In sun-drenched San Diego the Padres always sell out on Beach Towel Night. In less than balmy Montreal, the hot tickets are for Scarf and Ski Hat Days. In Oakland, over the course of the season, kids will amass an entire “baseball kit,” including a bat, cap, ball, batting helmet, glove and digital wristwatch—that last item so the kid isn’t late for dinner.
Baseball is booming and so are giveaways, those mass handouts that lure fans through the turnstiles. This year the 26 major league teams will give away an estimated $20 million worth of merchandise.
Not that the lords of baseball have suddenly turned philanthropic. They’ve simply learned that giveaways, usually emblazoned with the club’s name, are good business. Promotions like Bat Day, Cap Day, etc. make the rich richer and the poor, well, less depressed.
Take the Croesus-like Yankees: Last year the Bronx Bombers had the fourth-best winning percentage in baseball (.602). Winning creates excitement, and in 1985 the Yankees put more than two million fans in the seats. “But our biggest day of all was Mitt Day,” says John Fugazy, the Yanks’ head of marketing. “In fact we set a new regular-season attendance record of 55,623.”
By contrast those losers par excellence, the Cleveland Indians (60-102 in 1985), have turned things around with a winning surge and a new promotional campaign. “Our average attendance [last year] was 10,000 a game except on giveaway nights when it jumped to 15,000-25,000,” says Jeff Gregor, the tribe’s director of sales and promotions. It’s not surprising that the Indians have tripled their entire PR campaign and have added at least seven new giveaways this year.
Consider the fun going on in Chicago, where a veritable giveaway war has broken out between the White Sox and their crosstown rivals, the Cubs. The Sox have scheduled 30 giveaways this season. In addition to those featuring the usual bats and caps and gloves, they’ll hold Corduroy Cap Day and BBQ Apron Night. “We had Musical Headband Day,” reports Mike McClure, the Sox veep of marketing. “It’s state of the art. You press the brim and it plays, ‘Na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, goodbye’ ” (the song Sox fans usually sing when they want to deride the opposition).
The Cubs are striking back with 28 giveaways, including Floppy Hat Day, Desk Clock Day and the utterly irresistible Chicago Cubs Briefcase Day. Picture strolling into the office with one of those shiny, vinyl $2 babies under your arm.
As giveaway days increase in number, the merchandise offered becomes increasingly strange. In 1982 one of Seattle’s best attended games (36,000) was Funny Nose Glasses Day. “Every club looks for something that’s new and different that every other club will talk about,” says John Hays of the California Angels. So on Mother’s Day the Angels gave away clip-on book lamps to the first 20,000 moms. Not to be out-talked-about, the Houston Astros will distribute 10,000 barbecue grills on Father’s Day. One especially lucky dad will get a year’s supply of genuine Oscar Mayer wieners. On June 13, a $10,000, 16-foot by 32-foot above-ground swimming pool will be raffled off. As a bonus, Houston outfielder Terry Puhl—pronounced pool—will host the winner’s first pool party. In Philadelphia on “Halloween Night”—actually Friday the 13th in June—the fortunate Phillie fanatic who wins a bizarre costume competition will go home with a hearse.
Like so much else in baseball, the giveaway was pioneered by the late Bill Veeck, an irrepressible showman who at various times owned a minor league club as well as the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Browns. “He was a great ideas man,” says Dick Hackett, who once worked for Veeck and who’s now the marketing director of the Milwaukee Brewers. “Especially when his team was bad, he wanted to create a good-time atmosphere in the stadium. It’s just that some of his ideas were, well, off the wall.” To fill the stands in the minor leagues Veeck gave away live lobsters, pigeons, swayback horses and, for female fans, orchid corsages. “Everyone agreed that the ‘bush’ stuff I had pulled in the minors would never work in Cleveland,” Veeck wrote in his autobiography, Veeck—as in Wreck. But he found “the fans were delighted. All the stunts that had been tested in the minors were just as successful in the majors.” Indeed, when a bat factory went bankrupt in 1952 the master promoter bought every bat he could for 11 cents apiece. Veeck gave them away and that off-the-wall idea—Bat Day—has gone on to become a staple at nearly every major league park.
These days high quality Little League bats cost about $3 apiece wholesale. But like other giveaway items, they’re paid for not by the teams but by corporate sponsors. The sponsor puts his logo on the item and in return gets free promotion in the form of TV, radio and print advertising.
Not all promotions, however, are un? qualified winners: In 1978 the Yankees held Reggie! Bar Day. Forty-five thousand of the chocolate-peanut-caramel confections named after Reggie Jackson were distributed. When Jackson blasted a ball over the centerfield wall, the game had to be stopped as a meteorite shower of Reggie! bars came flying out of the stands in tribute. More recently, on the April 26 Ball Day game between the Texas Rangers and the Milwaukee Brewers, Ranger fans became so frustrated as their team was being trounced that they threw several hundred of the new balls onto the field. “The only guaranteed way to create subhuman behavior is to give things away for free,” says Andy Dolich, the sadder but wiser VP of the Oakland Athletics. On one freebie night, Dolich noticed the same woman go through the line a couple of times with a number of different children. “I saw she was holding one kid by the arm real tightly, and the kid was trying to get away from her. I asked the boy if there was a problem and he said, ‘Yeah, this isn’t my mother.’ Weird.” An outbreak of naked greed forced the San Diego Padres to drop Baseball Card Day. “It was attracting a bad element to the park,” explains Ron Seaver, the Padres’ marketing director. “Adult baseball card collectors hired local kids to come down to the park and get as many sets as they could.” To please their adult card-collecting Fagins, the young toughs were strong-arming cards away from other kids. Ugly.
And then there are those promotions that may be a popular success but a public relations disaster, like the four Halter-top Days held in Kansas City between 1976 and 1982. “The women’s movement put a stop to that,” says Scott Pederson, KC’s director of promotions. “It’s a shame. That was our most popular promotion. All the games were sellouts. But we did have a lot of complaints,” he adds. “A lot of women were putting them on right here in the park.”
Still, nothing fills seats like a winning team. Not even Halter-top Day. “You could give $10 bills away in August and if you’re 40 games out of first place nobody’s going to come to get ’em,” argues Don Cassidy, director of promotions for the Minnesota Twins. Cassidy knows this all too well. The Twins, who have been at best mediocre over the past decade, have tried nearly everything to goose up attendance—including their very own Halter-top Day in 1980. “Some women criticized me for that,” says Cassidy. “In fact one girl called me and said ‘Why don’t you have a Jockstrap Day?’ I told her I would if I could find a sponsor.”
Somewhere Bill Veeck is smiling.