A version of this story was originally published in October 2021.
Almost nothing can capture the cultural zeitgeist like a commercial once it really takes off. More people probably know the phrase, "buy the world a Coke," than could pick out countries on a globe. "Where's the Beef?" has been a rallying cry for almost 40 years and some auto insurance cavemen even got a (short-lived) TV series out of their 30-second spots.
And then there's what the San Francisco Giants introduced during a bleak 1984 season. With fans not having much reason to show up to Candlestick Park that summer, the team and its copywriters introduced the Crazy Crab, a proto-Gritty crustacean designed to be hated.
"So, I'd done a one man show in San Francisco called 'The Beast of Shame' about an evangelist, and I got an agent," actor, dancer, and vaudeville performer Wayne Doba told me in a Zoom call from his current home in Quebec. "Then I got booked in commercials and I got this -- the crab commercial -- because I can do this little crab walk. They booked me for the crab commercial and it became a big hit."
Let's delve into the most wildly, unexpectedly successful marketing stunt in team history.
This is the story of the Crazy Crab.
Things weren't looking good for the Giants heading into 1984. Though it was the 25th anniversary of the team moving to Candlestick, they hadn't gone to the playoffs since 1971 and the team that won 79 games in '83 would slip to a worst-in-baseball 66-96 in '84. The season before, the team had rewarded fans who stayed through frigid, windy weather for extra innings with a special "Croix de Candlestick" pin.
That set the scene for the '84 season, with its barely-an-enticement tagline of "Hang in There."
“I came out of the theme park business,” Pat Gallagher, former president of Giants Enterprises, told The Athletic in 2020. “And so, we had tried all kinds of things. I was not a hardcore baseball fan at the time. I didn’t really understand a lot of the things that baseball fans do. Some of the things we tried, frankly, I just didn’t know any better. In 1983 we tried ‘Croix de Candlestick.’ That sort of opened the door to having a sense of humor about doing things.”
Even John Crawford and Gary Freeman, the copywriters who came up with the pitch, weren't hoping to sell the crab idea. They actually gave the team two pitches -- an off-the-wall idea and the one they expected (and perhaps hoped) the client would select. But with the team willing to try anything, it was the crab they chose.
The two had surveyed Giants fans and over 60 percent said they wouldn't cheer for a mascot. So, the plan to create an ugly, weird anti-mascot that made fun of all the other famous fuzzy faces -- like the San Diego Chicken -- was born.
It was now up to Doba to give it life.
Doba was used to performing silently in a mask. He was a trained dancer and physical comedian who had studied mime and developed a decent following while performing on the streets of San Francisco. His mask work had already attracted Hollywood's attention. He appeared as the Monster in the 1981 Tobe Hooper horror film "The Funhouse," and as Octavio the Clown in the 1983 mafia thriller "Scarface," based on a character he'd played to live audiences. (Sadly, while he occasionally gets autograph requests for those two characters, he gets far fewer requests for the Crazy Crab.)
When he booked the audition, he was ready, even if sports weren't exactly his forte.
"I was the worst at baseball, football and basketball," Doba said. "I could dance, but forget about [playing sports.]”
At the time, no one was thinking about actually bringing him to the stadium, though. This was simply a way to sell a few tickets and remind San Francisco fans that baseball was back.
“To be honest, we had no intention of putting the costume out on the field,” Gallagher said. “It was just a commercial we ran at the start of the season. After the first homestand we put the commercials on the air and people kind of got a kick out of it. We figured, we had this costume, let’s just put it on the field and see what happens."
Doba, obscured behind his crustacean suit, first emerged in the bottom of the fifth inning on April 10, 1984, while his theme song played on for a minute and a half. He would start dancing and jittering his way up and down the line before disappearing back into the bowels of the stadium.
"Because I was a physical comedian -- I was in the dance department, I had done ballet and modern, I was doing tap dancing -- I learned how many moves I could do," Doba said. "Some of these mascots like the Philly Phanatic, they can articulate their head and do all this stuff. The crab is just a big pancake, so you can't make the mask speak. So, I learned I can stick my leg out through the mouth, I could do the splits, I could do the Michael Jackson moonwalk, I could pull the suit up, I could moon the audience."
