Baseball Digest : Tom Villante: From Yankee Batboy to MLB Marketing Czar

By Marty Appel

On a recent trip to his boyhood haunts in the Queens, New York neighborhood of Jackson Heights, a sprightly Tom Villante paused and said, “C’m here; I want to show you something.”

Through the portals of a century old apartment building named after President Grant, Villante turned right and pointed to his old mailbox, still intact almost 75 years later.

“This is where I got my letter from the Yankees clubhouse man, informing me that I’d been hired as batboy for the 1944 season,” he said.  “It was from Pop Logan. Beautiful handwriting. Everything I’ve accomplished to this day started with that letter.”

Logan, who went back to the days of Cap Anson, ran the clubhouses in the Polo Grounds, Hilltop Park (home of the Highlanders, forerunners of the Yankees) and Yankee Stadium.  He had seen Tom’s diligent approach under the pressure of a World Series, where Tom filled in for a friend in the visiting dugout of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943. He sent him to Yankees manager Joe McCarthy to interview for the home batboy job in 1944.   Now, Logan was writing to tell him he was hired, and where to report on opening day.

Tommy, now 90 years old, was “Commie” back then, a nickname for Carmelo.  The nickname fell out of fashion for obvious reasons in the 1950s, but in the ‘40s, everyone called him Commie, and he hung out in the ‘hood with his pals Shifty Willie, Harry the Hawk, Ernie the Milkman, Fuzzy Barone, Gimpy Moscowitz and Joe Zoot.  And a funny kid from a few blocks north named Don Rickels.

Serving as Yankee batboy during the war years, Tom did not get to work with a star-studded roster, (his teams finished third and fourth), although the Yankees would always be the Yankees, the glamour team.  McCarthy was a 7-time world champion and a towering figure in the game.

“What a privilege to work under his watchful eye,” recalled Tom.  “He didn’t miss a thing.”

And there was the veteran shortstop Frankie Crosetti, pressed back into regular duty with Phil Rizzuto off in the Navy.

“Cro was my mentor,” says Tom.  “I’d play the middle infield spots during batting practice and he was at my side, tutoring me.  I was good enough that McCarthy thought of me as a future second baseman. The Yankees, in fact, arranged for me to go to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania on full scholarship, and when I’d come home in the summers, I’d still go and work out with them.

On one visit to the Yankee clubhouse during a college break, Tom noticed a group of players gathered around a rookie.  They were all laughing.

“I asked Joe DiMaggio what was going on,” recalls Tom.  “He said, ‘This rookie just came up; the guys love to hear the funny way he talks, especially about movies.  A real character….name is Larry Berra, but his nickname is Yogi.’

“In my freshman year, I had a 5-for-5 game against Muhlenberg, and the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a headline, YANKEE BAT BOY GETS 5 HITS.  I visited the Yankees at Shibe Park in Philly the next day, and Cro had that story hanging in his locker. He was like a proud father. I felt six feet tall.”

Alas, he was only 5’7”, smaller even that the incumbent second baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss, (5’8”), and by the time Tom had graduated, Casey Stengel was managing and Billy Martin was scheduled to play second.  

He might have been the first sparkplug infielder to major in electrical engineering, which sounds appropriate.  

Undeterred, Tom took a job at BBDO Advertising after college, the firm loosely portrayed on TV’s “Mad Men.”  The characters, including Jon Hamm’s “Don Draper,” could well have been based on the personable and quick-witted Villante, who was soon working on the Schaefer Beer account.  Schaefer was the principal sponsor of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and to oversee the account, Tom was designated as the radio-TV producer, right there in the press box with Red Barber and a young Vin Scully.  

From those days came lifelong friendships with many of the “Boys of Summer,” and even the formation of an investment fund with Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine and Gil Hodges.  They lost their money investing in a Pay-TV scheme – Skiatron – which they thought was a sure thing when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, but the friendships remained. Their money had come out of their winning checks from the 1955 World Series.  It was Tom who accompanied owner Walter O’Malley into the Dodgers clubhouse after Reese threw out Elston Howard for the final out of the ’55 Fall Classic.

“Johnny Podres, {the winning pitcher}, told me, ‘Pee Wee has waited his entire life for that ground ball,’” said Villante.

His sports coat, spoiled by having Snider pour champagne on it, was covered on Tom’s BBDO expense report.

Tom had school smarts, baseball smarts, business smarts and street smarts.   Baseball people gravitated to him.

“They didn’t sell Schaefer in California, but it still had the broadcast rights, so we ‘sublet’ the sponsorship and I moved west and was still producing the games.  It was the start of a new broadcasting phenomenon – fans at the game, holding transistor radios to their ears, to hear Vin Scully describe what they were seeing.”

In 1959 he returned to New York in an even more senior capacity with BBDO.  Schaefer became “the one beer to have, when you’re having more than one.” A marketing survey showed that 20% of beer drinkers consumed 80% of the beer.  Tom was getting more and more adept at research and modern marketing.

His wedding to the beautiful Marilyn Orzechowski included Jackie Robinson and Ralph Branca as guests as he bid goodbye to a happy bachelorhood traveling with a Major League baseball team.  They had two children.

