to follow tangents, and to learn about fascinating stuff. Here’s some of what I uncovered, and some of the threads that I followed:

• Yes, Ted Williams played for the Millers in the late 1930s, who were a Red Sox AA affiliate at the time. His first season with the team, in spring training, he met, worked with, and took advice from Rogers Hornsby that shaped his coming hitting career. (Ted made a career-long habit out of talking with previous eras’ hitting stars, even getting into an argument with Ty Cobb over whether one should hit “up” or “down” on the baseball.)

• Willie Mays played there too, in the early 1950s, after leaving the Negro Leagues on his way to the Majors. The Millers were a New York Giants farm club by then, and Mays only played a few dozen games with the team. He wore #28 in Minneapolis, not the #24 that would become synonymous with his legend. The day he was called up to the big club, Willie happened to be on a road trip in Iowa with the Millers, and was spending a few off hours at a movie. The Giants found the theater and asked the projectionist to stop the movie, bring up the house lights, and ask if Willie was there - and if he was, to get back to his hotel. Willie did so, and was debuting for the Giants against Philly the next night.

• Speaking of farm clubs, the Millers figure interestingly in how, exactly, the system of minor league affiliates works in American athletics. I’ve long been interested in how exactly American sports developed an intricate network of owned affiliate clubs, farm teams and feeder leagues, whereas most of the rest of the world’s sporting bodies are essentially systems to organize fully independent clubs (though some maintain relationships with one another, at various levels of formality). The geographic size of the American market, the organic east-to-west nature in which clubs spread out over time, and the unique pervasiveness of collegiate athletics have all played a role. But so too did one Branch Rickey: the man who decided it made a ton of sense for the St. Louis Cardinals, his team, to own and control the clubs that were feeding him players (instead of waiting for those then-independent clubs to sell their promising players to the highest bidder, which the Cardinals usually were not).

The 1920s were just beginning when Rickey had his revelation. By the middle of the decade, he had established a pipeline of feeder clubs under the Cardinals’ control at every minor league level; success and championships followed. Nobody else was doing it - until, as the Cardinals hoisted trophies throughout the 30s and 40s - the advantages became far too obvious to ignore. Soon, almost every major league club was on its way to owning minor league franchises; those that didn’t, like the Washington Senators, had trouble keeping up and flailed in the standings. Rickey had pulled off, essentially, the first Moneyball move - just as disruptive, and more successful on the field - by changing the independent club paradigm in American sports.

How does this apply to the Millers? Well, after leaving the Cardinals in the early 1940s, Branch Rickey was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers to build a farm team in the image of his work in St. Louis. (He was also involved in a bit more history while there.) The Dodgers’ system included the purchase and control of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Saints - a AAA club and the great Twin Cities rival of the Minneapolis Millers. When the Dodgers affiliated with the Saints, the New York Giants - the Dodgers’ fierce major league adversary - decided it made sense to keep the two clubs’ rivalry alive at the minor-league level. The Giants, then, established control over the Millers, ensuring that the two teams’ players would be exposed to the Dodgers-Giants rivalry by proxy. Millers-Saints rivalry games had always been some of the best-attended, best-loved minor-league ballgames in the country; the addition of the Giants-Dodgers subtext only heightened matters. For a time, the Millers weren’t just a minor league diversion for Minneapolis residents - they were a vital and loved part of local life.

The ripples from Branch Rickey’s work that enlivened the Millers reverberated in strange ways, though. As mentioned, the Washington Senators were one of the last clubs to understand and apply Rickey’s minor-league franchise model, and they suffered for it on the field. One could argue, in fact, that the Senators’ failure to understand the minor league affiliate model contributed greatly to their incompetence and general poor form, which set the stage for their departure from Washington, D.C. and their arrival in Minnesota. The Twins brought major league ball to the region, and united fans under one banner - but they also finally ended the wonderful, rivalrous minor league era in Minneapolis sports history.

(I won’t go into the strange threads I followed that led to English football side Preston North End and their farm-club like relationship with the wonderfully named Holker Old Boys of Lancashire, or the exploration of the Harlem, New York, Rens, a 1950s “black five" basketball barnstorming club managed by the first man to greet Willie Mays in New York. Well - a bit more on the latter in a bit.)

So, that’s today’s long tangent, and, in a nutshell, why I love these projects. Each of these little exercises fits a few pieces of the puzzle together for an inquisitive sports fan; there really is some amazing information out there to be found if you just give yourself a good excuse to go looking.

So: Let’s get to the Millers’ out-of-context jersey.

The Design

image click to enlarge

We’ll start with the logo. The Millers had a variety of fancy ‘M’ logos during their time; there were a few consistencies that I’ve paid homage to here. First, the M always demonstrated some kind of Tuscan flourish - the serifs and mid-strokes were usually flared in that common turn-of-the-centurey sporting style. I’ve picked a version of the M that was used in later years here. Second, the mark was always orange (and indeed, I’ve used orange on this jersey as both a primary color and a punchy accent). So the crest spot, over the heart, goes to the Millers’ club insignia, the orange, tuscan M.

imageTwo design attributes interact with the M crest. First, a balanced black and orange stripe crosses the jersey behind the crest; this pays tribute to the solid black (with orange trim) the team used on its caps and numerals. (There were periods where the Millers introduced blue and red as well, but orange and charcoal-black dominate the visual history).  It’s also a unique, but obviously soccer-friendly design - part sash, part horizontal stripe, the 65º angle gives the kit some extra personality and vibrance. Also, below the M crest, you’ll find nine small features - these are miniature indicators marking the Millers’ nine American Association titles - and two Junior World Series victories - between 1902 and 1960. The pennants are blue and triangular, signifying both traditional baseball pennants, and the flag of Minneapolis (itself a blue pennant) in their shape and form.  The two orange stars show the years (1955 and 1958) in which the Millers captured both the American Association pennant, and victory in the Junior World series over International League competition.

