Before the Blue Jays' Ace and BJ Birdy, the city's first baseball mascot was a young Black boy named Willie Hume.
In the story of the popular 1880 musical play La Mascotte, Rocco, a 17th-century Italian farmer, is down on his luck. While his peers repeatedly enjoy the fruits of bumper harvests, the unfortunate protagonist has suffered the loss of a barn to fire, the death of sick animals, and he’s teetering on the edge of financial ruin.
To make matters worse, the farm owned by his brother, Antonio, is flourishing just a short distance away.
Desperate for help, Rocco sends his faithful shepherd, Pippo, to his brother’s property to ask for assistance. Instead of money or healthy animals, Pippo comes back with Bettina—a young girl trained to raise turkeys.
Though Rocco is initially angry at the presence of another mouth to feed, it quickly becomes apparent Bettina is a sort of heaven-sent good luck charm, and she will remain as long as she stays a virgin.
The name of the play, which was derived from a local French word for witch, resulted in the appearance of the English word ‘mascot’ and the concept of a good luck charm in the notoriously superstitious world of sports.
Baseball teams in America and Canada were particularly taken with the idea of a keeping a person for their supposed ability to attract success.
“[Mascot,] though so far unacknowledged in Webster’s Unabridged, is in popular use, and mascots are becoming more numerous every day,” reported the Utica Observer in July 1886.
“Players of the national game are the most superstitious of men. ‘In their opinion, skill has little to do with the result of a match,’ says one who has studied the matter. ‘A bird flying over the field, the flag blowing in a certain direction, a little boy picked up by one of the nines, a goat or a dog wandering across the diamond while the game is going on—these are the things which include victory to one side or the other.'”
As the Utica Observer indicated, the trend in the 1880s was to acquire young Black boys to travel with the team and sometimes perform light duties, such as handing out or collecting bats for the players.
The Torontos, one of the city’s first major baseball teams, had Willie Hume,”a very small and very fat coloured boy,” according to the Globe.
Hume’s precise age and origins are unclear. The Globe reported he was “picked up” when the team passed through Syracuse en route to an International League game against Rochester, and he first appeared on the bench during a game against Buffalo during the 1886 season.
According to baseball historian Louis Cauz, the Buffalo team objected to Hume’s presence and had another “young colored boy”—a renowned mouth organ player—bought to the stadium from the nearby Adelphi Theatre
A brief account of Willie Hume’s antics appeared in a write-up of the Torontos’ home opener at their new stadium at Queen and Broadview in 1886.
There was a carnival atmosphere at the game on May 22. The team’s new covered grandstand and expansive field—touted as one of the largest on the continent—had been completed just a few weeks earlier on the east bank of the Don River.
Lieutenant-Governor John Beverley Robinson threw the first pitch at the game and Hume was dressed in a “gaudy new suit” for the occasion.
At a game later in the 1886 season, Hume wore a “gorgeous uniform with gold lame trimming an inch wide.”
The descriptions of Hume and his duties printed in the Toronto newspapers is consistent with other baseball mascots of the era.
“Mascots usually dressed in garish or foolish uniforms and pranced and cavorted on the sidelines to entertain the crowd and to distract the opposition,” wrote Gregory Bond in his 2008 PhD. dissertation, Jim Crow at Play: Race, Manliness, and the Color Line in American Sports, 1876-1916.
Not all mascots were young boys. The Kansas City team had a “burly colored gentleman” as their good luck charm in 1886. The “tall raw-boned Ethiopian” was dressed in an old team uniform and paraded to the team dugout to the tune of “While I Behold His Manly Form,” Bond wrote.
The Hamilton Hams baseball team hired a man they called “Man Morton, the Zulu giant” in 1889, but players were disappointed when club directors refused to allow him to be dressed in a “shirt-collar and war-paint,” lest the game be reduced to a “sideshow.”
Back in Toronto, the Wanderers, a popular local cycling club, dressed their young Black mascot in a green plush coat and hat, red plush vest and red, white and blue trousers, which made “a modest comparison with his Southern complexion,” according to the Globe.
“The club dog, ‘Nigger,’ also expects a good time and has manifested pleasure in being encased in his coat, with the club’s name worked thereon,” the paper reported ahead of the Wanderers’ planned visit to Woodstock in 1887.
Other sports mascots were people with physical deformities that could be played for laughs in front of the crowd. According to the Topeka State Journal in 1890, Black men and boys were often “chosen for some hideous peculiarity, such as a dwarfed figure, hump-back or cross eyes.”
“If a little Negro, black as the ace of spades dwarfed in every limb, and with crossed eyes could have been secured, the ideal mascot would have been presented to the gaze of the base-ball world.”
The general idea, wrote Robert B. Ross in his book, The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890s Players League, was to provide “a sense of superiority for white spectators and players.”
“Just as the attendance of women reinforced the game’s manliness, the presentation of black mascots solidified baseball’s whiteness,” Ross wrote.
Not all mascots were Black targets of ridicule. Willie Hahn, who was part of the Chicago White Stockings team in the 1880s, was white. As a result, his status among the team was noticeably different.
Hahn, who lived near the Chicago ball park and had “flaxen hair and big blue eyes,” was handled as something of a protégé for third baseman and shortstop Ned Williamson. The pair even appeared together on an Old Judge baseball card in 1887.
“Every man in the nine firmly believes the club can’t lose the game if he’s present, and as confidently believe they can’t win if he fails to appear,” the Globe reported.
The fashion for Black mascots waned as the 1880s drew to a close and the sport reigned in its myriad superstitions.
“There was a time when the base-ball profession was as prolific of superstitions as a dog is of fleas in the summer time; but that time has passed,” wrote the Topeka State Journal in 1890.
“The mascot was as tenderly cared for as an infant, and it would have been thought heresy by the players to cast a doubt on his magic power. He flourished for a time, but finally died an ignominious death, and now the more intelligent players are laughing at their old superstition.
Willie Hume didn’t remain with the Torontos long enough to fall out of fashion with the players. He was “dropped” by the team in Binghampton when the team was traveling to play Buffalo in July, 1886, the Globe reported.
“His absence was noted here, but ‘he never will be missed’ by Buffalo baseball patrons.”
Additional material from the October 09, 1885, May 10, June 1, July 28, 1886, May 23, 1887, April 20, 1889 editions of the Globe; July 20, 1886 edition of the Utica Observer; April 16, 1890 edition of the Topeka State Journal; “Baseball’s Back in Town,” Louis Cauz; Jim Crow at Play: Race, Manliness, and the Color Line in American Sports, 1876-1916, 2008, Gregory Bond; and The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890s Players League, Robert B. Ross.
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