Heads Up

The Phillie Phanatic is one of baseball’s most recognizable mascots. (via Steve Wood)

You hear it before you see it. The “thunk,” then “hiss,” will forever be imprinted on my brain after my ill-fated collision with a cannon-fired tee shirt at a big league ballpark this year.

2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This,” should’ve been my cue. Mascots and cheerleaders always charge out onto the field with the tee shirt cannon to that infernal song. But no. I just had to check my fantasy baseball team’s status. I didn’t see — or hear —  it coming.

Thunk, hiss.

Two things on the rubber-banded tee shirt that hit me square on the forehead (a fairly big target, I admit). First, it wasn’t the pain that made me cower, but the embarrassment. Second, the real trouble isn’t the impact, but what comes after. The scrum of grabbing hands, most with sharp fingernails, that ensues is thoroughly brutal. It felt like getting attacked by a pack of angry wolverines.

Left to sit there with no tee shirt (a 12-year-old kid somehow shimmied under my seat to snatch it) and a lifetime’s worth of shame, my first thought was, “Which one of you grabbed my thigh?” Then, “Who in the heck came up with idea for a tee shirt cannon? And furthermore, who decided that creating one for hot dogs would be a great idea.”

I must confess, it is a great idea for teams, because nothing makes fans go crazier than free stuff coming at them at top speed.

Turns out, baseball teams have been shooting off hot dogs longer than they’ve been launching tees into the crowd via air-powered artillery. A 2006 Sports Business Journal article credits Hatfield Quality Meats for starting the whole blasted thing. Founded in 1895, Hatfield produces 1,200 different kinds of pork products from its facility just north of Philadelphia. It’s best-known, however, for making the official hot dog of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Heading into the 1996 season, the Phillies and Hatfield were looking for ways to promote a new hot dog for kids, the Phanatic Frank, at Citizens Bank Ballpark. The tee shirt slingshot was just getting popular around that time, and the Phils braintrust thought, “bingo!” From the SBJ piece:

Hatfield’s engineers got right on it — eventually developing a carbon dioxide launcher that could shoot dogs a few hundred feet. Looking to add some corporate ID, the engineers designed a wiener-shaped case with the company’s logo on the side. The 1996 season opened in Philadelphia with airborne hot dogs.

In their book In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People, George Gmelch and the very aptly named J. J. Weiner wrote that the Hatfield shooter creates 350 pounds per square inch of pressure to launch dogs more than 200 feet. Here’s how these gas-powered guns work, according to commercial manufacturer Air Cannons, Inc.

There is a series of valves and regulators that allow for the gas source (the CO2 in the tank) to be regulated.  You then control the pressure which in turn will determine the distance that the Air Cannon will launch the t-shirt (or any other item).  When a t-shirt is loaded in the barrel and you’re ready to launch it out you press the trigger which releases the regulated CO2 gas in the reservoir out through the barrel which in turn propels the t-shirt.

This manufacturer has a model, the Hurricane 400, it claims can blast a tee up to 400 feet. Oh, and by the way, its guns can shoot much more than just hot dogs and tee shirts. Again, from the Air Cannons site:

Besides t-shirts, Air Cannons are used to launch hot dogs, rally towels, stuffed animals, mini-footballs and basketballs, nerf balls, stress balls, baseball caps, candy, coupons, etc. If you can fit it into the barrel then you can launch it out. Obviously Air Cannons are not to be used to launch anything that is hard or which might cause injury.  Because compressed t-shirts are too stiff and compact they are not recommended for use with Air Cannons.

(Note to Air Cannons. Non-compressed tees don’t feel so hot, either.)

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The Phillie Phanatic has been shooting hot dogs long and far ever since, including at fellow mascots. Here’s an MLB.com video of the Phanatic firing dogs at fans during a spring training game in Clearwater, Fla. Note that the gun is mounted on a swiveling platform atop a cart so the Phanatic can shoot anywhere, anytime. Also note how random the gunplay is. There is no pattern. A fan can’t know if he or she is safe to look away even for a second. (Just saying …)

Hatfield created a documentary on its shooter, which you can see here. Of course, weaponized hot dogs are just the plain variety, wrapped tightly in foil for maximum shooting distance and velocity. I await the day the Phillies and other baseball clubs figure out how to airmail some of the latest gourmet dogs now served at big league stadiums everywhere.

This year, for instance, Hatfield introduced Phillie fans to the Jersey Shore Dog, topped with pork roll and American cheese sauce (double the pork!). Its new South Philly Dog comes with chili-garlic broccoli rabe (for the non-hipsters, rabe is a leafy, cruciferous vegetable that is closely related to the turnip), roasted red peppers and aged provolone. And of course every ballpark now has the Mac & Cheese Dog, which needs no explanation.

While the Phanatic was involved with the first hot dog launcher, we all can thank another team mascot for the tee shirt shooter. Only someone willing to jump around in a sweaty animal costume for three-plus hours would find a way to legalize shooting at fans.

In the case of the tee shirt gun, Tim Derk came up with the idea while serving as mascot of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. In 2013, he told the New York Times the gun he helped build was, like the hot dog shooter, just an evolution from the giant tee shirt slingshots mascots were already using. You can get a nice visual of that evolution here.

