A Journey Through the History of MLB Mascots

It all began with Mr. Met.

The orb-headed, future enemy of Noah Syndergaard, was the first modern mascot of a major league team to appear live in-game, rather than merely as a drawing or on printed marketing materials. Other teams, like the Brooklyn Dodgers, had employed entertainers who became unofficial mascots for their clubs, but Mr. Met represents the first case of an intentionally designed character becoming an in-person mascot. Mr. Met first debuted in print in 1963; he was heavily featured in the team’s preseason marketing and was portrayed on scorecards and in programs throughout the year. In 1964, he made his first live appearance. He remained a consistent part of the team’s iconography until 1979, when he was removed from use; the character remained on the bench until 1994.

What Mr. Met represented was a modern-era shift for baseball. Fans had traditionally been a more raucous crowd that consisted primarily of adults, and teams at the time were making an effort to appeal more to families. The presence of large, cartoonish characters made ballparks feel like a more welcoming environment for those attending with small children. Mr. Met, who was quickly joined by Mrs. Met, ushered in a new experience, and over the following decades, almost every major league team followed suit, adding their own mascots to entertain game-day fans.

We can give Mr. Met credit for being the first official live mascot of a major league team, but another character set the tone for some of the most popular mascots to follow: the San Diego Chicken. The Chicken is an interesting example of a team representative because the San Diego Padres did not set out to find or create an entertainer for their games. The Chicken, played by Ted Giannoulas, originally did events for KGB-FM Radio. Upon having some success distributing Easter eggs to children, Giannoulas pitched his services to the Padres. At the time, he just wanted a way to get into games for free, but after his 1977 debut, he went on to portray the character for almost 50 years, albeit with a few breaks over the decades. For instance, in 1979, he was fired from the radio station and had to fight for the right to wear the chicken suit, and there were a few other planned absences as well. But those gaps aside, the Chicken was quite popular, even making its way to television, where, alongside Johnny Bench and Tommy Lasorda, it served as the co-host of a popular children’s series called “The Baseball Bunch,” a program aimed at introducing baseball and its players to a younger audience.

The Chicken popularized a certain type of mascot. You can see aspects of it in almost all of the other mascots in the majors. Its big, child-friendly, stuffed animal look became the template from which the next generation of mascots were drawn. That aesthetic is probably best exhibited in the Phillie Phanatic, who debuted in 1978 and is likely the best-known and most recognizable mascot currently in the game.

There’s a simple reason these more child-friendly designs gained popularity — they worked. Some teams had made much earlier attempts at mascots, but they were frankly more horrifying than they were appealing, proving to be disquieting to both adults and children. The Chicago Cubs made efforts as far back as 1908, when they introduced a nameless bear mascot that might remind modern observers more of the finale of Midsommar than a rollicking good time at the ballpark. Unlike Mr. Met, the bear wasn’t a mascot in the traditional sense. The team had no intention of him appearing for the entire season. Indeed, he actually only came to amuse the crowd for a single game. (The polar bear costume was on loan from a local production of “The Top o’ th’ World.”)

The Cubs did win the World Series the season that the terror bear made an appearance, so perhaps they should have kept it around a bit longer. Instead, the team switched to live bear cubs for a time, including the best-known of the group, a cub named Joa (named for Cubs co-owner J. Ogden Armour). Again, we can’t consider these mascots in the same way we think of them now, as they didn’t perform and generally caused more harm than good. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the moral failing of keeping a live animal on display that forced the Cubs to change their policy on the actual cubs, but rather that the pint-sized bears kept biting people, including the players. Sadly, the cubs who were not sold to the Lincoln Park Zoo met slightly grimmer ends. (The team’s current mascot, Clark, canonically escaped the zoo after hearing enthusiastic hollering coming from Wrigley Field and deciding he desperately needed to see a game in person. Mascot biographies are a wild ride.)

