Phanatic: Giles’ lovable, lumpy legacy with one regret
The Phillie Phanatic, one of the lasting legacies of Philadelphia Phillies chairman emeritus Bill Giles, started with a thorny problem.
Going into the 1978 season, the Phillies were coming off consecutive 100-win, division-champion years and had future hall of famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton on a star-laden roster. Attendance was on the upswing, too, reaching a team record 2.7 million in 1977.
But Giles and other team executives were concerned the team was still not drawing enough families and that its connection to Philadelphia-area youth needed bolstering, echoing a concern that has since helped define the tenure of current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. The club’s mascots at the time, colonial characters Phil and Phyllis, did not have much of a fan following and the actual costumes didn’t allow for much movement or expression of personality.
|Giles’ brainchild, the Phillie Phanatic, has been making fans smile for nearly 40 years.
Dennis Lehman, then the Phillies’ director of marketing and currently the Cleveland Indians’ executive vice president of business, meanwhile, had seen firsthand the impact the San Diego Chicken was beginning to generate on the other coast. Introduced in 1974 as a mascot for a local radio station, the Chicken quickly became a fixture not only at Padres games but also various concerts and other sporting events.
Giles, working with Lehman and promotions director Frank Sullivan, got in touch with Bonnie Erickson and Wayde Harrison, who had a New York design and merchandising firm and prior ties to the Children’s Television Workshop, creators of the widely renowned Muppets. Giles wanted something a bit like Big Bird, and asked for the mascot to be green, fat, furry and instantly accessible to children.
Giles rejected the first design of the Phanatic, insisting the character be fatter and have a bigger nose. The final design, introduced at the start of the 1978 season, was an immediate hit, and quickly generated more than $2 million in merchandise sales.
The first man inside the costume, David Raymond, was an intern for the Phillies. Unsure of what to do as the character, Giles told him to have “fun, but G-rated fun.” After 39 years, thousands of pratfalls and a 1993 switch to Tom Burgoyne as the man inside the costume, the Phanatic is now inextricably part of the Phillies’ culture.
“In a lot of ways, the Phanatic just changed the whole ballgame,” said Giles’ son, Joe, now the club’s director of ballpark enterprises and business development. “It really helped introduce the whole idea of fan entertainment at the ballpark and it being about more than just the game.”
The Phanatic, however, was also the source of one of Bill Giles’ worst business decisions in his lengthy career. Upon completing the final design for the Phanatic, Erickson and Harrison presented Giles with two options for the bill: $3,900 for just the costume, or $5,200 for the costume and the copyright for the character and the licensing rights that came with it.
Giles opted for the lower amount, wanting to save a bit of money and uncertain of the Phanatic’s commercial potential. After seeing the $2 million worth of Phanatic merchandise fly off the shelves and Erickson and Harrison be the primary beneficiaries of that, Giles realized the grave error of his ways.
“A couple of years later, I ended up spending a quarter of a million dollars to get the copyright back,” he said.