This story begins last May at Fenway Park. After receiving my Luis Tiant bobblehead at the front gate, I ducked into the ladies room, while my fiancé stood in line for beer. When I came out, he immediately asked, “Where’s your bobblehead?”
I ran back into the ladies’ room, but it was too late. I was only gone 60 seconds, but I’m sure it had been taken in five.
The worst part was coming out empty handed. It was less than two months before our wedding, but he looked at me like he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to marry a woman who didn’t know that you just don’t leave a Luis Tiant Bobblehead unattended in Fenway Park.
Behind The Scenes At A Bobblehead Giveaway
I went back a couple weeks later, as an army of volunteers passed out 38,000 bobbleheads of then-Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli.
It’s a huge production. The kids are thrilled, of course. But a lot of the adults seem overly-excited to receive a little plastic figurine with a wobbly head.
In 2015, the San Diego Padres were the only Major League Baseball team that didn’t offer fans a bobblehead game — though roughly 600 bobbleheads of former Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia were mysteriously dumped in a San Diego area driveway in November. Go figure.
For years, the Red Sox didn’t give away bobbleheads either.
“There was a long time actually when we felt like ‘maybe they’re not into bobbleheads,'” says Red Sox Senior Vice President of Marketing Adam Grossman. “But even in Boston we know that the people love them and if they love them then we’ll provide them.”
If mustard deserves its own museum, bobbleheads definitely deserve their own shrine.
“The connection between the organization and the fans is so important. And something like a bobblehead, as crazy as it can be, can cement that,” says Grossman.
The Red Sox spend months getting the facial features and tattoos and the stance on their bobbleheads just right. For the teams designing them and the fans receiving them, bobbleheads are just…fun.
The Best Will Be Enshrined
Bobbleheads even have, get this, their own Hall of Fame.
“We sort of thought of it this way–,” says Phil Sklar, co-founder and CEO of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “if mustard deserves its own museum, bobbleheads definitely deserve their own shrine.”
The museum doesn’t actually exist…yet. Sklar and his partners are busy accumulating thousands of bobbleheads — many from private collections. But they still go to games to acquire bobbleheads the old fashioned way — and they know better than to leave their new acquisitions unattended in the ballpark.
“Yeah, you know, we’ve been more on the receiving end,” Sklar says, “where we’re walking by and we see a bobblehead just sitting there and nobody is around and we wait a few minutes and make sure — we don’t want to obviously take someone’s bobblehead. But you don’t want to put your bobblehead down for too long. People will see it and say, ‘Oh, someone didn’t want their bobblehead.'”
“Just to confirm,” I ask, “you were not in the ladies room at Fenway park?”
“Nope, that wouldn’t have been us,” Sklar says. “Although, I think we do have one of the Tiant bobbleheads in the collection but no, it’s not yours.”
Sklar declared Jan. 7 National Bobblehead Day last year, to publicize his Hall of Fame. But all of this — the Bobblehead Hall of Fame, the pallets of bobbleheads at the gates of Fenway Park, even the bobbles of the Pope for sale outside the Vatican — none of this would have happened if not for a business deal made back in 1999.
“I’ll give you the story,” says Mario Alioto, executive vice president for the San Francisco Giants. “And hopefully that’ll put everything into context.”
In 1999, the Giants were preparing to play their last season in Candlestick Park. Alioto wanted to mark the occasion with some fun, retro-themed promotions.
“And I remember when I was a kid going to Candlestick. They didn’t have bobblehead giveaways back then, but in the souvenir stand, besides buying a Giants pennant or a program or a keychain, there was always a bobblehead doll, and I had one. I’ve had one for a long time, and it’s still at my mom’s house today. And I was thinking, maybe we can have a bobblehead day and that’ll be something that many of our fans will remember?”
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, most bobbleheads didn’t look like real people. They looked like little boys, with fat cheeks and big grins and hair that curled up under their baseball caps. The manufacturer would paint on the team’s uniform — and maybe a number on the back.
