2020 SABR Baseball Research Award
In the mid-nineteenth century, two industries arrived on the American scene. One was strictly a business, yet it helped create, define, and disseminate American culture. The other was ostensibly just a game, yet it soon became emblematic of what it meant to be American, aiding in the creation of a national identity. Today, whenever the AT&T call to the bullpen is heard, fans enter Minute Maid Park, or vote for favorite All-Stars (brought to us by MasterCard), we are reminded that advertising has become inseparable from the MLB experience.
Here’s the Pitch examines this connection between baseball and advertising, as both constructors and reflectors of culture. Roberta J. Newman considers the simultaneous development of both industries from the birth of the partnership, paying particular attention to the ways in which advertising spread the gospel of baseball at the same time professional baseball helped develop a body of consumers ready for the messages of advertising.
Newman considers the role of product endorsements in the creation of the culture of celebrity, and of celebrity baseball players in particular, as well as the ways in which new technologies have impacted the intersection of the two industries. From Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth in the 1920s and 1930s to Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Willie Mays in the postwar years, to Derek Jeter, Rafael Palmeiro, and David Ortiz in the twenty-first century, Newman looks at many of baseball’s celebrated players and shows what qualities made them the perfect pitchmen for new products at key moments.
Here’s the Pitch tells the story of the development of American and an increasingly international culture through the marriage between Mad Men and The Boys of Summer that made for great copy, notable TV advertisements, and lively social media, and shows how baseball’s relationship with advertising is stronger than ever.
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Hustlers, Hucksters, and Snake-Oil Salesmen
Two Industries Emerge
In the mid-nineteenth century two industries emerged upon the American scene. One was strictly a business, yet it helped create, define, and disseminate American culture. The other was a game, yet it soon became emblematic for what it meant to be American, a potent signifier of national identity as well as a successful enterprise in its own right. Each — the business of advertising and professional baseball — had a transformative effect on American consumers. And though neither enterprise was of purely American origin, both were revolutionized by America's hustlers, hucksters, and snake-oil salesmen, who molded them into central cultural and economic institutions.
Baseball as a participatory sport and advertising as a nascent American industry both date from the decades prior to the Civil War. The first professional agency dealing in print advertising, Volney Palmer, opened in Philadelphia in 1843, just two years before Alexander Cartwright founded the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, and three years before the first officially recorded game (though certainly not the first game) was played on Hoboken's Elysian Fields. And just as the rules of the Knickerbocker Club's game differed from baseball as it came to be played in the early twentieth-century Deadball Era, so, too, were Volney Palmer's advertisements a far cry from the professionally written and illustrated work that was produced at the century's turn. With neither art nor copy departments, the pre–Civil War agency's only function was to sell advertising space in print publications to companies and individuals promoting their goods and services. Generating content, such as it was, was up to the advertisers. It was not until the decades that followed the war that advertising, like baseball, was fully professionalized.
Of course, the simultaneous professionalization and commercialization of baseball and the astronomical growth of the advertising industry in post–Civil War America did not happen simply by chance. Nor did the intimate relationship between the two enterprises develop in a vacuum. A combination of factors led to the rapid expansion of the businesses of baseball and advertising. Arguably the most important factor in both cases was a veritable explosion in the number of potential fans and consumers. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, America's Gilded Age, the nation's population nearly doubled, from 39,818,449 in 1870 to 76,212,168 in 1900. A major demographic shift was also underway. More and more Americans relocated from rural areas to the nation's cities, especially cities in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Upper Midwest. Americans, including the new urban dwellers, were also growing richer. Over the same period, average annual per capita income increased from $174 to $236, representing an increase of more than 100 percent in actual purchasing power.
