/ 20 June 2013

Soccer Out of Context: The Cleveland Spiders

imageGhosts & Grandfathers Team #3: The Cleveland Spiders

Today we’ll dive into the third jersey added to our ongoing Ghosts & Grandfathers project. (In case you don’t remember, Ghosts & Grandfathers takes the Soccer Out of Context idea and applies it to sporting identities who have long-since ceased to be, whether they disappeared completely – “ghosts” – or took a few generations to evolve into something we know today – “grandfathers”. So far, the Montreal Expos and Minneapolis Millers have been voted in; our third club takes us back to the lovely and under-rated baseball town of Cleveland, Ohio.

After covering the Cleveland Indians during the S.O.O.C. “A.L. Central” entry – which was really enjoyable to do – I wasn’t sure how much was left to say about Cleveland. We talked history; we talked auto industry and city flags and ‘Major League’. We gave the Indians a pretty cool soccer look. But the Ghosts & Grandfathers project casts a wide net – any club in any sport who’s ever existed (but doesn’t anymore) is eligible – and asks you guys to vote clubs in. We suggested the Cleveland Spiders, a club that barely saw the twentieth century, and you liked it. So here we are.

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!

Some Background

Who are the Cleveland Spiders? Well, short of holing up in the Hall of Fame or the Cleveland historical preservation society for a few weeks, there’s not a whole ton of information out there. Let’s break down what we know:

The Spiders were Cleveland’s first major league club, debuting in 1887 with the American Association as the Forest Citys (how English football of them), before moving into the National League as the Spiders a couple years later. I’m fairly intrigued by the “Spiders” moniker – it seems like a name far too modern and focus-group cute for pre–20th century, midwestern baseball nine. There weren’t really mascots or pre-considered brands during that era of baseball; even nicknames were barely official, and were often coined by newspapers or fans rather than by the teams themselves. The idea of putting a pictograph of your mascot onto a shirt or a cap was definitely not in vogue yet, so I’m fairly sure there were no google-eyed cartoon spiders adorning the club’s uniforms. Wikipedia claims that the moniker was “supposedly inspired by their ‘skinny and spindly’ players”, but that seems like as much of a stretch as anything else. In any event, it’s an odd, and fascinating, piece of history to work with.

And then there’s the club’s body of on-field work. No one remembers the decent years – the 93 wins in 1892, or the Temple Cup victory in 1895 (more on that in a bit). What most will recall is what Wikipedia breaks out into a heading sadly titled 1899: The Debacle. That year, Cleveland was owned by brothers – the Robisons – who also, in a somewhat shady arrangement, owned the St. Louis Browns. Before the 1899 season, all of Cleveland’s best players were transferred to the club the brothers favored, St. Louis. The Browns were re-christened as “The Perfectos” and went on to have good success. The Spiders were left with a shell of a club – the Robison brothers openly claimed to be running them “as a sideshow” – and the team limped to what is still the worst seasonal record in baseball history: an amazing 20–134. To put that in perspective: the 1962 expansion New York Mets, frequently cited for their lovable futility, doubled the 1899 Spiders’ seasonal win total. Cleveland’s club was not only ridiculed, they were flat out disbanded and contracted out of the NL after the season. Oof.

There were some odd positives to come out of The Debacle, however. First, the scenario that led to their terrible season – owners controlling more than one club at a time – was quickly barred, a rule which thankfully stands to this day in Major League ball. Second, some Cleveland players who were involved in the transfer went on to stardom – perhaps you’ve heard of this guy – a pitcher, I think? – Cy Young?  He began his career as a Spider before being shipped off to St. Louis.  And finally, the dilapidated assets of the disbanded Spiders organization were salvaged by new owners in 1900, and a new minor-league team was formed that eventually became the Indians we know and love today. So there is a loose but real historical thread that binds the Spiders to current sporting history.

The Temple Cup

Circling back quickly to the Temple Cup: it’s a fun piece of baseball history in its own right. American sports have a unique tradition of forming rival leagues, and before unifying them, playing series between their competing champions for bragging rights. This is how the World Series came to be, and of course later the Super Bowl. Eventually these series came to determine the champions of single entities (a coalesced M.L.B., and a merged N.F.L.), but once upon a time, they were necessary to determine champions among completely separate organizations. (The Stanley Cup tournament, contrastingly, started as challenge cup that any hockey club in Canada could enter; only later was it tied exclusively to the N.H.L.)


What does this have to do with the Temple Cup? Well, the Spiders existed in a pre-World Series era; there was only one major league for most of their history: the National League. The champion, then, was easy to determine; it was simply the first-place team at the end of the season. Though that resolution was tidy and fair, it wasn’t favored by fans or club owners; post-season series were more exciting and gave clubs more gate opportunities. So, enter the Temple Cup: a post-season series between the first and second-place regular-season finishers. Did it change who the “champion” was? Not really. Was it contrived? Pretty much, and it was generally treated as such by players. But it was kind of cool: the Temple Cup itself was an actual beautiful silver cup, donated by the owner of the Pirates, William Temple. The idea was that if the Cup was won three times by any club, they would get to keep it; and that would be the end of the tournament for good. (This, for the record, is an awesome concept.) Of course, the Temple Cup series wasn’t played enough times for any club to accomplish that, though the Baltimore Orioles did win it twice. The Spiders pulled a Temple Cup upset of sorts, finishing second in the N.L. in 1895 but beating first-place Baltimore in the Cup series, four games to one, behind two Cy Young victories.

