written by Jeff Marzick
Jaxson de Ville photographed by Malcolm Jackson
When we think of team mascots in all their energetic and oftentimes bizarre glory, it’s hard to imagine that they ever were anything besides the surreal costumed marketing tools we see today. But it actually all started out in the 1800’s when a little boy named Chic, who carried bats and ran errands for baseball players, became known as the teams good luck charm. According to an 1883 issue of The Sporting Life Magazine, “the players pinned their faith to Chic's luck-bringing qualities” and it was exactly those so-called good luck charm qualities and maybe a little superstition that laid the foundation for what have become the goofy, beloved, and mostly infamous mascots of both pro and amateur sports teams all over modern day America. And though it would have been hard to imagine back then, today's mascots not only play a pivotal role in the wide world of sports but also reflect the identities of the local communities the teams reside in (for the good and the bad) while providing marketing teams with endless opportunities and revenue streams through licensing, merchandising, and social media. A good mascot can tell the story of a team’s culture, uniting the fandom, the players, and the rest of the world at large.
They provide this essential conduit between the team and their fans because team mascots, much like their most diehard fans, are in it for the long run. While even star players retire, are traded, and the teams themselves even change city from time to time, mascots are the only ones who never jump ship. They outlive both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. You can’t trade a mascot and they don’t go home when the going gets tough. They’re the same mascot one’s grandfather grew up watching and, with a few controversial exceptions, they will continue to be so. Some of today's sports fans can be on the prickly side to be sure, but the best mascots remind us that we shouldn't take things so seriously. It is just a game after all.
And while we tend to look at mascots as goodwill ambassadors for the teams, occasionally those same teams have promoted mascots that have manage to offend—especially those whose characters are derived from racist tropes to begin with. And while we've seen some teams open their eyes to the world around them, it's mostly been in the area of amateur athletics. Professional organizations have been slow to change. After all, we're talking about big money here. And when there's money to be made, team ownership will, more often than not, err on the side of the status quo. Mascots generate vast amounts of income for teams today, and they will be dragged kicking and screaming before they succumb to a challenge to their profit margins.
Mascots have certainly come a long way since the days of Chic, but to understand our modern day cute and cuddly spiritual superstars, we need to know where the word itself came from, as well as recognizing some of the first trailblazers. Originally, the French word mascotte meant lucky charm and was often used as gambling slang, with the hope that a "mascotte" was there to bring luck to the player. The word was finally brought to the mainstream by the 1880 French opera La Mascotte, about an Italian farmer who had a hard time growing crops until he was visited by a mysterious virgin named Bettina, who as long as she remained a virgin, would function as somewhat of a good luck charm. Eventually, the farmer's fortunes turned around. But Lady Luck was to become no lady in the world of modern day sports marketing.
In America, the word evolved into its present day spelling, helped in part by the Sporting Life and The New York Times. In 1886, an issue of Sporting Life referred to a mascot connected to the Boston Browns baseball team, “Little Nick is the luckiest man in the country, and is certainly the Browns' mascott”—the “e” being dropped for the first time. The New York Times followed suit later that year when they lost the extra "t" when referencing a boy named Charlie Gallagher who was "said to have been born with teeth and is guaranteed to possess all the magic charms of a genuine mascot."
As we can see, most of the earliest mascots were either children or animals, and both were associated with good luck. It's not entirely clear who or what was the first human, but Chic is widely considered the most probable, especially considering his link with the first use of the word itself. And as far as the first animal, an 1884 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer said this in regards to a goat wandering around their baseball team: “The goat was probably looking for some show-bills, oyster-cans, or some other usually palatable dish for his stomach, but the audience could not see it in that light and thought he was an even better mascotte than the old-time favorite." It's entirely possible, however, that the first official animal mascot may have been Handsome Dan, a bulldog that belonged to a member of the Yale class of 1892. Handsome Dan remains Yale's mascot today, 18 versions later.