Not to be overlooked was the fact that America was also becoming a nation of readers. By the turn of the twentieth century, mass literacy was a reality, and not just for the new white, urban, middle classes. According to James D. Norris, "Literacy, which had always been high by comparison with Europe, increased from 80 percent in 1870 to 94 per cent by 1920. Most striking were the gains in literacy of the Black population, from 80 percent illiteracy to nearly 80 percent literacy in the same period. The United States enjoyed a rapidly growing population at the height of its producing and consuming age, with the education necessary for an industrializing economy." Clearly, the conditions were right for the development of the advertising industry. A new urban population with increased buying power represented a new consumer base, potentially receptive to advertising messages. The same factors also led to the growth of baseball both as a spectator sport and as an amusement that could be marketed by means similar to those used to sell other forms of professional entertainment. And baseball was so much more than a product. With its immense popularity and potentially marketable stars, baseball could also be used as a vehicle by which to sell other products to consumers.
Inside the Park
Baseball's first consumers were live spectators, so it stands to reason that one of the first forms of baseball-related advertising would be found inside ballparks. Ballpark signage, designed to market consumer goods to baseball fans, or "cranks," as they were often called in the late nineteenth century, was close to ubiquitous in venues where professional teams played. Outdoor advertising was not a novelty at the time. It was, in essence, one of the first forms of commercial mass communication, one of the first ways in which large groups of potential consumers might be reached at once with information about products and services. In fact, outdoor advertising was already in wide use in the Roman Empire. There is even evidence of outdoor signage from ancient Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, "standardized off-premise advertising" — organized, coordinated campaigns featuring standard images, slogans, or messages, reproduced in a number of outdoor locations — was not introduced until 1835, when the first giant bill or poster for the Great Wallace Shows Circus was displayed in New York City. The first leased billboard, erected specifically for the purpose of advertising, went up in 1865. By the 1870s this modern iteration of advertising had become a regular feature of the American landscape.
Ballpark signage was unique in that it was simultaneously both outdoor and indoor advertising, given the fact that baseball venues were without exception "open air," although the grounds were surrounded by fences. Spectators represented a captive audience who could not help but see ads plastered or painted around them as they watched games or milled about ballparks. Fans of professional baseball were the perfect demographic to which to pitch the many types of products conventionally advertised in ballparks — consumer goods such as sports equipment, tobacco products, alcohol, and men's wear. Early twentieth-century spectators at Brooklyn's Washington Park, home of the team that would become the Dodgers, for example, saw signs pitching Old Bushmill's Irish Whiskey, Coronet Dry Gin, Green River Rye Whiskey, and Perfection Scotch Whiskey, as well as Turkish Trophy and Fatima Cigarettes. They were also pegged as potential consumers by the Adams Chewing Gum Company, a local Brooklyn enterprise that was represented in Washington Park with an ad for its Pepsin Tutti-Frutti gum. But this was not all. Along with their baseball, Brooklyn fans were treated to an especially large ad for BVD Loose Fitting Men's Underwear as well as signs for Hanes and the Ullman Shop, a local haberdashery. Judging by this sampling, the majority of Brooklyn's spectators were whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking, gum-chewing, underwear-wearing men. Ladies' Days promotions notwithstanding, this image of Brooklyn fans constructed solely upon the outdoor advertising at Washington Park is, in fact, fairly accurate. In this way, ballpark signage truly reflected this segment of consumer culture.
Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em
Brooklyn fans were not alone. Baseball spectators were deemed to be a desirable demographic by tobacco advertisers almost from the outset. Perhaps no other enterprise so benefited from the connection between baseball and advertising as did the tobacco industry, a connection that was already evident by the 1880s. But prerolled cigarettes like the Turkish Trophies and Fatimas advertised on Washington Park's fences were not mass-produced or mass-marketed until the very last years of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, cigarettes were hand-rolled. The widespread popularity of cigarettes can be traced back to British involvement in the Crimean War (1853–56), where they were introduced to English officers by the Turks. Shortly thereafter, cigarette smoking spread from the battlefield to England and from there to the United States. Cigarette makings were initially sold in bulk by tobacconists, whose establishments were often indicated by the presence of "cigar-store Indians" outside the door. By the 1880s, cigar-store baseball players also marked the location of tobacconists' shops. In some locations, like New York City, carved wooden baseball-player "show figures," as they were known in the industry, became the dominant form of on-site advertising for tobacconists, owing to the local popularity of the professional sport.