The Temple Cup faded away just before the A.L. and N.L. began competing for supremacy, and eventually the World Series took over its role as a post-season spectacle. The Cup itself was given back to the Temple family, then drifted out of sight; it was luckily located in the 1930s and moved to the Hall of Fame. Go check it out some time and think about the bright future the Cleveland Spiders had way back when. Before… [dun dun dun]… The Debacle.

Our objectives: honor the Spiders’ unique history, deal with their interesting too-modern-for-their-era brand, and tie them to the thriving, water-powered working class city that was 1890s Cleveland. Elevate their identity past the futile (but interesting) on-field stuff. Then wrap that all into a present-day soccer jersey aesthetic. Got it? Here’s where we ended up.

The Design

image click to enlarge

Let’s break this down. First, the jersey color. I went with a two-tone cream – almost a pale gold, really – to honor the club’s vintage. I added some rough, heathery details to the fabric to sync up with the natural wool and cotton-based fabrics a team like the Spiders would have been wearing. Woven into the base layer is a particular design – one that I hope makes visual sense to Clevelanders and is appealing to all: a subtle representation of the city’s industrious coastline, and the waterways that define it. The lighter base ends in a diagonal that cuts from the base of one arm to the shoulder of the other; this recreates Cleveland’s coastline along the southern shores of Lake Erie. the darker tone that takes over represents the lake itself. If you study the design, you’ll see that the diagonal line isn’t perfectly straight; imagethis is a stylized, but realistic depiction of the gentle, curving way the land and water meet.

Meandering down from the lake is a visual that perhaps defines the look – a twisting, looping dark line. This is the Cuyahoga River, which ends at Lake Erie and, in many ways, unites the city Cleveland as it flows in and around its neighborhoods. The river and lake elements together create the idea of “Cleveland” on the shirt in a kind of negative space; wherever the lighter base color of the shirt comes through is akin to the city itself. I liked the visual cleanliness of this idea; for a city that was, and still is, so closely defined by the water nearby, it seemed to make sense.

Moving on, to the graphics. This part is always interesting when it comes to older teams who, again, barely had consistent colors and names, let alone established logos and wordmarks. I couldn’t find much in the way of authentic Cleveland Spider material to work with, and since the project is so interesting, I got down to work myself.image So first, over the heart, a crest of sorts; since they didn’t have one, I decided to create a logo mark for the Spiders. I call it “the Cog”. It’s a simple idea, befitting the era, but one with some nuance and meaning, too.  The cog logo brings together several important elements gracefully: first and most obviously, it’s a “C” for Cleveland; this particular C is taken directly from the C on the Cleveland city flag that debuted around the time the Spiders were active. It’s a graceful, full shape, worthy of doing the work of a crest. Next, the notches, or teeth – these turn the C into a cog or gear, another symbol you’ll find on the city flag and another recognition of Cleveland’s industrial prowess. And finally, if you count up the teeth, you’ll find eight of them – paying homage (albeit in a very abstract way) to the idea of an eight-legged spider. I don’t expect the shape to resemble an actual spider anatomically; just to give a little symbolic support to the club’s nickname. Finally, you’ll find a single star in the C’s clutches, symbolizing the Spider’s sole Temple Cup win. Everything is rendered in a simple, heritage navy blue color, which pays homage to the dark shades in the Spiders’ repertoire and the blue in Cleveland’s civic identity.

I also added a club sponsor. This, of course, takes our conceit to a very theoretical place; there were no jersey sponsorships in any sport during this era. But if there were, and the Spiders had one, I think this would be a cool way to go about it. I’ve chosen, as the Spiders’ uniform sponsor, The Great Lakes Group, a tugboat builder based in Cleveland and founded in – yes! – 1899. image This made a ton of sense to me: the dates lined up; the ideals are aligned (a tugboat couldn’t be more symbolic of the working class, hard-nosed nature that Clevelanders share), and the nautical, river-and-lake theme of the jersey allowed me to place the sponsor logo actually “in” Lake Erie, just below the right shoulder. For the logo itself, I used the Great Lakes Group’s traditional naval ensign (instead of its modern corporate logo) to lend a more authentic, visceral feel to the whole package. That forked pennant and angled G is a flag you might actually see hoisted on tugs in Lake Erie – and it’s a lovely piece of design in its own right. Everything is faded back tonally as not to overwhelm the design. It just seemed to fit.

Finally, around back, you’ll find the shoreline mirrored (this time without the river) for visual balance. Though blocky, collegiate style typefaces were more likely in baseball’s earlier eras, the Spiders existed well before any numbers were used on jerseys at all,image so I felt I had some room to play around. To line up with the slightly modern, sleek approach of the crest’s C and the sponsor’s G, I chose a smooth face for the number. This combination – modern minimalism surrounded by retro elements – really works for me, and it echoes the idea of a club in the 1890s being called the Spiders to begin with.  This is truly an identity that connects eras. And yes, I chose “20” to honor that woeful 1899 team, and the sum total of wins they were able to achieve. Perhaps by celebrating and smiling about that edition of the club – and leaving them with a bit of good design – we can help ease their infamy build around what continues to make them the Cleveland Spiders a classic.

That’s all for today! Hope you enjoyed it. I traditionally sum up the previous G&G ballot and kick off a new one at the end of these pieces, but I think we’ll save that for a future entry. So check back soon – and thanks for reading.

Interested in wearing something with this logo?
I’m working up some real-life apparel options with this “cog C” identity. If you’re interested, let me know on Twitter (@m_willis), by email (m@mwillis.com), or just leave your email in the form at the very bottom of this page.

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 Soccer Out of Context, Identity Sketches for NYCFCRe-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!