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Behind the Mascot: 8 Great Stories About Strangely Named Teams

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Your favorite sports team or alma mater's mascot is probably some sort of big cat or bird of prey, and that's fine. Your tattoo is right; the Tigers totally rule. However, there are quite a few more esoteric mascot choices out there, like a color of a certain disposition or a set of punctuation marks, all of which can still cause fans to well up with pride. Here are the origins of some of our favorites from this arcane set:

1. University of North Carolina Tar Heels' Rameses the Ram

A quick trip to Chapel Hill will reveal lots of great bars and live music venues but surprisingly few wild rams walking Franklin Street. So why is the school's mascot a ram? In 1924 cheerleader Vic Huggins decided the school needed a symbol. The stellar football team of 1922 had been led by the punishing running play of Jack "The Battering Ram" Merritt, so Huggins decided that a live ram would be the perfect mascot. Huggins had Rameses shipped in from Texas for $25, and when the Tar Heels beat heavily favored VMI in Rameses' first appearance, the ram became something of an institution. Perhaps the least believable part of this entire story is that it involves Carolina winning a major football game, but records show it's entirely true. [Image courtesy of UNC.edu.]

2. Philadelphia Phillies' Phillie Phanatic

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In the late 1970s the Phillies' mascots were two 18th-century siblings named Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis, but the duo did little to attract families wary of Veterans' Stadium rough-and-tumble image. In an effort to find a more family-friendly mascot, team officials commissioned design firm Harrison/Erickson, who also designed Muppets and the Montreal Expos' beloved Youppi!, to craft a gentler symbol for the team. Thus, in 1978 six feet of green fur, curled tongue, and gyrating belly were born to signify the rabid passion of Philly's fans without drawing attention to the more beer-soaked aspects of the Vet.

The Phanatic has since become one of baseball's most popular mascots, but since this is a Philly sports story it can't have a totally happy ending. Former team vice president and current part owner Bill Giles wrote in his autobiography that he made a key blunder when commissioning the design. Given the option of buying the Phanatic costume alone for $3900 or the costume and its copyright for $5200, Giles didn't shell out the extra $1300. This decision turned out to be an expensive mistake: five years later Giles and a group of investors bought the team and eventually purchased the copyright from Harrison/Erickson for $250,000. [Image courtesy of silverscreentest.com.]

3. Oakland A's Stomper the Elephant

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Benjamin Shibe, who is credited with inventing the machinery to mass-produce standardized baseballs, owned the then-Philadelphia Athletics from their inception in 1901. In the early days of the franchise, New York Giants manager John "Muggsy" McGraw derisively said that Shibe had a white elephant on his hands since the Athletics couldn't compete with the existing Phillies of the National League.

Instead of shying away from the taunt, legendary Athletics manager Connie Mack embraced the white elephant nickname, even going so far as to give his old friend McGraw a stuffed elephant when the Athletics met McGraw's Giants in the 1905 World Series. Although eccentric owner Charlie Finley replaced the elephant with a live Missouri mule named after himself in 1963, the elephant mascot was restored in 1988, and Stomper debuted in 1997. With his high OBP and the great defensive range factor he gets from his trunk, Stomper is surely a favorite of current A's general manager Billy Beane. [Image courtesy of PhiladelphiaAthletics.org.]

4. University of North Texas Mean Green

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It takes a special player to get his number retired by his alma mater, but only a real legend's nickname becomes his school's mascot. The vicious play of football star "Mean" Joe Greene, perhaps best known to many casual fans for winning Super Bowls and bumming a Coke off a kid in a commercial, may have given rise to the school's current moniker after years of playing with a less-than-inspired green Eagles mascot. According to one story touted by the university, Sidney Sue Graham, the wife of sports information director Fred Graham, called Greene "mean" following a brutal tackle during his late-1960's career at the school. She then began calling the entire smothering defensive unit the "Mean Green," and although Graham initially dismissed his wife's newly coined phrase, he eventually used it in a press release that caught on with reporters. [Image courtesy of UNT.edu.]

