Jim Bouton and Rob Nelson say it was pure luck that the two of them sat in the Portland Mavericks bullpen one night in 1977 and came up with an idea: shredded bubble gum. In a pouch.
What they couldn’t know, then, was that Big League Chew would eventually sell 600 million packages worldwide. And counting.
It all started when actor Bing Russell, best known for his role in the television series Bonanza, and the father of Hollywood’s Kurt Russell, brought an independent baseball team to Portland, Oregon in 1973.
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“Bing Russell was as much interested in finding guys who loved baseball as he was in finding guys who could play baseball,” Nelson says.
This story – about the invention and success of Big League Chew – hinges upon the people woven through the fabric of Bouton and Nelson’s life. So it starts, not in the Portland Mavericks’ bullpen, but when Bouton and Nelson were kids.
Jim Bouton: I was in business for myself as an 8-year-old. I liked the fact that I had my own ability to feed myself. Any time there was something in the newspaper – sell chocolates door to door, whatever – okay, good. I’d send away for a kit, and I’d go around door-to-door. I liked having money in my pocket and I liked having control over my life and I’ve always been an entrepreneurial guy.
Rob Nelson: When I was a little kid, I was enamored with bubble gum. I always blew a lot of bubbles. One of my heroes as an 11-year-old was the second baseman for the Chicago White Sox. Nellie Fox, Hall of Famer. He was known for two things: he used a big, thick-handled bat, and he chewed an enormous amount of tobacco. So, his bubble-gum trading card showed this big bulge in his cheek. I kind of wanted to look like that, and of course I didn’t want to get ill, and I was too young anyway. But I always chewed a lot of bubble gum to look like Nellie Fox, and I’d always use Nellie Fox’s bat.
Jim Bouton: I was a Giants fan when I was a kid, and the Giants would play against the Dodgers and I would go to the Polo Grounds in New York. I was watching the pitcher for the Dodgers. It was Carl Erskine, and he intrigued me. He threw a curveball that would drop off the table, just go straight down. I watched him and then went behind the school – there was a big brick wall – and I had a tennis ball, and I would practice throwing this curveball going straight down. I didn’t realize until I got older that I actually had a correct major league spin for an overhand curveball. It got me all the way to the big leagues.
Rob Nelson: I ended up at Cornell University by way of community college. I’m pretty proud of that fact. I was working air freight at Kennedy Airport at night, going to Nassau Community College during the day, and things worked out. I got pretty good grades and Cornell needed a left-handed pitcher. I think in some ways I treasure my Ivy League degree more than most people who go to schools like that, because it didn’t come easy to me.
When Nelson was a young pitcher at Cornell University he heard about Bouton and thought maybe he could get some pitching tips from him. So Nelson wrote him a note. After receiving it, Bouton told Nelson to give him a call. They spoke on the phone, found a time to meet, and for 20
minutes on a baseball field in New Jersey, Bouton showed Nelson how he threw his knuckleball.
“He had nine out of 10 that worked. I had one out of 10,” Nelson recalled.
Years passed with no interaction between the two, but a seed of friendship had been planted. Fast-forward to 1973, the first year of the Portland Mavericks…
Maclain Way (Bing Russell’s grandson, co-director of The Battered Bastards of Baseball): Every year the Mavericks’ tryouts attracted hundreds of hopefuls, so the makeup of the team changed a bit from season to season. The first team, in 1973, was composed of Southern Californians Kurt had played ball with, plus local players selected from the tryouts.
In 1974, Frank Peters was hired as the manager. He played for the Triple-A Portland Beavers and as a result he had a good gauge on the local talent and even more players were selected from the tryouts. By 1975, the Portland Mavericks had a dynamic team in terms of personality, background, and talent.
Maclain Way: A lot of these players had been cut so many times. They’d gone through that experience and it set a tone for a fun atmosphere, above everything else. Nelson and Bouton both tried out in ’75.
Todd Field (Mavericks batboy, Academy Award-nominated writer and director): Rob Nelson was 26, an Ivy League graduate, who arrived on the scene in Portland on the heels of a personal crusade to bring baseball to South Africa by conducting free clinics in the segregated ghettos outside of Cape Town in Johannesburg. He came to try out for the Mavs, the Portland Mavericks, and he didn’t make it and he decides to stick around.
