Memories & Dreams: Celebrating Professional Baseball’s Centennial

By Marty Appel

Fifty years ago, Major League Baseball decided to throw a centennial birthday party for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the game’s first true professional team.

The celebration proved to be far more – it marked the birth of modern baseball marketing.

The 1869 Red Stockings, who did indeed wear red baseball socks, went 67-0 and were the first team to openly acknowledge salaries for its twelve players.  They played a combination of organized teams and “picked teams,” (only eight games were actually played in Cincinnati), and the roster included founding fathers George and Harry Wright and pitcher Asa Brainard, from whom it is said, the term “ace of the staff” evolved.  The winning streak ran to 81 the following season (with one tie) before it ended.

Major League Baseball’s marketing efforts 50 years ago were a far cry from the complex and sophisticated approach employed today.  The term “MLB” wasn’t even used and the game’s offices were simply called the “Office of the Baseball Commissioner.”

That began to change when the Major League Baseball Promotion Corporation was founded in 1968 under the guidance of New York Yankees president Michael Burke.  A centennial promotion was very much in mind, and a search firm was engaged to find someone to head the effort.

The firm contacted Schaefer Beer, who strongly recommended Tom Villante, a Senior Vice President and Director at BBDO Advertising.  Villante, a Yankee batboy in the ‘40s, had produced Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasts on behalf of Schaefer, but he was not interested in leaving the agency.  Instead, he suggested BBDO take on the account, which he could run. (Villante eventually did go to MLB to head marketing and broadcasting from 1978-83).

Baseball had celebrated the centennial of the amateur game with the 1939 opening of the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a sleeve patch on all uniforms, and the issuance of a three cent U.S postage stamp to mark the occasion.  Now, thirty years later, they had a chance to do more.

A first step, even before BBDO’s efforts, was the embrace of a budding book project, which would be called The Baseball Encyclopedia, and would be published by Macmillan in 1969, (and nicknamed “Big Mac”).  These were the nascent days of mainframe computers, and a team at Information Concepts Incorporated set out to give the game a reference book such as it never had before.  A team of 47, including the Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen began combing old box scores and other material to deliver a book of 2,337 pages – a birthday gift to the game.  It was the first book of any kind typeset by computer. (Allen, a Cincinnati native, died in May, 1969 before he could appreciate the overwhelming accolades of fans).

(A jazz pianist/baseball fan named Dave Frishberg went through the book and recorded a whimsical tune, Van Lingle Mungo featured a random assortment of 37 retired player names, which was released later that year.)  

With the Encyclopedia as an entry point, BBDO set out to create some special promotions to draw attention to the centennial.  BBDO was, at last, the first creative agency ever engaged by Baseball.

Among their proposals was a logo of red, white and blue, featuring a batter about to hit a ball.  The model for the image was rumored to be Harmon Killebrew, but it was no one in particular, according to the designer Jerry Dior.  In fact, depending on one’s point of view, the batter could be either left-handed or right-handed.

The logo, which is still in use, appeared as a sleeve patch on all players during the 1969 season.  (In that season, it said “100th Anniversary” across the bottom.)

The idea of branding was taking form.  

BBDO commissioned a record album – Baseball: The First 100 Years: Official Centennial Record Album – narrated by the beloved actor James Stewart, and the NBC baseball announcer, Curt Gowdy, incorporating historic broadcast audio. It was issued by Fleetwood Records, a Boston-based company.  The cover art, a collage of baseball imagery, included an illustrated batter wearing the new sleeve patch. It was designed by Bob Peak, a legend in his field for having designed posters for such films as West Side Story, My Fair Lady and Camelot.   

A larger, poster version of the collage was also released, which said, “Professional Baseball Centennial 1869 1969.”   It was colorful and attention getting, and certainly appealed to younger fans during an era of poster decorations on bedroom and dorm walls.  

All of this was but a prelude to BBDO’s big promotion for the year – the selection of the game’s Greatest Players Ever and Greatest Living Players, which would be announced as part of the All Star Game ceremonies in Washington in July.

With the assistance of the game’s 24 local public relations departments, the promotion was supported by local newspapers in every major league city, and fans were asked to fill in ballots with not only national selections, but also their own franchise’s “greatest ever.”  (Expansion teams had fans vote just for “greatest ever.”).

