Updated 4:30 p.m.
They’re the ones who dance during timeouts, throw T-shirts to fans, run races, act silly and, if you’re not careful, try to plant a kiss on your significant other.
Sports mascots don’t always get a lot of respect, but in Whiting, Indiana they’ll get plenty of it.
“We’re honoring mascots. We’re honoring the good work they do,” said Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura, who spearheaded the effort to build the national Mascot Hall of Fame in his city of about 5,000 people just across the state line from Chicago.
After more than five years of planning, the $18 million, three-story building that is owned by the city will officially open to the public on Dec. 26. Funding for the hall came through corporate donations and a $8.5 million bond issue through the Whiting Redevelopment Commission.
In this mascot palace, you’ll find tributes to Benny of the Chicago Bulls, Brutus Buckeye of the Ohio State University, Paws of the Detroit Tigers, and Sluggerrr of the Kansas City Royals, to name a few.
Stahura said the catalyst for the hall was David Raymond, the original Philadelphia Phillies mascot Phillie Phanatic who performed from 1978 to 1993. Raymond had created an online hall that inducted new members in a ceremony every year in Philadelphia.
Whiting was searching for ideas to build a museum-type attraction to draw people year-round. Up to now, the city’s main event that brings thousands to Whiting every summer is its Pierogi Fest.
The city approached Raymond to express its interest in building a brick-and-mortar home for his website.
“David and I thought we were both crazy when we first started talking because it really was pie in the sky,” Stahura said.
The 25,000-square-foot building at 1851 Front Street includes exhibits on mascots inducted into the hall, video screens telling the history of mascots and a Build-A-Mascot station. In the atrium, there are huge helium-filled balloons of the mascot heads of each inductee in the hall.
“I can’t wait for the community to see it because they’ve been supportive, but I still think there’s a little misunderstanding of what this facility is,” Stahura said.
Raymond said after meeting with Stahura to discuss the idea, he was sold on transitioning the hall from the virtual world to the real world.
“‘I believe in Joe’s vision of bringing the Mascot Hall of Fame to Whiting. They value fun and they wanted a family-oriented attraction,” said Raymond, who runs a character-branding company based in West Grove, Pennsylvania. “We just thought it was a nice dream. As dreams go, it was a dream we had and it came true.”
Like sports halls of fame, there is a process to get into the mascot hall.
Each year, candidates are inducted by the voting members and an executive committee that includes performers and sports executives. To be eligible, a mascot must have existed for at least five years, have demonstrated a major impact on a sport or community, have a character design considered fun and unique, and be known for performances that are memorable or ground breaking.
Currently, there are 10 mascots already in the hall. The 2017 class included Benny the Bull and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Tommy Hawk.
Raymond said the hall does more than honor mascots.
“It shows mascots in a very powerful light in how incredible they are, how powerful they are in their communities, how they bring distracting fun — not only to sports fans but to kids and families who are struggling with health issues or any issue that life throws their way,” Raymond said.
Raymond said while a lot of cities could have hosted the Mascot Hall of Fame, it was Whiting that stepped up.
“As much as I would have loved it to be in Philadelphia, no one in Philadelphia thought it would be important to bring it there,” he said. “Whiting saw the value in it for their community, for Northwest Indiana, for the Chicagoland environment. It’s going to be a destination place. They are going to come from all over the country to see this place.”
There is one mascot legend conspicuously absent, although he was inducted into the hall: the San Diego Chicken. His performer, Ted Giannoulas, has not given approval for his likeness to be used.
“Until you get that, there will be an empty spot on the wall for him,” Stahura said.
Raymond said the hall is all about honoring the characters.
“We are honoring the mascots, we’re not honoring the performers, at least not currently,” he said.
For his part, Giannoulas says he’s been inducted into three other halls of fame, including the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
“I prefer their interests not be lessened,” Giannoulas said in a statement to WBEZ. “Declining the (Mascot Hall of Fame) invitation allows an opportunity for added focus of other deserving mascots.”
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.