Rob Nelson: My dad had sent me a whole bunch of sports clippings, and one of the articles was about open tryouts for Portland, Oregon’s baseball team. It was winter in South Africa, so I came back to Long Island and did some substitute teaching for a month, maybe five weeks, then got on a plane and went to Oregon. Not knowing anybody. Not knowing anything about the operation. But Portland in the ‘70s was just a perfect fit for me.
Jim Swanson (Portland Mavericks catcher): I had played at Central Washington University and was living in Vancouver, Wash. My dad said, “Why don’t you go and try out?” I was just out of college. There were like 400 people there. It looked like 300 of them were outfielders, so now my dad says, “Why don’t you go home and get your left-handed catcher’s glove, because I’ve seen these catchers and you’re better than them.”
The next day I tried out again as a catcher, and I played in a couple of exhibition games with Frank Peters. Bing asked Frank, “Is that guy a left-handed catcher? He’s a left-handed catcher! Let him play another game.” I played another game and threw a couple of guys out, hit the ball well, and Bing signed me.
Rob Nelson: As luck would have it, when I first went to Portland I didn’t make the team, and it seems odd to say that was lucky, but it forced me to come up with a way to stay in Portland. I thought eventually they would need another left-hander. So I came up with the idea of a baseball day camp called “The Little Mavericks Baseball School.” I pitched it to Bing Russell. He loved the idea, and within a week we had a camp going in Northeast Portland.
Todd Field: I met Rob in 1975. I was 11 years old and I went to his baseball camp at Grant Park. I had an unusually lovely older sister, Peggy, who Rob– their eyes met and fireworks went off. So I was a really happy recipient of a lot of special attention from Rob, already a big hero of mine, because he was sweet on my sister. It’s safe to say I’ve never met a greater bubble blower than Rob Nelson, and he was an exotic character, the most exotic character I had met at the time.
Scott Chernoff (son of late patent attorney Dan Chernoff): Rob Nelson ran these Little Mav baseball camps. I would go to them, and then we’d go to the Maverick games afterwards and watch him play. He was a pitcher. I think he was a left-handed pitcher who could throw a curveball and that extended his career. He was just a big kid. He was just a wonderful guy, a lot of fun to be around. I have fond memories of going to those camps, and then going to the baseball games at night. What a blast.
Larry Colton (ex-major leaguer, Portland Maverick, author of five books, Pulitzer Prize nominee): The Mavericks were very instrumental in my life. They launched my writing career! I was a high-school English teacher at the time. The Mavericks had come to town and I read about them, knew the manager, Frank Peters. So I went and tried out for the team. I looked like Charlie Manson at the time, long hair and a beard. I was always being told to get a haircut when I was playing professional ball. I did well in the tryout. I hadn’t picked up a ball in like seven years and I pitched three innings and struck out eight guys. Bing Russell came out of the stands and said, “Wow, you can really pitch. But I bet you’re a drug addict.”
I made the team. I pitched the first game and my arm about fell off.
The next game I couldn’t lift my arm. I had been a good hitter when I had been in the pros. They sent me in as a pinch-hitter and I got a double, so I became the designated hitter because I couldn’t pitch. I was batting .300 and getting home runs, and batting clean-up. Here’s where Jim Bouton figures in. They get the call from Jim Bouton. He reads about the Mavericks back east and he thinks, “I’m going to make a comeback.”
This is the only team that would give him a chance, just like this was the only team that would let me play. Well, you are only allowed one player with higher classification ball and that was me. They had a chance to get Jim Bouton and they needed his pitching more than my hitting, so they released me.
Jim Bouton: My baseball career started when I made it to the major leagues in 1962. Then I wrote a book about my baseball experiences. It’s called Ball Four.
I heard about the Mavericks in an advertisement in The Sporting News.
Larry Colton: Ball Four had a profound impact on sports journalism. It was really the grandfather of gotcha journalism. He took us inside; it was the first time. So his influence is profound. I know it had an impact on me because I thought, "Well, that’s more like what really goes on." Even though Ball Four was still tame, when he wrote it he didn’t win any popularity contests. People wouldn’t touch him. When he came to play for the Mavericks, it was after Ball Four and he had pretty much been banned from baseball.
Todd Field: I spent a season of baseball with Jim, and people had a huge amount of, I think, curiosity about him on the team and a huge amount of respect for him. Jim is a really, really smart man. He was kind of an educated, literate ballplayer. That’s sort of an oxymoron, especially back in the day. He was very well read, very well spoken, and understood how he could potentially have been objectified with these other players. He was able to navigate that really well, where everybody felt super comfortable with him. So he was able to have a lot of fun with the team, which is why he was doing it in the first place.
