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The Cubs have concocted an adorable origin story for Clark: growing up in the Lincoln Park Zoo, the young bear heard tales of his great-grandfather Joa's youthful exploits as a Cubs mascot in 1916. He was entranced and delighted. "Then one day," reports the Cubs website, "Clark heard the roar of the crowd coming all the way from Wrigleyville. Determined to finally see the Cubs in person, he followed the sound to Wrigley Field, just in time to see the Cubs raise the W flag." The Cubs management was so impressed by the cub's ability to escape the zoo and walk two miles up Clark Street without getting caught, they decided he must be lucky and made him their new mascot. (Or something like that.)
But, oh, Clark, you should have stayed at the zoo where you were safe. The history of Cubs mascots is rife with tragedy, betrayal, and murder. And losing and futility, but that probably goes without saying.
Back in the early, superstitious days of baseball, a mascot was more than a cute (or scary-looking) team symbol meant to entertain children and sell lots of merchandise. It was a physical embodiment of good luck. Players' children became mascots. So did their wives. Some mascots went pro and transferred their alliances from team to team. Some of them even got paid. The mascot of a minor-league team in Nashville took his duties so seriously that after his release from jail after serving a few days for selling stolen goods (the great baseball writer Grantland Rice helped plead his case), the first thing he did was race to the ballpark to take his place on the bench. Most mascots were living creatures, but during the 1910s, the White Sox claimed a silver dollar given to one of the players by team owner Charles Comiskey. Comiskey was a notorious skinflint, so it was a rare and precious object.
Anyone could be a mascot. In 1909, the Cubs attempted to claim President William Howard Taft, who was passing through town and decided to take in a game. "When it was over, somebody asked the President which side he rooted for," reported Charles Dryden in the Examiner. "Mr. Taft's reply was very diplomatic, if not guarded. 'I'm from Cincinnati, and besides I've got a bad cold and can't smell very well.' It is repartee like this that lands people in the White House." The Cubs lost to the Giants, their most bitter rivals. "He's no mascot," the Tribune grumbled the next day. Ring Lardner blamed the loss on "a bad attack of Taftitis."
Being a mascot could be a degrading, even heartbreaking business. In 1908, Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb picked up a black teenager named Ulysses Harrison in Saint Louis and declared him "the very thing for a bat boy and mascot." Harrison traveled with the team until the final game of the World Series in Detroit where the Cubs defeated the Tigers. The Tigers decided he was no longer useful and abandoned him. According to the Examiner, a Cubs player found Harrison in tears. "I'm busted, boss," he said. "I ain't got a dollar and I can't get back home. They say they ain't got any more use for me here." The Cubs brought the former mascot back to Chicago, where a group of friendly fans took up a collection for his train ticket home.
The Cubs occasionally had human mascots, but, aside from managers' children, their tenures were short-lived. (An exception was the Fat Boy, Paul Dominick, who was given credit for a 21-game winning streak in 1935 and then left for Hollywood.) Instead, they seemed to prefer animals—who, it should be noted, did not demand salaries. The 1908 world champions had Bud, a Boston bull terrier puppy with an adorable curved tail, and a grotesque-looking fake polar bear. The 1913 team had a homicidal gamecock, named Tampa after their spring training home. (Tampa's mascotting career seems to have ended when he murdered another rooster.) In 1915, they had another dog, a terrier named Toy. But mostly they had live cubs.
Why anyone thought having live bears around, even small bears, was a good idea remains a mystery. The bears were nasty. The 1914 mascot, an Alaskan import named Clara Maduro, was judged "too strong and determined in its ways to be among peaceable people," reported the Tribune. She was scheduled for execution, but was given a reprieve and instead served a life sentence in the Lincoln Park Zoo. The 1910 Cubs hated their mascot, an unnamed bear sent from Spokane, Washington, so much they planted it in the rival Giants' clubhouse. "We hope [Giants manager John McGraw] kicked the stuffing out of the little beast to get even," wrote Dryden, who was the city's finest chronicler of team mascots, "for it has been biting the regular Cubs on the ankle and we have enough cripples on the team."
They didn't even bring the team luck. "These bear mascots are a hoodoo," Dryden complained in 1916. "They had a flock of them at the world's series in 1906 and the Cubs lost with ease." (Note how he had already adopted that tone of resignation and cynicism characteristic of anyone who has to write about the Cubs. And he actually saw them win the World Series!)
Still, far-off fans kept sending the Cubs new baby bears. Inevitably, a tragedy occurred, as reported by the Examiner on January 27, 1916:
No one grieved the assassination of the mascot. Instead, the Cubs replaced it with young Clark's great-grandpa Joa.
Joa's origins are unclear. It's possible he was a gift to Cubs co-owner Charley Weeghman from a friend who had shot the bear's mother during a hunting trip in Wisconsin. Or maybe he was donated by another co-owner, J. Ogden Armour, a meat-packing magnate. (Or maybe the Cubs were given three bears in 1916?) Whatever the case, he was named after Armour: JOA.
Armour's factory was the model for Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. He was one of the richest and also one of the most loathed men in Chicago. Dryden refused to refer to the bear by its Armour name. "The proper name of the newest bear mascot is Jonah," he wrote, "but they have abbreviated it to Joa. The n and h are silent."
Joa's disposition could be surly. He clawed at least one player. (Thus prompting a dietary suggestion from Dryden: "They should arrange meatless days for Jonah. Everybody is doing it.") Worst of all, the Cubs finished the 1916 season in fifth place. Despite all this, he accompanied the team to spring training in 1917, where, at least according to Dryden anyway, the team barber was instructed to shampoo him between shaves to get rid of the filth accumulated during a winter in the Lincoln Park Zoo. Even in the middle of the season, he was still doing his bit, sitting in his cage and chewing his chain.
The team's fortunes did not improve. Weeghman finally gave up on Joa and sold him to the Lincoln Park Zoo for $20. The Cubs finished fifth again, but with a slightly better record. There's no record of whether he encountered Clara Maduro or any other former mascots there, and what painful stories they shared about their mascotting careers. Too bad young Clark didn't listen to them. Or maybe he did—SBNation has pointed out how dead his eyes look. What dark and horrible circumstances could have forced a little bear to voluntarily sell himself into mascot-hood?