If you’re not familiar with the history of minor league baseball, and, more importantly, beer in the Pacific Northwest, then the nickname for the Triple-A franchise in Tacoma, Washington, seems to be about as straightforward as they come. The Rainiers’ name is obviously inspired by Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the state of Washington.
When the weather is clear, fans on the third-base side of the Rainiers’ Cheney Stadium get a spectacular view of the mountain, which was named in honor of British naval officer Peter Rainier by fellow naval officer George Vancouver. But to say that the team is named for the mountain and that’s the end of the story is a vast oversimplification.
The city of Tacoma, Washington, has had a team in the Pacific Coast League every year since 1960, the longest such streak of any city. Those teams have been called the Giants (1960-65), Cubs (1966-71), Twins (1972-77), Yankees (1978), Tugs (as in tug boats, 1979), Tigers (1980-94), and since 1995, Rainiers.
Before that 1995 season, the franchise switched parent clubs from the Oakland A’s to the Seattle Mariners, their neighbors just 35 miles to the north. In the midst of updating their A’s-colored Tigers logo to a Mariners-colored Tigers logo, brand-new general manager Dave Bean saw the opportunity for a bigger change. His idea was not well received at first.
Rainiers Media Relations Coordinator Brett Gleason explains:
He just kind of was offhandedly like, you know maybe this is a perfect opportunity with the new affiliation and all the changes in the front office, the perfect time to rebrand and move on from the Tacoma Tigers—which wasn’t a very popular thing at the time because the city had come to like the Tacoma Tigers name and the logo and everything.
In order to sway a skeptical public, the new team name had to really land, so the team turned to two surefire ways to secure the hearts and minds of baseball fans: nostalgia and beer. The Rainiers nickname was first used in the area by the Seattle Rainiers, a Pacific Coast League team from 1938 to 1964 and a short-season class A team from 1972 to 1976.
The Seattle Rainiers took their name from the company that purchased them in 1938, the Rainier Brewing Company, a now-defunct institution that traces its origins back to 1878. In fact, that script R, which should look familiar to those familiar with baseball in Tacoma, once sat atop the brewery in Seattle emblazoned with red light bulbs. The sign was such an icon of the city that it now sits in Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.
When the team announced that a name change was coming after the 1994 season, they let it be known right away what that name would be. Fans who had grown attached to the Tigers nickname were swayed by the new name.
“They figured it might be a good way to grease the wheels on the new name, they started to design some very basic hats and T-shirts with that Rainiers logo,” Gleason said. “They put together some really basic hats and T-shirts and they sold like crazy. According to one of our old PR guys who was around at the time, he said they couldn’t keep them in stock.”
It’s probably not by accident that the first Tacoma Rainiers logo looked like it could be a vintage beer ad in Mariners colors.
In 2009, the Rainiers went through a major rebrand in which they adopted a compass logo (right) to match their parent club, but changed color schemes to red and blue, which do not at all match their parent club. Before the 2015 season, the team’s creative director Tony Canepa refined the old script (above), which had been through countless permutations if you trace it back through the Tacoma Rainiers’ first logo, the Seattle Rainiers’ logos, and beer labels since the late 1800s.
The Rainiers’ brand has been around in one form or another for more than 125 years, so while many teams in baseball are pushing the boundaries with edgy and unique identities, the Rainiers are happy to have a traditional, classic baseball feel.
“It’s nice to get some national attention, but we really, really like to serve Tacoma and the south sounds,” Gleason said, “and we think we can do that best by just being a recognizable brand that hasn’t changed for a long time.”
In the end, the origins of the Tacoma Rainiers’ name are not as simple as they seem. They’re not just a team named for a mountain—they’re a team named for another team named for a brewery named for a mountain named for a naval officer who died more than 200 years ago.