The story of the Penn State Nittany Lion
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A Penn State baseball player came up with the “Nittany Lion” mascot at a baseball game as a response to taunts from fans of another team.
As I have detailed in a number of legends over the years (like this tale of the Georgetown mascot that was a war hero), college fans and players have always taken a great deal of pride from their school mascots. What do you do, then, when your school does not have a mascot? That was the situation that a Penn State baseball player found himself in in 1904 when he managed to invent the Nittany Lion out of whole cloth as an answer to taunts from Princeton baseball supporters.
Penn St. is located in the Nittany Valley, which is appropriately enough nearby Mount Nittany. The mountains in the area were once patrolled by mountain lions but by the turn of the 20th Century, these lions were more or less extinct.
One of the killed lions was stuffed and put on display in a “Brush Lion” exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage) as part of the Pennsylvania exhibit (right near the Liberty Bell!). This lion ended up being displayed at Penn State in various departments for many years before being lent temporarily to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
This temporary loan lasted four decades. During its time displayed at Penn State, it was seen by a young man named Harrison D. “Joe” Mason in 1903. The following year, Mason began study at Penn State. He also joined the Penn State baseball team. On an April road trip to the Eastern colleges, the final trip was to Princeton. On a morning tour of the campus, one of the tour guides chose to taunt the Penn State team by showing them the Princeton Tiger at the Princeton Auditorium and noting that the Princeton Tiger was the fiercest mascot there was. Young Mason, an accomplished writer, quickly retorted that they came from Penn State, which is by Mount Nittany, home of the Nittany Mountain Lion, which had never been beaten in a fair fight!
Penn State, did, indeed, defeat Princeton that day, the first of three straight defeats of Princeton. Mason played well at third base and scored one run during the game. It was a nice piece of on his feet thinking by Mason, but it was mostly forgotten about after the game.
A few years later, two statues of lions were donated to Penn State after they were used in the Pennsylvania Mines Exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. They were placed atop the columns at the main campus entrance on College and Allen streets. That same year, Mason, now a senior, was writing for the college humor paper he helped found in December of 1906, The Lemon. He wrote to the students...
“Every College the world over of any consequence has a College Emblem of some kind,--all but the Pennsylvania State College. Our Institution, we think, is of some consequence, and from Present Prospects in ten years from to-day ‘Penn State’ will be among the Favorites in the Higher Education Trot,--at least We are willing to bank about 100 to 1 on this Sure Thing! But, Turn, Ye, now, gentle reader, and peruse the Epic on our Back Cover! Have you read it?--Alright then, We will now Proceed. [The “epic” was left off the back cover, by the way]
“What do You Say? Why not get for State College, Our College, the Best in all the Menagerie of College Pets.--Our College is the Best of all,--Then why not Select for ours, The King of Beastsm,--The Lion!!
“Dignified, courageous, magnificent, ‘The Lion’ allegorically represents all that Our College Spirit should be So why not ‘The Nittany Mountain Lion?’ Prithee, gentlemen, why not,--if there’s anything Finer on the Market, why Trot it Out, but in the name of Common-sense, Out with Some good idea, for surely “Pennsylvania State” is big and strong and loyal enough to decide on some permanent Guardian of this kind!--The Lions which now guard the entrance to our Campus are a move in the right direction.--Step into Princeton’s splendid Gymnasium and see there [sic] mounted figure of the stately, inspiring Tiger, who stands guard over the stairway! Why cannot State have a kingly, all-conquering Lion, as the eternal Sentinal [sic] in the Entrance of our Auditorium. This is Something the Class Funds of ’08 and ’09 can easily purchase, after the decision is made as to our College’s Guardian Spirit.”
Mason’s “epic” poem eventually showed up a couple of weeks later in the Lemon:
“Yale she loves her ancient Bulldog,
Princeton has her Tiger cruel,
Dickinson her brawny Mastiff
West Point claims the Army Mule.
Pennsylvania is the Quaker,
Michigan the Wolverine,
But where is Old Penn State?
Oh! we’re sorry to relate
She still sleeps ‘neath the shade of Nittany!”
The students, did, indeed agree to officially adopt the Nittany Lion as the mascot of Penn State and is has been ever since. Pretty impressive work by Mason.
An off-the-cuff remark as a freshman is later turned into an actual cause as a senior. Mason played semi-pro baseball during college but never pursued a big league career. He ended up working for the U. S. Bureau of Mines after he left school, and after some experience in mine rescue work began working for a Mine Safety Appliances Company in Pittsburgh.
He celebrated his creation of the Nittany Lion at various celebrations in Penn State for the rest of his life.
The legend is...
Thanks to Jackie R. Esposito and Steven L. Herb for their excellent book, The Nittany Lion., for the Mason quotes.
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