Derk said he got his inspiration from spud shooters. What exactly is a spud shooter? Google it, and the Idaho Potato Commission will tell you it’s a vodka- or bourbon-based cocktail served in a hollowed-out spud that’s infused with the liquor. Wikipedia, believe it or not, is more spot on in this case:

A spud gun is a small children’s toy gun used to fire a fragment of potato. To operate, one punctures the surface of a potato with the gun’s hollow tip and pries out a small pellet which fits snugly in the muzzle. Squeezing the grip causes a small build-up of air pressure inside the toy which propels the projectile. The devices are usually short-range and low-powered.

Obviously, Derk wanted to go much, much bigger. He knew a local mechanic who helped him create a Frankenstein-like contraption powered by a CO2 cannister. The thing was so big Derk had to wear it like a backpack, and even then it was a bit unruly. Here’s what Derk told the Times:

It weighed 90 pounds, including the tanks. It was like carrying a TV set on your back. The gun was probably at least four feet long. It used a cast-iron pipe — the kind that goes into the floor underneath your commode. It just weighed a ton.”

The motive was noble. The slingshot, which many minor league teams and other sports franchise still use, had limited range. Derk wanted to get tee shirts to the blue-collar fans in the upper deck of the Spurs’ arena. His new gun could do it.

Kenn Solomon, former mascot of the Denver Nuggets, saw Derk’s invention and immediately thought he could improve it and went on to design some of the first commercially available tee shirt guns. He told the Times that his testing ground was none other than Coors Field, the vast home of the Colorado Rockies.

“First we tested it when the stadium was empty, and then we came back and fired it into the stands during a game,” said Solomon. “I wore this robot costume with the gun by my side and started firing into the crowd, and they went crazy. Almost immediately I had calls from the Broncos and from everybody local. And then from there it started spreading.”

NBA teams proceeded to have a bizarre kind of arms race. The Philadelphia 76ersbegan using a 600-pound stationary multi-barrel Gatling gun-like machine in 2012. It could blast fans with 100 tee shirts in 60 seconds. In that first season, the gun the Sixers called “Big Bella” shot almost 20,000 shirts at fans who were probably too busy trusting the process to know what hit them.

In 2015, the Milwaukee Bucks said, “Hold my beer (and my fried cheese curds).” The Bucks introduced a Gatling gun with three barrels that fired not just tee shirts, but also  $100 down vests and jackets from the cold-weather clothing brand Weatherproof, at a 120-per-minute clip.

Most franchises, including major league teams, now use guns that essentially look like a PVC pipe with a trigger. Still powered by CO2 canisters, the latest models weigh about 10 pounds and can be carried one-handed by just about anyone. A typical shooter can send a shirt about 100 feet up to the upper deck and more than 200 feet straight ahead.

Which brings us back to the scene of my hit-and-run accident, a major league ballpark that shall remain nameless. I considered my spot near the front of the upper deck far enough from foul balls, let alone team swag. If the experience taught me anything, it’s how thrilled and ruthless fans get when they see and hear the tee shirt guns and cannons fire off another freebie.

Thunk. Hiss.

Hear that, and you’d best throw those elbows like a 1980s NBA center or get the heck out of the way. There’s just one rule when it comes to flying stuff at the ballpark: There are no rules.


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Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.

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7 Comments on "Heads Up"

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Tim B
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Tim B

Someday a fan is going to get killed by one of these idiotic acts, a la Maude Flanders of “The Simpsons”.

Njguy73
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Njguy73

Tim B. – that was my first thought when I saw the headline.

You win this time…

Luke
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Luke

Cincinnati recently introduced Redzilla, a three barrelled t shirt Gatling gun mounted on an ATV. The Cincinnati police uses it for crowd suppression in the off-season (probably).

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

I want to see this. And I’ll be at GABP for two games this weekend.

I expect a show.

Philip
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Philip

The New York Islanders ice girls were using a “Gatling” t-shirt gun at least three years before the 76ers.

I think the arms race started right after Rangers goalie Lundqvist slashed one if the young women when she attempted to clear the snow around his net.

The Rangers were using the standard air guns for tshirt tosses at MSG when the Islanders decided to get more firepower to rally the fans at Fort Neverlose.

Frank Jackson
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Frank Jackson

I recall the day I got a T-shirt at a Lincoln Saltdogs game. A teenage female gunner in a moving vehicle hit me right in the numbers with a T-shirt. If she was aiming at me, it was a fantastic shot. But I suspect it was totally random.

I haven’t come close since. And since I already have a closetful of T-shirts, I don’t anticipate getting into any scuffles to get one more.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
Serves you right. When you’re at the game, you’re supposed to be paying attention to the game. Even between innings. None of that “check my messages” or “check my fantasy team” BS. You’ll get no sympathy from me. Couple other things: 1. I really have all the T-shirts I need for the rest of my life. And probably another 20 years beyond that. They should shoot tickets or cash ($20s) into the stands. 2. I’ve had two foul balls bounce off my hand, and I couldn’t possibly be more embarrassed to have people know that. 3. The worst by far… Read more »
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