From Gritty to the Nittany Lion: The story behind 10 beloved Pennsylvania sports mascots

Mascots from professional Philadelphia sports teams cross over the repaired section of Interstate 95 as the highway is reopened Friday, June 23, 2023 in Philadelphia. Workers put the finishing touches on an interim six-lane roadway that will serve motorists during construction of a permanent bridge. (AP Photo/Joe Lamberti)

By Lena Pothier

July 2, 2024

Pennsylvania is known for having some of the most unique, entertaining, and wacky mascots in the world. The stories behind 10 iconic Pennsylvania sports mascots are a home run.

Have you ever wondered what the Phillie Phanatic is, or how the name Iceburgh came to be? Pennsylvania mascots are one of the state’s claims to fame, and have a special place in the hearts of fans across the state. Whether it’s getting the crowd to roar and cheer at a game, or gracing the reopening of I-95, we love our mascots here in the Keystone State.

From the major and minor leagues, to college sports, we did a deep dive into the history of how our favorite gameday performers came to be.

Here’s a look at the stories behind 10 beloved Pennsylvania sports mascots:

Nittany Lion (Penn State University)

Following a trip to Princeton University, Penn State senior Harrison “Joe” Mason, who played on the baseball team in 1904, felt embarrassed that the university did not have a mascot. And so, the Nittany Lion was born.

What even is a Nittany Lion anyway? It’s not a real animal, but is similar to a mountain lion, which roamed around Penn State until the 1880s. The word “nittany” refers to the local Mount Nittany that overlooks the university.

Back then, the original Nittany Lion costume looked more similar to an African Lion, but eventually was banished by football Coach Hugo Bezdek for bringing bad luck to the football team.

The Nittany Lion came back in 1939, looking like the lion we see at Penn State football games today. It has been Penn State’s mascot for 119 years now, and will continue to live on as one of the most recognizable college sports mascots in history.

Gritty (The Philadelphia Flyers)

It is impossible to create a list of iconic Pennsylvania sports mascots without Gritty. Since his debut in 2018, the mascot has exploded in popularity both on the Internet and in its city. Created by graphic designer Brian Allen, the Flyers contacted him for a mascot design that resembled “someone you’d want to high-five, but not hug.”

And that’s exactly what they got. This huge, orange, furry monster with googly eyes is truly like no other. According to the NHL website, “he earned the name “Gritty” for possessing an attitude so similar to the team he follows,” embodying the hard-working and scrappy spirit of Philadelphia. 

The Philadelphia Flyers hadn’t had a mascot since their 1976-1977 season, where Slapshot, another large animal-like figure, was briefly the official mascot of the team. Gritty has become a beloved cornerstone of the team, bringing energy to the ice.

Phillie Phanatic (The Phillies)

There’s only one Phillie Phanatic. This mascot, whose backstory indicates he is a bird from the Galapagos, is covered in bright green fur with an anteater-like mouth. The Phanatic is certainly one of the most unique creatures to be a mascot, and has been cheering on the Philadelphia Phillies since 1978.

Before the Phanatic, the baseball team originally had Philadelphia Phill and Phillis, two siblings dressed in revolutionary war garb to capture the historical significance of the city. Introduced in 1971, the lack of excitement surrounding them prompted the search for a new mascot.

Designed by Harrison/Erickson Inc. (a design and sports marketing company), the Phillies franchise did not hold the trademark for the character until 1984, when they bought the rights for over $200,000. In 2018, Harrison/Erickson contacted the team claiming their right to terminate their previous agreement and regain control of the Phanatic. 

Embroiled by legal conflict, the design of the Phanatic was slightly altered for two seasons. Eventually, the two sides reached a settlement, and the original Phanatic returned to Citizens Bank Park for their 2022 season. 

Swoop (The Eagles)

With a Super Bowl title under his wing, Swoop, the official mascot for the Philadelphia Eagles, has been soaring high. 

Jeff Lurie bought the team in 1994, and made a few changes to the look of the team. One major change was trading out the kelly-green colors of the team to a darker green, while the other was to redesign the mascot. A competition to choose a new mascot received 10,000 entries, and by 1996, Swoop was chosen as the new face of the Eagles.

Swoop is a bald eagle whose diet consists of “smaller birds such as Cardinals, Falcons, Ravens, and Seahawks; and of course cheesesteaks and soft pretzels,” according to the Philadelphia Eagles website

ROC the Panther (University of Pittsburgh)

Adopted in 1909, the panther became the official mascot of the University of Pittsburgh. A group of students chose this animal to represent their university because it was once indigenous to the Pittsburgh region, considered formidable and noble, and came with an alliteration. 