The one constant was what the commercial predicted: The fans hated him.
"So, they brought me out in the field one day, and there's about 10,000 people there," Doba said. "I had never been out on a baseball field, so it was like 'Whoa.' And immediately the fans hated me. And they immediately were throwing [stuff.]"
Soon, they added a crash helmet and more structural support to the costume -- to help the crab keep its shape and protect Doba from the projectiles that were hurled his way.
"All of a sudden, golf balls were flying by me and baseballs and water balloons filled with urine. Later, we found out people would go in the bathroom and fill up a water balloon. 'Oh yeah, we're gonna hit the crab!'" Doba said.
But that was the job, and Doba didn't hide from it. He was inside Candlestick Park about 75 times that year, making the long drive from his home in Sebastopol to the stadium for his daily fifth-inning appearance. He'd then strip off the costume and head back to the city where he was performing at legendary San Francisco clubs like the DNA Lounge, Oasis and Slim's -- putting on shows like a half-hour "weird, bizarre act where I would sing and dance to James Brown." Of course, is that any stranger than dancing around as a crab while people hurled objects at you?
"All the rest of them are mascots," Doba said. "This is the anti-mascot."
There were some high points along the way. He was invited to the All-Star Game that the Giants hosted that summer and he bumped into Dwight Gooden while putting on his "lumpy leggings" in the weight room. He got a high-five while dancing on the field from his former classmate and then-Mets third-base coach Bobby Valentine, who had borrowed a suit coat of Doba's back in high school.
There were wild times, too, like when he jumped on a scooter and rode around on the field. This was just days before the All-Star Game and he was warned not to go on the grass. There was just one little problem: Doba couldn't move his hands once they had transformed into claws from within the suit.
"I go right onto the field and the motor is like ehhhhh -- I'm buzzing," Doba remembered. "Now, I have to turn the thing and come back down the first-base line and there was nothing I could do. I ended up on the grass. I just remember going by and see people hanging off the sides, throwing their plastic bottles or whatever. And I come in and the guy says, 'Why did you do that? They're gonna kill me! I told you you couldn't go on the grass!'"
It wasn't just the fans and his supervisor who responded with anger, though. In the commercial, manager Frank Robinson yells at Doba to "never, ever touch me again." It would pale in comparison to his treatment from the home nine and opposing teams.
"There were players along the way who didn't like the idea of a mascot. Since the Giants had the worst record, some of them like the Moon Man [Greg Minton], were blaming me -- the crab!" Doba says. "And he would spit mint-flavored chewing tobacco in my costume. Because the costume was sitting there upside down. So, I'd go to put the head on and it was this gooey [stuff] in there and I had to go out there with the smell of mint-flavored chewing tobacco."
Others might throw a drink in his face when he came off the field or would hurl firecrackers at him. It was usually done in the name of macho joking around, but not always.
"I got tackled twice, actually," Doba said. "I got tackled by Kevin Gross from Philly, and he was very playful and it didn't bother me. But then I got tackled by a San Diego player -- I don't remember his name. He blindsided me from the back and threw my back out."
That not only ended Doba's season, but it also ended his mascot career. He would later sue the Padres for the injuries and settle for $2,000 out of court.
In recent years, the Crab has had a bit of a resurgence. There was an ESPN documentary directed by Colin Hanks, and the team has embraced its anti-mascot alongside Lou Seal, who debuted in 1996 (presumably when San Francisco fans would accept a mascot.) They've had bobbleheads and scarves and toys in the Crab's image, and even opened up a Crazy Crab sandwich station at Oracle Park. The suit has shown back up on the field a few times over the years, but it wasn't the original man inside.
Doba, who was rooting for the Giants during last fall's postseason run, isn't bitter that he hasn't heard from the team -- even if he thinks his performance abilities deserved a little more respect than he was given. If the team was to ask him, he would happily turn back into the Crazy Crab and dance his way up and down the foul lines once it was safe for him and his wife to travel again.
He doesn't have a problem being the most hated mascot in history, either.
"It's like playing the vampire in a movie or the bad guy," Doba said. "There's something that's actually fun to play."