We have a sockingly different winner for Best New Logo/Branding in the 2021 Ballpark Digest Awards: The Appalachian League’s Burlington Sock Puppets, who turned some lemons into lemonade after losing its MLB affiliation.

The former Burlington Royals had been part of the Rookie-level Appy League for decades, but 2021’s restructuring of minor leagues forced the league into a reconstitution as a summer-collegiate circuit. That restructuring also forced all 10 Appalachian League teams, which had been owned by MLB teams, into a rebranding for the 2021 season. 

“Between the Royals and the Indians, there was more than three decades of affiliated baseball in Burlington and many people said they wanted Burington to have their own identity,” said owner and team president Ryan Keur. “We made the most of the pandemic. We spent about two and a half months on Zoom calls with anyone and everyone who wanted to talk to us in the city. We wanted to dig as deep into the history of the area as possible.”

Through their research, the idea of the Sock Puppets came up.

“This area is known for hosiery and textiles. We partnered with Studio Simon and Dan Simon through this process,” Keur said. “About a month or so into this process, Dan got into the same conversations with community stakeholders and said I think there’s something here.”

But a few people needed convincing that this was going to work.

“The early response was polarizing to some degree,” said General Manager Anderson Rathbun. “I didn’t like it at first but I got on board with it. Locally, some people thought it was a joke but it has grown on them and become a fan favorite name.”

“Anderson, Thomas, Dan, and the rest of the staff at the Sock Puppets really leaned into the brand, stayed connected to the community, and continued to build that narrative and everyone has come around,” Keur said. “We wanted to have a lot of fun with the name and this checked off every single box.”

We sat down with Keur and Rathbun in today’s Ballpark Digest podcast to discuss the Sock Puppets. Here’s the video version: scroll down for information about subscribing to the audio version. [You can watch that video here]

And if you use your imagination, a sock puppet can look like almost anything. Rathbun and Keur said that was part of the appeal.

“We understood the amount of characters that could be created. We wanted a Sesame Street vibe where we can keep creating new characters,” Keur said.

Two current characters include Colonel Sockington and the mascot, Socksquatch. But the two featured in the team’s logo include Cool Guy and Stirrup Guy and there was internal debate over that.

“I love the old-fashioned baseball feel. Stirrup Guy was a mix of the traditional mixed with a wacky moniker,” Rathbun said. “When we saw the Cool Guy design, it more of the outlandish silly route. Stirrup almost didn’t make the cut. I had to fight to keep him in his rightful place and I’m proud of my fight and the hill I died on.”

Players and coaches also embraced the Sock Puppets even honoring the new mascots in song.

“Our manager this season was Jack McDowell and he really leaned into the brand. He wrote a song called ‘Sock It To Them’ and it played every single night as the team took the field,” said Keur. “Players had sock puppets with them in their back pockets and would use them on their way back into the dugout between innings. They had a great experience while they were here and almost all of them said they want to come back next year.”

And this year, the team even set a World Record for the most people in a venue wearing a sock puppet. 

“We worked with a local sock hosiery company, Wilson Brown Sock Company, and they created promotional sock puppets,” Rathbun said. “In the middle of the first inning, we had everyone put them on and wave the air. The previous record was 628 and we crushed it.”

Looking forward to 2022, the team says they’ve got a lot more up their socks.

“We’ll be releasing another community character in May. We’re also looking at doing a sock mug that’s similar to a boot mug for drinks,” Keur said. “We’re also working with city leadership to expand with a videoboard and a new party area.”

With so many changes in Burlington this season, Rathbun and Keur said it’s great to see people at the ballpark again and enjoy the new Sock Puppet experience.

“To go through a full year of COVID and then we’re able to open the gates to 100 percent capacity, we’re really proud of that moment,” Keur said. “To see grown adults pulling their credit card out with a sock puppet on their hand and the smiles around the ballpark, for small towns around America, that’s what baseball is all about.”“When we looked at our original Facebook comments, so many people were saying that’s such a stupid, silly name,” Rathbun said. “That’s kind of the point. We don’t want to take ourselves seriously. It’s the exact opposite. We’re having fun.”

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