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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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History
Lady Ali: How Jackie Tonawanda Changed Women's Boxing
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As photographers and newspaper reporters looked on, Jackie Tonawanda allowed herself to be fingerprinted. It was October 7, 1974, and Tonawanda—who was dwarfed by the burly professional wrestlers waiting their turn—was taking the necessary steps to become a licensed professional boxer by the New York State Athletic Commission. The fingerprints would be sent off to Albany make sure she wasn't a felon; a physical would determine her fitness for competition.

Tonawanda didn't anticipate either one becoming a hurdle. Her main concern was that the state of New York had long prohibited women from prizefighting.

The gregarious Tonawanda told the assembled press in the commission's offices that she was the “female Cassius Clay,” referring to boxing icon Muhammad Ali. (Like Ali, she was known for boasting to the media and offering impromptu demonstrations of her hand speed.) Women could already be licensed as pro wrestlers and boxing managers in the state. Why, Tonawanda argued, should female boxers be exempt from officially participating in the sport?

Commissioners brushed off her complaints, fretting about being deemed negligent if women suffered injuries. Rumors circulated in the boxing community that blows to the chest could cause breast cancer. Ed Dooley, the head of the state's athletic commission, thought women fighting in a ring would bring “disrepute” to the venerable sport.

In time, Jackie Tonawanda would be hailed as a boxing pioneer, someone who stood up to the rampant sexism from promoters and the sport's sanctioning bodies. But in 1975, Tonawanda's license application was denied. Dooley refused to back off from his insistence that boxing was strictly a “manly art.” Tonawanda was incredulous. If that was what he believed, she thought, she would show him otherwise.

To prove her point, she would even agree to an extreme demonstration of her worth as a fighter: an unlicensed fight against a man, in full view of spectators at Madison Square Garden.

Although Tonawanda was the first woman to ever lace up her gloves at the famed New York arena, women’s boxing had been a ring attraction for decades. In 1876, two women took wild swings at one another in what may have been the first spectator women's match in the country. (The prize was a silver butter dish.) In 1954, women competed on television for the first time. But with so few participants in the sport, it was difficult for any real momentum to develop. And without endorsement from state athletic commissions, official records and rankings were nearly impossible to come by.

Such was the state of female fighting when Tonawanda decided to compete. Born on Long Island and orphaned by age 8, she started boxing at age 13, eventually migrating to the famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. As an adult, Tonawanda occupied a unique space in the art: At 175 pounds, she was larger than many of the other women who fought, making matchmaking difficult. She once stated she sparred exclusively with men because women “don't show me anything and they can’t take my power.”

With only scattered women’s bouts available, Tonawanda often fought in unsanctioned matches around the country. She managed to compile a 23-0 record (although this number would sometimes change in interviews, as would her birth year and even her height) before petitioning her home state of New York to sanction her bouts. Commission members like Dooley and former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson were wary, fearing the seeming fragility of women might give a proverbial black eye to the sport. They turned down both Tonawanda and Marian "Tyger" Trimiar, another female boxer, citing, among other things, concerns over the possible trauma the women might suffer to their breasts.

“I don't think a blow to the breast would cause breast cancer," Irwin Weiner, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University, told The New York Times when the women first applied for licenses in 1974. "On the other hand, it's a rather tender area that can be easily bruised. It might take longer to recover from bruises there.” Dooley remained insistent, saying a fight "could endanger a female's reproductive organs and breasts."

Tonawanda didn’t accept the decision in stride. She sued the state for discrimination, arguing that women had every right to compete. In June of 1975, while the lawsuit was still being contested, she agreed to compete at a martial arts tournament at Madison Square Garden that fell outside the purview of the commission. Her original opponent was to be a Thai fighter in a mixed-rules striking contest, but that fighter ended up being replaced by an unheralded kickboxer named Larry Rodania. In the opening moments of the fight, Rodania hit her with a shot that left her unable to sleep on her left side for weeks. For much of the first round, though, Tonawanda parried his strikes, getting a sense of his timing. In the second, she landed a left that cracked his jaw and sent him to the canvas.

The referee announced that Rodania was out, unable to answer basic questions like “Where are you?” But some observers expressed doubt that the bout was legitimate. Recapping the event, Black Belt magazine questioned Rodania’s judgment in taking the fight at all. From the outside, it appeared to be a lose-lose proposition: Beating a woman in the ring would impress few, and losing to one could be ruinous in the eyes of fans who wouldn't expect a woman to be competitive with a man. It's not clear whether Rodania ever competed again.

