Sports Animal

On the not-quite-animal/not-quite-human mascots of professional sports.


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Based on the headlines I’ve skimmed, the World Series spurs a lot of questions — questions I don’t really care about involving starters and lineups and blah blah blah. I’ve got a question: How about that Philly Phanatic?!

If the Phanatic takes top billing this Series it’s partly because, well, New York doesn’t have a mascot. I suppose it reflects a minimalist sensibility that non-New York cities lack the confidence to adopt, but whatever the reason, the absence of a mascot is a point of pride. In a 2001 New York Times story on the injuries sports mascots suffer in the line of duty — broken legs, heat exhaustion — writer George Vecsey noted: “It is a tribute to my hometown, New York, that mascots are generally not seen cavorting on the playing fields. New York fans become engrossed with human beings like Paulie and Benny and Spree and do not need furry and feathered diversion.”

Whatever. Furry and feathered diversion make anything better. Which is why the Washington Nationals have Screech the bald eagle and Toronto, Ace the Blue Jay and the Kansas City Royals, Sluggerrr the lion and — to expand beyond furs and feathers — the San Francisco Giants have Lou Seal and Florida has Billy the Marlin. But the Phanatic belongs to a special group of mascots, one that sits aside the human/anthropomorphized animal divide to which Vecsey alludes.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Gapper. Tampa Bay’s Raymond. The Cleveland Indians’ Slider. The Chicago White Soxs’ Southpaw. The Boston Red Sox’s Wally the Green Monster. The members of this group are marked by shaggy fur, garish colors, and, for some reason, disproportionately large noses and eyebrows. These are beings that don’t resemble anything you’d find in the real world. Boston’s is named for the stadium’s famous left field wall, but “monster” is, in fact, the most common way to describe all these mascots — not because they’re grotesque or induce any kind of fear, but more because they resemble nothing found in nature.

The contemporary use of animal names and animal mascots in sports is actually the most recent manifestation of a millennia-old tradition. In Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport, classics scholar David Sansone argues that the practice has roots in the Stone Age. Paleolithic hunters possessed a “desire to reanimate and revivify the slain animal by moving around vigorously while wearing the animal’s skin. For that skin came from the animal, be it bear or buffalo, that provided the hunger with his means of livelihood.” The practice did not disappear with the rise of agriculture and domestication, but instead morphed into one in which men assumed the attributes not of their prey — the bear, the buffalo — but of the predators of sacrificial victims — the leopard, say, as seen on cave paintings in Çatalhöyük, Turkey — which Sansone speculates was a way of transferring guilt for the act from the sacrificer to the sacrificed’s natural enemy.

This practice ultimately passed on to another hunt-like “ritual sacrifice of energy” — in other words, sport — which dispersed across cultures. One type of Roman gladiator was named for the fish that decorated his helmet, for example, and Native Americans such as the Cherokee of North Carolina and Dakota of Minnesota played ball games wearing deer tails and bird feathers and, in some cases, a rattlesnake’s rattle to intimidate the competitor.

Animal mascots were later popular in the decidedly non-sporting Civil War. A variety of animals traveled with troops — among them dogs, raccoons, an eagle, a donkey, sheep, badger, bear, and even a camel. In some cases, animal nicknames from the battlefield would eventually make their way to the stadium. The University of Delaware Blue Hens, for example, can trace their name back to a Revolutionary War regiment named for the bird (it’s thought because either the troops traveled with blue-tinged birds or because the soldiers’ uniforms included blue coats and red feathers). During the Civil War, troops from Louisiana were referred to as tigers; the animal is today the mascot for Louisiana State University. LSU, incidentally, is one of the few schools that keeps a living version of its mascot on campus; Mike the Tiger even has his own live Web cam. Baylor University has a bear on campus, and Colorado brings a live bull named Ralphie to its football games. (PETA? Not happy.) In professional baseball, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Florida Aquarium maintain a 10,000-gallon tank of sting rays just beyond the stadium’s right field; a home run by a Rays player means a $2,500 donation to the Aquarium and $2,500 to a charity of the player’s choice.

Of course animals are not the only source of team names and mascots. In some cases, teams just stick some arms and legs on an object that represents the sport or team name or a point of regional pride. Mr. Met and Atlanta’s Homer and Cincinnati’s Mr. Redlegs are just baseballs with faces in team uniforms. Boston has two red socks — Lefty and Righty. Milwaukee Brewers games feature a sixth-inning race between a melting pot of meat: the bratwurst, Italian sausage, Polish sausage, hot dog, and chorizo. And there are the Native American teams — now no longer in vogue (at least on the national level) as they were earlier in the 20th century.

