By: Greg Hand
Now that you're an official Bearcat, it raises a few good questions:
What the heck is a Bearcat? How did such a nickname get started?
For the answers, we turn to Bearcats! The Story of Basketball at the University of Cincinnati, a book by Kevin Grace, Greg Hand, Tom Hathaway, Carey Hoffman and Lisa Ventre, published by Harmony House (1997). The following is adapted from an appendix in the book.
The University of Cincinnati Bearcats were born on Oct. 31, 1914. The occasion was a football game with the University of Kentucky, and four key ingredients flowed together to create the enduring and enigmatic mascot:
- an opposing team nicknamed the "Wildcats."
- a star UC player named Baehr.
- a creative cheerleader.
- a talented cartoonist.
Although no powerhouse throughout the 1900s (known as the "Oughts") and the nineteen-teens, UC fielded respectable football teams with winning seasons against regional foes in six of the 10 years leading up to the big game. Kentucky was the fifth game of a nine-game schedule in 1914. Throughout four games in September and October, no one had managed to score against the Red & Black. Kentucky was the first real competition for Coach George Little's squad, and the students were eager for a good game.
At this time, the UC team had no real nickname. The teams were known variously as "Varsity," the "Cincinnati Eleven," the "Red & Black" and the coach's "boys," as in "Dana's Boys" or "Little's Boys." Mascots were uncommon among college football teams back then, and UC had no mascot, although a curious bulldog, clad in a "C" sweater and miniature hat, was depicted throughout the athletic sections of the yearbooks.
A new era was born when Kentucky came to town. The Wildcats were a formidable team and UC was struggling. During the second half of the game, cheerleader Norman "Pat" Lyon, building on the efforts of fullback Leonard K. "Teddy" Baehr, created a new chant: "They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side."
Cincinnati prevailed, 14-7, and the victory was memorialized Nov. 3 in a cartoon published on the front page of the student newspaper, the weekly University News. The cartoon, by John “Paddy” Reece, depicted nine vignettes from the game. Front and center is a bedraggled Kentucky Wildcat being chased by a creature labeled “Cincinnati Bear Cats.” Reece was certainly inspired by his editor. The same “Pat” Lyon who led the “Baehr-cat” cheer was also the editor of the University News.
The name stuck eventually, but not immediately. When the students published the yearbook for 1915, they included a mock-epic poem, "The Kentucky State Wildcats vs. The Cincinnati Bearcats," which ended:
At last outplayed, outtricked,
Outrun, outpassed, outkicked,
Bearcat had Wildcat licked
Fourteen to seven.
"Teddy" Baehr graduated in 1916, and the Bearcat nickname dropped out of use - at least in print - for a few years.
On Nov. 15, 1919, UC met Tennessee in Knoxville, and the Cincinnati Enquirer sent Jack Ryder (who usually reported on the Cincinnati Reds) to cover the event. Ryder's dispatch on UC's losing game, published on Nov. 16, was the first time the major media called UC's team the "Bearcats." "The Bear Cats repeatedly threatened to come from behind," Ryder wrote, and "the Bear Cats had been very strong favorites for the victory." From that day, UC teams were regularly called the Bearcats, and cartoon Bearcats filled the student newspaper and yearbook.
Half a century would pass before anyone thought to record how the name originated. In 1965, the Cincinnati Alumnus magazine printed a short note about the origin of the Bearcat, based on a brief conversation with Leonard Baehr and Norman Lyon. The magazine managed to get the date, score and location of the game wrong, but otherwise captured the essence of the Bearcat-Wildcat cheer.
Over the next several months other alumni wrote in to correct the details and provided some confusing and conflicting stories. UC athletic director Charles Mileham recalled that Jack Ryder had invented the Bearcat nickname in 1912 while reporting on a game with Tennessee. Another football player, Leslie "Babe" Bryant, reported that the name was used by the Cincinnati Post in 1913, when it portrayed a "Bearcat on the field." In 1978, Cincinnati Post columnist Dick Rawe collected a few more alternate anecdotes.
According to Rawe, a Cincinnati lawyer attributed the name to a Sunday school superintendent named Roger Bear. Rawe cited yet another version in which Leonard Baehr launched the name when he was photographed next to a Stutz Bearcat in 1914. By 1980, UC's athletic department was endorsing three separate versions: the cheer at the 1914 Kentucky game; the Leonard Baehr and Stutz Bearcat photo; Jack Ryder's 1912 football story. Only the first is correct and documented.
Jack Ryder was a beloved sports reporter in Cincinnati, but he did not report on the Bearcats before 1919. Further, UC did not play Tennessee in 1912. UC didplay the Volunteers in 1904, but the reports of that game in Cincinnati’s newspapers did not mention Bearcats at all.
If Leonard Baehr was ever photographed next to a Stutz Bearcat, on the field or off, the photo does not survive. There is a photo of Mr. Baehr in the 1915 UC yearbook, sitting in an automobile. However, the automobile is a touring car - not a Stutz Bearcat.
Leslie Bryant has a somewhat more legitimate claim. There is, indeed, a photo of a UC football player - Leslie Bryant himself - in the Oct. 14, 1913, Cincinnati Post. The photo shows Mr. Bryant in a suitable football posture, and the caption reads, "They call him 'Babe' in the classroom; he's a bearcat on the grid." On Oct. 21, 1913, the Cincinnati Enquirer referred to Mr. Bryant as "Bear Cat Bryant." In both instances, however, it's clear that "Bear Cat" is a personal nickname for Mr. Bryant - not a team name.
So where did the word, "bearcat," come from?
The word first appeared in print, circa 1889, as a synonym for the giant panda. In this case, "bearcat" is a simple translation of the Chinese word for panda - xiong mao - which means "bear-cat."
By 1895, the naturalist H.N. Ridley reported that the binturong - a large civet from Malaysia - was known as the "bear-cat." There is a binturong at the Cincinnati Zoo, and it's sometimes brought out to UC games.
The word entered American slang as a descriptive term for an aggressive or forceful person. One of the first to adopt this slang expression was P.G. Wodehouse, a popular author of the day. And then, of course, there was the Stutz Bearcat - the reigning sports car of the pre-World War I era, a great-grandfather of the Corvette - which had nothing, so far as we can now determine, to do with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.
Research assistance provided by Mark Fields, Engr '80.