When is a cub, not a Cub?
When he isn’t sanctioned by the company which owns the copyright.
That’s the plight of John Paul Weier, who for the last six years, has been playing the role of “Billy Cub”, a cuddly bear figure who strolls the sidewalks outside Wrigley Field, posing for photos and clowning with fans before and after Cub games.
“I grew up in Arizona watching the Cubs on WGN, and going to spring training games,” says Weier, who lives less than a block from the ballpark. “I feel like there’s something really special about this. I think the fans feel there’s something really special about this.”
It all started in 2007, when Weier, knowing the Cubs were one of three Major League teams without a mascot, ordered an off-the-rack bear costume on line. He was barred admittance to the ballpark, by gate personnel who told him no one in costume was permitted inside. But working outside, he quickly learned that fans wanted to pose for pictures. And “Billy Cub”, was born. So popular, says Weier, that on some game days he recruits others to wear the costumes, and has as many as four working outside the Friendly Confines.
“It’s about taking pictures,” he says. “It’s about giving someone a lasting memory from a Cubs game.”
But not everyone sees it that way.
“The Billy Cub characters are not affiliated with the Chicago Cubs,” team spokesman Julian Green said in a statement. “We have received complaints from fans, mistakenly believing ‘Billy Cub’ to be associated with the Cubs.”
Green cited complaints that two years ago, a Billy Cub character swore at a patron and used an ethnic slur, because of an inadequate tip. On another occasion, a Cubs employee claimed to have witnessed a “prolonged verbal altercation” between Billy and another fan, again over the size of a tip.
“This behavior is wholly inconsistent with the enjoyable fan experience we try to create at Wrigley Field,” Green said.
Weier, who carries a tip jar made from an insulated cooler, says in reality, only about half the fans who stop him to pose for photos tip. That the complaints mentioned by the team didn’t involve him. And that he has severed relations with the employee who was wearing the costume on the days cited by the Cubs.
“When it comes to families, I don’t really get tipped much because I don’t really push the tip aspect,” he said, noting that on a good day, Billy will only bring home about $400.
“If you look at my last seven years of doing this, I’ve only had two seasons where I’ve slightly profited,” he said. “My first three seasons were losing money.”
That’s because dressing in a bear suit is expensive business. Weier says the costume, which he has to replace each season, costs $1400. Billy’s size 60 jersey adds another $400. And the ice suit, which he says he has to wear underneath to survive sweltering game days in the 90’s, costs $2000.
“I’m not getting anything monetary out of it,” he says. “What I’m getting out of it is interaction with the fans. The fact that I make young and old people smile like just random strangers. Until you do it and understand the way it can make you feel, connecting with people that are complete strangers and being the highlight of some people’s experience, as a Cubs fan, you can’t put a monetary value on that.”
Turns out, Major League Baseball can. Citing allegations of trademark infringement, the League sent Weier a 100-plus page letter, ordering him to stop wearing the Billy Cub costume, and engaging in “unabated Mascot Activities.”
After consulting with a lawyer, he ignored it. And the next day, he said he was confronted by a Cubs executive.
“Someone came up to me, very angry, and said, ‘did you not get our letter?’”
Problem was, Weier was in costume and in character at the time. And since Billy doesn’t speak, he says he just stood there, gesturing and shrugging, as the executive in question got angrier.
That is, until a father walked up, handed the man his camera, and asked him to take a picture of Billy with his son.
Weier says while Tribune Company executives told him they had no problem with what he did (as long as he took down a website he had established and promised not to do parties), the organization under the new Ricketts family ownership has taken a different tone.
“(They said) what I was doing was not legal,” he said. “How they want me to cease immediately. And that they had been kicking around the idea of having a mascot, and I ever wanted to be considered for that job, I needed to quit doing Billy Cub right away.”
He says the Cubs organization offered to buy him out for $15,000, if he agreed to sign over all rights to the character and stop performing outside the ballpark. He refused.
“I want to be the official mascot of the Chicago Cubs,” Weier says. “And if I can’t be the official mascot, I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing for the last seven years.”
The Cubs have not taken official legal action. At least not yet.
“Basically I told them if you can’t come to an agreement with what I can wear and continue to do this, then take me to court and sue me,” he said. “What I want from them is to be the official mascot, and what they want from me is to be gone and no one to remember I was ever there.”