Rob Nelson: Jim told me once that being a part of the Portland Mavericks was more unique than being a New York Yankee. He had written a book. He was controversial, and when he came to Portland he was just another guy looking for a roster spot. I remember one game where he came off the mound, he had given up a titanic home run and the guys said, “How do you hold that pitch? I never want to throw one like that!” They didn’t kowtow to him in any way; they treated him like any other Portland Maverick. He loved that. He loved every minute he was on the Portland Mavericks.
Larry Colton: Rob was a very engaging guy. I wouldn’t say he was on the fast track to the big leagues when he played with the Mavericks.
Rob Nelson: Eventually the Mavericks signed me in August. It’s not like they needed left-handed pitching. It’s just that I think Bing Russell kind of rewarded me for hanging around, selling tickets and throwing BP. I went back in ’76 and ’77. As my brother Harry described my Maverick career, I pitched briefly and ineffectively for three years. It’s hard to believe.
Todd Field: Rob lived a very austere life. He had not a stick of furniture. The sum total of what he owned consisted of three pairs of blue jeans, three work shirts and dozens of black, blue, red, and green flare-tip pens, and a trove of graphic-ruled bound notebooks. All of this he stored in empty, industrial-size plastic pickle buckets that he’d catch from the obliging counter girl at the McDonald’s on Burnside. He was an idea guy. He was always writing. He was filling those notebooks all the time; he’d always have these ideas.
Maclain Way: Todd would cut up black vine licorice and he would chew it. I think Rob saw that.
Todd Field: Rob never spoke to me like I was a kid. He made it clear that he cared about what I thought about things, and he was like that with all the kids. Rob was the first grown-up I had ever met who asked me questions. One of them was: what was the source of the black juice streaming out of my mouth? I pulled out a pouch of Redman and showed him that instead of tobacco, I had filled it with black licorice. He got it, immediately. I wanted it to look like I was chewing tobacco. He asked me if I’d do the same thing if it was gum and I said, “sure — so long as I could still spit the black juice.”
Maclain Way: I don’t think it clicked then, but it might have been an idea for Rob.
Todd Field: So, it wasn’t until the next season, in 1977, that he brought it up again. Rob said, “Should it be in a tin?” And I didn’t know what he was talking about. Rob said, “The gum! Like, Copenhagen or Skoal?” And I said, “Not if you want kids to chew it. You dip from a tin, you chew from a pouch.” He already, clearly, had given this a lot of thought.
Rob Nelson: Fellow pitchers in the bullpen were having dopey competitions that involved chewing and spitting tobacco for distance and accuracy. Jim Bouton asked me if I ever chewed tobacco, because we both looked at these guys with disgust and disdain, and I told Jim I had tried it once. It was maybe an inning or two later and I said to Jim, “I thought for a long time it would be cool to have shredded gum, so we could look as cool as these guys but not make ourselves sick.”
Jim Bouton: Rob was in the bullpen and he was sitting around, and he was talking about his idea for shredded bubble gum as a healthy alternative to chewing tobacco. I said, “I think that’s a great idea, Rob.” He said, “Yeah? Can you help me with it?” And I said, “Sure.”
Rob Nelson: Jim said, “What would you call it?” It was kind of a throwaway line, just a couple of guys shooting the breeze in the bullpen and I said, “Something like … Big League Chew.”
Jim loved that name, but asked me to come up with a list of other possibilities. I remember a loose-leaf sheet list I’d drawn up, with a dozen or so ideas – Red Steer Chew, Maverick Chew, All-Star Chew – but none were as good as Big League Chew, obviously. I sure wish I could find that list!
My brother Ed says the naming thing is preposterous, kind of like four guys in Liverpool wondering what to call the band and one of them offhandedly says, "How about The Beatles? That’s pretty good, right?"
Todd Field: He had been mulling over a couple of names, one was Maverick Chew – which at the time of course I liked, because that was my whole world – and the other was Big League Chew.
Jim Bouton: I drew a picture of a pouch with my picture on the front; very crude. And the idea was to create a pouch with shredded bubble gum, as opposed to a pouch that had chewing tobacco: a healthy alternative to chewing tobacco.
