Baseball Digest : Tom Villante

By Marty Appel

The man who gave him his first baseball job – Fred “Pop” Logan – would attend to Cap Anson’s needs in the 19th century when the Anson’s Cubs visited the Giants in New York.

And in 2018, on a warm summer’s night after a day of golf in Westchester County, New York – Tom Villante (recipient of the job offer) was watching the All-Star Game, commenting pointedly on the opening ceremonies and admiring Alex Bregman’s game winning home run.   

At 90, one could say he’s still at the top of his game.  He and his wife divide their year between Vero Beach and Westchester, (Jackie Robinson and Ralph Branca were among those at their wedding).  His baseball resume began with filling in for a friend at Yankee Stadium as visiting batboy in the 1943 World Series (for the winning St. Louis Cardinals).  He was then the New York Yankees batboy in 1944-45 under the watchful eyes of Logan, and manager Joe McCarthy.

Logan, who ran the clubhouses in the Polo Grounds, Hilltop Park (home of the Highlanders, forerunners of the Yankees) and Yankee Stadium had seen Tom’s diligent approach under the pressure of a World Series, and sent him to McCarthy to interview for the home batboy job in 1944.  (Logan, who died in 1947 at age 67, would spend 57 years in baseball). It was Logan who wrote to Tom telling him he was hired, and where to report on opening day.

On a recent trip back to his childhood home in Jackson Heights, Queens – Tom paused at the mailbox in his old apartment building and said, “this is where Pop Logan’s letter arrived, confirming that I’d been hired.  Everything in the rest of my career grew from that letter.”

He was in some ways, the ultimate baseball insider, even if not well known to fans.  It was a long way from his childhood days, hanging out in Queens with Shifty Willie, Harry the Hawk, Ernie the Milkman, Fuzzy Barone, Gimpy Moscowitz and Joe Zoot.  He was Commie (short for Carmelo) Villante back then, but by the ‘50s, Commie wasn’t such a good nickname. He became Tom.

An adept infielder who worked his schedule around high school classes, he regularly took infield with the Yankees during batting practice.   Shortstop Frank Crosetti mentored him. McCarthy was impressed enough to arrange for him to go to college on a full scholarship at Lafayette in Pennsylvania, with a sort-of-promise that he’d be signed as a second baseman upon graduation.  A freshman highlight for him in 1946 was going 5-for-5 in game against Muhlenberg, with the Philadelphia Inquirer running a headline, YANKEE BAT BOY GETS 5 HITS.

When he visited the Yankees at Shibe Park in Philadelphia the next day, there was the story hanging in Crosetti’s locker.

He also wrote sports for the Lafayette newspaper and majored in electrical engineering.  (Even well into his 70s, he was always among the first to buy new computer programs or hardware.)

Playing the infield for the Yankees didn’t happen.   McCarthy was gone, and Billy Martin was going to be Casey Stengel’s second baseman.  And at 5’7”, it was probably a long shot anyway, even though Snuffy Stirnweiss, the incumbent, was only 5’8”.  

But the Yankee pedigree helped him get hired in 1952 by the big advertising agency in New York, Barton Batton Durston and Osborn (BBDO), and it wasn’t long before he was working on the Schaefer Beer account.  He could well have been one of the lead characters on TV’s “Mad Men,” which was loosely based on BBDO, with Jon Hamm’s character, Don Draper, loosely based on Tom.

Schaefer was the principal sponsor of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Tom found himself in the broadcast booth with Red Barber and Vin Scully, producing the games so that the Schaefer account was well managed.  He formed lifelong friendships with many of the “Boys of Summer.”

When the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series, Tom entered the Brooklyn clubhouse with owner Walter O’Malley and experienced the champagne spray of winners, while Snider shoved him in the shower and ruined his sports coat.  (He was told he could put the coat on his expense report with BBD&O).

He had school smarts, baseball smarts, business smarts and street smarts and was one of the bright young men on the rise in baseball, as the sport slowly   began to find its way in marketing and promotion.

When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Tom went too.  Schaefer had a multi-year rights deal, even though they didn’t sell Schaefer in California.  But as rights holders, they could sublet the advertising contracts, which was a perfect fit for Tom’s skills.  He continued to be a vital member of the organization, and even had his own golf cart at Dodgertown for spring training.

He foresaw O’Malley’s California dream of Pay-TV, especially through a company called Skiatron.  He set up an investment fund with some of the players – Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges – to each invest $500 in Skiatron shares.  The money came out of their World Series shares.

The Skiatron Pay-TV never happened; O’Malley went in another direction.  They all lost their money. But they did not lose their confidence in Tom, nor their friendship with him.  

Eventually he returned to New York in an even more senior capacity with BBDO.

In 1968, he was executive director of the Major League Baseball account,  won by BBDO, which was originally intended to launch the MLB Promotion Corporation.  A year later 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, a poster (he still has the original art) and the centennial banquet in Washington D.C. in conjunction with the All-Star Game.  His team created the MLB logo, still used today.

When Rachel Robinson decided to begin a Foundation in her late husband’s name to encourage and enable minority children to go to college, Tom encountered her 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 led the “Greatest Moment in Baseball History” promotion (Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘round the World” was the winner), but the promotion ran team by team 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, with the ad slogan “The One Beer to Have When You’re Having More Than One.”  

“We did the research,” he recalled.  “Twenty percent of beer drinkers drank 80 percent of the beer.”

He could happily have stayed at BBDO, amassing stock options and enjoying life, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office came calling, offering him the position of Executive Director of Marketing and Broadcasting, beginning in 1979.  Now the one-time Yankee batboy was in the upper level of the game’s management, just as MLB’s broadcast rights and the budding cable universe were unfolding and converging.

Among his contributions was the development of MLB’s first advertising slogan – a simple, yet potent message for the product.  “Baseball Fever: Catch It,” was the phrase, and 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 was “It’s Fun to be a Fan,” generally used at the minor league level).

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

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 returned to BBDO headquarters in 1984 to run Tom Villante Sports Marketing, consulting with a number of teams, and at the same time, creating “Yogi at the Movies,” in which Yogi 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 2010 he began writing an autobiographical 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 Joe DiMaggio, or Sandy Koufax, or 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 1500. Alphonse, who died in 2014, 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.

For a behind-the-scenes life well lived around baseball, you would be hard pressed to top Tom Villante’s long and rewarding run.