La Mascotte

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: As baseball fans probably know, the Washington Nationals came to the US by way of Canada; they used to be the Montreal Expos. The team packed up and left Canada in 2005 and they left behind their name, their logo their uniforms….

AN: And maybe most importantly, their mascot, Youppi.

RM: That’s our Canadian friend Andrew Norton. He has a special connection to Youppi.

AN: It’s actually my dad who had a special connection to Youppi. He died about eight years ago and his relationship with Youppi is something that I’m still trying to square. Okay, so a little bit about my dad – he was the boring dad. He always fell asleep at the movies… Pinocchio, Toy Story, dude was out cold.

AN: Family trips were planned with efficiency and thrift as the primary objective. And at our house, we subscribed to the one newspaper that didn’t have a comic section. He was definitely not into things that could be classified as fun, but he had this one quiet obsession…

AN: It was rotund, orange, furry, and six and a half feet tall.

RM: Youppi.

AN: Spelled Y-O-U-P-P-I, and always with an exclamation mark. It’s French for “Yippee!”. you know like, “Youppi!”

JN: O like Youppi! (laughs) Mon Dieu. Um, honestly haven’t look at Youppi in a while.

AN: That’s my sister Jessica. We’re in her basement while her kids are asleep and we’re looking at photos of Youppi on my phone.

JN: That’s the Youppi I know. Orange, fuzzy, wearing cleats, Expos hat, ill-fitting Expos shirt, and then like, googly eyes, but an approachable face.

RM: Youppi looks like an orange haired bearded lumberjack crossed with a Sasquatch wearing a baseball jersey. You can picture that, right?

AN: It was when we were kids that my sister and I started noticing our dad’s affection for Youppi. He’d light up when we’d see him at Expos games and he’d look for him on T.V.

JN: He hated when the game would get cut to commercial because like that would be prime Youppi time.

AN: Youppi brought out this side of my dad that we just didn’t recognize.

JN: All of a sudden like, you’re just this guy who loves the mascot to the point where you clip a picture of him out of the newspaper and put him on a side of the fridge.

AN: An article on the fridge might not sound like a big deal. But before this, the only other article he had ever posted up was about Canada’s new sales tax rates. Then suddenly it’s Youppi.

RM: It should be noted that when the Expos moved to D.C. to become the Nationals, Youppi switched sports and found a job with a Montreal hockey team called the Canadiens.

AN: My dad died just after that and all these years later I can’t help but wonder what it was about Youppi that spoke to his long-repressed whimsical side.

RM: And it’s not just Andrew’s dad. So many grown adults can’t resist hugging and posing for selfies with mascots, even though it’s just someone in a costume. They’re entranced.

AM: Well, I mean the definition of a mascot it comes from actually the French word Masco, a little slang word which actually means witch.

AN: That’s A.J. Mass, a writer for ESPN.com and author of a book all about sports mascots called Yes, It’s Hot in Here. He was also the dude inside the Mr. Met costume from 1994 to 1997

RM: In 1997, when Bill Clinton was visiting Shea Stadium, the Secret Service pulled A.J. aside while he was in his big Mr. Met costume and told him, “if you approach the president we go for the kill shot.”

AN: According to A.J. the word “mascot” came to America in the late 1800s through a French opera

AM: That was called La Mascot by a guy named Audran.

AN: The opera is about a down on his luck farmer who was visited by this girl named Bettina. As soon as she rolls up, magically his crops start doing well and his life turns around. All thanks to this mysterious woman.

AM: And it became very popular in the United States, and the terminology kind of caught on when people started to realize and recognized that mascot means a good luck charm.

AN: And this idea of a mascot fit right in with the notoriously superstitious world of pro baseball.

AM: You know, there were situations where like there’d be a kid in the stands who would smile at a baseball player in a slump. He’d get a base hit and he’d give the kid tickets for the next day, and you know, suddenly he’d go on a big hitting streak and so he would be like “Hey, I want this kid to hang around all the time.” And that’s kind of where mascots became these human good luck charms.

AN: Like John the Orange Man, who was well, a man who sold oranges outside the stadium at
Harvard; and Yale adopted Handsome Dan, a Bulldog they walked out on the field before games. Anything that was sort of around at the time of the team’s hot streak could and would be claimed as a mascot.

RM: It was pretty much all animals and bystanders until the Second World War. That’s when
one baseball game altered the idea of mascots in sports.

AN: Yeah, this game took place in Hawaii and it was an exhibition game made up of service members.
Pitching was kind of a lanky, goofy looking guy by the name of Max Patkin. The legendary Joe DiMaggio steps up to the plate and hits his massive home run off him.

RM: The story goes that the ball went into the Pacific Ocean.

AN: And Patkin just snaps. He jumps off the mound. This is the pitcher, okay? He jumps off the mound and runs after Dimaggio.

AM: People thought he was like, going to attack him or something but actually he just ran behind him mimicking his home run trot and the crowd just went nuts.

