John Paul Weier has been gallivanting around the streets of Wrigleyville in his “Billy Cub” costume since 2007. Wearing a size 60 Cubs jersey over his big, furry outfit, Weier has doled out high fives and posed for pictures, soliciting small tips for his services through a slit in the cooler that he totes in his left hand.
Weier originally designed the costume hoping to become the team’s official mascot — until Monday, the Cubs were one of just four MLB teams without one — and spent much of the past seven years in determined pursuit of that job. However, not only were the Cubs not interested in hiring Weier in an official capacity, but the unveiling of Clark the Cub is the culmination of a series of actions signifying the club essentially wants him to get lost.
This past season, I wanted to know just why Weier persisted in the face of this active hostility. To really find out, I figured, I’d have to walk a mile in the Billy Cub’s paws.
Standing a little over six feet tall with short, red hair, Weier is 31 years old. He grew up in Arizona watching the Cubs on WGN and attending spring training games, and moved to northwestern Illinois for high school and college. When he first started wearing the costume at the beginning of the 2007 season, he crashed on friends’ couches or in his car during homestands.
When Weier isn’t working outside Cubs games, he’s an independent contractor who travels around the country helping assemble the infrastructure at big events for the likes of Red Bull or various weekend warrior activities.
For a 3:05 Saturday game against the Cardinals in August of last year, I met Weier at noon; he had me out on the streets a half hour later.
“This is going to be baptism by fire,” he told me. My first experience wearing the suit would be taking place on one of the busiest game days of the year.
Billy Cub World Headquarters is located in a garage about a block from Wrigley Field. Four full-body suits hang inside-out on a wire; Weier buys a new suit each year at a total cost of about $4,000, and has several people out in the streets wearing the old ones on busy game days. They split their tips with him, 50/50.
My body suit fit snugly, but I knew that I was in for a world of pain the second I put that mask over my head. There was almost no ventilation and I couldn’t take full breaths. I immediately started to itch in unscratchable places and sweat profusely.
The eye screens limited me to about 30 percent of my normal vision; I could see directly in front of me, but not peripherally, up, or down without substantial effort. After taking a few steps in the gigantic costume, that became burdensome as well, and rendered my movements clumsy and deliberate.
With Weier as my chaperone, I staggered off to my pre-game territory on Clark between Addison and Waveland. After I’d been in the costume for just a couple of minutes, a father and his toddler son stopped me for a photo. I had absolutely no earthly idea how to handle it.
“I’d give you an ‘F’ grade,” Weier told me after the pair walked away. “You looked still and lifeless and … creepy. Your tip solicitation was awkward and you made no gesticulation to thank them for the tip.”
For some reason, Weier left me alone almost immediately thereafter, and I started to get more comfortable in my role as an enthusiastic high-five giver and photo prop. I didn’t get more comfortable in the costume, which imposed an all-consuming, unyielding discomfort.
So far as I could tell, my existence seemed to enhance people’s overall Wrigleyville experience. Even if they weren’t taking pictures with me, it would put a smile on their face when we crossed paths and I waved or extended my free hand for a high five. The only exceptions to this were Cardinals supporters so resolute in their fanhood that they reacted as if they would contract syphilis if we made hand contact and a few little kids who were terrified of a gigantic furry bear and had a complete meltdown.
At the beginning of the 2012 season, Weier received a 100-plus page cease and desist order from MLB lawyers warning him to stop wearing the Billy Cub costume and cease “unabated Mascot Activities.” After consulting with a lawyer, Weier opted to ignore the threat. This legal entanglement spurred a series of on-again, off-again negotiations with the Cubs, during which Weier angled to become the team’s official mascot.
“I would have agreed to just about anything that is anywhere close to fair,” Weier said. “I’d been out there for so long, trying to implement this for the team.”
What Weier didn’t consider a fair offer was the one that he says the Cubs had on the table, which would have paid him $15,000 and bound him to a confidentiality agreement that would compel him to curtail all use of the “Billy Cub” persona and surrender all of his costumes to the franchise. Rather than offering to fulfill his dream of becoming their official furry, friendly representative, the Cubs were essentially offering to pay him to go away.
“I didn’t want a ton of money,” he said, emphasizing that it was about entrepreneurial pride and fulfillment more than anything. “Think of it like the American Dream. I wanted to go down in history as the man who invented the mascot for the Chicago Cubs.”
The Cubs, for their part, repeatedly declined to talk about the whole situation, and simply emailed over the following statement, which they’d issued before to NBC Chicago:
The “Billy Cub” characters are not affiliated with the Chicago Cubs. We have received complaints from ours fans, mistakenly believing the “Billy Cub” characters to be associated with the Cubs. Some of these complaints include reports of “Billy Cub” characters engaging in offensive, harassing or racially-charged behavior. This behavior is wholly inconsistent with the enjoyable fan experience we try to create at Wrigley Field.