Rob Nelson: I’ve asked Jim recently, “Have any Mavericks called you or spoken to you regretting that they didn’t invest in the Big League Chew project and they should have done it when we gave them the opportunity?” Jim laughed and he said, “I hear that all the time.” I said, “Jim, did we ask anybody to be a part of this?”
And he said, “No! Nobody.”
Jim Swanson: Rob will deny it, but Bouton probably won’t. We are sitting in the bullpen one day and Rob came in. We were all spitting, and they didn’t chew and he didn’t smoke cigarettes; we were all spitting tobacco on his shoes all the time. He got sick and tired of that, so he wanted to invent something like bubble gum. He said, “I got a great idea, you guys. Bouton and I. If we all invest a certain amount of money we can get a patent on it.” I said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” I laughed at him and walked away.
Tanner Swanson (son of Jim Swanson; now assistant baseball coach at the University of Washington): My dad has one of those bubble-gum pouches framed. I guess it’s a reminder to him, kind of a joke. I don’t know if he framed it or if Rob framed it, but it’s hanging on his wall.
Larry Colton: I’ve always thought Bouton owed me like 25 percent of the profits from Big League Chew, because if I didn’t happen to be kicked off the team I might have invented Big League Chew, and I wouldn’t have needed all those writing gigs.
Rob Nelson: Jim put up the $10,000 we needed, and it was always the Jim and Rob Project. But it’s so funny, out in Oregon people say, “I should have invested that $1,000,” and Jim and I laugh about that all the time.
The Portland Mavericks’ final season was in 1977 when the Pacific Coast League shut down the Mavericks by expanding to Portland with the Portland Beavers.
The Mavericks were a bunch of scraggly cast-offs nobody else wanted, and they didn’t care. “We didn’t embarrass anybody, ourselves, the public, or our fans,” said Swanson, the Mavericks catcher. “We just went out and played. Played hard and we won. We won all the time.”
Still, Russell’s influence would live on long past the Mavericks, because he didn’t just put together a baseball team.
“Every day of Bing Russell’s life was a celebration, and he brought back the good guys and the not-so-good guys,” Nelson said. “I’m included in the second group, in terms of performance on the field. He was just more interested in the bigger picture and I’m grateful for all of that.”
After the Portland Mavericks, Nelson went to work for JUGS Pitching Machines. Bouton was on his personal journey to return to the majors. The Atlanta Braves signed Bouton in 1978 and while Bouton was pitching in the minors, Nelson went to visit him.
Jim Bouton: What made this work was that Rob and I believed in this idea and we were willing to get it done.
Rob Nelson: Jim and I didn’t have much contact after the Portland Mavericks. We kept the conversation alive, but it really didn’t become a serious venture until I went to visit Jim the following summer. Ted Turner had signed him. Jim was playing Double-A ball in Savannah, Georgia. We rekindled our enthusiasm for Big League Chew. Jim was contacting people, but not too seriously, because he was intent on making it to the big leagues. He made it back in September of 1978.
Jim Bouton: Whenever you’ve got a successful idea, there’s always people who are trying to get a piece of it. So, it’s expensive; at this point it had more to do with the legal business than the food or gum business.
Rob Nelson: One of the dads of one of the kids in the Little Mavericks camp was a patent and trademark attorney. His name was Dan Chernoff. The late, great Dan Chernoff. He and I went to Cornell University. He was about ten years older than I was, but we really hit it off very well. I shared this idea with him because I had been told that I would be unable to protect the idea when Jim and I took the idea to companies, and what Dan told me was, “Well, Rob, you can’t get a patent on shredding anything, any more than McDonald’s can get a patent for chopping up beef, but you do have a great name and you do have a great concept in the visual.”
Graham Chernoff (son of patent attorney Dan Chernoff): My dad was a pretty gregarious person, easy to talk to. Rob approached him and said, “Hey, my fellow baseball player Jim Bouton and I, we have this idea and we’ve talked with a number of attorneys, but they are telling us there’s no way we can protect it, protect the idea of shredded bubble gum.” And Dad said, “Why don’t you come in and let me learn a little bit more about it. But I think I have an idea: Instead of a patent, go with a trademark with the name and the packaging and protect it that way. So you can take the idea to companies.”
