When I set out to launch CollectingCandy.com, my mission was clear: celebrate the history of candy packaging, its marketing, and the people behind it. Sure, the title was Collecting Candy, but I felt that you didn’t need to be a collector to enjoy these stories, and to appreciate this history. After all, candy is a part of most of our lives, in one form or another.
Not long ago, I began building a collection of vintage Big League Chew pouch bubble gum packets. My curiosity about the brand soon revealed that the two men credited with the birth of Big League Chew were still around; Rob Nelson and Jim Bouton. A bit of internet digging and a few e-mails later, and I was in touch with Rob “Nellie” Nelson. Nellie was an enthusiastic source of information, and he put me in contact with his longtime Big League Chew partner (and former Yankee great), Jim Bouton, as well as the artist who created the amazing mascots that are so fondly recalled when we think of Big League Chew, Bill Mayer.
I interviewed each of those three gentlemen, and a few others involved with Big League Chew. What follows is the heart of those interviews, along with a wonderful gallery of rarely-seen pieces of Big League Chew packaging, and a few other tasty tidbits.
The launch date of this site is also related to feature we chose. February 6th, 1979 was the day Rob Nelson cooked up his very first batch of home made bubble gum, and turned it into shreds using a pizza knife. So, today marks the anniversary of the birth of that very first batch of shredded gum, the earliest version of Big League Chew.
In keeping with the baseball theme, February 6th is also Babe Ruth’s birthday. So happy birthday Babe, and happy birthday, Big League Chew.
Big League Beginnings
The story of how Big League Chew first came to be is well-known, at least the basics are – it’s written on the back of every new pouch of Big League Chew sold, and it goes like this;
“Sitting in a bullpen one night, Portland Maverick’s left-hander Rob Nelson, and teammate Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankee All-Star, wanted something really different and fun to chew.
So they came up with a great idea – shredded bubble gum in a pouch – and called it Big League Chew. It soon became an amazing hit with ballplayers everywhere.
That was over 25 Years ago. Today, more and more professional and amateur players in all sports are turning to Big League Chew, a fun gum that keeps your mouth from getting dry when the game is on the line. “
That’s the highlight-reel version of the colorful origins of Big League Chew that I’ll be expanding upon here.
When I first asked Rob Nelson, (aka “Nellie – for Nellie Fox), how Big League Chew came to be, he waxed poetic, and brought up how so many people “had given me great breaks”. Nelson went on;
“I was sitting in the bullpen in 1977, with the Portland Mavericks. I was pitching coach, and tenth man down. I was in way over my head, but there I was…
Uniforms were bad in the 1970′s, you had those bright white shoes, and guys who chewed tobacco took delight in soiling teammates’ shoes. Jim Bouton had asked me if I ever chewed, and he couldn’t understand why guys did it. Half an inning went by and I brought up my idea for shredding gum, an idea I had since I was a kid.”
Bouton was intrigued with Nelson’s idea, and he asked what it might be called. Nelson offered, “I’ve got a few names — Big League Chew is my favorite.” Bouton liked what he heard.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Beyond Jim Bouton's achievements as a successful major league pitcher, he was also a broadcaster, a best-selling author, and more. While Nelson was as friendly as could be, I didn't know what to expect when I interviewed Jim Bouton. Would he be stern and evasive, perhaps an all-about-business counter to Nelson's youthful enthusiasm and gregarious nature? I worried he might dismiss me outright, but he was gracious with his time and generous with his stories. Talking to a major league All-Star about the bubble gum he helped bring to life - that was pretty fun.]
Nelson continued,”…I wondered what Jim’s wife must have said when he told her about his new bubble gum venture…. Jim put up 10% of his income on some notion that some left-handed pitcher out of Portland had.”
When I asked if he had any trepidation, risking so much on a venture and business he had no experience with, Bouton explained that he had always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When he heard Nelson’s idea for Big League Chew, he realized it was the kind of idea that he could help make into something big. Bouton had been figuring out ways to create success for himself and others, all his life.