For Tonawanda, the spectacle of her squaring off against Rodania made headlines and led to more offers, some outside of the ring. Later that year, she not only received a boxing license from the state of Maine, but also filmed a small role for the Dustin Hoffman film Marathon Man. In 1976, she was invited to spend time at a training camp with Muhammad Ali as he prepared for a bout against Ken Norton. Being around Ali, Tonawanda said, made her so nervous that she could barely eat.

If the bout was intended to elicit a response from the New York commission, however, it didn’t work. Tonawanda continued to compete in bouts outside of the state, and the commission steadfastly refused to acknowledge the rights of female prizefighters until 1978 brought a development they couldn’t ignore.

Three years prior, Tonawanda’s lawsuit had made it to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in Tonawanda’s favor and suggested she sue once again in order to have the law in New York overturned. When Tonawanda failed to follow up on their advice, another boxer, Cathy “Cat” Davis, picked up the baton and initiated a suit. When Davis’s legal action forced the commission to throw out the ban, Davis, Tonawanda, and Tremiar became the first three women to receive licenses in the state.

For the first time, Tonawanda would be able to claim a legitimate, professional fight on her record.

Despite setting a legal precedent, the court’s decision didn't guarantee that the fighters would necessarily be able to compete in New York. With so few female fighters to match up with one another, the women who were granted licenses often sought fights out of the area. The following year, Tonawanda fought Diane “Dynamite” Clark in a six-round bout in Louisville, Kentucky, in what would be her first and only professional contest. She lost in a split decision.

While it was a crucial moment for the fighters, women’s boxing continued to endure the perception that it was a sideshow. From the Rodania fight onward, Tonawanda received offers to fight men, including noted light heavyweight Mike Quarry. Quarry, Tonawanda claimed, backed out when he realized he had nothing to gain by fighting a woman.

By the mid-1980s, Tonawanda's career was winding down. She fought a man a second time, scoring another knockout at the Nassau Coliseum in 1984. It would be one of her last competitions before being injured in a 1986 car accident that ended any consideration of returning to the ring. From that point on, she became something of a mentor in various boxing gyms in the state. At Fort Apache Youth Center in the Bronx, she advised aspiring fighters on technique. Later, she trained future heavyweight contender Israel Garcia, who she met after Garcia discovered that she lived in the apartment building where he worked.

Lalia Ali faces off against Gwendolyn O'Neil of Guyana during the 2007 WBC/WIBA Super Middleweight World Title in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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In the meantime, fighters like Laila Ali, Christy Martin, and other women began gaining notoriety and respect for being capable pugilists. While they undoubtedly faced sexism, none had been forced to insist on their right to compete. That road had been paved by Tonawanda, who demanded equal footing with her male counterparts.

Tonawanda died from colon cancer in 2009. Like many boxers, she had no pension or retirement fund to fall back on, and her remains were initially destined for a mass grave on Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field. She was saved from that fate thanks to Ring 8, the nonprofit consortium of former prizefighters that she belonged to. The group, which provides financial assistance to veteran boxers, raised enough money for a marked grave for her in the Bronx. It was proof that boxing had ultimately accepted Tonawanda, long considered an outsider, as one of their own.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Sing the National Anthem at Sporting Events?
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In early September 1814, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to negotiate a prisoner release with several officers of the British Navy. During the negotiations, Key and Skinner learned of the British intention to attack the city of Baltimore, as well as the strength and positions of British forces. They were not permitted to leave for the duration of the battle and witnessed the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14. Inspired by the American victory and the sight of the American flag flying high in the morning, Key wrote a poem titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key set the lyrics to the anthem of the London-based Anacreontic Society, "The Anacreontic Song." (Nine years earlier, Key had used the same tune for “When the Warrior Returns (from the Battle Afar)” to celebrate Stephen Decatur’s return from fighting the Barbary pirates, which included the line “By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.”)

The poem was taken to a printer, who made broadside copies of it. A few days later, the Baltimore Patriot and The Baltimore American printed the poem with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." Later, Carrs Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together as "The Star Spangled Banner."

The song gained popularity over the course of the 19th century and was often played at public events like parades and Independence Day celebrations (and, on occasion, sporting events). In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered it the official tune to be played during the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military ceremonies and other appropriate occasions, making it something of an unofficial national anthem.

After America's entrance into World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. During the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Cubs and Red Sox players faced the centerfield flag pole and stood at attention. The crowd, already on their feet, began to sing along and applauded at the end of the song.

Given the positive reaction, the band played the song during the next two games, and when the Series moved to Boston, the Red Sox owner brought in a band and had the song played before the start of each remaining contest. After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays, and World Series games.

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

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