by Austin Kelley
While we were watching St. Louis play the other night, my friend Marshall (who illustrates this website) said, “Every time I look at the Cardinals uniforms I think, ‘I better enjoy these while they last. It’s only a matter of time before someone redesigns them.’” I studied the twin red birds perched on two ends of a tilted bat. There is no other logo like it. The cardinals are slightly asymmetrical, yet they project a sense of balance. The word “Cardinals” hangs on the bat as well, but the birds are not, like some emblematic creatures, integrated into the lettering. Nor are they doing anything with the bat, like carrying it or laying down a bunt; they’re just sitting on it. As far as they’re concerned, it could just as easily be a field hockey stick.
What makes the birds so peculiar and so wonderful, though, is the fact that there are two of them. It’s hard for two of something to be an allegory or an emblem. One cardinal might represent the essence of Cardinal; two cardinals are birds.
I could see Marshall’s point. In recent years, marketing executives have transformed sports uniforms and logos. They make animals dynamically cartoonish (like the San Jose Shark) or angular and mean (like the new Arizona Cardinal or the new Philadelphia Eagle). Or they add black and teal (“Poor Mets!”) The cheerful, disinterested red birds are miles apart from the new Blue Jay (or should I just say ‘Jay’?).
But maybe my curmudgeonly outrage at the present state of graphic design is unfounded. Marshall’s nostalgia for the present is not new; such nostalgia has always ruled baseball. Just look at the uniforms – pajamas with belts and stirrups. No one wore that outfit, even in the nineteenth century. They were archaic from the start. As for the Cardinals, they’ve had some version of the twin birds on their shirt almost every year since 1922. In 1956 general manager Frank Lane had the twin cardinal image removed from the front of the uniform, but fans wouldn’t have it. The next year the birds-on-a-bat were back.
It’s a mistake as well to think that cartoonish graphic design is an invention of the 1970s. Take a look at some of the other Cardinals logos of the past. There was 1949’s sneaky pitching bird or the batting bird of 1967.
On the American league side, the Tigers have classic uniforms. They introduced old-English lettering into baseball in 1904, over seventy years (The baseball Hall of Fame has an excellent uniform database). Still the Tigers have had their odd logos like 1967’s batting cat, or his pitching buddy, or the worried-looking orange head from 1927. Marshall loves the Cardinals’ shirts partly because they look unpolished. “It’s like someone on the team did them,” he said, “maybe a pitcher who is good at drawing.” Well, Marshall, you must like the original Tigers logo from 1901.
The other day I put in a call to my ornithologist friend Matthew McKown to find out more about the Cardinals. “They’re definitely two male birds,” he said, “but I don’t think you’d find two male cardinals that close to one another.” He paused. “Depending on the season.”