To the uninitiated, Weier’s plight can seem rather absurd. Of course the Cubs—a billion-dollar enterprise—would not be expected to treat ordinary citizens in a manner in which they deem fair. Of course they don’t approve of someone profiting off their likeness. Of course they wouldn’t hire him. Given all that, why roast in that suit and take verbal and physical abuse from drunks? Why not just quit? To many, it would seem to be the sensible thing to do, and yet he remains resolute.
The mood swings were rapid. There were times, when I was wearing the costume, that 10 or 15 minutes would go by where no one would want to take a picture and I’d feel worthless. Other times, people would line up and it would be one after another after another and I would begin to entertain delusions of making this my career.
At about 2:00, Weier snuck up on me from behind and tapped me on the shoulder. “You seem a lot more comfortable now,” he said. I may have been growing into the role of Billy Cub, but the costume was only growing more and more onerous. My head wanted to kill me for taking on this assignment; the ice-pack vest had started digging into my shoulder and causing sharp pain.
“You think you can make it another 90 minutes or so?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, hoping to convey confidence as my inner consciousness emphatically disagreed.
Eventually, Weier came and collected me, and we walked back to his apartment. I counted up the tips in the cooler and found that I had accumulated $126 — probably less than Weier would’ve earned if he’d worn the costume himself — but not an unmitigated disaster.
As he led me back to his home, it continued to be apparent that the unmasked Weier knew everybody else working in the neighborhood – the crossing guards, ticket scalpers, cops, bar doormen, and various peanut and t-shirt vendors. They appreciate his hustle, and are aware that on some level they could face similar issues as the Cubs’ whims dictated. Over the course of the day, I saw several vendors wearing “Save Billy” t-shirts.
There were some people who didn’t seem to grasp that I was a human being inside a suit. A wasted 19-year old in a Derek Jeter shirsey was absurdly persistent in his request to lift me up and carry me over his shoulder. (I declined.) There was a girl who “tipped” me with her (printed) ticket stub and a man who looked at me indignantly and said, “Here’s a tip — don’t wear a furry costume on a hot day.” And there were many, many people who thought it was very funny to leave me hanging on a high five. It’s really not that funny.
The worst, though, was when people would smack me in the head, setting off excruciating reverberations inside the mask while also setting my line of sight askew. This happened three or four times throughout the day and it would always take a few minutes to recover from.
That said, people were generally more receptive to me than earlier. High fives were given with more authority; there was increased eye contact. It felt good to elicit positive reactions from complete strangers, to make little kids grin from ear-to-ear.
On my second shift, I netted $120 in tips, which made for $246 on the day. After accounting for costume costs, street vendor licenses, and, over the past year-plus, lawyer’s fees, Weier could almost certainly make more money with less physical strain during the baseball season as a bartender or server in a high-traffic Wrigleyville establishment.
As such, there is a genuineness and sincerity about him. He seems truly to value having created a lovable character—one that has resonated with the Cubs’ fans, if not their management. (Or at least their legal team: he has, after all, been photographed with general manager Theo Epstein, and numerous people have told him that team owner Tom Ricketts dressed as Billy Cub for Halloween.)
Cubs management is changing a lot in and around Wrigley Field in the next few years. Artist renderings of their new titan-o-tron that made it seem as though it would blot out the sky were confirmed by mockups. There will be renovations of concourses and bathrooms. Luxury suites will be added, and the team is building a seven-story hotel across the street. Wrigleyville, already a theme park version of itself, is becoming a theme park version of the theme park. Even proponents of these changes aren’t happy about one the latest indignities: Chicago’s own Old Style will no longer be sold inside the park.
The Cubs claim all these changes are necessary in order to field a competitive roster. (Having the highest profitability in the sport, as they were believed to last year, just isn’t enough, apparently.)
And of course, there’s the new mascot, Clark. Unsurprisingly, he’s safe and clean and sterile (except for when he’s Photoshopped) and the product of many meetings involving branding and intellectual property experts, and not of one particular Cubs fan.
For his part, Weier’s still plans on conducting Billy Cub’s business as usual on Opening Day, and pledges to compete with the newcomer and battle any impending legal challenges for as long as he can afford it. Or, if it turns out after all this that the Cubs would have him, he’d even let bygones be bygones and wear the Clark costume himself.
“I’d do it for pretty much whatever deal they wanted to strike,” he tells The Big Lead. “I’d still love to be the official mascot of the Chicago Cubs.”