Cigarette tobacco was first "branded" during the Civil War. In the late 1850s John Green, of Durham, North Carolina, began marketing packaged bright-leaf tobacco, the most common variety used in cigarettes, under the brand name "genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco." W. T. Blackwell took over Green's company after the founder's death, changing the product's name to one suggested by its widely recognizable bull logo. Bull Durham, the first nationally advertised tobacco brand, quickly became the bestselling cigarette tobacco in America. Named by way of tribute, the Durham Bulls of the North Carolina State Professional Baseball League were established in 1902. Although it may not have been an intentional marketing ploy, naming the city's team for the local tobacco manufacturer further contributed to the establishment of the brand. The team's name inextricably linked the product — bright-leaf tobacco — with qualities extrinsic to it, in this case, those associated with professional baseball. That the Durham Bull was so often copied was a testament to the strength of the product's brand image on the market.
Not limited to display in the Bulls' own Durham ballpark, the brand's easily recognizable emblem was placed in baseball venues around the country. While it may be apocryphal, it has been suggested that the term "bullpen" derives from the fact that relief pitchers often warmed up in the shadow of giant Bull Durham billboards. Whether or not this is true, it is certain that the Durham Bull was regularly featured in ballpark signage throughout the country by the early twentieth century, as evidenced by the many photographs and ads of the time. For example, a full-page ad in the 1911 Bull Durham Baseball Guide includes a large reproduction of the trademark image beneath large display type reading "Hit the 'Bull.'" In smaller type beneath the art, the copy reads:
This "Bull" Durham sign is a facsimile of the cut-out Bulls located in the majority of the baseball parks throughout the country.
Any player who hits the bull with a fairly-batted fly ball, during a regular [sic] scheduled game on any of the grounds where these "Bull" Durham signs are located on the field, will receive
$50.00 IN CASH
Any player making a home run in a regular [sic] scheduled league game on any of these parks where the "Bull" cut-out signs are located will receive
A cartoon containing 72 Five-cent Packages of
"BULL" DURHAM SMOKING TOBACCO
That this baseball guide was produced as a promotion for the cigarette tobacco only serves to emphasize the connection between baseball and Bull Durham advertising.
Durham, North Carolina, which acquired the nickname Bull City based on its most famous product — itself an early example of the now common practice of city branding — was also the home of the American Tobacco Company (ATC), which would go on to make its name manufacturing and marketing factory-rolled cigarettes. Interestingly, the ATC's cigarette business was born not in North Carolina but in New York City, where James Buchanan "Buck" Duke established his first factory in a loft on Rivington Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. There he installed one of Virginian James Bonsack's newly patented, mechanical cigarette-rolling machines, capable of increasing the company's daily output a hundredfold, establishing the beginning of what would truly become "big tobacco." First listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1890, Duke's American Tobacco was already well on its way to dominating the cigarette market. By then it had swallowed up most of the nation's small producers, eventually acquiring as many as 250 other manufacturers. Even though the ATC effectively eliminated the competition in the cigarette and loose-tobacco market, the company continued to advertise heavily, differentiating its numerous brands by drawing on baseball imagery. The ATC would continue to control the market until 1911, when the United States Supreme Court declared it a monopoly engaged in restraint of trade and ordered it broken up into five smaller companies. These firms followed in the ATC's footsteps, continuing to rely on baseball-related imagery in their advertising, as well.
