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Matthew Callan writes about the New York Mets for Amazin' Avenue and has written about everything else elsewhere. He is also the host of Replacement Players, a new podcast about old games. Catch him on Twitter at @scratchbomb.
Baseball markets itself, just like any other business. This is an obvious statement now, but for much of its history MLB took its status as America’s Pastime for granted to the point that directly appealing to the public seemed unnecessary, if not beneath its dignity. Individual teams would entice paying customers with promotions, giveaways, and advertising, but the league itself would not stoop to such measures.
As has often been the case, MLB didn’t recognize the need to change its ways until it was almost too late. Throughout most of the 1970s, ballpark attendance stagnated while the NFL first threatened baseball as the nation’s top spectator sport, then surpassed it. In the latter half of the decade, the league made efforts to promote itself, some more successful than others (This Week in Baseball, which debuted in 1977, being a notable success). However, MLB’s most concerted marketing effort, and perhaps its most effective one, came with its first full-fledged ad campaign, which bore the slogan “Baseball Fever—Catch It!”
Like all great slogans, this one was deceptively simple, a catchphrase everyone thinks they could have come up with if given the chance. That fact that [BLANK] FEVER is now used to describe wild enthusiasm for anything is proof of its subtle genius. It had a classic cast that makes it appear much older than it really was, but in a way completely suited to the product it promoted. The “Baseball Fever—Catch It!” ads debuted in the late 1970s, yet the slogan feels a lot closer to “Breakfast of Champions” than to contemporaries in ad-speak like “I’m a Pepper.” Its goal wasn’t to make the game hip for modern tastes, but to remind you why it was great. It implied that baseball was something that could simply infect you, if only you let it.
The slogan was the brainchild of a largely unknown figure in baseball history, who studied at the feet of another figure often considered more infamous than famous. Tom Villante was a Yankees batboy during World War II and played the game well enough to warrant a spring training tryout with his former employer. Unfortunately, he found that his preferred position, second base, was blocked by a guy named Billy Martin. He joined the advertising racket instead, taking a job with big-time Madison Avenue firm BBD&O, but this post would provide him with another route into the sport.
In 1951, Schaefer Beer (a BBD&O client) inked a deal to sponsor Brooklyn Dodgers broadcasts for the princely sum of $3 million. The Brooklyn-based brewery had coveted Dodgers sponsorship for years but was thwarted by team president Branch Rickey, a staunch Methodist who didn’t want the Dodgers associated with alcohol. Rickey was forced out after the 1950 season by new principal owner Walter O’Malley, who had no such compunctions.
O’Malley executed a complete 180 on the team’s former teetotalling stance and made the brewery an integral part of the Dodger family. Schaefer not only punctuated every Dodger broadcast with their catchy (and somewhat irresponsible) jingle, but they also installed an interactive logo in the Ebbets Field scoreboard. The “h” in Schaefer would light up for hits, the “e” for errors. The beer literally became part of the game, in a way not unlike modern sponsors who brand every home run and call to the bullpen.
“Walter O’Malley” would one day become an unpopular name in most of New York, but it was undeniable that the Dodgers owner had a keen eye for marketing and promotion, finding opportunities where few had seen any. Though few remember it, O’Malley was the person who made the Dodgers officially embrace their “bums” image. Though the label was applied pejoratively, foisted on the team by years of futility and near misses, O’Malley emblazoned pennants, yearbooks, and other salable items with a cartoon bum that often dogged them in the city’s sports pages. During an era when “Brooklyn” was still a bad comedian’s shortcut to a punchline (in the same way that “Jersey” would be years later), O’Malley recognized that this imagery would resonate with Dodger fans and their “lovable loser” conception of themselves.
When O’Malley signed his deal with Schaefer in 1951, radio was still considered the prime medium for baseball. No one really knew how to present a game on television just yet, not even a big-time firm like BBD&O. Villante’s relative youth, plus his baseball background, meant the job of producing the Dodgers’ TV broadcasts fell to him by default. Villante learned on the fly, and eventually the broadcasts became appointment viewing for the Dodgers’ large, far-flung fanbase. Brooklyn had many fans beyond its borders, but making the trip to Ebbets Field was not easy for many of them. Now, they didn’t have to.
Despite the fact that baseball in the 1950s is now spoken of in reverent whispers, the sport’s overall revenues and attendance declined during the period. Most owners viewed television as a threat rather than an ally, seeing it as something that robbed them of paying customers at the gate. Even O’Malley, who broadcast more games on TV than most owners, sought to compensate for what he perceived as the competition offered by the new medium. The Dodgers owner seriously considered a pay-per-view scheme for all televised home games. He even roped several players into investing in Skiatron, a proto-cable startup. Basically, subscribers would get a box that would function like a cross between a cable box and a nickelodeon. If a fan wanted to watch the game at home, he or she would simply drop his money in a slot. (Anywhere from $1 to $2.50, depending on the mood O’Malley was in.) The plot was foiled by New York’s city council, which detested the idea of pay television, and by the fact that Skiatron hadn’t quite nailed down the technology that would make pay-per-view feasible.