AN: So he kept doing this act throughout those Service League exhibition games as a pitcher. His shtick was sort of a mix of Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura meets the dance moves of your drunk uncle at a wedding meets like, a Parisian mime. And when the war was over, Patkin stopped being a pitcher and was hired by the Cleveland Indians to do his thing at home games to help draw in crowds.

RM: It was the first time a mascot did more than just stand around being lucky. He entertained people and God knows people need that at a baseball game.

AN: So now thanks to Patkin, we had this idea of a mascot as a diversion. But there’s still a big evolutionary step to get to the mascots we know today.

AM: Yeah, the turning point certainly has to begin and end with the chicken.

AN: The San Diego Chicken who can really only be described as a dude in a chicken suit.

RM: In 1974 the San Diego radio station KGB-FM hired a college kid by the name of Ted Giannoulas to wear a chicken suit and do promotion for the radio station.

AN: And Giannoulas got into it. Like, really into it. The chicken had bravado, he had swagger, he was like an obnoxious frat boy in a bird costume. He danced on the field at San Diego Padres games, grab people’s beer and pretend to chug it.

AM: And the Padres were such a bad team that people started going just so they could see the chicken perform, and that’s where the San Diego Chicken kind of was born. He was this marketing tool for the radio station that kind of suddenly became bigger than the team itself.

AN: He was eventually fired from the radio station because he took on such a life of his own. So Giannoulas got his own chicken costume and kept performing. The station actually sued him and lost.

AM: Because you can’t, you know, you can’t copyright the idea of a guy in a chicken suit.

RM: Kids, you can’t copyright the idea of a guy…in a chicken suit.

AN: The chicken was a big deal even though he wasn’t an official team mascot. He had become an icon.

AM: He created the modern mascot movement.

AN: Even so, by the late ’70s the mascot scene was still pretty barren by today’s standards. Only a handful of baseball teams technically had mascots. Like the Philadelphia Phillies; they had a pair of characters called Phil and Phyllis.

AM: They were props. They weren’t mascots, they were props.

AM: Picture if you dressed a couple of those Big Boy restaurant statues in colonial garb. They were these big plaster characters that would kind of waddle out for the national anthem, or if there was a home run.
So when the Phillies saw what the chicken was doing in San Diego they were like, “We gotta get us some of that.”

RM: the Phillies found someone to custom design a mascot to entertain their fans. And before she came on board, they warned her that fans in Philly could be a little, unforgiving.

BE: They said well we just want you to know that our crowd in Philadelphia booed the Easter Bunny.

AN: That’s designer Bonnie Erickson, and that booing the Easter bunny story is actually an urban legend.

RM: But Eagles fans did once pelt Santa with snowballs during the game.

AM: Bonnie had no experience with the sports world when she took the gig. She and her husband and
business partner, Wade Harrison had just started their own design outfit. They got the Phillies’ job thanks to a recommendation by Bonnie’s former employer, Jim Henson. The Jim Henson. You know, Muppets Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street….

RM: Bonnie Erickson designed Miss Piggy. And The Muppet Show hecklers Statler and Waldorf.

AN: She also worked with Henson on making life-sized versions of the Sesame Street characters for their Sesame Street on ice performances. So she knew how to make a costume that people could perform and move in which was a new concept when it came to mascots.

RM: So Bonnie got to work on this new mascot and in the meantime, the Phillies had to find someone to
stuff inside of it and face those Santa heckling grounds.

DR: They needed the lowest man on the totem pole the intern to raise his hand and say yes.

AN: That’s Dave Raymond who was that intern. He was brought on board to do things like count the All-Star Game voting ballots. He had no background as a performer aside from some dabbling with disco. Nevertheless. he would be the performer inside this new mascot.

DR: Because of some delays, we didn’t see the costume until the very night that I was going to wear it
and that’s when I started getting a little bit distressed; because I started to realize that everyone else thought this was a stupid idea and I was truly going to be thrown to the wolves.

AN: The Phillies weren’t even promoting the fact that they were getting a new mascot; in case the whole thing just completely backfired.

RM: They could be like, “Mascot, what mascot? Did you see a mascot? I didn’t see a mascot.”

DR: But I was reassured when I first opened the box, and I was blown away with how perfect it locked.

AN: The Philly fanatic was born.

RM: If this were a superhero movie this would be when the dramatic music comes on, but the Fanatic is definitely not a comic book superhero. It’s all green fur like very very fuzzy fur he has a snout like a megaphone. He’s very, very large and rotund, pear-shaped body with a huge belly and the kind of a duck butt, a very long neck stirrup socks Phillies hat, and a Phillies jersey.

DR: Perfect! You know doesn’t that all make sense?

AN: No. No, it doesn’t make any sense that the Phillies mascot would be a big googly-eyed monster, but it turns out that every part of the fanatic is like a master class in Mascot design. For starters, he’s green, not the standard Phillies red.

BE: Right, exactly. It’s always easy to spot the fanatic in any of these games.

AN: And the duck butt? And the pear-shaped body?

BE: No matter how you move in that costume if you’re a human being and you put one leg in front of the other that costume looks funny.