Today it’s a no-brainer that the Atlanta Braves ditched Chief Noc-A-Homa. Mascots can invoke the positive attributes of the animals for which they’re named. They can be caricatures of a persona — Pittsburgh’s Captain Jolly Roger, for example. And they shouldn’t — in 2009, at least — offend.

So where did the “monsters” come from? The Phanatic was first, in 1978. According to Pouring Six Beers at a Time by Phillies chairman Bill Giles, the team’s director of marketing Denny Lehman was so impressed with the San Diego Chicken’s ability to establish a family atmosphere and reduce the number of fights among fans at games that he pushed for Philadelphia to adopt its own.

“Finally, I said all right,” Giles told on the Phanatic’s 25th birthday, “but I didn’t want it to be a recognizable creature like a chicken, bird or frog.” With The Muppet Show being one of the most popular intergenerational shows at the time, the Phillies contacted Jim Henson. The puppeteer sent them to the firm Harrison/Erikson, a husband-and-wife team team behind such characters as Miss Piggy. Now known as Acme Mascots, the firm went on from the fat, green Phanatic to create other monster-esque mascots including Youppi! for the Montreal Expos and Ribbie and Roobarb for the White Sox, all since retired. It’s also behind equally ambiguous NBA mascots including Duncan (the New Jersey Nets), G-Wiz (the Washington Wizards), Big Shot (the Philadelphia 76ers), and Stuff (the Orlando Magic). The firm was even responsible for the Yankees’ short-lived mascot experiment in the early 1980s — Dandy, which looked like the Philadelphia Phanatic, but white and with a big brown mustache.

The monsters have no historical antecedents. They’re clearly not animals, and they’re not the caricaturization of a person. They sit, instead, as the third point of a triangulation — not between humans and animals, but equidistant from the two. They’re clearly meant to invoke something of our environment: the Philadelphia Phillie’s Web site lists the Phanatic’s birthplace as the Galapagos Islands — a place whose name evokes rich ideas of life and biology and evolution — and not some place as fanciful as the Phanatic itself.

It’s interesting to see the role the Phanatic plays. He has an animal-like innocence that gives him a pass for stealing cotton candy or ribbing Jack Nicholson or dressing in drag and seducing an umpire. Yet he’s also an asshole. He mines guy-on-guy attraction for laughs. He steals. He famously mocked Los Angeles Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda so incessantly that the latter finally erupted at a 1988 game and “body slammed” the Phanatic.

It would be easy to say that, unlike animal mascots, there’s really nothing behind the monsters but good old fashioned PR. But what made them good PR to begin with? The monster mascots like the Phanatic occupy a particular niche in the realm of creatures. They were born at the same time as the Muppets, and the characters from Sesame Street, and the puppets of Sid and Marty Kroft, which traded species-specific puppets like Sheri Lewis’ Lamp Chop and Howdy Doody for beings that blurred the two. In that way, a mascot like the Phanatic doesn’t stand in for everyman or everyanimal, but more for a kind of ecological everything. Maybe it’s coincidence, but remember that the whole “monster” craze was born in the 1970s: the same decade that saw the birth of the modern environmental movement and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the revealing of James Lovelock’s controversial Gaia hypothesis, which proposed that the planet is one single, self-correcting organism. Were the Philadelphia Phillies or the people behind Miss Piggy thinking of the environment and interconnectivity or the debate over the idea that Earth is one big living thing in and of itself when they created a shaggy green monster with a megaphone nose? Probably not. But the world at large was, and if there was ever a mascot for ecology, for the idea of interactions between living things, maybe the Phanatic would be it.

Writing in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, back in 1993, Synthia Syndor Slowikowski observed that what was then a new crop of professional sports teams — the Colorado Rockies and basketball’s Miami Heat — reflected the last gasp of the tradition started by animal and Native American mascots and team names: “Perhaps in postmodernity, geologic formations, climate and natural disasters (i.e., tornados, hurricanes) are among the powerful things attempted to be dominated, since they are still a bit beyond absolute control,” she wrote.

Perhaps. But if in doing so we’ve reinforced an idea of clearly delineated species and environmental factors and forces acting on others and being acted upon, it’s nice to have a “living” symbol like the monster mascots to remind of us a moment when the gobbleldygook of life was center stage.

So Yankees? Phillies? Meh. GO PHANATIC! • 29 October 2009