Designing a team logo should be easy, shouldn't it? Draw the animal, historical tough guy, profession or object that represents the team. Add a letter or symbol to represent the region: a D for Detroit, an arch for St. Louis, a star for Texas or sunny colors for Florida. Frame it in a circle, cap or football shape, and it's ready to be printed on a million pennants and T-shirts.
Yet somehow, logos go wrong. Very wrong. Early logos had no predecessors to draw from and can look quaint and ridiculous to modern eyes. Recent logos are so carefully crafted by marketing gurus that they can look like stock-market symbols. In the decades in between, teams have proudly displayed emblems that were silly, ugly, cheaply produced and poorly drawn. For every iconic Cowboys star or Yankees bat-and-top-hat, there have been hundreds of logos that appear to have been scribbled on a cocktail napkin by the team owner's mistress, or cobbled together by the best correspondence art school graduate that World Hockey Association money could afford.
Let's take a tour of the crazy corners and bizarre trends in logo history. We will leave colleges, the baseball minor leagues, and international teams alone -- if some town of 15,000 wants to name its team the "Anthracite Ferrets," who are we to judge? -- and we will stick to the "major" leagues in most cases. From sloppiness to political incorrectness to outright lunacy, we have a vast palette to choose from.
(Chris Creamer's SportsLogos.net, an online museum of thousands of logos, uniforms, insignia and other promotional materials, was an essential resource for this article, and unless otherwise noted is credited with each of these logos.)
Logos from the early days of sports are naturally going to look quaint to modern eyes, like silent films or Model T Fords. At the same time, humans were drawing realistic animals on cave ceilings 20,000 years ago, so we should expect early 20th century artists to at least be able to render a realistic looking elephant.
Doing It Right: Detroit Red Wings, NHL, 1930s
The Red Wings logo dates from 1932, the heart of the Great Depression and an era when most major league baseball teams were still grappling with the challenges of legible Gothic letters. You have cool wings, a wheel to represent Detroit, awesome spokes, and a simple, vibrant color scheme. Done! Eighty years later, all the team has had to do is tweak the tire a little.
Now, check out the Maple Leafs from roughly the same era and 230 miles away:
Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, 1920s
There's a maple tree right outside my office, so I know what a maple leaf looks like. Your typical Canadian in the 1920s no doubt knew what a maple leaf looks like. That doesn't look like a maple leaf. If I see a leaf like this on my front lawn, I may call the DEA or some college buddies over for a Scooby Doo marathon, but I don't try to tap a trunk to make syrup.
Philadelphia Athletics, MLB, 1920
The primitive humans who painted the ceiling of the Lascaux cave created lifelike, energetic images of giant mammals, working in near-total darkness and using tools so crude that they may have been spitting paint through a hollow plant stem onto rock. Armed with 20th century technology and the resources of the most popular sports team in one of America's largest cities, the Philadelphia Athletics doodled a wobbly blue elephant that would not look out of place in a kindergarten art fair, except that OH MY GOD THERE ARE FIVE APPENDAGES HANGING BENEATH THE ELEPHANT AND ONLY FOUR CAN BE LEGS WHICH MEANS THE FIFTH OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD.
Chicago Cubs, MLB, 1908
It was a gloomy day in the Hundred Acre Wood when Pooh-Bear realized that he had brought shame upon his family of animal friends. "Silly old bear," Christopher Robin said, "I hope you will do the honorable thing." "Oh bother," Pooh-Bear replied, "I must commit Seppuku." Casting his honeypot aside, the tubby cubby plunged a katana into his belly. Fluff gushed out like a fountain, covering the woods in a fuzzy layer of stuffing. "Way to go out like a man, Buddy Bear, woo-hoo-hoo!" Tigger said, and they all strolled off to Rabbit's house for tea.
Animal logos are the hardest ones to screw up. If you cannot draw a credible bear or tiger, you will probably not be asked to design a team logo after junior high school. Still, it's amazing how many teams overthink the process of slapping a helmet or a hockey stick on a lion, horse, or hawk.
Doing It Right: St. Louis Cardinals, MLB, 1920s
There are dozens of examples of appealing animal emblems, but the National League champs proved how easy it was in the 1920s. Again, this was an era when the crosstown Browns could not make legible initials on a cap. Yet the Cardinals designed a handsome logo which, with a few tweaks, is a dead ringer for the one we saw on Carlos Beltran's chest in the World Series.
It helps that cardinals are aesthetically bulletproof: from these early birds to Margaret from Regular Show, they are always beautiful and easy to render. Of course, tigers are beautiful and easy to draw, too, so how did this happen?