Learning at the knee of such an outside-the-box thinker, Villante got ideas of his own. In the 1950s, broadcasting road games on television was still prohibitively expensive, since this entailed leasing pricey long-distance telephone lines. Villante suggested that teams could pool together to lease them en masse, spreading the cost around and making it cheaper for everyone. It was assumed that being able to watch your favorite team on the road might whip up excitement and boost ticket sales once they came home. It was, for all intents and purposes, a revenue sharing scheme. O’Malley liked the idea. Other owners were no more keen on sharing in the Eisenhower era than they are now, and the notion died on the vine.
Villante was able to be a pioneer in a different arena, however, when he hired baseball’s first regular Spanish broadcaster. The gig had other benefits. Between his broadcast duties and his obligations to Schaefer, Villante found it necessary to travel with the Dodgers at all times. Anecdotal evidence suggests the gig was sweet, if not without the sort of on-the-job hazards that came from traveling with the hard-living ballplayers of that era. Villante worked so closely with the Dodgers that decades later the New York Daily News would refer to him as Brooklyn’s “unofficial alumni director.”
The Dodgers split for Los Angeles in 1958, but Villante would get more chances to contribute to the game. A decade after O’Malley left Brooklyn behind, he was hired as a consultant by MLB to spearhead the league’s centennial celebrations for 1969. The fact that MLB chose this year had less to do with the exploits of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings and more to with the encroaching popularity of football nipping at its heels. In this role, Villante oversaw the development of MLB’s logo, the iconic red, white, and blue batter-in-silhouette still used today. It was originally meant for a patch that would adorn major league uniforms for one year only to mark the centennial, but the imagery was so arresting that it came to be adopted by the league on a permanent basis.
A few years later, Villante joined the commissioner’s office as MLB’s director of marketing and broadcasting. The latter portion of his job title took up a good deal of his time, as he negotiated new national TV deals and sifted through the impact of cable TV and superstations on overall revenues. But Villante’s biggest impact would come on the marketing side.
One of his first duties on the job was to create an ad campaign to promote the sport, out of which came the slogan “Baseball Fever—Catch It!” Before this, baseball’s promotional efforts tended toward the square and clunky. Witness this ad from 1976, in which veteran Ron Fairley seems to be urging kids to pursue a career in Major League Baseball as if it were akin to joining the army.
The video transfer is terrible, but you can still tell this production is leaps and bounds better than its predecessors, and displays a marketing sophistication baseball had never achieved before. It presents the essence of a day/night at the ballpark in an elegantly simple way: a roaring crowd, a superstar, a historic event (in this case, Pete Rose’s 44-game hitting streak in 1978). If updated with more contemporary figures, it could easily run today.
Like O’Malley, Villante demonstrated a keen perception of what his audience wanted. Baseball fans (or potential fans) didn’t want a hard sell. They wanted to be swept up in steady heroism—and what better example than a hitting streak? They wanted to allow themselves to catch the fever, and Villante’s campaign said Go ahead, get sick.
It was undeniably memorable, but did “Baseball Fever” do its job? From 1969 to 1977, despite a spate of brand new ballparks and the addition of six expansion teams, average ballpark attendance flatlined at just a shade over 1.2 million. By 1983, average MLB attendance had risen to 1.7 million per team, and has trended steadily upward ever since. By 2012, it was over 2.5 million per team. But it’s important to note that the ad campaign was only one element of baseball’s effort to make itself family friendly and remove the stain of alcohol-fueled mayhem like Ten Cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition.
Regardless of how much claim Villante had to baseball’s rising attendance figures, he didn’t get much chance to enjoy his success. He was vocally critical of emerging superstations like TBS and WGN, which he felt would create a league of haves and have-nots. In a 1981 Sports Illustrated article about the emergence of cable, Villante pushed the idea of an NFL-like revenue sharing agreement to prevent this from happening. “The inequities are built in,” he prophesied. “I'm afraid they're going to get worse.”
Villante had the backing of commissioner Bowie Kuhn, but none of the owners. If you want to know how long you can last with the owners against you, go ask Fay Vincent. Villante had innumerable clashes, the loudest with Nelson Doubleday of the Mets. He left his MLB post after the 1982 season to start his own sports marketing company, which went on to produce a movie review series starring Yogi Berra.
If Villante never quite got to the top again, marketing wise, neither did MLB. “Baseball Fever—Catch It!” was supplanted by the mid-1980s by the eminently forgettable “Get Up and Go!”, a slogan that seemed to place the burden on the fan. Recognizing that they’d lost something, MLB attempted to recapture the magic with a very similar slogan in the early 1990s, “Catch the Fever!” The results had the same instantly dated look as a bootleg Bart Simpson t-shirt. After that, MLB’s commercials tended toward slogan-free montages.
We won’t see another “Baseball Fever” for multiple reasons. For one, MLB now has an entire network of its own, making advertising elsewhere somewhat redundant. And for all the brainpower baseball continues to attract, most of it goes into front offices, not marketing. Even if it were otherwise, most marketing execs wouldn’t have the unique background of a person like Villante, who was either responsible, or at the scene, for so many important events that shaped the way we watch the game.