“Even at a young age, I’d always been an entrepreneurial kid. I had a lawn-mowing business at 10-years-old, I had a newspaper route, and a scrap business. The first job I created was my scrap business. I had an old wagon, and on the weekends I’d tie a rope to the handle on that wagon and pull that all around town. on the weekends, I’d pick up all the used newspapers that I’d been delivering during the week, and take them back to the garage. That’s where my family kept their Studebaker. But I’d pile those newspapers in there, and when it got to be too much, I’d haul them into the scrap dealer, and he bought the newspapers. That led to me eventually walking through town and picking up pieces of metal. I’d carry those home and soon the scrap dealer was coming to my house to pick up the pile. I recall earning $15 in one instance, and that was a lot of money in 1948. At thirteen, I had business cards; ‘Odd Jobs – you name it, I’ll do it.’ So I was a lawn mower, a dog washer, a house painter.”
Bouton knew opportunity when he saw it, and he believed Big League Chew was something.
Bouton’s conversation with Rob that day in 1977 was the beginning of a business partnership that would eventually bring Big League Chew to life, but it wasn’t quick, and it wasn’t easy.
“After Rob and I had that first discussion about shredded bubble gum, I don’t think we talked about it again until after the season was over. But then, after the season, I put up the money, and Rob fried up some bubble gum.”
As Rob recalled, in January of 1979 he found a homemade bubble gum kit from an article in People magazine, and he “ordered a bunch, from a company out of Arlington, Texas.” He baked those first batches of bubble gum in the kitchen of the Maverick’s bat boy, Todd Field. [Trivia: Todd is now a renowned Hollywood film director.] From there, he cut up the gum with a pizza knife, and then mocked up a package to see how a rough prototype might look, so they would have something to show. For those early samples, they emptied out foil tobacco pouches, and the gum went in – creating what was probably the very first pouches of shredded bubble gum.
“We had a company in Portland; Petzold and Associates, work up the graphics for our prototype pouches. It was a cartoon of Jim, with a word balloon – Best I Ever Tried.”
After working out how their product might look, it was time to find a company that could bring it to market.
The whole town smelled like bubble gum for years.
Jim Bouton had the connections, and the knowledge of how to protect their young idea. From there it would be a two year process before Big League Chew would find a company that believed in it. Bouton and Nelson took their Big League Chew idea to Topps, Fleer, Leaf, Lifesavers, and American Chicle. Each time they received a similar response, “It’s interesting, but we don’t make anything like that.” After a good deal of rejection, they found Amurol.
Amurol had been a bubble gum and confection company specializing in sugar-free items. Wrigley purchased Amurol for that specialization in sugar-free, but when the market for sugarless products ebbed, they didn’t quite know what to do with their acquisition, so they set Amurol to work on novelty bubble gum.
Bouton explained the process of pitching their product to Amurol:
“We believed the idea for shredded gum was new. So, before we showed any of these companies the idea, we had them sign a disclosure form. That meant that we agree to show them what we’ve got, and they have 24-hours to show if they already had an idea like ours. It’s designed to protect both parties. “
It turned out that a fellow at Amurol had figured out how to shred gum six years before, but they hadn’t come up with any way to market it. Amurol was delighted when Bouton and Nelson came along with a name and concept, and they soon struck up a licensing deal for Big League Chew.
Bouton shared a story that was an early indication that they might have a hit on their hands,
Bouton: “Early on, before Big League Chew went national, the company wanted to see how consumers might respond, so they did a test. This was done in Naperville, Illinois – where Amurol was located – the whole town smelled like bubble gum for years. They brought about a dozen sample pouches to a convenience store in late morning, set it down with the owner, then went out to lunch. When they came back after lunch, the gum was nowhere to be found. “I thought you were going to put this out?” The owner responded that they did, and it had sold out – during lunch.”
Nelson : “That first deal we signed was only a three-year deal. Those first two years, they averaged $13-14 million in sales a year. That might only be a flea on an elephant in terms of Wrigley, but it far exceeded expectations. Instead of three years, we were with Wrigley for three decades. “
With Rob Nelson’s invention, and Jim Bouton’s entrepreneurial drive, Big League Chew found a home with Amurol/Wrigley.
“That crusty, sausage-nosed ball player every kid remembers.”