Cincinnati Bengals, AFL, late 1960s
When you think of jungle cats and successful NFL franchises, you no doubt envision emaciated creatures fleeing in terror. Off-brand, not-so-greeeat Tony here was forced to wear a helmet with his likeness on it which was at least four sizes too small, hence the panic. It is hard to tell if the helmet tiger is also fleeing, with a little helmet flying off which also contains a fleeing tiger and tinier helmet, ad infinitum. The Bengals gave up and stenciled their team name across their helmets for ten years after this, and it was a drastic improvement.
Detroit Tigers, MLB, late 1920s
My God, I have eaten Charlie Gehringer!
It's OK... I will just hide the body up in a tree. Everything is going to be fine. Just fine.
Denver Broncos, AFL, 1960s
This emblem appears to have been drawn by someone who has never seen a human, a horse, or a human riding a horse. The golden retriever-sized horse gleefully bucks the tiny-headed football player as retribution for digging cleats into his back, but as the player's wrists are thicker than his biceps, any anatomical damage inflicted by the fall will probably be an improvement.
Buffalo Bills, AFL, 1960s
"Hey, I'm here for practice and... what's that? You say you are taking a picture of a buffalo for the team logo? I will just lean out of your way. What's that? You say I am leaning into your way? Well, this is the only way I can lean because my shoulders are bolted to my torso." By the way, the number 31 does not represent any specific player. For years, it was a retired number that represented "the spirit of the Bills," but nowadays Jarius Byrd gets to wear it. The Bills are weird.
Dallas Chaparrals, ABA, 1960s
This little guy is rather cute for a two-minute pencil-and-crayon doodle. Unfortunately, he was the actual emblem for a basketball team no one remembers. "Chaparral" is an ecological term for sagebrush country. If you want people to come watch your team, don't name them after a featureless wilderness.
The Human League
It should not be too hard to render a fun, menacing, semi-realistic image of a real-life person like a pirate or Viking on a team logo. But many teams made it far harder than it had to be. Either they got too cute with the cartoonish elements, too cheap and sloppy with the draftsmanship, or just too weird with the material, but somehow they took a simple subject and made it baffling, ridiculous, or unintentionally hilarious.
Doing it Right: Pittsburgh Pirates, MLB, 1970s/1980s
This guy is the perfect pirate: tough but dashing. The hat and patch leave no doubt about his profession, and the tattered wanted poster effect is both a cute framing device and a reminder that this guy is bad news. The Pirates have generally had good logo taste -- the current pirate is tough without overselling it, while previous logos showed more of a wily sea captain -- but they got it completely wrong with the preceding guy...
Pittsburgh Pirates, MLB, 1960s
That's not a pirate. That's some dude from accounts receivable who got too drunk at the office Halloween party while dressed as a pirate. That look on his face shows that he has just been served with sexual harassment paperwork.
Still, our jowly, stubbly friend has nothing on these mind-boggling logos.
San Diego Conquistadors, ABA, 1960s
The indigenous people of Central America saw the conquistadors as horrifying warrior gods because of their different-sized hands: a teeny tiny one for poleax brandishing and an enormous one for palming a basketball. Also, since the picture establishes that human heads are made from ABA basketballs, Stabbie here may be crossover-dribbling a human skull, which sounds historically accurate. Everything about this ornery little cuss is a treasure: the insane detail on his armor, the snarling rage, the Gothic script, and the action lines at the tip of his weapon. Yes, this dude is in the act of stabbing someone when this emblem was taken.
Denver Nuggets, ABA, 1960s
This poor guy is giving himself a frontal lobotomy with a pickaxe while attempting a left-handed windmill dunk. Also, he is showing wayyy too much tongue, though considering the brain damage he is self-inflicting, it is understandable. There is also some M.C.Escher optical illusion going on with his feet, which do not appear to exist in Euclidean space. All in all, it is for the best that this cartoonist did not attempt to interpret a "nugget."
Washington Senators/Nationals, MLB, late 1950s
The Founding Fathers all wore tricornered hats to hide their grotesque macrocephaly. Also, they smoked cigars while exerting themselves because they were the original government fat cats. Why they wore two completely different shoes remains a mystery.
San Diego Mariners, WHL, 1960s
The lifelike draftsmanship is what takes this emblem into the loony category. The mind can accept a cartoon penguin playing hockey wearing a little scarf, but an anatomically-correct penguin with skates and a stick would freak us the hell out. Similarly, Captain Tobacco here is all maritime business on top, all puck-handling down below, leaving us to wonder whether it is a good idea for a ship's captain to be skating around with a hard object in his mouth.