ROC’s name was inspired by 90s Pitt football legend Steve Petro, nicknamed “The Rock.”

A highly secretive group of students take turns donning the ROC costume. They believe it’s important to project the idea that ROC has his own personality and identity, regardless of who is actually wearing the costume. Thus, anonymity is needed to preserve their designed function of ROC and pride the team takes in its secrecy.

ROC has been around for over 100 years, and is a revered cornerstone of Pitt athletics and student life. 

Pirate Parrot (The Pirates)

The Pirate Parrot is the best first mate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Introduced a year after the Phillie Phanatic, the Pirate Parrot made its debut to the public by a “hatching” at Three Rivers Stadium, the old home of the team. 

The original Pirate Parrot wore pirate-themed clothing and waved a Jolly Roger flag, keeping in line with the name of the team. But after a drug scandal in 1985 involving the person who donned the parrot suit, the costume was redesigned. 

During the 1995 season, the Pirate Parrot was briefly accompanied by a second mascot called Buccaneer, a pirate. Unfortunately, this character was discontinued when the man behind the costume was caught skinny dipping.

Today, the Pirate Parrot is the furry neon-green bird we know and love today, and can be seen hyping up the crowd at PNC Park, or with the next mascot on this list.

The Pirates Pierogies (The Pirates)

The Pirates Pierogies were created in 1999 and became an instant fan favorite. Originally consisting of just three characters, the now group of six potatoes race around the field at the end of the 5th inning in what is known as the “Great Pittsburgh Pierogy Race.”

A champion is crowned at the end of each season, and the Pirate Parrot themself likes to get involved in the festivities. Will this year’s winner be Sauerkraut Saul, Potato Pete, Cheese Chester, Jalapeño Hannah, Oliver Onion, or Bacon Burt?

Tune in for the final game of the season to cheer on the Pirates, but stick around to see what tater takes the dub. 

Iceburgh (The Penguins)

The Pittsburgh Penguins were killing it in 1992, coming off the end of their first back-to-back Stanley Cup wins. To celebrate, the team decided that they needed a mascot, and Iceburgh was born.

The penguin debuted in July of 1992, though he was nameless at the time. A contest was held to determine the name of this new member of the team, and Iceburgh was chosen—a portmanteau perfect to celebrate the city and the sport.

The hockey team used to have a real-life-penguin called Penguin Pete to hype them up; he debuted at a game against the Flyers on Feb. 21, 1968. But, sadly, he passed away later that year due to pneumonia. Pete was replaced by a second penguin, Re-Pete, who was the mascot for the 1971-1972 season.

Today, Iceburgh skates on the ice in his Penguins jersey, cheering the team on to victory.

Will D. Cat (Villanova University)

Known as the coolest cat on campus, Villanova’s Will D. Cat can be seen at basketball games and other Villanova events. 

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, though, Villanova University had a live animal—a bobtail cat—brought to their games to help energize fans. All four of them were named “Count Villan.” Because of behavioral issues due to cold weather, being caged, and exposure to large crowds, the school retired live animals as their mascots, and Will D. Cat made his appearance in the 1950s. 

Similarly to ROC the Panther at Pitt, the identity of Will D. Cat is secret. Members of the mascot team pursue the same goal of maintaining the illusion that their mascot is its own individual rather than someone dressed in a costume. Students that put on the suit are allowed to reveal their identity in the 2nd semester of their senior year to celebrate their time as Will D. Cat.

Loco (The Altoona Curve)

You may recognize this furry, yellow beast from Sports Illustrated’s June 2022 cover: Loco of the Altoona Curve. Loco is a “golden locotami,” a fictional animal said to be native to the Allegheny mountains. Legend has it that Loco boosted morale for workers on the Horseshoe Curve, Altoona’s famed railroad curve. Thus, he was dubbed “Loco,” short for locomotive or locotami.

Loco replaced Steamer, who was intended to represent a smoke stack from steam engines, as the mascot for the minor league team. Steamer was the official mascot from 1999-2015, when Loco came along, but still makes occasional appearances.

The Curve has featured several other mascots in recent years. Trax was introduced as Loco’s little brother in 2017, known for his “sickest and most off-the-wall dance moves.” In addition to Steamer, some other retired mascots for the Altoona Curve include Diesel Dog, who was Steamer’s pup, and Tenacious Casey, a railroad worker designed to display the strength of those that built the Pennsylvania railroad.

The Altoona Curve has something similar to the Pirates’ Great Pierogy Race: Mama Randazzo’s Meatball Race. During the fifth inning, meatballs Maria, Marco, and Giuseppe race around PNG field. 

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CATEGORIES: SPORTS
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