Drillers' identity links Tulsa's past and future
Baseball in Tulsa existed under one name almost exclusively for the first three quarters of the 20th century. Sure, the Tulsa Railroaders (Western Association, 1911), Terriers (Oklahoma State League, 1912) and Producers (Western Association, 1915-17) came and went, but for baseball fans in Tulsa, one name reigned supreme: Oilers. When
Baseball in Tulsa existed under one name almost exclusively for the first three quarters of the 20th century. Sure, the Tulsa Railroaders (Western Association, 1911), Terriers (Oklahoma State League, 1912) and Producers (Western Association, 1915-17) came and went, but for baseball fans in Tulsa, one name reigned supreme: Oilers.
When Tulsa needed a team ahead of the 1977 season, it found one with a moniker built in to carry on the city’s oil-rich history: the Drillers.
The Tulsa Oilers, named for the industry that ignited the city’s early 20th-century boom, first appeared on the professional baseball scene in 1905 as members of the Missouri Valley League and became a staple on Tulsa’s sports scene after World War I. In the 1970s, after a decade as a Triple-A club in need of repairs that never came to the WPA-era Oiler Park, the club decamped for New Orleans. With the city in danger of being without baseball for the first time in generations, Tulsa businessman Bill Rollings and singer Roy Clark stepped up to fill the void. Over 500 miles to the southeast, they found a team in need of new ownership -- the Lafayette Drillers, the Rangers' Double-A affiliate in the Texas League. The identity was already a perfect fit.
“The first couple of years, like was common then, they were using Texas Rangers hand-me-down uniforms and removing the Rangers logo and putting a Drillers logo on it,” said assistant general manager Brian Carroll. “The [‘S’] made kind of a circle underneath it with a baseball inside of it.
“It was kind of a unique logo that we’re trying to pick back up and maybe find a spot or two to use it. That was the logo for the first couple of years, and then they kind of adjusted it from there.”
The Drillers hit the ground running in their new hometown, moving to Tulsa just months before Opening Day in 1977. The team worked with what it had.
“We were red, white and blue,” Carroll said. “It worked with the Rangers' hand-me-downs, and the Oilers had always used those colors as well. That started in ’77 with some changes to the logo. I think it was 1986, the logo with the Drillers’ tail underneath it, that was designed and put into use.”
As the Double-A club established its own history in Tulsa, moving into Drillers Stadium in 1980, the team’s look evolved. In 1994, the Drillers took a new approach to their cap logo, going away from the stylized script “T” that had been used for years.
“We did a modernization with the spewing oil well out of the ‘T’ for the cap, and we stayed with that through our first year [with the Rockies],” Carroll said of the team, which was affiliated with Texas from its inception in 1977 through 2002. “The second year with the Rockies (2004), we did a redesign.”
That first major redesign -- featuring primary colors of graphite and slate blue (“a custom-made team color not used by any other pro sports franchise,”Tulsa World said at the time) with copper and mint green as accents -- was the creative vision of the then-young design firm Plan B Branding, now known throughout sports as Brandiose. Founders Jason Klein and Casey White took on Tulsa’s new look as one of their earliest Minor League Baseball projects, coming to town to spend time with Carroll, then-club operator Chuck Lamson and current GM Mike Melega.
“They did such a tremendous job helping us develop that,” Carroll said. “They just got the story of Tulsa, got the deep oil history of it. We went to those colors because we felt like they were oil-field colors, that tough industry. They were deeper type colors.”
It wasn’t just the colors that were new. The Drillers rolled out a new logo set featuring a flaming oil drop, a newly stylized “T” and accompanying wordmark along with a rendering of a silhouetted oil worker drilling through a baseball. With decades of history under the Drillers identity and even more via its connection to the Oilers, the franchise didn’t bother exploring a new name.
“We didn’t want to go with more of the silly cartoonish-type logo,” Carroll said. “We wanted more of a Major League-type of look. It’s hard to say that without maybe offending someone. I don’t want to do that, but we liked the clean traditional-type look. There was so much history there with the Oilers and the Drillers and the tie to the oil. Tulsa was called ‘The Oil Capitol of the World’ for many years. There’s that deep, rich history there. We didn’t want to lose that, we didn’t want to be the ones to go away from it. ... We knew we might be able to sell more caps with more of a cartoonish logo, but we didn’t want to go that route.”
Though the 2004 color palette was unique and bold, it only lasted a few years. When the Drillers moved to ONEOK Field in 2010, they rolled out new uniforms with a prescient emphasis on blue. One reason for that was the new ballpark’s predominantly blue confines. More alterations were made in 2015 when the Drillers became the Double-A affiliate of the blue-centric Dodgers.
Since then, Tulsa’s club has refined its look and added new dimensions including its Los Petroleros de Tulsa (Oil Men) Copa de la Diversión identity, the fishing-themed Tulsa Noodlers and other alternate looks that pay tribute to Tulsa’s history. In June 2021, the team sported T-Town Clowns jerseys to honor the mid-20th century semi-pro Black ballclub that hailed from the Greenwood District of North Tulsa, site of the city’s race massacre of 1921 and now home to ONEOK Field.
“We intend to do that again this year,” Carroll said of the throwbacks. “I think it’s been great because a lot of baseball fans didn’t know anything about the T-Town Clowns. It’s been great for that. it’s been educational for myself, I know, and I think it’s been educational for others. That history is there and there’s still a lot of people around the neighborhood who say, ‘Oh, my dad’ or ‘my uncle, he played for that team.’
“I feel like I have a pretty good knowledge of local baseball history, but I’ve learned from the stuff with the T-Town Clowns. ... Tulsa has always been a great baseball city, and you learn more and more about it all the time.”
Tyler Maun is a reporter for MiLB.com and co-host of “The Show Before The Show” podcast. You can find him on Twitter @tylermaun.