New Orleans Buccaneers, ABA, 1960s
He only has one ear. There is a blotch on his torso which appears to be either chest hair or congealed, uneaten chocolate pudding. His belt buckle takes up his whole abdomen. For the perspective in the drawing to work, his right arm must be eight feet longer. Best of all, the word ""Buccaneers" is tilted at an odd angle along his outline circle, to accommodate his sword, which is its own marvel of scrambled perspective. But at least his basketball has "New Orleans" on it, so you know what city to avoid if you don't want to see him.
Kentucky Colonels, ABA, 1967
Yes, the ABA is really taking it on the chin in this segment. It was a rinky-dink league, but the Colonels were no rinky-dink team: they were one of the league's best teams for most of its history, and they narrowly missed the cut during the NBA-ABA merger.
In later years, the Colonels adopted a cool, stylized K-C logo. But in their first year, they opted to represent themselves with Uncle Si wearing a bright green uniform while getting chased by a puppy. The dog is Ziggy, a Brussels Griffon and the family pet of team owners Joe and Mamie Gregory. Ziggy actually attended owners meetings and had a front row seat for games, making him like the Reds' Schotzie in the 1980s or the Cowboys' Stephen Jones today.
A Brussels Griffon is hardly a fitting dog for an old-fashioned southern "colonel," and while such a colonel might indeed own some prized horses, he would not run around waving a horseshoe in his hand. Throw in the droopy uniform, and you have what appears to be a good ol' boy rushing from an outhouse while being chased by a fuzzy rat. No wonder they missed the merger cut.
What happens when your team mascot is an inanimate object, like an airplane or footwear? The wrong thing to do, in most cases, is to morph the object into some kind of horrible man-thing. Making a cartoon human out of a jet plane or auto parts sounds cute until you actually see the monstrous freak grinning at you from cover of the team's yearbook.
Doing it Right: Boston Red Sox, MLB, 1970s-2000s
Faced with a team name too traditional to change but too lost in the 19th century to turn into a dynamic image, the World Champions have kept things simple and iconic for most of their history. Their current socks-only logo looks naked without the baseball stitching and mix of block and Gothic lettering. But the Red Sox know not to take things too far, because their logo once looked like this:
Boston Red Sox, MLB, 1950s
The resemblance between the human foot and the male sexual organ was noticed very early in human history. So anyone in any era drawing an article of footwear, then putting a face on the calf, then some legs under the heel, should probably have a good idea what it is going to look like. At the very least, he should avoid dangling an anatomically-dubious circle just beneath those curiously-pointed toes.
Denver Rockets, ABA, 1970s
While we are on the subject of phallic imagery, a rocket is always going to look a little Freudian, but give it arms, legs, and a face and you have the stuff of psychotherapeutic dissertations. Still, a mighty space rocket forced to run on human legs (and stare down at the basketball while dribbling, like an eight-year old), must feel pretty impotent.
Milwaukee Brewers, MLB, 1970s
Brewers are real people, not objects. But they cause artistic nightmares because, like serial killers, they dress just like everybody else. The Brewers tried to solve this problem by creating a slugging keg with a weird tap for a face, tiny feet, and a creepily projected crotch at the very center of the composition. Beer brewing had become corporate, industrialized, and alienated from everyday experience in the 1970s, so it was hard to draw a "brewer" fans could relate to. Nowadays, the Brewers could simply replace their stylized mitt logo with a picture of a hipster with no sense of humor.
Zollner Pistons, NBL, 1950s
The Z on this guy's chest stands for Zollner; the team which is now the Detroit Pistons was originally the Zollner Pistons. In addition to making auto parts, the Zollner company dabbled in black sorcery that allowed oil cans to levitate, attain human form, and dream of playing basketball. Alas, such anthropomorphized collections of scrap metal are abhorrent to the eyes of Nature, so Zippy is stuck with a deformed right hand and feet that wiggle dangerously when he tries to leap. Zippy looks happy now, but when he collapse into a heap of disenchanted tin, his head rolling forlornly across the gymnasium floor, no one will be laughing.
The Zollner Pistons were not the only team in the old NBL named after an auto parts magnate and his auto parts. The league also featured the Akron Firestone Non-Skids and Toledo Jim White Chevrolets. It would be as if Shahid Khan renamed the NFL's Jaguars the Jacksonville Flex-n-Gate Rear Bumpers. But then, maybe he has and no one has noticed yet.
Guns, GUNS, GUNS!!!!
Not long ago, no one worried much about guns and ammunition in sports logos. But then, we (please put on your color-enhanced worldview spectacles for the next sentence) became a mamby-pamby nanny state that pandered to the wimps, hippies, and other threats to real America.
