Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Chicken: In praise of poultry

Longtime San Diego Padre Tony Gwynn is getting a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s a great player who built a reputation for reliability. Speaking of reliable, let’s talk about somebody who, according to his web page, performed at more than 5000 games before missing one. (And somebody who at one point was on Tony Gwynn’s bad side, but more about that later) - ladies and gentlemen: THE CHICKEN!

Don’t laugh. Well, on second thought, go right ahead. Neither the chicken nor I would mind.

As a baseball fan in San Diego in the 1970s, you had to learn to put up with a lot of things that weren’t so great. The Padres were relatively new, and relatively inexperienced. There is a sadly true story about Padre team owner Ray Kroc getting on the loudspeaker after the game to complain about the terrible playing by the team. The team needed help, and help came from a rather unexpected source. No, not Ronald McDonald - a chicken. The costumed character from KGB radio began to make appearances at Jack Murphy (now Qualcomm) Stadium during major sports events.

Perhaps it’s hard for die-hard sports fans to understand why the Chicken is so important to the history of the Padres. Perhaps you had to be a kid as I was, enjoying the funny guy in the costume much more than I could understand the game. Perhaps you had to be there to hear the low roar of laughter that seemed to be almost constantly coming from the stands.

All he did was make the fans happy - which was just what the Padres needed at that time.

The Chicken was proof that it was okay to do silly things as an adult. When you think about it, there aren’t too many celebrities whose humor appeals directly to children. I’m thinking of the many stars “Saturday Night Live” has helped develop. All great, but not always funny for kids. The Chicken is pure slapstick fun in an era when the classic silent slapstick greats seem to have vanished.

At one point, the Chicken received a job offer from another individual who was offering more cash. Folks, this was on the news! All of San Diego held its breath for a few days, until finally the Chicken chose to stay with KGB and the Padres, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. He was really every bit as much a sports celebrity as Randy Jones & Rollie Fingers were at the time. He was certainly as well-known.

Sadly, it was not long after that when KGB and the chicken parted ways. Now my memory is sketchy on this, but I seem to recall a news clip on “Real People” about KGB hiring somebody else to play the chicken, and this new guy GETTING BOOED RIGHT OUT OF THE STADIUM! That’s how loyal San Diego was to the original chicken!

Not long after this was the “Grand Hatching.” The Chicken would return, this time on his own terms, and in a new costume. The stadium was sold out, and everyone who wasn’t there was watching it on TV. What on earth would he look like? My brother and I still remember seeing that giant egg being lifted off a truck and onto the field at the stadium. Suddenly, it bursts open, and out comes the Chicken we know today, and the crowd roars! If you didn’t love sports in San Diego, you might not understand what a big deal this was. But we did. And we still do.

A little later was kind of a historic night in my life - the birthday celebration of Ray Kroc. It was held at the stadium and - well folks, it was great. I don’t remember anything about the game. But man, what a show. Skydivers landing in the middle of the stadium! A giant birthday cake with the Chicken and Ronald McDonald inside! Confetti! Grimace! Hamburglar! A phone call from Ronald Reagan! A free cap! Kroc riding into the stadium in his white limo and the chicken bowing down to worship him! This cheesy fun really was a great night for a young kid.

As I grew up, so did sports in San Diego. The Padres were certainly becoming a force to reckon with, thanks to some great players like Tony Gwynn mentioned above. And who could ever forget 1984 - the year we won the pennant! It was a great moment in San Diego sports history. And as sports became more serious, people began to actually watch the game more than the mascot.

Sadly, for some, the chicken’s antics began to be more annoying than fun. This quote from Barry M. Bloom sums it up well:

The guy in the Famous Chicken outfit hatched his act here when the team on the field was just a supporting cast. There was the night in 1984 when he played Indiana Chicken and rode a horse across the field during a no-hit effort by the Cardinals' Ricky Horton. The horse came to a halt and decided to fertilize left field. Horton didn't get the no-hitter and the Chicken was banished, forced to buy tickets and perform in the stands.

09/22/2003 9:00 AM ET Good times at the QBy Barry M. Bloom /

So many Padres began to turn against the Chicken, as did many sports fans. As longtime San Diego sports commentator Ted Leitner is fond of saying, “It’s only a game!” But when you dedicate your life to the game, as Tony Gwynn did, then perhaps you can understand why everyone got upset.

Perhaps the lowest blow of all was when the Chicken was actually kicked out of Jack Murphy stadium during the Super Bowl in San Diego! He didn’t go to work, he was just there as a fan to enjoy the game, but he was a fan in a chicken suit, and apparently the guys in the real suits didn’t approve of the attention he was getting, so they chucked the chicken. Perhaps understandable, but sad. We’d come a long way.

Thankfully, the Chicken and sports fans have pretty much made peace with each other. He has since taken his show on the road. He’s been making fans happy across the nation just as he used to do in San Diego. He still drops by to visit once in a while - this time as an honored guest - and is always welcomed back with cheers and laughter. The laughter continues, and hopefully will for a long time.

And as Jerry Coleman said, you can hang a star on that baby.

Yay! The Chicken has a web page full of pictures (like the one above) and more cool things. Check it out!

Say, does ANYBODY out there have any episodes of “The Baseball Bunch” with Johnny Bench & the Chicken? The show was on the air in the early 1980s and ranks as a lost childhood classic show (along with “That’s Cat” and “The Froozles!”) If you’ve got them, please e-mail me at for a video trade. But take the "nospam" out of my email address before you do.