Before Wrigley would start selling Big League Chew, it had to get an official package design. The iconic illustration of the crusty sausage-nosed ball player that so many millions would identify with Big League Chew was brought to life by Atlanta artist, Bill Mayer. Mayer explained how he came on board:
“I got the Big League Chew job through my rep in Chicago, Dan Sell. The style you see on those old packages was a style I was doing a lot of back in the 1980′s; loose pencils and watercolors. The agency that was handling this for Amurol was Needham Harper and Steers – wish I could remember the art director’s name. It was really that art director’s design, and my wacky characters that came together and made that package design work so well.”
Mayer, cont: “This was way before computers so all of this production work was put together by hand with Typositor type from a type shop. The whole process went fairly quickly. I gave them several options for the main character. This was before e-mails too so the process of approvals was done over “Quip” fax machines that could send an image to another part of the country in a matter of seven minutes (I’m saying this completely tongue in cheek…). The color art was Federal Expressed up to the NHS in Chicago. And that’s how it got from me, to becoming the face of the package.”
Mayer, cont: “After the success of the sales for the first year, we did a bunch of other characters. We even did a Popeye version of shredded green gum, to look like spinach.”
Mayer, cont: “You could really have some fun with packaging back then, in ways you can’t have anymore. Do you remember Screaming Yellow Zonkers win a continent contest?”
[Editor's note: I do remember that, Bill, and here it is.]
Mayer, cont: “I was coaching my son Jason in little league back then. I was kind of a folk hero with all those kids at the ballpark for doing Big League Chew – they all thought it was great.”
As owners of the license, Bouton and Nelson retained the right of approval over marketing and promotions, and in most cases, this was a smooth process. Bouton did recall one near-misfire for an early ad campaign:
“They had the gum being invented in the basement by a mad professor, and everything exploded, and shredded gum came into being. My response was, ‘What? You’ve got two professional ball players, and this was invented IN A BULLPEN!’”
Every promotion had to be approved and inevitably, they were tied to sports, or to the brand itself.
Shredded Pouch Bubble Gum without peer.
On the topic of other shredded gums, it seems that everyone agreed, finally, that Big League Chew was the magic formula, and that nothing else quite “got it”. But it wasn’t for lack of Amurol, and others, trying.
Bouton: “They tried Popeye shredded gum, Buckaroo Chew, and others.”
Bouton recalled a “racing car chew”. But nothing could ever grab kids like Big League Chew.
Bouton: “They even tried Michael Jordan’s Hang-Time shredded gum, but that didn’t succeed, even in Chicago. That’s what convinced Amurol that it was a baseball product, and not anything else.”
Nelson recalled much of the same:
Nelson: “Buckaroo Chew wasn’t bad, sort of like Juicy-Fruit meets Big League Chew. They even tried Hang Time with Michael Jordan, but none of those worked.”
Nelson cont: “It wasn’t a surprise that others followed, but it was a surprise that nothing else ever sold very well. None of them came close to Big League Chew.”
As the 1980′s progressed, Big League Chew became a candy isle staple – kids loved it, and pouch bubble gum became a significant new confectionery niche. Eventually the fad would die down, but Big League Chew would remain – it had that magical combination.
“STICK TO WHO BROUGHT YOU TO THE DANCE”
Nelson did recall one direct tie-in to Big League Chew, ” For maybe two years there was a chocolate bar called Big League Plug, put out by Amurol. It used our Big League Chew characters and our logo, but it didn’t stick.”
Rob explained that he felt you should “Stick to who brought you to the dance.” So while some brands would typically cross over into other genres of confection, Big League Chew stuck to shredded bubble gum sold in a pouch – it was what proved to be as close to a sure thing as you could get. But even within that description, there were some flavor extensions and experiments that were tried.
Big League Evolution
Over the years, there were flavor extensions and new characters added to the Big League Chew family, but most of that was done in-house, leaving Bouton and Nelson to enjoy what came next. Nelson recalled one flavor he really missed, “I think my favorite ‘other’ flavor they did was Cherry Cola – that was great!”
In the mid 1980′s other sports characters would be added to Big League Chew packages, as new flavor extensions were introduced, and as the marketing department sought to expand the reach of the brand. Rob recalled wondering why Big League Chew couldn’t be seasonal with baseball, so that it could seem special when it returned,
“But I quickly learned about things like shelf-space, and if you give it up, it can be impossible to get it back. So they had to find ways to keep it relevant all-year-round, which is why they added the other sports.”
