Wednesday, December 22, 1999

Mr. Red unmasked - with whiskers




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[mr. red]
        He has slipped back into town nearly unnoticed. Once a beloved figure, he is now virtually forgotten. Entire generations have grown up unaware that he ever existed.

        We refer, of course, to Mr. Red. The real Mr. Red. The happy seamhead with the arched eyebrows and the Rollie Fingers mustache. The single most authentic and appealing symbol of baseball's oldest professional ballclub.

        Welcome back, Big Guy. We've missed you.

        Under pressure from Greg Vaughn and the Major League Baseball Players Association, the Reds lifted their 32-year-old ban on facial hair last spring. Vaughn has moved on, but his mark on the ballclub endures. With the return of Mr. Red's whiskers, the facial hair policy is again on the razor's edge.

        In the first months following Vaughn's breakthrough, Mr. Red remained clean-shaven and colorless — a tired, generic symbol of a team striving for identity. But his upper lip has since sprouted luxuriant new growth, and his expressive eyes again dance with delight. He appears in official club newsletters and on the Reds web site much as he did before Bob Howsam ordered him shaved in 1966, wearing a white cap with two vertical red stripes and a handsome handlebar.

Reds "toying around'
        The hirsute look may not last — the Reds marketing department continues to tinker with mascot revisions — but the mustachioed Mr. Red has at least returned to the regular rotation of club logos. He's not going to be an adequate substitute for Ken Griffey Jr., but he's a big improvement on his predecessor.

        “We're toying around with a few things,” said Cal Levy, the Reds marketing director. “We're trying to redesign the boy, modern him up. We have some of the best costume minds in the Tristate working on this.

        “Maybe, after the success of KC and the Sunshine Band, he'll have bellbottoms and platform shoes. Maybe he'll have baggy shorts. The one thing I can promise you is that there will be no gold chains. If he shall grow to exist as an entity again, he will not be the same entity that he was in the '70s.”

        More specific details are being disseminated on a need-to-know basis. Mr. Red's makeover is being conducted so secretly that they don't even know about it in Area 51.

        “He's next door,” Levy said. “He's in Area 50. It's another little-known area that the defense department has kept secret from the American people, especially Cincinnati baseball fans.”

The original Mr. Red
        The origin of the Mr. Red character is credited to the late Gabe Paul, who took over the Reds after Warren Giles became President of the National League in 1951.

        “If I remember correctly, there was a guy from WKRC named (Ted) McKay who wore the big mustache,” said John Murdough, the Reds former traveling secretary. “Gabe thought he looked sporty.”

        McKay began growing his trademark handlebar in 1957, a year after the mustachioed Mr. Red made a brief appearance on the front of the Reds jersey. The two events were unrelated — McKay's mustache was prompted by his part in a barbershop quartet — but elaborate whiskers were so rare in those days that the announcer soon became linked with the Reds logo.

        “Waite Hoyt and Jack Moran were doing the games on radio for WKRC,” McKay recalled Tuesday from his home in Forest Park. “I'd go up in the press box and I'd walk through and Waite Hoyt would say, "Who is that guy? He looks just like Mr. Red.' ”

        As a promotional stunt during the 1961 World Series, WKRC obtained an 1880s-style uniform for McKay, and sent the disc jockey to Crosley Field to distribute buttons. McKay isn't sure what became of the uniform, but his mustache is still intact.

        Levy cautions Mr. Red will still be clean-shaven on the patch the players wear on their jerseys next season, but the issue is again open to discussion. This is progress.

        “I'm leaving for France on Thursday to consult the fashion experts of Paris,” Levy said. “I'm going continental with the search for the perfect Mr. Red.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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