Say hello to Blob

While I was in Philadelphia this past weekend, the big sports news, apart from the launch of another disastrous season for the Phillies, was the debut of Blob, the mascot of the Philadelphia Stars, the new United States Football League soccer team. The unlikely name, chosen via an online poll a la that for Boaty McBoatface, does seem appropriate: Those narcoleptic drooping eyelids and insipid slackjawed smile over a pile of red velour protoplasm suggest a vaguely disconcerting oversized globule of apathy. Not that Philadelphians themselves will have a chance to see Blob meandering around the field in a marijuana-induced haze any time soon; all of the eight games the Stars will play this season will take place in Birmingham, Alabama. The excellent Billy Penn web site has the whole story.

Sports mascots have had a pretty ambivalent history in Philadelphia since the introduction of the Phillie Phanatic at Veterans Stadium in 1978 to attract more children and families to home games; unlike the cheery, coked-up, but kid-friendly Mr. Met, there’s something disturbing about all of them. The frantic, oversized green Big Bird mutant, for all his appeal to youngsters, has been called “the most-sued mascot in the majors,” having been dragged into court several times on personal injury charges, leading the Philadelphia Daily News to dub it the “big green litigation machine” in 2010. Gritty, the mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, is just as frantic as the Phanatic, but exhibits more than a touch of a bug-eyed sociopath as well, and I have no doubt he’ll also end up in a courtroom sometime soon.

All sports mascots have a bit of the stupid in them, and in a way the Phanatic, Gritty, and now Blob are allowing Philadelphians to provide something of a metacommentary on that stupidity. By christening Blob with his weird name and embracing the psychotic antics of Gritty, Philly sports fans indulge in a little comic hostility to the whole idea of giant furries traipsing about a stadium, getting in the way of the game and generally wreaking dumb havoc. As for me, you can keep your Mr. Met. I’ll throw my lot in with the sociopaths and Philadelphians. As the Billy Penn reporter concludes, “All hail Blob. Go Stars!”

The saving grace of modesty

Agnes Repplier and her friend Robert in 1916. Photo: Mathilde Weil.

I’ve just gotten back from a visit to Philadelphia, my first in eight months, which was far too long. Though only in town for a long weekend, I managed to take care of some unfinished business — a first drink at the Pen & Pencil Club, introducing my wife to Dirty Frank’s — and perhaps even inspired myself to write more about the City of Brotherly Love in the near future.

But where to begin? Philadelphia’s charms are hard to define, but Philly native Agnes Repplier, one of the most celebrated essayists of bygone days, took a stab at it in the introduction to her 1898 Philadelphia: The Place and the People, and for now I’ll let her offer it in her own words, which might be mine had I her talent for elegance:

And now, after two centuries have rolled slowly by, something of [Philadelphia founder Quaker William Penn’s] spirit lingers in the quiet city which preserves the decorum of those early years, which does not jostle her sister cities in the race of life, nor shout loud cries of triumph in their ears, nor flaunt magnificent streamers in the breeze to bid the world take note of each pace she advances.

Every community, like every man, carries to old age the traditions of its childhood, the inheritance derived from those who bade it live. And Philadelphia, though she has suffered sorely from rude and alien hands, still bears in her tranquil streets the impress of the Founder’s touch. Simplicity, dignity, reserve, characterize her now as in Colonial days. She remembers those days with silent self-respect, placing a high value upon names which then were honoured, and are honoured still. The pride of the past mingles and is one with the pride of the present. The stainless record borne by her citizens a hundred and fifty years ago flowers anew in the stainless record their great-great-grandsons bear to-day; and the city cherishes in her cold heart the long annals of the centuries, softening the austerity of her presence for these favoured inheritors of her best traditions. She is not eager for the unknown; she is not keen after excitement; she is not enamoured of noise. Her least noticeable characteristic is enthusiasm. Her mental balance cannot lightly be disturbed. Surtout pas trop de zêle, she says with Talleyrand; and the slow, sure process by which her persuasions harden into convictions does not leave her, like a derelict, at the mercy of wind and wave. She spares herself the arduous labour of forming new opinions every morning, by recollecting and cherishing her opinions of yesterday. It is a habit which promotes solidity of thought.

To those who by right of heritage call themselves her sons, and even to such step-children as are, by nature or grace, attuned to the chill tranquillity of their foster mother, Philadelphia has a subtle charm that endures to the end of life. In the restful atmosphere of her sincere indifference, men and women gain clearness of perspective, and the saving grace of modesty. Few pedestals are erected for their accommodation. They walk the level ground, and, in the healthy absence of local standards, have no alternative save to accept the broad disheartening standards of the world. Philadelphians are every whit as mediocre as their neighbours, but they seldom encourage each other in mediocrity by giving it a more agreeable name. Something of the old Quaker directness, something of the old Quaker candour, — a robust candour not easily subdued, — still lingers in the city founded by the “white truth-teller,” whose word was not as the words of other men, — spoken to conceal his thoughts, and the secret purpose of his soul.

A member of the club

The Pen & Pencil Club of Philadelphia.

Journalism has been taking a body blow lately, what with accusations of “fake news” and bias, but this ignores the terrific and courageous role that journalism played in much of the twentieth century and continues to play today. From Gareth Jones‘ reportage on the Ukrainian Holodomor in the 1930s to Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka” in 1944 and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946, great journalists have been dedicated to pursuing and reporting events that governments would prefer unpursued and unreported. They do this, often, at great personal risk, and even when the physical risk is minimal, the vast majority of journalists are biased to just one thing: facts, and facts that are verifiable, not those that might be characterized as “alternative.”

I’ve been involved in various kinds of journalism since I edited my college newspaper back in the day; since then, much of this has been arts journalism, and lately here at the blog what I generously call “journalism” has been of the more personal variety. Nonetheless, I’m delighted and honored to end this week as a new, full member of Philadelphia’s Pen & Pencil Club, the oldest private club for journalists in the United States, founded in 1892. It’s going to be a rough couple years up until the 2024 election, and as a free press is the handmaiden of democracy, I raise my glass today to journalism and journalists. I hope to raise a glass or three at the Pen & Pencil Club soon.