Have you ever wondered why first the Philadelphia Athletics, then the Kansas City Athletics and finally the Oakland A’s all used an elephant as their mascot? As a youth, I always remember seeing the elephant on programs, pennants and jerseys but never gave it much thought as to why.
The back story is a fascinating look back to the very early days of baseball. In 1902, the fledgling American League was starting to put a dent into the older National League. Eventually the two leagues became known as the Senior Circuit (National) and the Junior Circuit (American). Only the oldest baseball fans probably use those monikers today. For decades, the National League had a bit of a superiority complex over the upstart American League, much like the NFL-AFL dynamic that came crashing down after Super Bowl III.
In 1902, Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack was making waves by signing some of the top National League talent, players like Rube Waddell and outfielder Topsy Hartsel. As a side note, isn’t the nickname Topsy one of the all-time greats? The only other place I’ve beard the name Topsy was in a King of the Hill episode.
Hartsel’s given name was Tully, and he was a sprite of a man at 5’5’’ and 155 pounds. By all accounts, he was a great player, leading the league in walks five times and on base percentage twice. Over his 14-year career, he only struck out 551 times while drawing 837 walks. Anyway, John McGraw, left the American League in a bitter dispute with league president Ban Johnson to manage the New York Giants in the National. This move sparked an interview with a reporter who asked McGraw what he thought of Philadelphia signing all that high dollar free agent talent. McGraw replied that the Athletics would not make any money after spending those large sums and would have a “white elephant” on their hands.
The term “white elephant” has carried over into modern times, especially around Christmas, as friends (and enemies) often give absurd gifts called white elephants to each other. The term originated with the King of Siam, who when he wasn’t making babies (82 kids by 32 wives, good work if you can get it) would allegedly give elephants to people he considered obnoxious rivals or courtiers. The recipients of the elephants dare not sell or kill the beasts, which would have greatly offended the king, and eliminated any chance of future favor with the ruler. Instead, they were forced to hold onto the animals, often at great costs, which many times would bankrupt them. Nothing like a strategy of eliminating your rivals one bale of hay at a time.
Back to our baseball story. Word of McGraw’s interview eventually got back to Connie Mack, who thought it was hilarious and decided to have some fun with it. From that point on, the elephant became the unofficial logo of the Athletics.
The story got better when in 1905 the Athletics and McGraw’s Giants met in the World Series. Prior to Game One, Mack presented McGraw with an elephant statue and the two baseball legends had a good laugh. The Athletics used the elephant off and on over the next 50 years. The Athletics moved to Kansas City in 1955 and continued to use the elephant logo. The team did alter the logo slightly by having the elephant hold a bat in his trunk while perched on a baseball.
Of course, most good things come to an end. Kansas City politicians got their shorts in a knot, with Democrats claiming that the elephant was a subtle endorsement of the Republican party. The first story about this political division ran in the Kansas City Star on May 29, 1959. When original Athletics owner Arnold Johnson met an untimely death in early March of 1960, Charlie O. Finley bought the team and almost immediately dropped the elephant in favor of a Missouri mule. The New York Times reported the change on January 21st, 1961, in a story entitled, “No Elephants allowed. Democrats breath easier as Athletics discard emblem.” Who knew that a baseball logo could possibly sway voters?
The new mascot, a handsome mule was named Charlie O., naturally. During the team’s remaining years in Kansas City, the elephant was AWOL. Besides Charlie O., who often made publicity tours and was a frequent sight around Municipal Stadium, Finley introduced Harvey, the ball toting mechanical rabbit and a flock of sheep grazing just beyond the outfield wall.
Finley was a strange dude. I think he wanted to win; he just didn’t want to pay his players a fair wage. The Athletics never had a winning season during their 13-year marriage to Kansas City, but towards the end the team put together a fantastic collection of young players, a core that would eventually win three consecutive World Series titles in the early 1970’s. Naturally, Finley didn’t want to pay market rates for his collection of stars, who by this time mostly hated his guts. The whole thing eventually blew apart and Finley sold the team in 1981 to Walter Haas of Levi Strauss jeans fame. One of the first things Haas did was to bring back the elephant.
The revised elephant logo eventually appeared on the left sleeve of players jerseys and the team mascot became a grey elephant, first known as Harry Elephante (how wonderful is that) and later as Stomper. Both are world class nicknames.
Now that the A’s appear to be on their way to Vegas, what becomes of not only the elephant, but the name Athletics? I’m of the mind that team names should stay with the city that birthed them. Take the Utah Jazz of the NBA for example. The team originated in New Orleans. There is not a better team nickname for a New Orleans team than Jazz. And Utah? Seriously? No disrespect to the fine people of Utah, a state I love, but are there even any jazz clubs in Salt Lake City? Salt Lake City just doesn’t have the same party vibe as New Orleans. The Jazz name should have stayed in New Orleans. Same goes for the Lakers and the Colts. At least the NFL got it right when the Browns left Cleveland, leaving that name with the city. The Baltimore Ravens? Might as well have named them the Puff’n Stuffs or the Guppies. Baltimore should have retained the Colts name, which instead went to Indianapolis. Of course, if that law held true the Athletics name would be gathering dust in Philadelphia. Who knows what Charlie O. Finley would have named them. I’m guessing the Mules. And like Paul Harvey used to say, now you know the rest of the story.
Last week I wrote about the fastest Royals of all time. Somehow I missed one Vincent Edward Jackson. How? I have no idea, since I knew Bo was fast and he was also one of my all-time favorite Royals. His bona fides are beyond reproach. He reportedly ran a 4.13 40 yard dash while at Auburn. 4.13 is crazy fast. It’s like Usain Bolt fast. His first major league hit was a routine ground ball to second base off future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. Bo hit a two hopper to second baseman Tim Hulett then beat Carlton to the bag. You’ve seen his running catches in the outfield. You’ve seen the 91 yard touchdown run against the Seahawks. Bo had serious speed. I’d put him in the top two with Willie and in a 100 meter dash, I’m thinking Bo takes him. Maybe a computing genius reader can use AI to race off the top 8 or 9 Royals?