While other sports were brought in, baseball remained the focus.
THE CLASSIC PACKAGE DESIGN CHANGES
By the 1990′s, the Bill Mayer illustrated pouches had been around for what was considered a long time in the candy business and “they needed updating.” The characters became more slick, the packaging was changed to foil, and for a time, real-life Hall-of-Famers replaced the pouches’ hallmark illustrated characters.
Gary Rose, a senior designer at Wrigley during the 1990′s and 2000′s, was tasked with helping give Big League Chew a new look.
Gary was clear about the classic packaging he was tasked to refresh,
“At the time, I was a senior designer; responsible for concept renderings, new product packaging, and illustrations. Bill Mayer was and still is a very relevant artist. The concept of shredded gum in combination with the artistic stylings of Bill Mayer was a huge part of millions of childhood memories, and a huge part of what made Big League Chew a success. The packaging refresh was based on bringing new news to the brand and having something for the sales team to work with. The concept revolved around making the BLC brand more about baseball and less about characters.”
Gary had one piece of trivia he wanted to convey on his time with the brand,
“At some point in time (2001-2008) there was a piece in the news that reported George W. Bush chewing BLC. Go figure? Amurol jumped on the chance to send the President a case of product with his likeness on the pack. It was Grape flavor, I believe. If I come across that artwork, I will send it to you for a laugh.”
Unfortunately, Gary has not turned up that piece of artwork yet. But if he does, we’ll report it here.
Though we can’t show you the Presidential Big League Chew, I was able to find the graphics for a pair of packages that were specially produced for sports commentators, Mike and Mike:
Old Friends and an American Original
About a decade ago, Rob Nelson bought out Jim Bouton’s stake in Big League Chew, yet they still share the trademark. Bouton retains rights to the “Big League” brand and characters for licensing out to other products, while Nelson hold all the rights to the brand’s bubble gum side. The division, I am told, was organic and friendly.
At the end of 2010, another dramatic change occurred, when Wrigley gave up the Big League Chew license, leaving Nelson to pursue an agreement with Ford Gum to be the gum’s new producer and distributor. I asked Nelson about the transition.
“The last years at Wrigley I was working with Paul Chibe and his assistant Lucas Erickson — they were my go-to guys. Even when Wrigley decided they wanted to put their resources elsewhere, they were so good to me, and to the brand.”
Nelson learned that Wrigley had 180,000 pouches of Big League Chew in stock, at the end of their contract. He decided he would buy the gum and ship it to US soldiers overseas. “But Wrigley took care of it all themselves, they sent all that bubble gum over to our soldiers.”
Nelson recognizes a behind-the-scenes player who had so much to do with helping Big League Chew and it’s continued success, Bob Anderson. “Bob is the guy who got things done later on. He was the Colonel Tom Parker of this thing.” Bob Anderson also had a hand in the birth of Willy Wonka’s Nerds candy, but that’s a story for another time.
I asked Nelson if he knew why Big League Chew struck a chord:
“It’s one of those things that, when people saw it, they saw that it was really original. It’s something about the packaging, the gum and the name – it’s the perfect combination. “
Looking Forward With Ford Gum
Just over a year ago, Ford Gum took over Big League Chew. Bringing production back to the United States, they’ve already made moves to delight collectors like myself, releasing limited-edition holiday packaging. It’s a bold, exciting time for the Big League Chew, and CollectingCandy.com will be enjoying all that future of the brand has to offer.
Special Thanks to Big League Chew creator Rob Nelson, who was so much help in bringing this feature together. Also thanks to Jim Bouton and Bill Mayer, for sharing their perspective of how Big League Chew first came to be.
Also thanks to: Rocco Pawlowski and Bob Anderson of Wrigley, David Plotnick of Ford Gum, Gary Rose for providing images I couldn’t find anywhere else. Todd Franklin of NeatoCoolville.com for his “ring offer” pouch scans, and finally to Dan Goodsell for kicking off my Big League Chew collection, and all my fellow collectors and candy enthusiasts, for constant inspiration.