THE DARK HISTORY OF SPORTS MASCOTS
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
This article was originally published on December 5th, 2018.
The Philadelphia Flyers as an organization have been around since the 1960s. However, during this period the NHL franchise has lacked in one department, the mascot.
Until now, that is.
Enter Gritty: a seven-foot, slightly terrifying, orange hairy monster that comes complete with a beer-gut, squeaky belly button and wild googly eyes.
Since he was unleashed on the NHL stage in September, the mascot has become an internet sensation.
Amassing almost 200,000 Twitter followers, making appearances on U.S. talk shows, crashed a wedding, and is being fought over as an icon for the U.S. political far-left as well as the far-right.
Gritty was reportedly created after the son of the team's COO, Shawn Tilger, asked why the Flyers did not participate in the NHL's 2018 mascot showdown event.
Mascots have developed a lot since the days where they were simply seen as good luck charms for superstitious teams. Once you scratch the surface the history of sports mascots begins to turn dark quickly.
The Flyers' furry, larger-than-life, foam-headed mascot is just the latest variation on a recent phenomenon.
Initially, Gritty received a barrage of negative feedback online. Coming from the team's own fans, as well as unlikely sources such as the Philadelphia police department, who would mock Gritty's unconventional appearance.
The mascot's origin story on the Flyers' website claims he had been hiding for an unknown amount of time inside their arena, feasting on snow and leftover hot-dogs.
It took a couple of unfortunate slips during his debut appearance on the ice and an increasingly savvy social media presence to help Gritty turn the tide.
Michael Goldman (@MichaelMGoldman), a professor of Sport Management at the University of San Francisco, said Gritty’s life outside hockey seemed to be a symptom of the turbulent political climate. “Ideas are up for grabs,” he said. “People are going to draw on whatever symbols they can to reinforce their identities.”
Gritty has also recently been featured in posts on a Neo-Nazi news website, in an apparent attempt to claim him as an icon for the U.S. far-right.
He has also earned name-checks from comedian John Oliver and appeared alongside Ricky Gervais on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. While also featuring in his own interview with Sports Illustrated magazine.
Gritty is not alone in mascot stardom. He is just the latest in a long line of weird sports mascots that have made headlines around the world.
The idea of the mascot came to America by way of a popular French opera from the 1880s called 'La Mascotte'. The opera is about a down-on-his-luck farmer who’s visited by a girl called Bettina. As soon as she appears, the farmer’s crops start doing well and his life turns around.
The word “mascotte” is a play on the French slang word “masco,” meaning “witch.” However, the terminology soon came to mean a good luck charm.
The term began to appear in people's vernacular when used to describe people such as Willie Hahn. A boy who spent the 1886 season, leading the Chicago White Stockings on to the field.
Hahn's appearance alongside the White Stockings became popular with the team's players, who were to the notoriously superstitious. Soon the term changed to become the Americanized version 'mascot,' and the human good luck charm was born.
Other teams would see players classify children in the stands as their mascots. It was not uncommon to see players in a slump, offer tickets to the next game to a child who they noticed smiling at him before getting a base hit, for good luck.
Although anything (or anyone) that was around at the time of a team’s hot streak could be claimed as a mascot. Early examples include Harvard’s “John The Orangeman,” who sold fruit during games and Yale’s “Handsome Dan,” a bulldog, who was walked onto the field before games.
Who's loony now?
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the term began to be extended to include the mentally and physically disabled as well. With teams such as the Phillies and the Athletics employing hunchback youngsters as batboy mascots.
In 1911, John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants baseball team, met Charlie "Victory" Faust, an intellectually disabled farmhand, while attending a county fair in St. Louis.
Faust predicted that he would pitch the Giants to a pennant, and as a result, was invited to team trials. Despite not having the skills to become a professional ballplayer, the Giants decided to keep Faust around the team as a good luck charm. McGraw, however, failed to disclose this information to Faust, letting him believe that he was a real Giant's player.
Before games, Faust was an inadvertent clown, earnestly displaying his inept talents on the field. The Giants would even let him pitch during a couple of innings, for there own amusement. The Giants and their opposition failing to inform Faust that both teams had prearranged the gag.
During one game, Faust managed to steal two bases, scored, and then yelled to his laughing teammates "Who's loony now?"
Part of Faust's prediction came true, the Giants became the 1911 National League champions. However, they would go on to lose the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, whose mascot was a hunchback dwarf named Louis van Zelst.
The following year Faust believed that he was again a key member of the Giants team, insisting that he should play more. McGraw no longer found the ruse funny and started to worry about Faust's mental state and decided to let him go.
A broken-hearted Faust moved to Seattle to join his brother. Despite being released from the Giants, he couldn't shake the feeling that the team needed him. So he decided to walk all the way from Seattle to Portland, in an attempt to rejoin the Giants for a game.
He was picked up by police officers along the way and decided to send him to a mental hospital. He was diagnosed with dementia and died a year later at the age of just 34.
Another unnecessary early version of the mascot was L'il Rastus. Who became the personal mascot of Detroit Tigers' player Ty Cobb.
Cobb would rub the head of L'il Rastus, a homeless black teenager, before batting, as he believed it produced good luck.
Mascots during the early years were mostly passive, often just standing around being lucky. That changed in 1944, at an exhibition game, in Hawaii, when Joe DiMaggio hit a massive home run off of a pitcher named Max Patkin.
Patkin cracked and ran off the mound, chasing DiMaggio as he rounded the bases. Mimicking his home run trot. The crowd loved it.
After World War II, Patkin retired from pitching and was signed by the Cleveland Indians to draw in and entertain crowds. Fifty years of wacky antics lead to Patkin being dubbed “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”
In 1974, the next step in the evolution of mascots arrived with the San Diego Chicken.
KGB-FM, a San Diego radio station, created the chicken mascot, for promotions during Padres games. However, the Chicken became bigger than the radio station and the poorly performing Padres, going on to become a local icon.
With the success of the San Diego chicken, other sports organizations began to take notice, including the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies decided to upgrade from their mascots, Phil and Phyllis. The two Colonial dressed figures who didn’t do much besides decorate the outfield and appear on-field during the national anthem.
They hired designer Bonnie Erickson, to design a new mascot. Erickson had created the Muppet Show characters Miss Piggy and Statler & Waldorf. She delivered the Philly Phanatic.
The Phanatic is the epitome of mascot design. Instead of being Phillies red, he is green as to not blend in the crowd. The pear-shaped body, with the duck butt, ensures that no matter how the performer moves in the costume, it’s eye-catching and funny. His eyes are low on his face, which makes him look child-like. He like Gritty comes with a strange back-story, which involves being from the Galapagos Islands.
The Phanatic is a goofy character who can be slightly aggressive. Even getting into a fight with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.
However, not all ideas for a modern-day mascot have been successful.
In 2014, AFL side Brisbane Lions came up with the idea of having a real-life lion be paraded on the field before home games. Lion's CEO Greg Swann saying "we think the kids would be absolutely beside themselves".
Some ideas are better than others. But mascots have proved over the years their work to teams commercially and will be here to stay for the foreseeable future.