Became so enlightened to sports culture's role in legitimizing violence in society that we purged major sports leagues of all hints of firearms, at about the exact moment our children abandoned sports for Grand Theft Auto games.
Either way, it became OK to be a pillaging Viking or vicious animal, but guns are forbidden. Nowadays, some of those old logos are downright shocking, though many more of them are simply ridiculous.
Doing it Right: Texas Rangers, MLB, 1980s, and Dallas Cowboys, NFL, 1964-present
You would think that two Texas teams with firearm-themed names would flaunt a six-shooter somewhere in their emblems. Even the most quinoa-gorged East Coast liberal would concede that the gun is a major part of cowboy iconography and that the Texas Ranger is a duly-appointed law officer. Anyway, Texans are known to like their guns.
But the Rangers and Cowboys have opted for simpler, more symbolic logos throughout their histories. They learned the same lesson little children learn when trick-or-treating: the real Hulk does not wear a tee-shirt that says "hulk" on it, and a real Cowboy or Ranger does not wear a picture of a cowboy or a ranger, but a star, badge, or other symbol of his jurisdiction.
If only these other teams learned the same lesson:
Baltimore Bullets, NBL, 1940s
Someone shot the basketball. Which means they brought the gun to the game. This is why we can't have nice things. Unless I am interpreting things wrong and that is really a badminton shuttlecock, or a crude rendering of the miracle of conception.
Houston Colt 45's, MLB, 1960s
It's a good thing that gun was just fired seconds before the logo was taken. Otherwise, that would say "Olt 45's," which would be silly. The artist showed restraint by not turning the decimal point into a droplet of blood.
San Francisco 49ers, NFL, 1960s
Early gold miners in California were too poor to afford shovels and axes, so they simply tried to shoot the gold from the ground from between their legs while leaping at a 45 degree angle.
San Antonio Gunslingers, USFL, 1980s
The USFL took a lot of heat for its violent-themed team names. But let's face it, this cartoon gunfighter makes Yosemite Sam look dangerous. He is clearly a threat to himself, not others: those spindly legs and hips have no chance of keeping the holster aloft, and with his giant, misshapen hands, he is certain to shoot off his own fingers.
Dallas Texans, AFL, 1960s
Look at the size of that gun, won't you?
Someone is overcompensating for something.
Perhaps his complete lack of a neck.
Dallas Vigilantes, Arena Football, 2010-11
"See, Johnny, this guy was shot through the temple and died. But he came back as an evil skeleton out for vengeance, wielding two guns and wearing the same black hat he wore on the night he was shot. And we came here tonight to cheer on the maniacal zombie skeleton guy as he blasts his way to justice. Isn't this fun? No, I am not taking you home to mom and 'other daddy;' this is our weekend. Want a hot dog? STOP CRYING."
If you were waiting for a self-righteous rant about awful, racist, Native American-themed logos of the past and present, well... keep waiting. While there have been/still are some unfortunate Indian-themed names in the sports world, the depictions on Native Americans on logos have generally been respectful and dignified. That chief on the Chicago Blackhawks emblem looks nothing like Chief Black Hawk, but he looks like a confident, powerful leader. And yes, the fellow on the Redskins helmet would look much better by any other name.
Doing it Right: Kansas City Scouts, NHL, 1970s
The Scouts were only around for a couple of years, but they provided another example of a Native American theme that does not make anyone want to organize a protest. The Scout is not defined by his race, but his profession, and he and his noble steed appear to be doing a heckuva job.
Of course, there have been unfortunate moments.
Kansas City Chiefs, AFL, 1960s
This fellow is certainly ripped, but since no one colored in his pants, he looks like he is naked except for a loin cloth and an excess of leg hair. He is also running AWAY from his home state of Missouri, an unfortunate, unnecessary reminder of actual history.
Philadelphia Warriors, NBA, 1940s
Leaving political correctness aside for a moment, what exactly is the ball doing in this logo?
Is our Native American friend retrieving a pass on two bounces from between his legs with two hands?
Cleveland Indians, MLB, 1940s
It's increasingly difficult to defend the Cleveland mascot, and the team is reportedly planning to minimize its usage in the face of such criticism.
However, when supporters of the current Chief Wahoo say he is a vast improvement... they ain't lying.
Guns and Native Americans aside, there are lots of political correct landmines for teams to sidestep as they try to be as inclusive as possible. Sometimes, their logos veer too far into bland inoffensiveness, although for comedy's sake, it's best to examine the logos that do not go far enough.
