The fifth in an ongoing series of entries about vintage sports identities. Sports fans, as I have often said, are the most ardent brand loyalists on the face of the earth. There are stories to be told here at the intersection of art, commerce, history, and fandom.
The Cincinnati Reds claim the title of “America’s Oldest Baseball Team” and their Mr. Red mascot has been a part of the Cincinnati franchise for 60 years.
The origins of Mr. Red are rooted in the anti-Communist “Red Scare” of the early 1950s. In April 1953 the team announced that they would henceforth be known as the Cincinnati Redlegs. One newspaper account stated that while the team didn’t cite a specific reason for the name change, “there’s been some freestyle guessing that the political meaning of the word ‘reds’ might have something to do with it.”
Oddly, the club’s traditional wishbone-C logo containing the word “Reds” continued to be used on home jerseys through the 1955 season.
Mr. Red made his first appearance in this March 4, 1953 item in The Sporting News. He also appeared on the cover of the 1953 team yearbook and served as the visual centerpiece of the press pin issued for the All Star Game that summer, played at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field.
Mr. Red was definitely a five-tool player. He appeared throughout the ’50s and ’60 in a variety of poses, fielding, hitting, catching, pitching, and flexing his muscles. He even rode an airplane into outer space.
His first on-field appearance came in the form of a sleeve patch in 1955. He migrated over to a larger role on the team’s road uniforms the following year. An article in the April 25, 1956 Sporting News describes him as “an emblem of a baseball made it into the face of an old-time player, complete with a black mustache, surmounted by an old-style square cap around which are two thin black stripes.” Although it took a little while for him to be commonly known as Mr. Red, he became entrenched almost immediately after being introduced. (He is also referred to as “Cincy Red” in a 1967 yearbook.)
While the team’s popular mustachioed mascot continued to be used as the official logo, club officials made it known that the name of the franchise would revert to “Reds” in February 1959. The new/old name served witness to the National League pennant winners of 1961. The decidedly retro, traditional Mr. Red would represent the team through the 1967 season. The Reds fielded some good, competitive teams during the mid ’60s, but the logo had to have started to seem like a relic from a very different era—even in conservative Cincinnati.
A New Mr. Red
The seeds for a new Mr. Red were planted as early as 1961, when a running version of him appeared in the team yearbook. In 1968, going against all trends of the times, he lost his trademark handlebar mustache (it was also around this time that the Reds instituted what would become a 32-year ban on players wearing facial hair.) This new version of Mr. Red, the “Running Man,” coincided with three World Series championships—the 1975 and 1976 wins for the “Big Red Machine” and the 1990 upset of Oakland.
Running Man was retired after the 1992 season when the Reds dropped him from their primary logo. He was flipped around and brought back as a sleeve patch when the team changed their uniform designs in 1999. Most recently, a refreshed Mr. Red that is very closely based on the 1953 version was introduced in 2007.
Living Mascots, Humanoid and Otherwise
According to 1982 newspaper article, the first live Mr. Red mascot was introduced in 1973 at the suggestion of the wife of team CEO Dick Wagner. This costumed mascot was supplanted by owner Marge Schott’s St. Bernard dogs in the late 1980s but was reintroduced in 1997.
The Reds now employ two similar mascots who are descended from our 1953 guy. The first, known as “Mr. Redlegs,” was made-over from the original logo art and reintroduced in 2007. He is described as “barrel-chested…with (a) well groomed handlebar mustache and bulging muscles” The team’s clean-shaven “Mr. Red” returned in 2012 after a 5-year hiatus.
Let’s wrap things up by celebrating Mr. Red and his six decades with some additional imagery from the glory years of the ’70s—an era in which Mr. Red cooked, listened to a transistor radio, and went nuts over 4 NL pennants.