Bearing Down: The Story Behind the Fresno Grizzlies

Written By:  •  Saturday, August 8, 2015

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The first time a bear appeared on a California flag was in 1846 during the Bear Flag Revolt, a precursor to the Mexican-American War, which ultimately led to California becoming the 31st state of the United States in 1850. Granted, the bear on that flag (at right) looks more like the American black bear (or possibly a capybara) than it does the iconic California grizzly that graces the current state flag, but it set the standard for California being represented visually by a bear.

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The California grizzly, an extinct subspecies since the 1920s, is the official state animal. It appeared on California’s first state seal, designed in 1849, and continues to hang out on the current version, designed in 1937, eating grapes at the feet of Greek goddess Minerva on the banks of the Sacramento River with the Sierra Nevada mountains looming in the background.

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California-MugThe current California state flag, officially adopted in 1911, features Monarch the bear, the last specimen of captive California grizzly, who died in 1911 and whose taxidermied corpse currently resides in the Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This 169-year history of bears representing the state of California have led to this moment, where Monarch the grizzly’s likeness graces the souvenir mug that I am drinking coffee from as I write this article.

It also brings us to the 18th season of the Pacific Coast League’s Fresno Grizzlies, Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. Fresno, located in the center of the state, due east of the Monterey Bay and just south of Yosemite National Park in the San Joaquin Valley, seemed like a natural fit for a bear logo.

“Our original thought on the team name was the California grizzly,” said Derek Franks, the Grizzlies’ general manager, who has been with the team in varying capacities for 12 years. “That was the thing, the tie to Yosemite, the Valley and all that, the California state flag. They chose Grizzlies way back in 1998 when they were putting this thing together. We’ve stuck with it ever since.”

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For their first seven seasons, the Grizzlies wore purple and yellow and featured a bear throwing a baseball as their logo. In 2004, Franks’ first season with the team, the Grizzlies were ready for a change.

“There was a change in management that led to a change in ownership,” Franks said. “I think that at that time there were some thoughts that it was time to refresh and do something different.”

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4810“Something different” turned out to be a somewhat ill-fated attempt to cram too many ideas into one brand.

“When they were sort of trying to figure out what’s Fresno’s thing, there was a lot of talk about agriculture,” Franks said. “In some of the polling that they did, there was a lot of mention of the Yosemite National Park, so their goal was to take the agriculture and the sunshine and the warm weather and Yosemite and some of the stuff that people associated with our area and tie it all in to one brand.”

The short-lived identity, which was used from 2005 to 2007, featured an unfamiliar color palette, a shield with the letters FG, and a bear possibly eating an exploding baseball.

The new look never really caught on, so it was back to the drawing board. Fan sentiment seemed split in two directions: those who wanted the team to reprise their purple and yellow days, and those who wanted the team to adopt the colors of the only parent club they had ever known, the San Francisco Giants.

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ermb4bpgaihypppoqtsebunzdEnter the team’s current identity, which was designed by the Connecticut-based Silverman Group and has been in use since 2008.

“When we made that switch to that identity, the day we announced it, we did say that we were adopting the orange and black of our parent club,” Franks said.

After 17 years together, the Grizzlies and the Giants split up this past offseason. The Giants signed on with Sacramento RiverCats, which has led to hilarious but possibly only semi-joking public feuds between the Grizzlies and the RiverCats over such topics as which team has more of a right to wear the California flag as a uniform and which team has a logo that looks like that grumpy cat meme.

11218158_10152934736096892_533775071646607922_nLuckily for the Grizzlies, their new parent club, the Astros, not only has a much better farm system, but it also features orange as its primary color.

“We looked at it and said, we do share the color orange as the common color between us and Houston,” Franks said, “and that’s going to help make this first year work out and be a little bit easier of a transition. It sort of softened the blow that there are some familiar colors there.”

The Grizzlies considered a rebrand, but didn’t want to rush a new look for this season, even with a 60-day extension the league grants to teams who change parent clubs.

“Our goal this year has been to change our look and our marketing efforts to reflect an evolving brand without actually changing the primary logo and the colors,” Franks said.

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11150338_10152732712891892_5818710687269005813_nThis has led to the more prominent use of what Franks calls the G-Paw logo, which had been a secondary logo used only for merchandise purposes, but which has found its way onto the team’s new home uniforms and caps this season. (One aspect of the G-Paw logo that warrants pointing out is that the G is shaped like a baseball diamond. “That’s one thing that people see at first shot and other people you point it out to them and they say, ‘Oh man, that’s great,’” Franks said.)

The Grizzlies’ identity is decidedly serious and intimidating rather than cartoonish and fun, but the team balances that with attention-grabbing, wacky promotions.

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One such promotion took place just last weekend, when the team became the Fresno Tacos for one night. The uniforms were wildly well received, and even resulted in the promise from one prominent company of free tacos for everyone if the team changed their name permanently.

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The Grizzlies are unlikely to change their name any time soon, but the fun promotions will be part of the team’s identity.

“We feel that the Grizzlies marks are, for 17 years, going on 18 years now, that’s been a tradition here in Fresno that we like that we’ve kept,” Franks said. “But we’re making up for being kind of a ferocious by doing as much fun and wacky stuff on the marketing side that we can.”

There are likely some changes ahead for the Grizzlies as they settle in with their first new parent club in 17 years, but the name Grizzlies, which has roots that date back almost 170 years, will be a fixture in the Pacific Coast League for the foreseeable future.



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Paul Caputo

Paul Caputo is a grown man who collects plastic ice cream helmet sundaes from minor league baseball stadiums because he likes logos that much. He is the author of the Story Behind the Nickname Series on this website and can be found on Twitter at @Count2Baseball.