Doing it Right: New Jersey Devils, NHL, 1982-present
No one wants to be directly connected to Satan other than ham canners, hot sauce manufacturers, and 80's metal bands. Technically, New Jersey's hockey team is named after a local legend, a mysterious mini-Yeti who roamed the pinelands eating livestock. (The legend of the Jersey Devil dates from Colonial times; the last reported sighting of the beast was in Hammonton on Tuesday.) Given the choice of outraging Ned Flanders with a depiction of the Dark One himself and perplexing international hockey fans with some sort of bipedal badger, the Devils went abstract. The stylized horns and pitchfork can scare nuns on Seinfeld but no one else, the "NJ" is easy to read, and there has been no uptick in Satanism in New Jersey since the rise of the Devils.
On the other hand...
Cincinnati Redlegs, MLB, 1950s
Joe McCarthy was a heck of a guy, and for a while it was dangerous to be referred to as a "Red" in America, even if you were Frank Robinson. So the Reds became the Redlegs and sought the least suspicious-looking logo they could find... a guy with a baseball head, handlebar moustache, and creepy grin. Yep, no way that guy is an enemy of democracy! In fairness, this old-timey Mr. Red looks more like an anarchist than a communist, and when he ditched the facial hair in the 1970s (ironically, when everyone else was growing theirs), he looked pretty cool, even if he crowded his city's name out of the team emblem.
Miami Hooters, Arena Football, 1990s
Obviously, this could have been far worse. Or possibly better. At any rate, this sponsored logo is a time capsule from the era when the Hooters restaurant was sexy-edgy-controversial, not a sad feeding pen for middle-aged business travelers just off the interstate.
Memphis Maniax, XFL, 2001
While everything about the XFL was goofy, its logos were tame. Vince McMahon knows a lot about marketing, so he made some wise choices: the New York/New Jersey Hitmen were represented by a stylized H, not a tommy-gun-wielding Mafiosa. "Maniax" is tricky, because dangerous psychosis is not a fun thing to think about in a public place. Perhaps some confusing, bloody slashes (spelling "Ax," though it takes a minute to figure out) are the best we could have hoped for. Check out the team's "alternate logo," for instance. There's a guy you want standing behind you in the concessions line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, NFL, 1970s
Who can forget Bruce the Pirate, a holdover from an era when middle-class America could watch the Village People sing "YMCA" on a variety show and comprehend none of the subtext? Bruce, times have changed, and I am 100% accepting of your lifestyle. UNTIL YOU START WINKING AT ME. WITH A DAGGER IN YOUR TEETH. Whatever you have planned tonight, Bruce, count me out of it.
Political correctness is ultimately about inclusiveness, and while tolerance is admirable, it just does not make good business sense to include too much homoerotic subtext into the logo of an entertainment venture that appeals mostly to easily-squicked-out dudes.
Columbus Crew, MLS, present
Homoerotic SUPER-text, on the other hand, is all good.
It has been a heck of a tour of logo history, and we wrap things up with three head-scratchers from the groovy 70s. All three of these logos faced the same disadvantage: the teams they represented had hard-to-depict nicknames.
Vancouver Canucks, NHL, 1970s
Short of drawing Geddy Lee or Bob and Doug McKenzie, it is hard to depict a convincing "Canuck." The team has wisely never tried, opting for abstractions instead. But this is a little too abstract, looking more like the international symbol for an upcoming accessibility ramp than a motivator to watch hockey. In the future, words and literal pictures will be replaced by clean lines and color fields, food will be in gel form, and sports will be replaced by horizontal stick-wielding ice activities.
Minnesota Twins, MLB, 1970s
The Twins spent two decades tweaking their logo of Minneapolis and St. Paul, represented by two dudes, shaking hands across the Mississippi. By the 70s, the twins looked anachronistically like 1950s cartoon characters, and the drawing became busy with details like baseball stitching (which appears inaccurate) and the STP logo within the logo. But the worst part of the logo is the grammar of Win! Twins! Shouldn't it be Twins Win!? Or Win, Twins!? Dotting the I's with stars AND doubling down on exclamation points are signs of a logo trying too hard.
Montreal Expos, MLB, 1970s-80s
The famous Expos logo, meanwhile, is the champion of not trying hard enough. An entire generation wondered what "elb" stood for; many of us struggled to make out the "M." Officially, the M is for Montreal, the "e" for Expos, the "l" is just some suggestive protrusion from the "e," the "b" on the right for baseball, and the whole shebang is italicized to suggest forward movement. But the Expos logo was really a move back to the illegible Gothic letter transpositions of early baseball caps. It was funky, it was (to Americans) foreign, and it became the modern symbol of bad sports symbolism, a confusing, uninspiring, comical Logo Gone Wrong.