Rob Nelson: It was late in 1978 when Jim said, “You know, Rob, I’m trying to talk to companies but I really need product. I really need something here.” I said, “Jim, you can just explain it.” He said, “That’s not the way it works. I need to have something in my hand to show them, even if it’s not very good.”
Todd Field: In February of 1979, Rob arrived at my parents’ house with a gum-making kit that he ordered out of the back of a magazine; a bunch of empty Red Man pouches he’d dummied up and re-art directed; some licorice flavor; and brown food coloring.
Rob Nelson: I read an article in People magazine about a small company in Arlington, Texas that was selling a kit where you could make your own bubble gum. What are the odds of me reading that article? What are the odds of that business existing? I don’t even know if they were in operation much after I bought a case of the gum. Nobody from Arlington, Texas has ever been in touch with me saying, “That was my dad!” So, I might have been the only one who ever bought a case of gum from them. But good for me, and probably not so good for them. It came, and I went to the Fred Meyer grocery store near the ballpark. I got some maple extract and some root beer extract, because I thought, okay, it’s got to be bubble gum but it probably would be a bit more authentic if it were brown because I really wanted it to be the fun alternative to chewing tobacco.
Todd Field: Rob didn’t have a kitchen. He was just a practical guy. It wasn’t like he wasn’t at our house a lot anyway; he was dating my sister and he had no kitchen.
Rob Nelson: I had a small crummy apartment shared with four or five other ballplayers. So we made the first batch in Todd Field’s kitchen in Southeast Portland.
Todd Field: Rob never cooked. EVER.
Rob Nelson: I had no cooking skills. I’m just not handy in the kitchen. The gum came in a container like dinner rolls, aluminum on the top and you unraveled the container like a cardboard thing. So, it was like a big thing of dough. I mixed up the ingredients and when it came out it looked like very thin brownies.
Todd Field: This is classic Rob Nelson. The first batch we rolled by hand and into individual pieces but there was something weird about them. They looked like these little worms dyed brown. So then we made a second batch and experimented with a pizza knife, which was much more effective.
Rob Nelson: I took a pizza knife, a round pizza knife, and I just cut them into shreds.
Jim Bouton: Rob is a very good bubble-gum fryer. He did a beautiful job frying it.
Todd Field: We were pretty good about following the instructions from the kit. It was more about trying to get it to where you felt like you could reach in and grab it, the way you would tobacco, without it feeling like you were reaching in and grabbing nightcrawlers, which is where we started.
Rob Nelson: I have a piece of paper where Todd and his sister, his mom and dad, we all signed the thing: “First batch ever of Big League Chew Gum.” It’s a piece of loose-leaf paper. Like everybody, I have a storage bin of crates and stuff. I’ll never find that sheet of paper.
Todd Field: We chewed it. At first he brought licorice flavor and food coloring and we tasted it, and, you know, it was like licorice because that’s where we started.
Rob Nelson: For a couple years I was the pitching coach for Portland State University. I took the batch of homemade gum to the Portland State guys; they loved the packaging. They took a couple of chomps on the gum and they said, “Yeah, ah, great idea Nellie. Good luck with that one.” It was terrible.
Jim Bouton: Money. It tasted a little bit like money.
Rob Nelson: I found an art studio in Portland to make a sample pouch for me. We had Jim’s cartoon likeness on the pouch and it said, “Jim Bouton, Yankee great, best gum I’ve ever tried.” And Jim went shopping it around. I was playing ball back in South Africa, and then I eventually played ball in Australia, and then ended up in England. But in the early days, I was either back in Cape Town or in Sydney.
Jim Bouton: So I went to work trying to find somebody who would take a license for Big League Chew, shredded bubble gum. I went to Topps and Fleers. We had meetings and they said, “Oh, it’s a nice idea, Bouton, but I don’t think people are going to be interested in that.” Finally, after about six months to a year, I finally found a company called Amurol. Amurol Products. They were a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company. They were specializing in sugarless candy. Evidently they were not doing that well in sugarless candy.
Ron Ream (chemist, VP of Marketing and Corporate Development for Amurol Products 1979-2004, owner of MyBigLeagueChew.com): I had been working on a method to make shredded gum in a pouch starting in 1977. I had worked for two years to try and find a way to do it. It was very difficult. I had just completed a pilot manufacturing system that was successful at putting shreds in a pouch when we were contacted by Jim Bouton and Rob Nelson. They came to the company that I was working at and they said, “We have a wonderful idea, Big League Chew, shredded bubble gum in a pouch. We said, “We are really glad to see you because we just figured out how to make it!” It was a wonderful marriage.
