Roughly 200 miles southeast of San Francisco and 200 miles north of Los Angeles sits the town of Visalia, California. With a population of just over 130,000, Visalia is situated smack dab in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley, known for its hot, dry summers and its prolific agricultural production. Smack dab in the middle of Visalia sits 75-year-old Recreation Ballpark, home to the Visalia Rawhide, Class A Advanced affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks and 2019 California League champion.
The team’s nickname is an homage to the dominant industry in the region, as well as being a wink and a nod to the history of baseball.
“Rawhide pays tribute to the dairy farmers and the other ag people in the community,” said Jill Gearin, the team’s Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations, and also the first female broadcaster in the nearly 80-year history of the California League. “But it also ties in baseball, because both balls and gloves were made of rawhide back in the day.”
A third inspiration that Gearin points out is that Visalia is home to a classic, 66-year-old high school football rivalry between Mt. Whitney and Redwood high schools. Each year, the two teams meet on the field for the so-called “Cowhide Game.”
Before rebranding as the Rawhide in 2009, the franchise had played as the Visalia Oaks since 1977 (interrupted in 1993 and 1994, when the team was called the Central Valley Rockies, which makes absolutely no sense). The 2009 rebrand coincided with major upgrades to the team’s historic but outdated stadium. Changes to the ballpark include, among much else, a barn that doubles as a right field groundskeeper shed and a section of seats featuring a distinctive Holstein cow pattern. But it was the new name that reverberated throughout the community.
“In all honesty, if there wasn’t a brand change, Visalia might not have had a professional baseball team a few years later,” Gearin said.
The Oaks name, which commemorated an important tree species in the California landscape and came with an adorable squirrel mascot, lasted more than three decades, but the Rawhide name really connected with the community.
“We’re the only professional sports team in Tulare County and [neighboring] Kings County, and those areas are very much so agriculture based,” Gearin said. “You drive around, you see signs that say, ‘My job depends on ag,’ so we really wanted to tap into that.”
Of course, where there are cows, there are cowbells. The team plays the famous Christopher Walken “More Cowbell” sketch (now 20 years old!) before games, sells cowbells in its store, sometimes gives them out to fans, and for two years has laid claim an important piece of cowbell Americana.
“We have America’s largest cowbell on our pasture,” Gearin said. “We added that in 2018. We called it the year of the cowbell.”
You’ll know you’re listening to a Rawhide home game when you hear that distinctive ringing in your ears. As a broadcaster, Gearin has been told that she should turn down the crowd noise by people who assume all the clanging must be fake.
“If you listen to the championship call, there’s so many cowbells,” Gearin sainid. “We gave them away to every single fan. We know it annoys the opposing team.”
While the landscape of minor league baseball identities has changed drastically in the last decade, the Rawhide brand has remained fundamentally unchanged since its debut in 2009. It’s no surprise that one of the longest-tenured franchises in the minors playing in one of the country’s oldest stadiums would have a steadfast, serious brand.
We’re all missing minor league baseball right now, and when it comes back in 2021 (probably), the only prescription in Visalia will be more cowbell.