Billboards in Your Pockets
Arguably, trade cards — baseball "trading" cards to twenty-first-century children, attic-cleaning mothers, and collectors alike — were the single most significant baseball-related tool for advertising tobacco in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although off-site outdoor signage provided an excellent means for tobacco advertisers to reach baseball fans, the form had its limitations. In order to communicate clearly, the content of ballpark ads, like all large-scale signage, had to be read quickly. As such, ballpark ads were restricted to the use of display text featuring large, clear letters that announced the product name and perhaps a slogan. There was little room for explication or elaboration on the wonders of a given product. More importantly, the advertisers' messages were site specific: they could only be conveyed to those in attendance. Billboards and ballpark signage are, moreover, one-sided. But what if billboards could be made portable, perhaps pocket-sized? And what if there were two times the space on which to print? Then advertisers' messages might reach a wider group of consumers with a more emphatic message. In fact, the trade card is basically a pocket-sized, two-sided, portable billboard.
The production of trade cards was made possible by a nineteenth-century technological innovation, chromolithography, or four-color printing. First patented in Germany in 1837, the chromolithographic process, which allowed for the reproduction of a full range of colors and tones, was soon adapted for use on the steam-driven rotary press. "From 1840 to 1900," writes Meredith Eliassen, "Europe and North America increasingly experienced what has been called 'chromo civilization'— an era when original paintings were reproduced lithographically in color and sold by the millions." Trade cards first became an important retail advertising medium following the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, at which they were widely distributed. According to Jennifer M. Black:
Exhibitors traveled from every corner of the country and abroad to present their information and products to fairgoers. Many of them clamored for fairgoers' attention and trust, promoting unfamiliar brand name products such as Fleischmann's yeast and Libby's canned meats. These exhibitors distributed pocket-sized advertisements called trade cards — 3x5 in. lithographed cards with colorful images and descriptive text that authenticated the wares for sale with testimonials and expert advice. Visitors moved through the Exposition collecting their portable lithographs along with holiday greeting cards, calling cards (similar to today's business cards), and other printed material from the fair.
The practice by retailers of distributing loose trade cards to customers along with the purchase of products like soap and patent medicines declined by the 1890s. At the same time, Duke and his soon-to-be-neutralized competitors pioneered the inclusion of trade cards into cigarette packs. Cards depicting exotic locales, pure-bred dogs, and flags of many nations were packaged with a variety of cigarette brands. So, too, were "bachelor cards," pictures of scantily clad women. But by far, the most popular trade cards were embellished with pictures of baseball players. These were the first baseball cards. Informally called pack stiffeners by the tobacco industry, trade cards were released in numbered sets in order to provide incentive for the repeat purchase of a given brand of smokes. Writes Black, "Printing trade cards in series encouraged consumers to become invested in the story and seek out other cards in the series itself — with the added benefit of increased consumption. Consumers often received trade cards as free 'gifts' packaged with other items they purchased. Thus, the desire to receive additional trade cards could be an incentive to purchase more goods." Given the fact that all cigarettes were made from the same bright-leaf tobacco and were manufactured, for the most part, by the same company, consumer decisions about which brand to smoke were based largely on factors extrinsic to the product, such as the pictures on the enclosed trade cards.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Here's the Pitch"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction: Here’s the Pitch! 1. Hustlers, Hucksters, and Snake-Oil Salesmen: Two Industries Emerge 2. “It Pays to Be Personal”: Baseball and Endorsement Advertising in the First Golden Age 3. Breakfast of Champions: Tales of Depression-Era Baseball and Advertising 4. Pitching in Black and White: Baseball, Advertising, and the Color Line 5. Baseball, Hotdogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet . . . and Beer, Cigarettes, Cat Food, and Margarine: Tales of Television Advertising 6. “Let’s Just Say It Works for Me”: Major League Baseball, Viagra, and the Business of Pharmaceutical Advertising 7. Four Things We Love: Advertising, Identity, Big Papi, and the Image of the Afro-Latino Ballplayer 8. “Driven” to “RE2PECT”: Derek Jeter and the (Re)Branding of “All-American” Epilogue: Pitching in the Future Game Notes Bibliography Index