Jim Bouton: I flew out to Chicago, and I met with the president of Amurol. They wanted to give it a try and test it out. There was a small convenience store, a 7-Eleven in Naperville, Illinois, and they put 15 or 20 pouches of Big League Chew on the shelf. So we dropped it off at this convenience store, and then we went to lunch with the Amurol people. A.G. Atwater was one of them. We were having lunch, and the idea was after lunch we would observe children and see how they responded to shredded bubble gum.
So, after lunch we came back, and we looked around and said to the store manager, “What happened to the gum? Didn’t you put it out?” He said, “Yes, and it was gone in ten minutes. They cleaned us out.” A.G. Atwater and I didn’t get a chance to watch the kids eat it! So then we sat down and started talking about Big League Chew as an idea and we were in a negotiation back and forth.
Rob Nelson: I had no business background, and when I found out we got a three-year deal at 2.5 percent, I remember my dad saying, “What do you think, Rob?” And I said, “I think I won’t have to paint houses in the summer.”
Jim Bouton: They wanted to know how much money we thought. We thought maybe 5 percent would be a good number, a reasonable number. We didn’t want to bankrupt the Wrigley Company – a little tongue-in-cheek here.
Todd Field: Wrigley bought it, but much to my chagrin they stipulated that it couldn’t be brown because they didn’t want to be seen as condoning even pretend tobacco use. They didn’t want children spitting brown juice all over their Little League fields. Which, of course, was ridiculous to me because that was the goal in the first place!
Ron Ream: The fortunate thing was the chemistry of the gum was dictated by how it had to perform. I’m a chemist by profession so I had to develop a gum that was totally unique to all chewing gums. It could not stick together because the shreds were in a pouch. If it was like normal chewing gum, then it would stick together in the pouch and it wouldn’t remain in shreds. That was one of the big problems that I had to face. That’s been one of the reasons why there’s been no competition for 30 years, because it’s a secret formula that does not stick together in the pouch. So that was part of what we brought to the party with Jim and Rob.
Rob Nelson: The bottom line about Big League Chew is Bill Mayer, the artist; he’s the guy who created the zany nature of the pouch. A big tip of the cap goes to Bill Mayer. That was a key component. The lettering and the design the Wrigley people put together, combined with Bill Mayer’s genius, made the pouch attractive.
Ron Ream: One of the big things we did, we were trying to develop a good-looking package. At that time MAD Magazine was a big, big rage with kids. I contacted Bill Mayer, an artist for MAD, and asked him if he would draw the characters for Big League Chew.
Bill Mayer: They had a design developed and an area they wanted the character to fit in. The type was that machine bold. A real sports-looking type. All of that stuff was already developed before they sent the job to me. It had a blank area on the front of the package that I was supposed to fill. So I filled most of it with the head and there was a little area and I put a glove in that part.
Ron Ream: The original characters for Big League Chew were strikingly rugged and crusty old-fashioned baseball players. They really struck a wonderful chord with the consumers.
Bill Mayer: It is a unique look, even though it’s not what I do now. The way that I did it doesn’t exist anymore. I would do black, real loose pencil drawings on parchment paper. Then I would make a Photostat of it. Then, I would color on the Photostat, that way the pencil didn’t scrub up into the paint and dirty the paint. So the color would stay real clean. That was the way I worked back then.
Jim Bouton: So Big League Chew was rolled out in the spring of 1980. Amurol was a subsidiary, it was an $8 million dollar subsidiary, they had about 18 products which consisted mostly of sugarless gum. In the first year, Big League Chew sold $18 million dollars of gum. So, in other words, Big League Chew was twice as big as the company that was taking the license!
Meanwhile, Amurol introduced a second, less successful shredded gum to America’s children using Popeye on the pouch…
Ron Ream: The reason we went with the Popeye pouch was because we felt it was a good fit. The product looked like spinach, because it was shredded and green. It looked like shredded spinach and Popeye ate spinach. That was when Popeye was a well-known brand name. We gave Rob a portion of the royalty on it, and Popeye a royalty on it, but it never became anything near the size of Big League Chew.
Rob Nelson: It got ten times bigger than anybody dreamed.
Ron Ream: We understood how to market and sell kids’ products. We actually became the biggest novelty manufacturing company in the world. We took the company from $2 million to $126 million.
