Mascots: A History
You love them. You hate them. You rue the day your small child ever laid eyes on them. It’s the most hallowed, and at times, the most hated facet of the modern sporting landscape, the humble mascot. How did we get here? How stadiums the world over suddenly start crawling with plush fur balls equipped with squeaky toys for hands and trumpets for noses? How did we get to a world where a small boy growing up in Georgia would choose to suffer as a lifelong Georgia Tech fan because Buzz was way more fun than Hairy Dawg? I’d sure as hell like to know who’s to blame for that one, because that kid made a terrible choice.
Here’s a fun fact: The word Mascot comes from the French ‘Mascotte’ which means lucky charm or talisman. The word first appeared in the late 1860s and entered the mainstream thanks to La Mascotte, an opera by composer Edmond Audran, performed about 20 years later. The mascot in La Mascotte was a virgin who allowed a man’s crops to grow as long as she didn’t get too familiar with anyone. I don’t think the sexual escapades of Benny the Bull led to the end of the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty, but I’m no expert. So how did we get from virgin girls to slam dunking gorillas?
The transition started shortly after the debut of the opera. The word itself made its way across the Atlantic and was soon used to describe various people and creatures that players or fans would deem as lucky. For the next 40 years, someone or something loosely related to the team that could rally the club would be referred to as a mascotte, or eventually the anglicized 'mascot'. A baseball team’s batboy might be their mascot or the stray dog that hung around the ballpark, for instance. The early Chicago Cubs rallied around a taxidermy bear (not a bear suit, that would take another 100 years) to bring their team luck. In a move that would have made Charles Dickens himself scoff, the 1919 White Sox used a disabled orphan as their mascot, riding his ‘luck’ to an American League Pennant. Of course, that team would forever be known as the Black Sox for then purposely throwing the World Series, so a disabled, penniless, parentless child actually seems like a perfect fit. That probably didn’t make the kid feel any better.
As baseball teams were scouring their cities for the saddest children possible, other teams turned to the animal kingdom for their good luck charms. It was at this time when the “Live Mascot” started to emerge. Very popular with college teams in America, the live mascot was often a pet or a baby animal that was paraded around during events. The first of these mascots to really hit the big time was Yale’s, Handsome Dan. An English Bulldog had been connected to Yale’s football team since the early 1880s. The original Handsome Dan showed up with an undergrad football player and rower, Andrew Graves, at the end of the decade. Handsome Dan was fond of the students who paraded him across the field before every game and would bark and growl at anyone who would come near them, especially if they were wearing the opposing team's colors. His loyalty was rewarded as he became the first in a line of ‘Handsome Dan’s’ which continue to this day.
Other teams hopped on the live animal parade as well. The above-mentioned University of Georgia has an English bulldog of its own, Uga (I hate that thing). The Naval Academy has a goat named Bill, Princeton University had a live tiger cub for a short time and Louisiana State University still has Mike the Tiger, an adult Bengal tiger. The Chicago Cubs even ditched their dead bear for a live one, although that didn’t last very long. Live animals proved to be problematic. Upkeep and food were expensive and after the animals passed their cute stage, teams were left taking care of, you know, a wild animal. Even domesticated animals could present problems. Handsome Dan still has teeth, goats are hard-headed and as the most recent Uga almost found out last year that longhorn cattle are not to be messed with. A new breed of mascot was needed. Instead of taking care of an animal full time for several years, why not dress someone up as said animal for a few hours? Two very different sports programs would have that light bulb go off in consecutive years.
In 1963, game programs for the newly minted New York Mets featured a cartoon of a Mets player with a giant baseball for a head. A year later, Mr. Met was brought to life. In what could have been nightmare fuel on par with early renditions of Walt Disney’s favorite rodent, Mr. Met (later followed by a Mrs. Met) is actually a tasteful rendering of the cartoon. With human proportions and his enormous baseball dome, Mr. Met essentially looks like a bobblehead come to life. Mr. Met was family-friendly, great with kids and most importantly, he didn’t bite. No one had to clean up for Mr. Met. You could find him roaming the concourse of the brand new Shea Stadium in Queens, waving to fans and trying to rally the crowd behind a truly terrible team.
A year later, far from the bright lights of New York, students Ray Bourhis and Sally Huber would come up with a mascot of their own. Ohio State University didn’t have a mascot at its football games at the time, but several of its competitors did. Bourhis and Huber thought to go in a different direction. They created a paper-mache buckeye, the nut of the state tree of Ohio and would wear it to games. Given that it was created from scratch by a couple of broke college kids, Brutus, as he would come to be known, did not have the same graceful debut as Mr. Met. Although follow students loved it, the paper-mache (and shortly after fiberglass) nut was not easy on the eyes. There was one redeeming quality of this early version of Brutus. When the team was not playing well, the students would don a version of
Brutus with a giant frowny face, to make their displeasure clear. Creating the suit and giving it a basic personality were important steps on the path to the modern mascot but it would take another decade before the world would finally see just how inventive and frankly, annoying a sports mascot could be. And like with a lot of annoying things, it was made possible by a local radio station.
San Diego rock station KGB (trying.. not to..make..obvious..Russia joke) was looking for a mascot. They hired a cartoonist who drew a brightly colored chicken. The station liked the design and moved forward with creating a wearable suit of the chicken, debuting their pride and joy at an Easter Egg hunt at the San Diego Zoo in 1974. They stuck a young journalism student named Ted Giannoulas inside. Giannoulas would remain in that chicken for more than 40 years.
The San Diego Chicken was a revelation. He quickly became a phenomenon in southern California and was adopted by the San Diego Padres. Giannoulas was the first to take the idea of a cartoonish figure and decide to truly flush out a character. Not only that, but Giannoulas correctly understood that the only way to make fans care about a mascot was to do memorable things. The Chicken would lay eggs with prizes in them for fans. It would challenge opposing mascots to dance-offs. It would steal the hat of a fan rooting for another team. Sure, Mr. Met loved baseball, but The San Diego Chicken loved the Padres enough to mock their opponents while perched atop their dugout. The Chicken loved dancing, hated umpires and utterly despised the New York Yankees, like any good baseball fan. Yes, he was zany and a giant chicken, but he was also oddly relatable. He was an ally to the fans.
In 1977, the Philadelphia Phillies would debut the Phillie Phanatic, a plush green monstrosity, (created by the designer of Miss Piggy) that would somehow win over the dead hearts of Philadelphians, a feat that Santa Claus couldn’t even pull off. From that point on, Mascots began appearing across all major sports leagues in North America. Greatest hits include Chicago’s Benny the Bull, Montreal’s Yuppie and the current king of Philly, Gritty. The college ranks would also jump on the ‘performed’ mascot train, creating beloved figures as Albert Gator, the Oregon Duck and the love of my life, Buzz.
Now, the mascots have taken over. They descend from the rafters on ropes and ride motorcycles into stadiums. They have their own in-character accounts on Twitter and routinely go viral with their antics. They play up rivalries not only with teams but opposing players. They not only roam arenas and stadiums but they attend music festivals and visit children’s hospitals. It's honestly hard to believe there was a time where a sweaty person in a giant stuffed animal wasn't normal. And all of this madness is the legacy of a forgotten Guilded Age French opera.
Viva la France et Viva le Gritty.