Rock ‘n’ Roll Cats: The Story Behind the New Britain Rock Cats

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If you’re like me, you’ll be humming Stray Cat Strut the rest of the day after reading the story of the New Britain Rock Cats. After all, if ever there was one, Rocky the Rock Cat is a feline Casanova, a ladies’ cat. If they made a movie about Rocky, he’d be played by a young John Travolta, or possibly Henry Winkler.

Rocky made his debut in the mid 1990s, but he’s a throwback to the 1950s, a time when cats were cool, and cool cats wore leather jackets.

When the New Britain Red Sox switched parent clubs in 1995 to the Minnesota Twins, the team rebranded as the Hardware City Rock Cats. Their first logo, pictured above, was created by noted cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, who draws the Nancy comic strip (among much else) and also created the Portland Sea Dogs logo. For Gilchrist, a lifelong baseball fan and longtime Connecticut resident, the Rock Cats project was a labor of love.

“We never really thought of the character as a logo,” he said. “We thought of the character as being the spirit of the town.” And that spirit, one of grit and industry and iron, is reflected in that first Rock Cats logo. Gilchrist said:

I made up a character and named him Rocky, sort of after Rocky Balboa, where he was just the tough guy…. It had a good feel to it, you could do rock n roll with it, he had the leather jacket, and that was all sort of 1950s, sort of retro cool.

The logo features a rough-and-tumble cat out on the town. (He slinks down the alley looking for a fight, howling to the moonlight on a hot summer’s night.) The letters HC for Hardware City are formed by an urban building and a moon, and Rocky’s tail is shaped like the number 9, a subtle nod to Gilchrist’s favorite player, Ted Williams. (Though Gilchrist points out that the Twins’ famous number 9, Tony Oliva, was no slouch either.)

The 1950s look and feel of the Rock Cats’ early logo was an homage to the heyday of the team’s longtime and legendary owner, Joe Buzas, whose career as a baseball team owner spanned dozens of teams and nearly six decades before he passed away in 2003.

“Joe Buzas is absolutely one of my favorite baseball people,” Gilchrist said. “Without his tenacity, and without his world-famous—I’ll say thriftiness—without all of that, baseball would not have survived in New Britain…. He took every shortcut he possibly could because in those days you absolutely had to.” (He’s flat broke but he don’t care. Struts right by with his tail in the air.)

The city of New Britain’s nickname, Hardware City, is a reference to the town’s history as a home to manufacturing, specifically Stanley Black and Decker’s headquarters. But there was a problem with incorporating the city’s nickname into the official name of the ballclub.

“People couldn’t find Hardware City on the map,” Gilchrist said. “So we took that stuff out and changed it to the New Britain Rock Cats.”

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After one year as the Hardware City Rock Cats, the team switched in 1996 to the name it has had ever since, the New Britain Rock Cats. Gilchrist created a new and much simpler logo that incorporated Rocky’s face, complete with sunglasses and giant Elvis hair, over the letters NB. Then in 2007, the team abandoned the rock ‘n’ roll Rocky altogether and went with the version they have today.

“It looks like they’ve taken the shades off of Rocky and stuff like that,” Gilchrist said. “But, that’s okay.”

With the current version of the team’s primary logo so far removed from its roots, some of the history and the original intentions of the design—the actual meaning of the term Rock Cats—has been lost. Tim Restall, who is in his second season as the Rock Cats’ general manager, experienced that firsthand.

“When I first came on, I asked people, what’s a Rock Cat?” he said. “Not a lot of people could tell me what the history of the Rock Cats was. Some people said it was with regards to rock ‘n’ roll, some people said it was with regards to the quarries in the area.”

RockCats alt logoTo reconnect Rocky with his rock ‘n’ roll roots, the team unveiled a new alternate logo designed by the prolific firm Brandiose this season. The new logo features Rocky in full rock ‘n’ roll regalia, singing into a baseball bat microphone—and that big hair is back.

“Internally, we call him Rocky Elvis, because of the jumpsuit and things like that,” Restall said.

The new alternate logo features a color unique to baseball, and one that fits with Rocky’s throwback rock ‘n’ roll image. “We were told by Brandiose that it was one of the first on-field hats to have metallic red,” Restall said, “which we thought was pretty cool, especially when you’re going with a rock ‘n’ roll, having metallic with gold on a jump suit.” (Wishes he could be as carefree and wild, but he’s got cat class and he’s got cat style.)

When the team announced the new alternate logo, there was some consternation. Restall says that fan feedback on Rocky Elvis has been positive, but he is quick to point out that the Rocky that fans have come to know and love is not going anywhere.

“Everyone is afraid of change,” Restall said. “We said, it’s not replacing the logo, it’s a new alternate logo.”

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Over the years, the Rock Cats have had logos with three different letter pairings. The HC for Hardware City in the original team name was brought back briefly in 2011 in an alternate logo that reflects the team’s parent club, the Minnesota Twins. The team re-learned a lesson from those early days with that logo, according to Restall: “I think it was confusing. People didn’t know what HC was.” Another little-used alternate logo, with NB for New Britain, introduced in 1996, was meant to resemble another version of the Twins logo. And finally, the claw-themed RC for Rock Cats, updated most recently in 2007, is still used prominently.

From the team’s early days, when Guy Gilchrist would custom design Rocky logos for charity events and oversee production of dolls and other paraphernalia to ensure they met his standards, the team has worked hard to make sure Rocky is a prominent part of the New Britain community.

“The character was doing things like reading or encouraging kids to stay in school, all that kind of stuff,” Gilchrist said.

That sort of involvement continues today. According to Restall:

He’s our spokesperson. He’s our flagship. We put him out everywhere…. I think Rocky on one Saturday went to 42 little league openings. He is constantly out in the community, whether he’s at the hospital, he’s at little league games, store openings, anything like that. He’s the brand of the Rock Cats, so we constantly get him out into the community.

Rocky is part of the team’s larger effort to create an entertaining ballgame experience for the casual fan. “The baseball fan knows where we are. They know where the double-A baseball team plays, who’s coming in, and what the prospects are and all that,” Restall said. “But when we market, we market the fun, the nachos, the kids area, the in-between inning promotions. That’s the stuff that we focus on.”

Gilchrist, who speaks about baseball with the passion of a true fan, sees minor league baseball and this sort of entertainment as the sport’s salvation. With many fans priced out of attending Major League games, and World Series games starting as late as 9:00 on the east coast, the minors and their family-friendly entertainment are a haven for baseball fans.

“[The minors] are going to be the survival of baseball,” Gilchrist said. “It’s wonderful. They play day games. Kids get to be right up close, and get autographs from their heroes and stuff. I truly believe it will save baseball.”

What can you say about a cat who’s part of something like that? Singing the blues while the lady cats cry, wild Rock Cat, you’re a real gone guy.