“You know, when you put the number 24 in a Giants uniform, everybody knows who it is,” says Alioto.
And that’s what Alioto had in mind when he proposed baseball’s first free bobblehead giveaway — a Willie Mays bobblehead that didn’t necessarily look a whole lot like Willie Mays.
“No, exactly, and I don’t know why. It just felt like for me as a young fan, that was a special souvenir that I had,” Alioto says.
But I promised you the story of a business deal that would change the course of bobblehead history. And for that, I need to turn to Todd Goldenberg of Alexander Global Promotions.
When asked what he does for a living, Goldenberg explains it like this:
“On dates, I used to tell women, ‘I’m the national sales director for a sports marketing firm dealing with gameday giveaways that help increase teams’ attendance.’ And now I just say, ‘I sell bobblehead dolls.'”
Alexander Global has now produced somewhere around 48 or 49 million bobbleheads. Goldenberg says they’d like to celebrate their 50 millionth bobblehead, but they’ve lost count. But back in 1999, they were just a small company, trying to get their start.
Even though he had just sold about a quarter of a million dollars worth of bobblehead dolls, he didn’t know what he had sold.
So, Alexander was trying to start a business selling promotions, and he got a meeting with the San Francisco Giants, who, you’ll remember, were trying to find a company to manufacture a promotional item that hadn’t really been made for 40 years.
“He just basically said, ‘What can I help you with?’ and they said, ‘We need a bobblehead doll,'”says Goldenberg.
Mario Alioto was at that meeting.
“I think we sent him a picture of it, I can’t remember back then, but we explained what it is — it’s a ceramic body with a head and it bobbles and we want — obviously it’s going to be Willie Mays, he’s our best player,” Alioto says.
“And Malcolm, being very cocky and very Australian said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do it. How many do you need?'” says Goldenberg. “And then he proceeded to leave the office and find out what a bobblehead doll was. Because even though he had just sold about a quarter of a million dollars worth of bobblehead dolls, he didn’t know what he had sold.”
But because Malcolm Alexander didn’t know he could get away with making a bobblehead that looked like a little boy, he made one that looked like Willie Mays. Sort of.
“To this day,” Alioto says, “Willie still tells me, ‘It didn’t look like me.'”
Goldenberg says all athletes say that. And to be fair, this bobblehead didn’t look exactly like Willie Mays. In fact, it’s no better a likeness than a 1962 Mays bobblehead you can find on eBay. But it looked a little like Willie Mays, and it was free. Fans went crazy for it. By the next year, eight major league teams had scheduled bobblehead giveaways. A new industry was born.
Since 1999, many have predicted the end of that industry, including bobblehead salesman Todd Goldenberg.
“I found an interview with you in 2006,” I say, “and you said that bobbleheads were on their way out and these 12-scale figurines were going to be the next king of giveaways. And that didn’t exactly happen. So I’m wondering if in hindsight you have a sense of why.”
“Yeah, I’d rather not talk about that,” he jokes. “No, I can answer that, which is, the 12-scale figurines are a great product that was more realistic than a bobblehead. But they weren’t as whimsical.”
And it’s whimsy, Goldenberg says, that has sustained bobbleheads all these years. Now, when teams ask him what’s new and exciting, Goldenberg always gives the same answer.
“Nothing’s new and exciting, just buy the bobbleheads. Seems like every year, year and a half, I sit down and go, ‘All right, what am I going to do next?’ And it’s just…the bobbleheads keep going strong. This year was the most bobbleheads, the most business I’ve ever had — this year — 15 years in. Last year was the second highest year. I’m sure someday this will slow down, but it hasn’t yet.”
And, although that Giants VP Mario Alioto wasn’t trying to start something new with that 1999 Willie Mays bobblehead, he’d never agree with my calling it a mistake.
“We’re very proud of it,” Alioto says, “and now that I know we have a National Bobblehead Day, I know on Jan. 7 I’m going to have to do something special that day.”