Thus, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was live humans—mostly children, and animals that would grace our fields, stadiums, and gymnasiums as mascots for their prospective sports teams. It would take several years before our current costumed mascots began making their way into the hearts and minds of the American sports fan, thanks to the popularity of Jim Henson’s Muppets and the idea of somehow humanizing these characters and good luck charms, although some colleges have had different iterations of them dating back nearly a hundred years.
But the first mascot to actually make a career of it was generally thought to be Max Patkin, known as the “Clown Prince of Baseball.” Patkin happened to be an actual player first, pitching for the Chicago White Sox minor league team. During WWII, he played on the Navy team and would participate in exhibition games around the country. At one point, legend has it that he was pitching to New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio in a game in Hawaii, and served up a home run to him. All of a sudden, without warning, Patkin followed DiMaggio around the bases, mocking his trot and making goofy faces, all to the crowd's delight.
Patkin turned his impromptu DiMaggio escapade into a nearly five-decade career of entertaining baseball crowds. But Patkin didn't wear a costume when he performed his schtick—instead opting for a loose fitting uniform and sideways hat. So, while Patkin can undoubtedly lay claim to the title of first professional mascot, it wasn't until the 1960’s when we finally start to see the live costumed types we're so familiar with today in college and professional sports.
The shift from live to costumed mascots was spearheaded by Major League Baseball's Mr. Met, of the New York Mets, and Brutus Buckeye, of the Ohio State Buckeyes, in 1964 and 1965 respectively. And the idea really began to take hold with the debut of San Diego Padres mascot, the San Diego Chicken, who started out of a radio promotion launched in 1974. Soon after, in 1977, the Phillie Phanatic was launched. So we can see the transition occurring in the 1970’s and 1980’s to our modern day heroes. But it's important to note how some of the teams have developed their mascots over the years. Some, of course, use the mascots to promote or identify with the team name, as well as important local and regional traits within the community and state.
In the college sports realm, a good example is a team such as the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers and their long-time mascot Herbie Husker. The term ‘cornhusker' denotes the deep agricultural roots of the state, and Herbie proudly represents the school as a "symbol of humility and good sportsmanship," according to the Nebraska Alumni Association. While undergoing several design changes over the years, the current edition of Herbie consists of a red cowboy hat, red work shirt, blue jeans, and work boots—all of which updates the overall appearance of the current state agricultural workers and the general public. Oh, and of course there's the broad grin and large ears to go with it as well. There's also the mentioned above Brutus Buckeye, who has additionally gone through some transformations over the years. Brutus also represents the actual team name, as well as the official state tree. His head resembles that of the small nut that grows from the Buckeye tree, and his current form shows big bright eyes, button nose, and a wide smile.
MLB's Milwaukee Brewers also utilizes the team name and mascot pairing. The design was inspired by an actual fan, Milt Mason, who sat atop old County Stadium in the 1970s vowing not to come down until the team drew 40,000 fans, Bernie Brewer reflects the cities long and storied history with the beer industry. Years ago, Bernie would slide down a shoot into a mug of ‘beer' after home runs and Brewer victories. Currently, Bernie looks like a throwback to the early 1900s, with a yellow bushy mustache, same color hair, and big round eyes—dressed in a Brewers uniform.
But, while teams have found innovative ways to capitalize on the history and culture of the communities in which they play, as well as on the team name itself, sometimes you have to wonder what drugs they must have been doing when some of these mascots were created. In other words, the furry and outlandish missing links we now see as mascots for some teams, have no connection whatsoever to the team name or any regional or local traits. But, if they provide entertainment and revenue for the team, it doesn't really matter, does it? Even though most mascots are seemingly well-intentioned, and provide us all with a laugh or two, once in a while teams have managed to create controversies surrounding them. After all, this is America. And with social media now being the go-to communication of the majority of the country, especially the youngest of us, things can get blown out of proportion in a hurry.
Nothing encapsulates such a controversy more than the infamous Philadelphia Flyer mascot, Gritty, launched via Twitter on September 24, 2018. In just a short period, Gritty has been: an orange fuzzball wildly embraced by a hall full of children at his introduction, a new Twitter target, a welcomed Twitter hero of the Philly fan, a social media god, a late-night talk show guest, and … yes, a political football. That's quite a beginning for what was hoped to simply be an answer to the other three mascots in Philadelphia. The Flyers didn't have a mascot, and the other three sports teams did.
