I have mixed feelings about mascots. The whole concept of adults dressing up as animals—“wearing the fur,” in the haunting phrase from Stephen King’s novel Joyland—strikes me as more than a little creepy. On the other hand, a high school classmate of mine moved to Orlando and enjoyed a satisfying career portraying either Chip or Dale (she switched between them) for the guests at Disney World, and I’m happy for her.
I’ve written about mascots when I’ve found a naming angle. That’s what happened this week: I read three fascinating stories about mascots that are also about names and naming. And fandom. And storytelling.
The first story, by Max Rubin, appeared in the August 8 New York Times Magazine. (It’s called “The Mascot Whisperer” online and “Character Study” in the print edition.) It’s about Dave Raymond, who started his career 43 years ago portraying the Philadelphia Phillies mascot, the Phillie Phanatic, and went on to create the most successful new mascot in recent sports history, Gritty, for the Philadelphia Flyers NHL team. I’ve written a little about Gritty myself—see my Names of the Year for 2018—but I can’t beat Rubin’s description:
The Flyers, Raymond says, are the personification of hockey itself: “plodding and big and hulky and weird.” So the team’s designers gave their monster a massive, bulging body and a severe underbite. They gave him an excessive orange neck beard and swinging, deranged eyeballs. They gave him a bellybutton that could change colors. And then they gave him a name — a name that might have been a bit too on the nose, had they given him a nose. They named him Gritty.
It’s a great story with a terrific kicker and lots of good stuff along the way. Did you know there was a Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Indiana? I didn’t. It’s the permanent home of Mascot Boot Camp, where you too can learn how to mascot from the mascot-master himself, Dave Raymond.
Gritty on ice.
“Weird” also comes up in Marcus Gilmer’s August 10 story for the Times sports section: “Rebranding the Minors, One Logo at a Time” (print) or “Sod Poodles, Yard Goats, and Trash Pandas, Oh My” (online). (If there’d been a third version I’m confident the copy desk would have come up with a third headline cliché.) The story centers on a San Diego branding agency, cleverly named Brandiose, that has pretty much singlehandedly transformed minor-league baseball with cartoon-y logos and irreverent team names and mascots:
Kurt Hunzeker, [Major League Baseball’s] vice president for minor league business operations, says the organization trusts that teams aren’t picking names for the sake of being weird.
“The fun and creativity of the team names and the experience, that’s what minor league baseball has been known for,” he said, adding, “This new surge of team names adds to that.”
Do read the comments, which are full of local lore and love. Did you know that Las Vegas used to have a minor-league team called the 51s, named for the otherworldly Area 51 in the Nevada desert? Now you do. (Thanks, commenter Dain in New Hampshire!) You can read all about the 51s in this SportsLogos.net post from 2014, and you can see a bunch of Brandiose’s naming and logo work (the Amityville Creepers! the New Orleans Baby Cakes!) on the Brand New blog.
Hartford (Connecticut) Yard Goats; logo by Brandiose. The Yard Goats are the AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. Via Wikipedia: “The nickname ‘Yard Goats’ was selected as part of a ‘Name the Team’ contest which drew over 6,000 submissions. ‘Yard goats’ is rail-yard slang for the switch engines or terminal tractors that shuttle train cars between different locomotives. The stadium is adjacent to the Hartford rail yards.”
The Colorado Rockies, who play major-league baseball, have a mascot called Dinger, “an anthropomorphic purple triceratops,” according to the Sports Mascot wiki, whose name is “one of many slang terms for a home run.” (Really? This was news to me. Always read the wiki!) At the end of an August 8 game in Denver against the Florida Marlins, a Rockies fan shouted something that the Marlins batter, Lewis Brinson, who is Black, thought was the Six-Letter Racial Slur That Must Never Be Uttered or Printed. Rockies management watched the tape and decided the fan was shouting “Dinger!” Brinson is unpersuaded. Maybe it’s time to rename the mascot. How about “Dino”? Or “Homer”?
Dinger on the field.
If you really want to see full-fledged mascotry—defined as “attachment to or belief in mascots”—get yourself to Japan, where every city, pachinko parlor, bakery, and philanthropic cause has its own mascot. I keep up with the yuru-chara and other mascot species by following Mondo Mascots: the website and Twitter account are run by Chris Carlier, a British writer and illustrator in Tokyo.
Mascot didn’t always mean “large, fur-clad, anthropomorphic character representing a sports team.” The French word mascotte, which goes back only to the 19th century, means “a sorcerer’s charm” or a “good-luck piece.” (It may be related to mask, but my sources are equivocal.) In an 1880 French operetta called La Mascotte, the title character was a “household fairy.” The word retained its talismanic, “fairy-friend” sense when it migrated into English around 1881, but by the end of the decade, in the U.S. at least, it had started to take on its contemporary meaning. Here’s an 1889 citation in the Online Etymology Dictionary:
For the edification of readers not versed in baseball lore it should be stated that the mascot has become quite an important institution among the professional teams of America. He may be a boy possessed of some special attainment or physical peculiarity, or he may be a bull-pup with a prominent patch over his left eye. It matters not whether a mascot be brute or human, so long as his presence upon the players’ bench insures a victory—in the minds of the players—to the team with which he has cast his fortunes and in whose favor he exercises the influence he is supposed to have with Dame Fortune.