Jim Bouton: Who knew you could make $18 million from shredded bubble gum?
Rob Nelson: So after about two years we’ve done about $27 million. Then it kind of leveled off and then it was about $10 or $12 million dollars a year, forever. It slumped a bit when there was the baseball strike in 1994, but for the most part it was steady as a rock. That first year, that $18 million in 1980, to give you some perspective on that, the following year in 1981 the Cubs were sold for $22 million. I remember calling my dad and saying, “Dad! The Wrigley family just replaced the Chicago Cubs with Big League Chew!”
Jim Bouton: The next part of this story is that Rob and I had a difference of opinion on expanding the name “Big League.” I realized “Big League” was a great name for a trademark and it was available. So Rob and I were always back and forth, in a friendly way, and Rob would say, “Let’s just stick with the gum.” Rob didn’t want to spend any more money.
Rob Nelson: I bought Jim out about 15 years ago. He had some other interests; it was a very amicable split. We still keep in touch. He’s a very, very good guy.
Jim Bouton: Wrigley Company, they sold their interest to Ford Gum. So Rob is now with Ford Gum. It’s no longer with Wrigley.
Rob Nelson: When I found out that Mars was buying Wrigley, I knew that staying with Wrigley was not a good idea. I didn’t want to be stuck with a trademark and a cool product, and not have the factory. The Wrigley people were awesome. We negotiated a fair price for the equipment.
In 2008, Mars Inc. acquired Wrigley for $23 billion. Wrigley declined multiple interview requests for this story.
Steve Green (Senior VP for Sales and Marketing, Ford Gum): I was familiar with the brand, having 25 years in the industry. I knew a little about the backstory on it. Anything we could bring into our plant of this magnitude was certainly attractive to us. We now sell Big League Chew all over the world. Anywhere that baseball is popular seems to be a potential market for us.
Rob Nelson: It’s been almost five years now and I’m really well pleased. Getting back to that quality component, Ron Ream told me, “The Ford Gum guys just know how to make gum.”
Joe Garagiola, a catcher in the majors from 1946 through 1954 and later a famed radio and television broadcaster, as well as the 2014 recipient of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, founded the National Spit Tobacco Education Program.
Steve Garagiola(Joe’s son): Dad got involved in the beginning because of his friendship with Bill Tuttle, who was a former major league baseball player. After his retirement, Tuttle lost a piece of his jaw, then a piece of his lip and eventually was very deformed by surgery and died of cancer caused by spit tobacco.
My dad would go on in the locker room and he had more than one occasion where he’s standing there and there’s this big strapping guy — 26 or 27-years-old — and he’s got a wife and a little baby at home. This guy would be reduced to tears and say, “Joe, I can’t quit. I can’t stop.” It just broke his heart. So that’s really what fueled his campaign to end spit tobacco, and what compounds it is now, when he sees the foil pouches of gum, shaved to be like loose-leaf tobacco, is that kids at age six can start emulating chewing tobacco.
Steve Greene: There are still some groups out there that feel there’s a correlation between the two, and we obviously disagree with that. Strongly disagree. We just don’t see it. We still see it as an alternative.
Jim Bouton: We were clearly against chewing tobacco and that was the whole motivation for Rob’s idea. Anything would be better than chewing tobacco, and wouldn’t bubble gum be a better idea to begin with?
Dirk Hayhurst (retired MLB pitcher, author of three books): No one is going to let a kid walk into a grocery store and pick up tobacco and let them buy that product. There’s a pretty strong separation between, this is you eating a dangerous product, and this is you eating bubble gum because you are pretending to be a big-league baseball player. I feel like in the pantology there, adults naturally assume that children will go from children chewing gum to delinquent tobacco users instantaneously, and there’s a lot of stuff that comes in between there.
J.T. Snow (retired MLB first baseman): It was actually in high school that I started chewing gum. Like most people, I tried to be cool and dip. Most guys were dipping the tobacco and I just couldn’t do it. I threw up a couple of times. A friend of our family gave me a big box of gum and just said, “Here, chew gum; sunflower seeds and gum.” So, I just started chewing gum, and it kind of kept me away from the tobacco and then it actually kind of relaxed me. It kind of took my mind off things while I was standing in the field, just chewing gum and blowing bubbles.