His debut on Twitter could not have gone worse. Fans weighed in, critical of the Flyers marketing team, the Flyers themselves, and Philadelphia in general. And Gritty himself, with those wide googly eyes, big belly, and orange hair everywhere, was piled on incessantly. Yes, the ‘acid trip' design wasn't going very well. But, the whole thing changed pretty quickly. That's how things work in our 24-hour news and social media universe these days. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyer's hated cross-state rivals weighed in on Twitter with a sarcastic laugh-out-loud tweet. The marketers pounced on it instantly and used that tweet as a way to defend the city against outside haters. Soon, the tide began to turn. It's as if the city was saying, ‘Hey, he's our mascot. We can say whatever we want about him. But the rest of you assholes? Stay the hell out of it.'
It's hard to believe, but within days, Gritty produced over 4.8 billion views across TV and the web, worth an estimated $162 million of exposure in its first month. He also appeared on Good Morning America and Jimmy Fallon. SNL and all the other late-night hosts weighed in on Gritty as well. And eventually, Gritty managed to find himself lurking in the low-down dirty world of politics. Of course, he did. Because in the political reality show we currently find ourselves in, why wouldn't a furry and crazy looking mascot end up center stage?
Soon after Gritty's debut, his face and likeness began to show up during protests that sprang up for a Donald Trump visit to Philadelphia. The liberal left gravitated toward Gritty as a symbol of progressive politics and resistance to all things Trump. The socialist magazine Jacobin even weighed in, tweeting, “Gritty is a worker.” It just goes to show you that we live in some crazy and wild times. Hell, the right-wing MAGA crowd could have quickly latched on to Gritty as a symbol of the downtrodden ‘deplorables' who continue to support their man with blood-thirsty zeal. But, the libs got there first. Politics aside, Gritty is now a front and center representative of the Philly fan—the fan we all know and love. The fan who is known for rough treatment of their own players and teams, rowdy behavior--in the stadiums--and out, and a penchant for complaining about everything. But, Gritty is all Philly now. And the marketing team of the Flyers is doing cartwheels.
Marketing. Yes, the marketing of mascots has become a big deal these days. When the San Diego Chicken and the Phillie Phanatic were merely virgins back in the 1970’s, they could have never envisioned the money-making ventures mascots have become nearly 50 years later. Back then, there were basically three major networks. Today? Between cable, satellite, social media, and the internet, the marketing of these creatures has never been easier. It's hard to quantify the amount of revenue mascots provide for their teams. There's just not that much data. But Forbes Magazine did a ranking of the top mascots of MLB teams in 2016, and it gives us a snapshot at least, of how lucrative mascots have become. The rankings were based on the following criteria: merchandise sales info from MLB., social media followers, and news media hits. According to Forbes, the Phillie Phanatic was the number one mascot in all of baseball, generating nearly 10% of overall retail sales at Citizens Bank Park—more popular even, than most of the players. The ageless magic of the fictional character can be worth its weight in gold.
Just as we've seen the social media marketing skills of Gritty with the Flyers, the Detroit Pistons have used their mascot, Hooper, on social media and other community outreach programs specifically to reach that young kid who will surely remember and connect him to the Pistons far into the future. According to Crain's Detroit Business, teams are increasingly using mascots in social media, messaging, and branding, which in turn allows them to generate revenue from inclusion in corporate sales deals and merchandising.
Unfortunately, its the same revenue and profits generated by the team’s mascots that can affect decisions to hold onto outdated and offensive ideas regarding team spirit. The classic appropriation of Indigenous American iconography, that of fierceness and tribalism, lead to characterizations of Native Americans that are outwardly racist and belittling, a problem for sports teams for generations. The Cleveland Indians are one of those teams. Since 1947, Indians players have worn uniforms adorned with the mascot/logo, Chief Wahoo.
