Hobbling over, his gloved hands clasped behind his hunched back, a grinning bear with vacant eyes and a yellow cardigan approaches you as you walk down Sproul Plaza. It’s Oski the Bear, UC Berkeley’s infamous mascot, and he’s headed your way.
As Cal’s mascot, this iconic — albeit questionably designed — bear has been gracing UC Berkeley’s sports games since his initial live debut 80 years ago in 1941. However, to get to our modern, infamous Oski, it’s been quite the journey.
Cal fans were proudly proclaiming “Go Bears” long before Oski appeared on the scene. In fact, UC Berkeley’s mascot has been the “Golden Bear” since a Cal track and field meet in 1895, when Cal fans attributed their win to a blue banner donned with a golden bear.
At first, the “Golden Bear” mascot was, well, just that: a real-life bear cub: In 1933, students brought a live cub to a football game. As one might expect, these live bears — even as cubs — were deemed impractical, and campus decided that the Golden Bear had to be a costume.
A mascot-free UC Berkeley found its replacement in the form of our infamous Oski. Oski was designed through a collaborative effort of Warrington Colescott, famed satirist and former editor at The Daily Californian, and William “Rocky” Rockwell, the first person to wear the bear suit.
Rockwell was inspired by Colescott’s cartoon strips from the Daily Cal, and he proposed they create a different, comical interpretation of the Golden Bear. In fact, Colescott himself indicated in a lecture titled “A Few Thoughts about My Life in Art” that his drawings of Oski were a “cynical creation meant to be a funny loser” as an ode to Cal football’s unimpressive seasons.
Rockwell and Colescott settled on the name “Oski” for their mascot to pay tribute to the “Oski Wow-Wow” yell often chanted at sports games.
Before Oski’s live debut, his initial appearances were as a comic in the Daily Cal’s Friday and Monday sports section. His failed romantic attempts with “Rosy Bowl” — a reference to the Rose Bowl, where UCLA’s sports games are held — referenced Cal’s frequently less-than-stellar football seasons. In the Monday comics, Oski would get beaten up by the mascots of other schools as an attempt to cheer up disappointed blue and gold fans.
However, at Oski’s first live debut at a Cal football game against St. Mary’s College on Sept. 27, 1941, the Bears saw a victory, solidifying his popularity and securing his position as Cal’s mascot.
Today, Oski’s presence is as strongly felt as ever. While we would all love to meet the individual behind the mask, it’s safe to say this won’t be happening anytime soon. In fact, Oski has his own committee, appropriately titled the Oski Committee, in which the person who will don the fuzzy mask is selected, with their identity protected and hidden from the public. And if you’re thinking you might be able to catch a glimpse of his face when he takes a drink, think again: Oski’s infamous fur-head has detachable eyes that can open whenever the human in the costume needs to take a break.
Oski remains a simultaneously beloved (and arguably creepy) mascot who brings joy — and terror — to campus students and visitors. Regardless of your personal opinion on Oski, we can all agree to appreciate his iconic status, so be sure to wish him a happy 80th birthday and get a picture with him when we hopefully have the joy of seeing him in person again.