EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
When we think of team mascots in all their energetic and oftentimes bizarre glory, it’s hard to imagine that they were ever anything besides the beloved yet 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 team's 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 vibes 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. READ MORE HERE
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. 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. READ MORE HERE
As Jeff Marzick finds in his new piece, "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, 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.'
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. 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. Unfortunately, it's the same revenue and profits generated by the teams 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, players have worn uniforms adorned with the mascot/logo, Chief Wahoo.
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 Resistancehave 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."
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.” 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. 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?
And although mascots are good luck charms, sometimes they don’t always start out that way. As was the case in the 1993 beloved classic coming of age film, The Sandlot. Based in the summer of 1962, the film follows a bunch of ragtag San Fernando Valley kids around their neighborhood during their summer vacation. They bum around the local pool, block parties, and treehouses, but the film revolves around the boys one true love—baseball. There are rivalries and first crushes and some fights, but the pinnacle of the movie is when the new and naïve kid they nicknamed Smalls moves into town. He becomes friends with the boys and joins their team—learning all the ins and outs of baseball and making s’mores. All is mostly fine and dandy, until one day Smalls hits his first home-run. It’s something to celebrate, that is until the boys find out the baseball was signed by Babe Ruth, and that it went flying over the fence and into the yard of The Beast.
As legend would have it, The Beast was a man-eating dog. That’s at least according to the character Michael "Squints" Palledorous who started the rumor that The Beast once ate a heaping pile of human flesh and turned into a giant who fed off the meat of children. He lived in a junkyard and killed anyone who dare broke into it. Eventually, his owner (and Squints grandfather) the head policeman, sadly decided the only way to keep the townspeople safe was to lock up The Beast, for-ev-er. He now lived in chains in a backyard behind the baseball field.
So, on the fateful day that Smalls hit the Babe Ruth baseball over The Beast’s fence, the gang came up with a series of make-shift creations to help them get the ball back without actually entering The Beast’s den, but no matter what the kids came up with, The Beast seemed to be one step ahead of them. He stumped all of their witty tricks and traps. Eventually, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, the oldest of the boys, realized he had to enter the Beast’s lair. Once he heroically grabs the ball, The Beast chases him until eventually a giant fence crushes the animal. Feeling sorry for him, the boys all come together to free the Beast and in gratitude receive a load of sloppy kisses from the monster, who turns out to be a friendly mastiff.
The boys learned that The Beast was actually named Hercules and was owned by an ex Yankees player and friend of Babe Ruth’s himself. From that point on, Hercules attended every baseball game, becoming a good luck charm and mascot for everyone's favorite rowdy group of kids. As the boys age, they all move out of town one by one, but Hercules remains, attending every baseball game for the next generations that move into town. He allegedly lived to be 199 years old in dog years, remaining a tried and true mascot for decades of baseball-loving children. As Babe Ruth once said, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”