In March of 1941, the US was not yet officially involved in World War II—that would come in December after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite their official neutrality, though, the Americans were sending supplies to allies like Britain, Russia, and China.
With China on the cusp of succumbing to Japanese invasion, one particular arrangement had American pilots from the Navy, Air Corps, and Marine Corps formally resigning from the American military and signing on as volunteers with the Chinese airforce, which, in the words of pilot RT Smith, “was never a match for the Japanese and by 1940 had nearly ceased to exist.”
Despite being outnumbered by the Japanese, the American pilots, officially called the First American Volunteer Group, was wildly successful in China. They would earn the nickname the Flying Tigers—complete with a logo created by the Walt Disney Company’s Roy Williams, as seen in the photo above. Though the Flying Tigers were disbanded seven months after their inception and replaced officially by the US military, their legend lives on.
One of the specific places where the legend of the Flying Tigers lives on is Lakeland, Florida, which was once home to a tiny municipal airport called Lodwick Field, where roughly 2,000 British and American World War II pilots trained. In 1953, Lodwick Field closed and was purchased by the Detroit Tigers, who built their Tiger Town spring training complex on the site.
The Tigers’ spring training facility, Joker Marchant Stadium, is also home to Detroit’s Single-A Florida State League affiliate, the Lakeland Flying Tigers.
The Flying Tigers baseball team, which is owned by its parent club, had simply gone by the name Tigers since the 1960s. But in 2007, the Detroit Tigers took note of the marketing and retail success of the Phillies’ Clearwater Threshers, another Florida State League team owned by its parent club, and they placed a call to Brandiose, the firm that created the Threshers’ brand.
“The Detroit Tigers organization called us up and said, hey we notice what the Phillies have done there and we’d love to bring the same process to Lakeland,” said Brandiose’s Jason Klein.
Given the historic nature of the site in Lakeland, there was not much debate about which direction this identity would go.
“We took a tour of this place,” Klein said. “They still have the airplane hangars from World War II, they still have the mess hall, which is now the cafeteria for Spring Training. There is a very palpable sense that this is an old airfield from World War II.”
Klein credits the Tigers’ director of Florida operations Ron Myers, whom he describes as a huge history buff, with the idea for the name.
“It allowed us to find the center of this Venn diagram of the Detroit Tigers and the World War II training ground,” Klein said. “And the idea of this being the training ground for the players. They’re moving themselves up the big leagues.”
The logo itself combines a reference to the Detroit Tigers’ tiger with iconic pilot wings. But as with all things Brandiose, there were some deviations along the way.
“When we started off,” Klein said, “[Brandiose partner] Casey [White] had this great idea of the imagery from the Wizard of Oz, the idea of these flying monkeys, and so some of the early sketch concepts had a very flying monkey, Wizard of Oz feel to it.”
A version of the flying tiger monkey (pictured here) did end up in the logo set, but it’s one of the lesser-used marks.
Another lesser-used mark that exists in the official logo set is a pin-up girl based on those seen on WWII jackets and decals featured on the shark-toothed airplanes that the Flying Tigers flew. Ultimately, however, Klein said, “the Tigers organization wanted to downplay it.”
The design process led to an extensive suite of logos, all exploring the narrative of World War II aviation.
The final collection includes, among others, those based on a National Aircraft Insignia, Tiger Town USA, pilots’ wings, a shield, and a tiger character in a distinctive pilot’s jacket.
Another unique twist on the Flying Tigers’ identity is that they’re the first team, according to Klein, to feature an on-field manager’s cap (on the left above) that’s different from the one the players wear (on the right).
“The players have normal hats and the manager has scrambled palms, because he’s the captain,” Klein said.
I’ll admit that I was not familiar with the history of the World War II Flying Tigers or the fact that Lakeland was a training ground for military pilots, so my first impression of this logo was that a minor league team had simply tweaked its parent club’s identity. It wasn’t until I started exploring the meaning behind the logo that I was able to appreciate it as it was meant to be.
I asked Klein if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
“One of the old sayings that used to go around was, if a logo has to be explained then it’s a bad logo,” Klein said. “We entirely disagree with that. We think that a good logo should be almost a question that lures you in to learn more about it…. The purpose of a good brand is that it gets people talking, it gets people discussing, it gets people learning about these great towns in America.”
There are a lot of unique identities in minor league baseball, and nearly all of the time, there’s a connection between the team’s nickname and the town in which it plays. Some of those connections are stronger than others, while some just hang on by a thread. In the case of the Flying Tigers, the relationship between the town of Lakeland and the training of World War II pilots, along with the sheer happenstance of the team’s parent club being called the Tigers, makes this one of the most meaningful team names in the minors.