Rob Nelson: I used to get a lot of letters from the girlfriends of high school players. They’d say, “Thank you for getting my boyfriend off of dip.” That really makes me feel good.
Dirk Hayhurst: It wasn’t like when I was a kid I chewed bubble gum because I saw big leaguers chew bubble gum, or I saw them chew tobacco. It was more that. I saw other people chewing it. The cool kids had Big League Chew and I wanted to be like them. They had their Franklin batting gloves that you get if you mailed in the back of a Big League Chew pouch. I was like, I don’t have those and they have them. So it became, like, a total imitation thing.
J.T. Snow: Big League Chew. We used to get it as kids. We used to go to the local liquor store, and we used to think we were cool because we’d put a big wad in our mouth like we were major league ballplayers. I got a lot of good feedback from chewing gum, and I was very superstitious about it.
Maclain Way: Since I was seven years old, about every three months I get a shipment to my doorstep at the house I grew up in. Still to this day, every three months, like 70 pouches of Big League Chew from Rob. When I was a kid, I didn’t ask any questions. Somehow this just seemed normal. I didn’t actually ask anyone, “How is this happening?”
I wasn’t a very talented baseball player. I probably led my Little League in strikeouts, but I was a very popular draft pick. I was always selected in the top round, I think because the kids knew I had an unlimited supply of bubble gum. And that’s what I did with it. I’d always bring Big League Chew to my baseball games and just give it out. So I was, by far, the most popular kid in my Little League.
Tanner Swanson: I just remember Big League Chew has been around our house as long as I can remember. Rob has been sending that stuff to my dad forever. I think just as a reminder, hey, this is something you could have been in on, kind of to stick him to it a little. Rob’s been a friend of ours forever.
Maclain Way: Honestly, it was almost at an embarrassingly late age that I actually stopped and said, “How? What? Why is our family receiving these Big League Chew packages?” It was then that we kind of found out, it’s Rob Nelson, he’s a friend of your grandfather’s. He’s a friend of Bing’s and he invented this.
What would everyone’s lives have looked like without Bing Russell and the Mavericks?
Todd Field: I can tell you what it did do. What it did do was totally, totally change how I saw the world. Completely. Because I saw grown men who were making three or four hundred bucks a month, and getting ten dollars a day of meal money, having the time of their lives, and thrilled to be doing it.
I thought, “They are a lot happier than anyone I’ve ever met before. They are truly enjoying themselves in a way that I’ve never experienced around grown men.” So, that’s probably a better choice than not doing that – doing the thing that you really are excited about, yes, it may be risky – but it’s probably the only thing that’s ever going to make you feel really alive. That was a pretty mind-blowing experience. Rob Nelson certainly was at the forefront of me sort of realizing that. The world hadn’t beaten the enthusiasm out of him and he was religious about sharing that enthusiasm.
Maclain Way: When we were making the documentary, we would tell people the story of the Mavericks, which a lot of people didn’t know about at all. It was a little piece of forgotten baseball. But the one thing we did have was, we told people to read the back of a Big League Chew package, because it talks about the Portland Mavericks. It was the one token we had to show people that this is a real story that actually happened.
Rob Nelson: Jim once said he believes the greatest idea that ever came out of a bullpen was Big League Chew. It was just an impossible convergence of a 38-year-old guy trying to get back to the big leagues, a 28-year-old guy who had to leave the country because nobody wanted him back in the states, and then Bing Russell comes along.
Larry Colton: Bing Russell, he did a wonderful thing. And if Bouton hadn’t called, I would have kept playing. I would have gotten called up and batted .300 and been elected to the Hall of Fame a long time ago. If Bouton hadn’t made that call, I don’t know if I would have ever become a writer. Fate has a funny way of working things.
Rob Nelson: I had one good idea. I had a great partner who had a business background and was as tenacious off the field as he was on the field. They say it takes a village. Well, it took a bunch of teammates and a lot of smart people to get Big League Chew out there and yet here we are talking. I’m like the Willie Wonka of bubble gum. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.
I remember when I had the first taste of Big League Chew. Jim and I laughed about it – I can’t believe this idea became what it was! When I saw the real pouch, saw the brilliance of Bill Mayer’s art, that’s when it hit me: Wow, I’m really in business here. Then the postcards started coming in – “Hey Rob, I saw your gum in a fishing tackle place in Maine!” – and I realized: Okay, so I’m not in the big leagues. But my gum is.