Between the introduction of Mr. Met in the 1960s and the mid-80s establishment of “The Baseball Bunch,” almost every major league club got a mascot of its own. While official mascots have changed somewhat over the decades, they’re still a mainstay for most teams. At present, there are only three major league teams with no official mascot: the Los Angeles Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees. Given that the two Los Angeles-based teams are so close to Disneyland, it’s somewhat surprising that they haven’t embraced a costume-clad ambassador of their own, but they remain firmly mascotless. The Angels do have a rally monkey, but it’s not an official mascot as much as a part of the club’s iconography. Before they moved to Los Angeles, the Dodgers briefly had a mascot named Weary Willie, who we’ll return to a bit later. The Yankees, however, might have one of the best examples of a failed mascot of any major league team.

In 1979, without any advanced warning to fans or even a proper introduction, the Yankees unveiled Dandy. Unlike the Cubs’ first crack at a mascot, Dandy was actually pretty adorable. He had more in common with the round-bodied characters we see now, with a big belly and fur that resembled the iconic Yankee pinstripes. Dandy sported a long, red handlebar mustache, and carried a comically oversized bat. But the mascot’s initial welcome was anything but warm. According to Rick Ford, who wore the Dandy costume that first day, “Nobody had any idea what I was or what I was doing there. They just looked at me like, ‘What the hell is this thing?’”

Dandy had the right pedigree to be a beloved team icon. He was created by Bonnie Erickson and Wayde Harrison, the same masterminds behind the incredibly popular Phanatic, and had the same kind of goofy charm to his appearance. But he never resonated with Yankees fans. No one knew the character’s name and he was never given an official welcome. Erickson later confessed that the duo hadn’t really been given much direction in terms of what the Yankees actually wanted out of a mascot. “We knew they were interested in increasing family attendance, and they thought this was the way to do it. They left the design up to me.” In addition to not giving Erickson and Harrison much guidance in the design process, the Yankees didn’t offer much help to Ford in terms of how to be a mascot. “Nobody at the Yankees gave me any direction. I was just making it up as I went along,” he admitted.

Dandy’s poor conception and botched introduction might have spelled doom on their own, but it was likely the untimely death of Thurman Munson later in 1979 that ultimately brought an end to the mascot. While Erickson was not familiar with the Yankees catcher, there’s no way to dispute that Dandy, with his distinctive mustache, bore a striking resemblance to the beloved player. Following Munson’s passing, Dandy became an even more unwelcome presence. While Ford continued to don the costume for another two seasons, the character was quietly retired by the team by 1981. The Yankees have not attempted a mascot since, and there are few in the current front office who will acknowledge they ever had one.

The Yankees aren’t the only team that would like to bury the memory of a mascot. Earlier, I mentioned Brooklyn Dodgers mascot Weary Willie, who was actually something of an icon during his heyday. Willie, as portrayed by Emmett Kelly, was a sad-faced clown who was meant to be a representation of a Depression-era hobo. He rose to fame during his tenure with Ringling Brothers Circus, but took the 1956 season off from the circus to clown for the Dodgers. While Mr. Met represents the earliest iteration of modern mascots (at least as recognized by MLB), Willie helped set the tone for how mascots engage with a crowd and keep things exciting amidst lulls in the game action. Willie was not considered a mascot by the team but rather in-game entertainment. While we think of those things going hand-in-hand now, it’s a slight distinction that keeps Mr. Met’s status as the first of his kind intact.

During the 1950s, when the Dodgers were still based in Brooklyn and bore the nickname of “dem bums,” it made sense to have a hobo character as a comical foil to entertain fans mid-game. Kelly, who often also joined the team for spring training, moved with them to Los Angeles, but ultimately left after the 1962 season, feeling that the Dodgers new home was simply “too big for one clown.” It’s likely best that Kelly’s tenure ended on his own terms, as it’s hard to imagine that such a character would have been appropriate on-field fodder for much longer.

