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Graphic Design Roundup #48: Major League Mystery

Is baseball’s iconic logo based on legendary batter Harmon Killebrew?

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Credits: Photo by Hank Walker//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

When baseball legend Harmon Killebrew died, several obituaries mentioned that he had been the model for Major League Baseball’s familiar and patriotic logo. In the days following his death, this “factoid” was repeated by writers, broadcasters, and fans throughout the world of sports. Even Killebrew himself believed it. But, is it true?

The MLB logo has been the symbol of America’s national pastime for more than 4 decades. Originally designed in 1969 to celebrate professional baseball’s centennial, it was rapidly adopted as the official MLB icon.

In recent years, MLB’s branding and merchandising programs have skyrocketed. The logo is seen more often and on more items than ever before. It’s on every big-league cap, jersey, batting helmet, and ball, as well as on thousands of other licensed products. (Sales totaled $2.75 billion in sales last year, according to The Licensing Letter, a trade publication.)

Baseball executives did not credit the logo’s designer until 2009, when they formally acknowledged Jerry Dior, who designed the logo while working for the marketing agency Sandgren & Murtha.

This prolonged period of unknown “parentage” was a natural opportunity for several stories about the logo to arise, the most popular and widely accepted among them was the Killebrew connection. The story seems plausible when a photo of Killebrew’s batting stance is placed side-by-side with the logo. There are undeniable similarities.

However, the same can be said for photos of Johnny Bench, Joe Torre, Orlando Cepeda, and hundreds of other ballplayers. Put any of them next to the logo and even those unfamiliar with baseball can envision a similarity.

Jerry Dior, now retired, could have set the record straight if anyone had simply asked him. Since being credited as the logo’s designer, he has frequently told interviewers that the silhouette was a composite image, not Killebrew’s silhouette. But because the logo was not officially attributed to Dior until 2009, the Killebrew myth had plenty of time to grow and become firmly entrenched.

And how did the myth begin in the first place? Based on investigative reporting conducted in 2008, it appears to have originated with Killebrew himself. His account follows this reasoning: some time in 1968, Killebrew was in the baseball commissioner’s office and saw a photo of himself marked up with grease-pencil. He was told that it was for a logo.

Jerry Dior insists that he’s never visited the MLB offices, and the marked-up Killebrew photo is unaccounted for. So when the silhouette logo appeared, Killebrew naturally assumed that it was based on his image.

He mentioned the coincidence to friends and associates, the rest, as they say, is history. And despite Dior disavowing the story, people prefer the myth over the truth.

One explanation is a general tendency for people to be attracted to stories that are tied to familiar figures. Also, Killebrew was a beloved figure and baseball fans like seeing a connection between the logo and Killebrew (just as basketball fans see Jerry West in the NBA logo).

After all, sports is all about larger-than-life characters, and most fans find the Killebrew myth more satisfying than the reality of a lifeless composite.

To further cement the myth, about two months after Killebrew’s death, the MLB held its annual Home Run Derby. ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman opened the network’s coverage by dedicating it to Killebrew’s memory. Another coincidence that sealed the deal happened during the event. Prince Fielder of the Brewers smashed a ball that slammed against a large poster of the silhouetted batter logo, prompting Berman’s broadcast partner, Nomar Garciaparra, to remark, “You were giving respect to Harmon Killebrew earlier. Well, Prince Fielder gave him some respect—he hit his silhouette!” The following night, during the All-Star Game, a Fox Sports broadcaster mentioned Killebrew, and the camera, as if right on cue, focused on the MLB logo. And that’s how legends are created and perpetuated.

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One thought on “Graphic Design Roundup #48: Major League Mystery

  1. Thanks for the nice post. There is something quite nice about the “Graphic Design Roundup #48: Major League Mystery”. I like the idea and can see it working well printed on sportswear. I guess the introduction of this new logo design has gained more attention probably because it has a famous person’s name attached to it. If all graphic design had this advantage then it may be noticed more. Celebrities are followed and noticed a lot by the media and the general public.

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