AN: Now when I look at The Fanatic, It’s so clear that there’s Muppet DNA in there. Even the placement of the cartoon googly eyes is something that Bonnie learned from her time designing Muppets.

BE: You are asking for all my secrets! Well, if you put eyes high on a figure’s face, they will look older. If you put them down closer to the nose, they’ll probably look younger and more childlike.

AN: Plus, there are other mascot firsts that she borrowed from the Muppets. Like, she designed The
Fanatic with licensing and merchandising in mind: Toys, T-shirts, that kind of stuff. And like all good characters, the fanatic even has his own origin story.

RM: He’s supposedly from the Galapagos Islands.

AN: The fanatic is goofy. You know, he’d rub a bald dude’s head, or rip off the hat of someone cheering for the wrong team and usually he gets away with it. It’s just damn near impossible to get irate with a fuzzy green thing.

RM: Though one time he did get pummeled by Tommy Lasorda, the coach of the L.A. Dodgers after
Lasorda had had it with The Fanatic taunting him.

(Baseball commentator) that’s the quickest Tommy’s moved all year. We’ve gotta mark that down. The quickest Tommy Lasorda moved in 1988 was after The Philly Fanatic. (laughs)
.

AN: And of course that just made the Phillies fans love him even more.

RM: Dave Raymond played The Philly Fanatic from that first game in 1978 until 1993. He only ever missed 5 home games. Now all but 3 major league baseball teams have mascots, and most of them are big, and goofy, and have googly eyes.

AM: Everyone since The Fanatic is kind of, in a way, copying The Fanatic.

AN: And so of course, Bonnie kept getting work.

BE: After we did the next one that we were asked to do, because of the popularity of the character early on, was for Montreal; for the Expos.

AN: Yep, Bonnie Erickson also created Youppi! and when I told her about the inordinate amount of affection my dad had for the mascot, she recalled once seeing a big, burly guy coming out of the Expo stadium with some Youppi dolls in a shopping bag.

BE: He had positioned them so that they would have their heads sticking out as if they couldn’t breathe if they were in, and I thought that was very touching. (laughs)

AM: The mascot still lives in this sort of limbo between the two worlds; he’s not quite part of the team, but not quite part of the fanbase either. I think that’s the power of a mascot. What fan of a team wouldn’t want to be able to have that freedom to mock the other team and get a response? You know, they live vicariously through the mascot.

AN: I think a big part of it for my dad was this aspect of living vicariously. Youppi! was his spirit animal. The Brad Pitt to his Edward Norton. You could belly slide across the Expos dugout, take the ump to task for the whole stadium cheered him on. Steal a kiss from Celine Dion after a show-stopping rendition of O Canada. Youppi! is a fun dude; and I can see that maybe, secretly, my dad was too.

(Youppi! Theme plays)

Comments (12)

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  1. In Philadelphia, it’s common practice not to refer to someone as “performing as the Phantic.” Writers identify the mascot as “the Phanatic’s best friend” lest any kids who are reading get the wing idea.

  2. Tom Scott

    I grew up in San Diego in the 70s and went to a lot of Padre games. My memory (which I’ll swear by) is the Chicken was actually drinking beer, not just pretending to. Before they banned it, people would bring in milk jugs full of beer and the chicken would grab the jugs, open his beck and pour it down his gullet.

  3. Wow! As a Montrealer, let me tell you that you are surrounded by great researchers (or maybe is it you Roman?). I’ve never heard of the French-Spoken song at the end of your podcast. Anyway, this brings back beautiful childhood memories. Thanks!

    By the way, funny how your boy chose a little snow owl for a mascot. It is sort of our animal emblem here in the province of Quebec.

  4. N R Nelson

    As a little kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, my dad once brought back Phanatic plush toys for me and my sister from a business trip to Philly. Since we lived in a city that had nothing resembling a pro baseball team, we became instant Phillies fans, rooting for them from afar for many years.

  5. Mike

    At the end of the podcast there was a song playing in the background does anybody know the name of that song? It was very soft beautiful vocals in the background.

  6. Laura

    I am from Philly and I love the Phanatic!! He is my favorite part of the game and I will gladly go to any random event where he appears!!

  7. Pattie O'Donnell

    Thanks for the great story about mascots. The level of research 99pi does is what makes the stories so good.

    When I was a little girl, my dad used to provide the mugs (coffee and beer) for the Phillies organization, with images of Phil & Phyllis on the front. When the Phanatic arrived on the scene, controlling its own merchandising, we lost the account overnight (because the Phillies didn’t own the Phanatic’s copyright at that time – they declined to purchase it when the mascot was created, and had to buy it later from the creators for a lot more money).

    But even my dad had to concede that the Phanatic was much better mascot, and we ended up with amazing season tickets a consolation prize.

    1. Perry F. Bruns

      Whoops! My mistake. La Mascotte is the name of the opera for which Henry B. Plant’s steamship Mascotte was named.

  8. Emily Preece

    The fact that “Hot in Here” made it to this episode brightened my day. Thanks for that!

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