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10:10 AM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Column: Mascots are getting a HOF in Indiana?

For most athletes the defining moment of their career is when they are inducted into their sport’s hall of fame. But until now, “furry” athletes, the mascots who entertain fans at virtually every sporting event, haven’t had that opportunity. That is about to change.

On Oct. 21 a groundbreaking ceremony for a Mascot Hall of Fame will be held in Whiting, Indiana, a town of approximately 5,000 located 20 miles from downtown Chicago. The Hall, which will be located on the south shore of Lake Michigan, is expected to open late next year and according to Executive Director Al Spajer is projected to attract at least 100,000 visitors annually. Given the Hall’s location, the kid-friendly interactive design of the building, and the impact mascots have had on the American psyche for the past four decades, that number may be conservative.

Technically, the Whiting museum will not be the first Mascot Hall of Fame. In 2005, Dave Raymond, better known as the original Phillie Phanatic, the portly green mascot who playfully taunted umpires and opposing players from 1978 to 1994, created a virtual museum. In the past 11 years the online hall has inducted 17 mascots, including the Phillie Phanatic, the Famous Chicken (who was “hatched” as the San Diego Chicken), and Ohio State University’s Brutus the Buckeye.

But Raymond, considered by his peers to be the best mascot of all time, knew that a virtual museum was no substitute for a bricks and mortar building. Two years ago he was introduced to Spajer, a former United States Steel Corp. senior manager and a self-described sports nut. Almost immediately, they began discussing a “real” hall of fame.

The interactive facility is being designed by Cincinnati-based Jack Rouse Associates Inc., the company that designed the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, the Crayola Experience in Pennsylvania and the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame. The exterior of the building will be shaped like a massive, smiling mascot. Once inside, visitors will be able to don various mascot outfits and perform typical mascot stunts, including firing T-shirt and confetti cannons. The museum will also contain themed sections such as the Science of Silliness & Mascot Studies, the Department of Furry Arts and a Phuzzical Education Department.

There are three primary qualifications for induction into the Mascot Hall of Fame. Mascots have to be in existence for at least 10 years, must inspire their fans, and also be good representatives of their team and community. Election to the Hall is by vote of the membership and an executive committee consisting of performers, sports executives, and other individuals who are familiar with mascots. Six finalists are placed on the final ballot and a portion of the election is conducted online.

If the Mascot Hall of Fame seems frivolous, Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura begs to differ. Despite the naysayers - a number of local residents have told him it’s “a totally stupid idea” - Stahura has championed the project. He pushed through a $14 million tax-increment financing package to fund it, part of a plan to boost tourism in the town which to date is best known for its annual pierogi festival and the distinctive odors from the largest oil refinery in the Midwest, where Stahura worked for 22 years. He’s also seeking an additional $4 million in private donations.

Whether the team wins or loses, mascots entertain and inspire fans. They make us laugh, providing a welcome respite from the world around us. Players come and go but a mascot doesn’t get traded and rarely retires, someone else just takes their place in costume. Mascots are not only a year ‘round link between a team and its fans, they bind families - kids, parents and grandparents.

The Famous Chicken, whose comedy routines have been compared to The Three Stooges, was named one of the 20th Century’s 100 Most Powerful People in Sports by The Sporting News. The New York Times referred to him as the “Laurence Olivier of Sports Mascots.” The late San Diego Union sportswriter Jack Murphy described The Famous Chicken as “…an embryo Charles Chaplin in chicken feathers.” Sounds like a hall of famer to me.

And thanks to the combined efforts of Raymond, Spajer, Stahura, and others, The Famous Chicken and his furry friends are getting a shot at immortality.

Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com.