It’s the Atlanta Braves, though, that might have the worst former mascot in modern baseball history. The team, which still comes under fire for its name, as well as the oft-discussed “Tomahawk Chop” performed by the crowd, once leaned even further into racial stereotypes in the form of their mascot. Today’s fans might be most familiar with Blooper, the club’s current mascot that was introduced in 2018, and those around in the 1970s and early 80s might recall the Bleacher Creature, who roamed the stands from 1977-81. But it’s the memory of Chief Noc-A-Homa that the organization would likely prefer to forget. Chief Noc-A-Homa pre-dated and also outlasted the Bleacher Creature, staying with the team from 1966-85. Notably, the Chief character, who had a tepee set up in the left-field seats, was not in a suit or oversized costume, but was played by a real person dressed as a Native American chief. Chief Noc-A-Homa was primarily portrayed by an actual Native American, with Levi Walker playing the part for over a decade. In 1983, the Braves also briefly added Princess Win-A-Lotta to the rotation, but she only lasted for one season.

Noc-A-Homa didn’t stir up much controversy at the time in the local Atlanta media, though he was mentioned in Russell Means’ 1972 lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians as being equally as problematic as Chief Wahoo. Walker went on the radio during the lawsuit to defend himself as well as the Cleveland organization, and ultimately the Noc-A-Homa character remained in place. After the 1985 season, Walker made it clear that the $60 per game he was making to play the mascot wasn’t enough, and rather than increasing his pay, the club decided to part ways with him, citing missed appearances. (Walker also admitted that he had asked out several female fans while on the job, one of whom turned out to be the daughter of a Braves executive.) The team did not recast the role, and in spite of fans who had grown superstitious about Chief Noc-A-Homa’s presence and a grassroots campaign in 1991 to bring him back during the Braves’ postseason push, the mascot hasn’t returned. With the benefit of hindsight, though, it’s clear why the Braves didn’t want to bring Walker back in 1991 (or at any time since) and why the team hasn’t used the “Screaming Indian” logo since it last appeared on a batting practice cap in 2012, though much like the Chief Wahoo design, MLB retains the right to use the logo. Many professional sports teams are finally responding to pressure from Indigenous groups to change outdated and racist team names, and those that do so seem to want to create distance between their current policies and the choices they made in the past. The Braves have a long way to go in this regard. They have not indicated any long-term plans to adopt a new name, and despite outside pressure, they have not eliminated the “Tomahawk Chop.” The team still dims the lights during opposing pitching changes, which prompts fans to light up their cell phones and participate in the longstanding, and troubling, tradition.

As some mascots have fallen out use, their broader role has continued to evolve over the years. We now find ourselves in a time where professional sports mascots can mean more to a team than just in-game amusement for the kids in attendance. The New York Times recently reported on how the branding for the Rocket City Trash Pandas helped generate $4 million in sales of merchandise featuring team mascot Sproket. Considering that even the most valuable minor league teams earn about $15 million a season in total revenue, earning $4 million in merchandise sales shows the incredible power of having a good mascot.

The value of mascots to clubs may be shifting as time progresses, and we’re seeing some teams achieve moments of pop culture relevance via their performers and branding. The Trash Pandas might not have the same reach outside of their sport as the Philadelphia Fliers do with Gritty, their giant orange monster who has transcended hockey to be his own entity, but the popularity of Sproket helped make the Trash Pandas a success before they’d won a single game. Mascots may primarily be used to appeal to children and get crowds amped up during games, but they can also impact a club’s bottom line.

There have been stumbles along the way, with teams learning from the growing pains of their off-putting or downright scary creations. Sometimes those missteps have led to teams abandoning mascots altogether, as the Yankees have done. Other teams have moved on from mascots with overtly racist overtones, replacing them with characters more in line with the style of the San Diego Chicken, as the Braves have done with Blooper. Mascots can be a charming part of the fan experience, but like all other aspects of baseball history, they are not without their failings, and it’s important to recognize the bad along with the good. And while mascots may be meant to appeal mostly to children, they also bring out the kid in all of us.

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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1 year ago

Reading this article is like mainlining cringe humor into your veins. I knew some of these embarrassments but I’m high on horror from many of the others. Princess Win-a-Lotta? A hobo mascot? Live bear cubs that kept biting players? The fools running these teams were no Bill Veeck, that’s for sure.