His own Marilyn wasn’t the only Marilyn on baseball minds.  One day over lunch, Tom asked DiMaggio if he had read the book review of a new Marilyn Monroe book by Norman Mailer.

“I never read about her,” said Joe.  “I try to keep my memories to myself.”

In 1968, he became the executive director of the Major League Baseball account, won by BBDO, which was originally intended to launch the MLB Promotion Corporation.  

“Baseball marketing was in its infancy, even after a century,” he recalled.  “There was little coming out of the Commissioner’s Office. There were still people in the game who thought television was giving the games away for free.”  

In 1969 the BBDO team coordinated events surrounding the Centennial of Professional Baseball, which culminated in the selection of the all-time greatest (and greatest living) players, a book (This Great Game), a postage stamp, a record album narrated by James Stewart and Curt Gowdy, a poster (he still has the original art), a White House visit, and the centennial banquet in Washington D.C. in conjunction with the All-Star Game.  His team created the now-iconic MLB logo, still used today.

Soon after Jackie Robinson’s death in the fall of 1972, Rachel Robinson decided to create a Foundation in her late husband’s name to encourage and enable minority children to go to college.  By chance, Tom encountered her outside his BBDO office on Madison Avenue and brought her upstairs to get things rolling with design and marketing services. The Jackie Robinson Foundation was rolling; Tom joined the Board of Directors.   

In 1976, he created “Baseball’s Most Memorable Moments” (Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘round the World” was the winner), but the promotion was also run locally by teams and created a terrific marketing opportunity for the game during the nation’s bicentennial.

By this time Ballantine Beer had gone out of business and Tom was back at Yankee Stadium with Schaefer as the Yankees new beer sponsor.  He had by then created something called the “Schaefer Circle of Sports,” an umbrella for all New York sporting events sponsored by his brand.

He could happily have stayed at BBDO, amassing stock options and enjoying life, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn came calling, offering him the position of Executive Director of Marketing and Broadcasting, beginning in 1979.  Now the one-time Yankee batboy became the top marketing executive in baseball, just as MLB’s broadcast rights and the budding cable universe were unfolding and converging. He advised clubs on how to negotiate local broadcast rights.

Among his notable contributions was the creation of MLB’s first advertising slogan – a simple, yet potent message:  “Baseball Fever: Catch It.” For years, it was the tag line for all things baseball. It was a step into the modern world of marketing.  (The last slogan anyone could remember before was “It’s Fun to be a Fan,” generally used at the minor league level).

It was even featured as a “Jeopardy” answer and was a Trivial Pursuit question.

His two cars would bear the license plates “BB FEVER” and “CATCH IT”.  They still do.

He remained a welcome presence at Dodgertown, the Dodgers’ spring training site in Vero Beach (where he maintained a winter home), and had the luxury of his own golf cart to drive around the complex.  

He honed his executive broadcast skills and was the first to tell George Steinbrenner, “You know, one day you might want to think about owning your own regional network.”  (That would come to be in 2002 when the YES Network debuted and the Yankees became the first team to take ownership of their own network, with every cable household in the area putting money in the Yankee treasury whether they watched baseball or not).

Villante even consulted with WPIX in the late 1980s about carving out an agreement to bring both the Yankees and the Mets schedules to that one station, an idea that crystalized years later, in 2015, when both teams found a way to put select games on one over-the-air broadcast station.  (WGN had of course done this in Chicago with the Cubs and the White Sox).

Villante left MLB in 1984 and returned to BBDO headquarters to run Tom Villante Sports Marketing, consulting with a number of teams, and at the same time, creating “Yogi at the Movies,” in which Berra offered movie reviews as part of television commercial breaks, and “Lasorda At Large” featuring the colorful Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda spinning stories from his long career in a long-running syndicated radio feature.

“In the TV pilot, a review of ‘Fatal Attraction,’ Yogi kept calling Glenn Close, Glen Cove, a town on Long Island. We left it in for our first Yogi-ism.”

In 2010 he began writing an autobiographical internet blog called “Me and Alphonse”, featuring his best friend and foil from his BBDO days, art director Alphonse Normandia, and using the vehicle to tell tales for a select e-mail audience.  The list started with 50 names, mostly retired BBDO people; it grew to the thousands. If the tales involved dinners with Yogi, Lasorda, or DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax, Don Zimmer, or Joe Torre – all the better, because they were all true, and all got better with the cleverly written and punchy prose, famous for never having a typo or a grammatical error.   By 2018, the number of stories approached 1,500. Alphonse, who died in 2014 and knew nothing about baseball, was sometimes on the receiving end of a story he had nothing to do with – but he was a character in most of the tales.

The day of Tom’s visit to Jackson Heights was the day after the 2018 All-Star Game.  Tom had plenty of comments about the pre-game ceremonies, the telecast (“Wasn’t that terrific, having those players miked?”) and the emerging stars on the field.  He stayed up until the end, despite having played 18 holes of golf earlier in the day.

“I wouldn’t have missed Alex Bregman’s game winning homer for anything,” he said.  “That will be one of those All-Star memorable moments.”

There was one more stop to be made in Queens.  “Let’s go to the Lemon Ice King of Corona,” he said.  “The best ices.”

For a behind-the-scenes life well lived around baseball, you would be hard pressed to top Tom Villante’s run, from Yankee batboy to the game’s marketing Czar.