There had not been such a significant “all-time poll” since The Sporting News produced a mid-century version in 1950, selected by its own editorial staff.  Some of the selections, such as 19th century third baseman Jimmy Collins, would clearly not resonate with fans in 1969.  It was time to freshen things up.

The results of the poll would be announced at the grandest banquet ever thrown by Baseball – a gala at the Washington Sheraton Hotel on Monday, July 21, attended by 2,300, which included 34 Hall of Famers, the largest such gathering of immortals to that point.  (Players from the All-Star teams attended as well, adding 19 future Hall of Famers to the guest list).

Astronaut Frank Borman and author George Plimpton were among celebrities who announced the names to the VIP gathering, while press kits including photos were simultaneously hand delivered by limousine to every major media outlet based in New York.   (President Richard Nixon, the most knowledgeable baseball fan to ever occupy the Oval Office, could not attend, as he was at the White House watching the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts, who had walked on the moon’s surface the night before. But his turn at bat would come the following day.)

The Greatest Players Ever found Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio in the outfield, Lou Gehrig at first, Rogers Hornsby at second, Pie Traynor at third, Honus Wagner at short, Mickey Cochrane catching, Walter Johnson the right handed pitcher, Lefty Grove the left handed pitcher, and John McGraw the manager.  Babe Ruth was named the Greatest Player, with his widow, Claire, accepting.

(Baseball was still three years away from incorporating the Negro Leagues in historical projects, but Satchel Paige attended.)

For the “living” all-time team, there were Ted Williams (then managing the Washington Senators), DiMaggio and Willie Mays (the only active player) in the outfield, a tie between George Sisler and Stan Musial at first, Charlie Gehringer at second, Traynor at third, and Joe Cronin (the A.L. president) at short.  Bill Dickey was the catcher, Bob Feller the right-hander and Grove the left-hander. Casey Stengel was the manager. Mays, chosen for right field, accepted his trophy and said, “I’ve played right field maybe twice, but I’m happy to turn over center to Joe.”

DiMaggio was named the Greatest Living Player, and for the remaining 30 years of his life, he basked in that title wherever he was introduced.

Musial, who was also chairman of the President’s Council on Fitness and Sports, was a “commissioner’s choice” selection, in that Sisler won the poll at first base, but Interim Commissioner Bowie Kuhn agreed with his advisors that the team just wasn’t right without him.  (Stan’s polling had been hurt by his having divided his career between the outfield and first base.)

The next day, prior to the evening’s All-Star Game, a gathering at the White House was held from 4:10 – 5:40 pm, and some 500 people – the All-Star players, Hall of Famers, (or their widows) sports media, game officials, and sponsors – walked through a receiving line where President Nixon greeted the guests and posed for photos.   In remarks, Nixon showed off his baseball knowledge, recalling the surprise decision of Connie Mack to start pitcher Howard Ehmke in the 1929 World Series, and suggesting that if he could do it all over again, he’d have been a sportswriter. (Apparently liking the poll idea, Nixon, assisted by his son-in-law David Eisenhower, named his own all-time teams three years later).

Kuhn’s best remembrance of the day was seeing Lefty Grove seated on a rare antique chair in the East Room with his feet up on a priceless coffee table.   

The word “interim” was dropped from Kuhn’s title a few weeks later.

Nixon would have delivered the ceremonial first pitch at the Tuesday night All-Star Game, but it was rained out and rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon.  (The National League won 9-3 backed by two homers from the real “Big Mac”, Willie McCovey). By then the President was out west to greet the returning astronauts.  

“Looking back, all we had to do was compete with the moon landing,” reflects Villante today.   “No big deal.”

The celebrations weren’t over yet.  On September 24, Cincinnati Reds officials headed for the city’s main post office on Dalton Avenue as the U.S. Postal Service issued a six cent stamp which said “1869-1969, Professional Baseball.” It featured a drawing of an anonymous right-hand hitter in a red cap about to swing, against a background of yellow and green.  The stamp was designed by Alex Ross of Connecticut, and had an initial printing of 120 million.

The centennial events captivated the nation, and stoked many hours of fan conversation.

Baseball marketing had come of age.

As a young New York Yankees publicist in 1969, Marty Appel was the one who hand delivered the Greatest All-Time press kits around Manhattan.  He is the Magazine Historian for Memories and Dreams.