5. New College of Florida [ ]

That's not a typo. The New College of Florida's unofficial student mascot is actually the null set. After hearing rumors of this unique mascot but not being able to find any hard evidence on it, I placed a call to the school's Office of Public Affairs, where the very friendly staffer informed me that while the 746-undergraduate college founded in 1960 doesn't officially have a mascot, it's fair to say that students adopted the null set early in the school's history as a sly wink to its lack of athletic teams. Although the school now fields competitive teams in sailing, ultimate Frisbee, and soccer, the [ ] still seems almost as clever; one can't afford to be all that picky when searching for a mascot based on set theory.

6. Georgia Tech's Ramblin' Wreck

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College sports fans know that Georgia Tech's mascot is the Yellow Jacket, a tradition that dates back to at least 1905. However, anyone who's been to a home football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field in Atlanta has also seen the official mascot of the student body, a 1930 Ford Model A Sports Coupe known as the Ramblin' Wreck. The phrase "ramblin' wreck" dates back to at least the 1890's as part of the school's fight song and may have stemmed from a description of the entire student body traveling from Athens to Atlanta to watch a football game against the University of Georgia.

According to the school paper The Technique, the application of the term "ramblin' wreck" to cars first occurred in the early 20th century to describe makeshift vehicles built by Georgia Tech engineers during projects in the South American jungle. By 1927 the 1914 Ford of Dean of Men Floyd Field had taken on iconic status as a Ramblin' Wreck.

The current Wreck was purchased in 1961 by Dean of Students Jim Dull, who found the Wreck parked near his apartment building. This new Ramblin' Wreck led the Yellowjackets onto the field for their home game against Rice on September 30, 1961 and has done so for every home game since. [Image courtesy of GaTech.edu.]

7. Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' Guy Made of Pistons

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Technically, this one is the logo, not the mascot, of the Detroit Pistons forerunner that played in Fort Wayne, Indiana from 1941 to 1957, and I can't find an official name for him. But really, your life is better for having gazed upon him. The team was originally owned by industrialist Fred Zollner, who also owned a large foundry that made automotive pistons, hence the team name. To that extent, the Pistons nickname and the logo make sense. Upon closer scrutiny, though, the logo raises a host of questions: what sort of terrible foundry accident created this piston monster? Why did it spare only his hands and feet? Could he beat the Tin Man in a game of one-on-one? Why is he happily dribbling that ball rather than using science to repair his missing body? We'll never know; since 1996 the Pistons' mascot has been Hooper, a black horse. Because, you know, pistons create horsepower. Even a guy whose entire head is a piston could probably come up with pun that's a little less forced. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

8. The University of Akron Zips' Zippy the Kangaroo

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If you saw Zippy win the 2007 Capital One National Mascot of the Year award, you probably wondered why Akron had the gloriously befuddling combination of the Zips nickname and a kangaroo mascot. Surely there was some internal logic there, right? Not at all, which makes Zippy all the more intriguing.

After a campus-wide contest to name the school's athletic teams in 1925, freshman Margaret Hamlin won ten dollars for her suggestion of "Zippers" after a popular rubber overshoe of the same name made by local company B.F. Goodrich. The nickname remained the Zippers until 1950, when it was shortened to the Zips.

As for Zippy the kangaroo, she became the mascot in 1953 after student council advisor Dick Hansford recommended the idea. According to school's website, Hansford proposed the idea because he enjoyed a contemporary comic strip featuring Kicky the Fighting Kangaroo. This combination of combining the name of a popular rubber shoe and a popular cartoon character deserves more exposure; we can only hope that somewhere out there a fledgling college is naming its teams the Crocs, complete with dancing Marmaduke mascot. [Image courtesy of ChippewaGolfClub.com.]

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Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys. His last contribution to mental_floss explored strange college bowl game sponsorships.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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