Below the crest and stripe, one of the coolest aspects to this jersey: the sponsor.I’m still finding my way with regards to sponsors and manufacturers for these Ghosts and Grandfathers League teams; there is no manufacturer noted here, as the Millers existed before the concept of branded jerseys was really established. But in this case I think the sponsor fits perfectly - and if you’re familiar with Minneapolis, you won’t wonder for a second why it’s been chosen.

Grain Belt beer is a local brew, which for decades was made in Minneapolis proper and served around the midwest (but rarely elsewhere). imageI’ve actually never had a sip, but I’d like to. The Grain Belt company began operating before Prohibition and continued brewing in Minneapolis until the 1970s; today the brand is kept alive by a local brewing conglomerate and is - in the spirit of Pabst Blue Ribbon and, around my New England locale, Narragansett - experiencing a bit of a resurgence in certain fashionable circles. More importantly, the Grain Belt sign - on Nicollet Island in the Mississippi, right in the heart of Minneapolis - is a local landmark. (Again, to use local New England terminology, this is the Minneapolis version of the Citgo sign). I’m sure many a Millers fan quaffed a Grain Belt at Nicollet Park (this Nicollet guy got around, huh?) in the 40s and 50s - and many still do at local events. And the jump from “Millers” to grain to beer isn’t a tough one to make. It all seems to fit; I only regret that I couldn’t fit the awesome bottlecap behind the logo onto the jersey without overcrowding the design.

Finally, the shirt’s base color. I went here with what I’ll call an “off-white heather”. It’s vintage, but also streaked with fine heathered stripes to show a rough-hewn knit style. One might even see a connection to milled imagewheat in the organic, natural look. I’ve also included a very subtle “diamond” pattern that references and echoes the Grain Belt logo across the jersey. The overall effect is kind of a very dim argyle that gives the jersey some down-home personality without intruding too much. The Grain Belt diamond, with edges angled at 65º, sets the tone; it aligns perfectly with the chest stripe and the diamond patterns across the jersey. Around back, we keep it fairly simple. No name, Willie’s #28 in black with orange trim, and a recurrence of the diamond pattern.

From the colors to the history to the sponsor, this is a Minneapolis jersey through and through. I hope you’ll welcome the Minneapolis Millers into the Ghosts & Grandfathers League as founding member #2!

Balloting

Let’s take a second to look back at G.&G. ballot no. 2, and ahead to ballot no. 3.  As in previous rounds, we started with 12 teams; the Millers took the top spot in a tightly contested race.  At the other end, facing relegation (i.e., elimination from future ballots) were bottom-feeders Boston Bees (sorry guys, I even gave you a second chance!), Washington Senators, New Orleans Pelicans (the baseball club), St. Louis Perfectos, and Hollywood Stars.  Four of those teams will fall off the ballot; I’m choosing to exercise my divine right and give one team a one-time reprieve - and that team will be the Hollywood Stars, who I think could make for a very cool soccer-style jersey.  The Stars will stay for at least one more ballot; the others are gone, and we wish them well.  Here’s how ballot no. 2 shook out:

 %v  Team
---- inducted
  21 Minneapolis Millers

---- roll over to next ballot
  20 New York Highlanders
  17 Seattle Pilots
   8 Cleveland Spiders
   8 Houston Colt .45s
   7 St. Louis Browns
   5 Homestead Grays

---- relegated  
   4 Boston Bees  
   4 Washington Senators
   3 New Orleans Pelicans
   3 St. Louis Perfectos

---- 1-time save via divine intervention
   0 Hollywood Stars

Replacing the five departing identities are five new ones - and these newcomers make for an amazing crop of identities.  We’re stretching here, incorporating new sports and new locales - there’s so much to work with, how could you not? Welcome to the ballot: 1920s New York basketball team Harlem Renaissance (told you the Rens would be heard from again!), famous mid-century baseball barnstormers House of David, turn-of-the-century Pittsburg area gridiron football club Latrobe Athletic Association, and my favorite, from the 1950s heyday of Spanish baseball, Pops CB of Lloret de Mar, Catalonia, Spain. These new teams are pulled from my research and your write-in suggestions - which I’m happy to keep receiving. (Just find me on Twitter or via email with your Soccer Out of Context G.&G. League club idea. ) Here’s how the ballot looks now; you can brush up on the identities (if you like) using these links to Wikipedia, then let democracy prevail, by voting at the link below.

CLICK HERE TO VOTE

The first ballot was a landslide; the second a one-vote squeaker.  And again, I have no idea what to expect in the race for G.&G. League team #3.  Keep the votes and the suggestions coming, and we’ll call it in about a week.  

Get a T-Shirt

If you enjoyed this piece, and/or the entire Soccer Out of Context series, you can always show your support (and your great taste) by grabbing a S.O.O.C. Ghosts & Grandfathers League t-shirt. Two designs to choose from, good-looking, high-quality and only $23 apiece. 

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Click here for the G.&G. “typographic” shirt (white on black) update: the black shirt is temporarily out of stock!, or click here for the “logo” shirt (black on heather grey).

And with that: see you back State-side next week for a new S.O.O.C. design. 

If you made it this far, you might enjoy a few other uniform, soccer and identity-related projects I’ve worked on: Clean Sheet, my shop for soccer-inspired design; and design pieces 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!