The disturbing history of baseball's mascots

Dan Snyder has been forced to circle the wagons in his greedy defense of the controversial Washington Redskins trademark. And few outside of Cleveland would be surprised, or dismayed, if the Indians' overtly racist logo - the toothy Chief Wahoo - soon vanished.

The supporters of these anachronistic sporting symbols see them as worthy, innocent, and long-standing traditions. But to believe that, you've got to overlook the disturbing history from which they arose.

There was a time in American sports, predominantly in early 20th-century baseball, when deformed or degraded mascots were the norm. In Philadelphia, for example, both the Phillies and Athletics employed hunchbacked youngsters as batboy mascots.

The custom grew out of a patronizing society's ignorant belief that the more socially outcast one was, the greater his worth as a good-luck charm.

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  • Humpbacks; dwarfs; those with crossed eyes; the mentally ill; and, of course, blacks and Indians were widely seen as talismans. It wasn't long until superstitious sports teams were cruelly using them for that purpose.

    Giants manager John McGraw kept a mentally disturbed man, Charlie "Victory" Faust, around his team in 1911 because he was convinced Faust, who believed he was preordained to pitch New York to a pennant, was as lucky as a rabbit's foot.

    The delusional Faust was convinced he actually was a Giant. Eligibility rules were lax at the time, and, for laughs, McGraw would sometimes insert him into one-sided games. During one, Faust stole two bases, scored, and then yelled to his laughter-convulsed teammates: "Who's loony now?"

    Before games, Faust was an inadvertent clown, earnestly displaying his inept talents on the field. Polo Grounds fans began showing up early to witness the degrading exhibitions. He would soon be discarded and, at 34, Faust died in a Washington state mental institution.

    Ty Cobb, a notorious misanthrope, not only had his own personal demons but his own personal mascot.

    Like many of his fellow white Southerners, Cobb believed that rubbing a black person's head produced good luck. So when he discovered a homeless black teenager hanging around the Detroit ballpark, he adopted him as the Tigers mascot.

    In 1908, Cobb invariably rubbed the head of the boy, known as L'il Rastus, before batting. But when he slumped, the boy was abandoned. The National League Cubs appropriated L'il Rastus, whose real name was Ulysses Harrison, and that fall beat the Tigers in the World Series. Not to be outdone, Cobb and Detroit reappropriated the mascot.

    Soon everyone wanted in.

    The most well-known of these mascots in Philadelphia was Louis Van Zelst. A dwarf teenager with a badly misshapen body, he was considered a good-luck charm by Connie Mack's great A's teams of the early 1900s.

    Van Zelst, a West Philadelphia native, had been serving the same role with Penn's athletic teams when Mack discovered him in the fall of 1909.

    Not surprisingly, given that the A's were the city's biggest sports heroes, Van Zelst reportedly relished his role in the spotlight, as demeaning as it was. According to Mack's biographer, Norman Macht, whenever a home-team hitter slumped, Van Zelst urged him to rub his hump.

    The bat boy was, by all accounts, befriended by the A's and their owner/manager, who vehemently denied some sportswriters' criticisms that the malformed youngster was being humiliated.

    Mack's argument wasn't helped when he sent Van Zelst out to coach first base during a game, an exhibition that umpire Tom Connolly ended immediately. But in the 1910 World Series, Van Zelst got his moment in the sun, carrying the Athletics' lineup card to home plate before one game.

    However degrading his role, and however ridiculous the superstition, Van Zelst was, by the standards of the time, a success. He was part of four pennant-winning A's teams, a run of good fortune that only exacerbated this trend.

    After he died in 1915 from Bright's disease, at age 20, the A's began a streak of seven straight last-place finishes. Thinking that perhaps another hunchbacked mascot might help, the A's auditioned a 13-year-old Philadelphian named Hughie McLoon.

    When the boy walked into Mack's Shibe Park office for a first time in 1916, the snickering and insulting jokes began.

    "I felt queer," McLoon told an interviewer many years later. "They all began to laugh and kid me."

    McLoon, according to Macht, wasn't as likable as Van Zelst, and the 1916 A's weren't nearly as good as their predecessors. He soon lost his job and drifted. He would become a police informer, and in 1928 local gangsters shot and killed him.

    Always jealous and mindful of the rival A's success, the Phillies employed at least two hunchbacked mascots in that era, one of whom was named Eddie Naughton. He would be the batboy talisman on the 1915 Phils team that won the franchise's first pennant.

    Eventually, no one is quite sure when or why, this cruel and distressing trend ended, although the Red Sox adopted a dwarf Dominican, Norman de la Rosa, as a mascot during their run to the 2004 World Series title.

    But the trend's more subtle vestiges can still be found in team names like the Redskins or in logos like Chief Wahoo.

    Perhaps baseball's most famous hunchback mascot was Eddie Bennett.

    Orphaned by the 1918 flu pandemic, the Brooklyn teenager talked the White Sox into giving him a job. He was so highly regarded as a good-luck charm that the Dodgers lured him away from Chicago. Not long afterward, the Murderer's Row Yankees stole him.

    For all the credit and publicity he received during his many years in New York, Bennett died an alcoholic.

    Not a single Yankees player attended his funeral.

     


    ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

    @philafitz

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