The Indians are one of the organizations in professional sports who have used the likeness of a Native American caricature for their logo but did not have any human being associated with that likeness who officially dressed up or performed at games. The Washington Redskins of the NFL are another example. But if you were a kid who went to Cleveland Indian baseball games between 1962 and 1994 at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, you would have been greeted at the Gate D ticket office by a massive 28-foot neon sign of Chief Wahoo at-bat, lurking on the stadium roof. There he was; bright red face, big toothy grin, one single red feather, a bat on his shoulder and right leg cocked. For a kid seeing the Chief for the first time, it's not hard to imagine that image as being a pretty cool thing, and for all intents and purposes, a mascot to be remembered.
But over the years, Native American groups began to speak out against Chief Wahoo. Groups such as the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance have placed themselves outside the gates of Indians games for the past 30 years, demanding the team remove Chief Wahoo entirely from the team uniforms and merchandise. According to their website, in a letter to the owner of the team, "Native American mascots, nicknames, and logos cause real psychological harm to Native Americans; especially Native American children. The Cleveland Indians name and the dehumanizing Chief Wahoo logo create a hostile environment for Native children and their parents."
The protests worked. With a nudge from the Commissioner of Baseball, Rob Manfred, the team decided that Chief Wahoo would no longer be a part of team uniforms after the 2018 season. Unfortunately, though, you can still buy Chief Wahoo memorabilia at the stadium's team store, as well as other stores throughout Ohio. It's not clear how long the team will continue to profit from Chief Wahoo, but at least the visual image will no longer be seen on the field of play. There are no plans to change the name of the team at present.
And this is where it gets tricky. Fans become fans at an early age. Mascots play a big part in this kind of indoctrination of our youth. So when the team decided to bow to so-called political correctness and removed Chief Wahoo from the uniforms, some of that very same fan base became angry. That connection … that association with the mascot is hard to give up for the average fan, regardless of any offense that might be taken by marginalized groups in our society. To the fan, he's our mascot, so “Leave him the hell alone.”
But there's no indication that the team is suffering financially. And surely, it was one of the main reasons they never bowed to the pressure before. Teams are hesitant to interrupt anything that might upset their bottom line. Changing a team name, or removing an offensive mascot or logo, is something a team will think long and hard about. And, if you attend any Cleveland Indians games in the future, you can be sure to see Chief Wahoo prominently displayed throughout the stadium … by the fans. Whether it's t-shirts, hats, or anything else they've had for years or can still buy at the team store, they will proudly declare their allegiance to the old Chief … despite the racial insensitivity. Old habits indeed die hard.
So while some mascots will be lost to history and cultural sensitivity, for the most part their legacies are being preserved for eternity in the Mascot Hall of Fame. That's right, located in the small town of Whiting, Indiana—just outside of Chicago—the Hall currently boasts 20 inductees, including the Phillie Phanatic, Brutus Buckeye, and Mr. Met. Formerly an online Hall of Fame only, it was founded by the Phanatic's creator David Raymond in 2005 and eventually found a willing city, Whiting, to house the physical location. While the facility is a non-profit entity, you can bet that the town of Whiting has made a wager that their city will reap millions in revenue from the thousands of families expected to visit in future years.
But you have to hand it to the Hall in how they determine which mascots deserve induction. According to the Hall's website, mascothalloffame.com, their mission is to "honor mascot performers, performances, and programs that have positively affected their communities through mascot-themed, interactive exhibits embedded with S.T.E.A.M-based education for the K-8 student population, families and sports fans alike.' A worthy mission, indeed. And in our present situation here in America, where every day you wake up to tweet storms, bad news, and overall chaos, heading out to the ballpark or stadium to check out a game sounds like a great idea. You can have a beer, grab a hot dog, cheer for your team—or boo the opponent. And when you see one of those crazy creatures with fur, or a bushy-haired guy with a big head, down on the field running around like a fool, we should take a moment and thank them for allowing us to escape a bit. And who couldn’t use just that extra little bit of good luck?