As he walked to work on a bright, subzero morning in Toronto last week, Mark Wlodarski took a moment to share the story of how he collected the first of the 150 Blue Jays bobbleheads in his possession: an Alex Rios figurine the team handed out to fans on May 17, 2009.
The key, he explained, was good timing. The Jays had sizzled through the first quarter of the season and entered the day in first place in the American League East. But they had also missed the playoffs for 15 straight seasons. Followers of the team were listless. In that, Wlodarski could sense an opportunity.
“I got (into bobblehead collecting) when the Jays weren’t doing well. That meant it was a lot easier to get everything,” he said. “I would hate to be someone trying to enter the Jays market right now, because of the fact that so many people desire them and there’s not much out there.”
Nearly a decade on from Rios’ day in the sun, another baseball season is upon us, and with it comes the dawn of a new promotional calendar. All 30 MLB teams will spend the next six months attempting to woo crowds to an endless slate of home games with trinkets. The Blue Jays are giving out sweatshirts and sunglasses, bucket hats and batting helmets, Josh Donaldson T-shirts and Kevin Pillar replica jerseys — with a cape on the back.
None, though, are the bobblehead, a timeless gift tailor-made for hardcore collectors like Wlodarski and for the masses. On giveaway days at the Rogers Centre, where the supply is limited to 20,000, lines begin to materialize outside the gates four to five hours before first pitch. Long after this season is over, miniature likenesses of Justin Smoak (set to be handed out Saturday against the Yankees), Marcus Stroman (June 6), J.A. Happ (July 2) and stars of the 1993 World Series team (Aug. 11) will enliven the desks, bookshelves and coffee tables of fans across Toronto.
Seriously, forget the 38 home runs Smoak smacked last season. Set aside the breakthrough All-Star nod and overlook his team-leading totals in hits, RBI and games played. There is probably no better indicator of how surprisingly good he was in 2017 than the fact he was selected to be a bobblehead this year.
“It’s kind of crazy, the lineups that you see on bobblehead day,” said Michelle Seniuk, the Blue Jays’ senior manager of promotions and fan activations. “We collect feedback every year at the end of the season on our giveaways and promotions and theme days, and year over year bobbleheads come back as one of the top things that our fans want to see in our promotion schedule.”
Toronto is hardly the only franchise taken by what Ryerson University sports marketing expert Cheri Bradish calls “one of the greatest examples of promotions in sport.” Every MLB team will hold multiple bobblehead giveaways this season; most have scheduled at least five and the Rangers and Dodgers, remarkably, each planned 12. George Brett is getting his own pine tar-themed bobblehead in Kansas City on May 19, and six teams are celebrating Star Wars Day on May 4 with an array of regrettable puns, from “Han Seago” (Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager) to “Sal Solo” (Royals catcher Salvador Perez).
It takes about 120 days for a bobblehead to come to fruition, Seniuk said. In Toronto, marketing staffers convene each off-season to determine which players to highlight the following year. Sculptors who work with teams across MLB mould the figurines by hand from a ball of clay, and some require up to 20 rounds of revisions to get the depiction just right. The end result is a collectible that tries to embody the personality of its muse, be it Stroman shimmying on the mound or Smoak standing solemnly at the plate.
“It’s a way for them to feel connected to current players,” Seniuk said, “or if we’re (featuring) alumni and looking at our history, it’s a way for them to reflect back on the years they’ve been a fan, whether it be a short amount of time if they’re just kids or a long amount of time and they’ve been with us since 1977.”
The story of how baseball’s favourite bauble arrived at parks across North America can be traced, of all places, to Buckingham Palace. As Queen Charlotte posed for a portrait with her two oldest sons in her dressing room back in 1765, the German painter Johann Zoffany caught sight of two Chinese “nodding-head” figures in the background, which he included in his canvas.
The clay statuettes, which Europeans imported en masse from the Chinese port city of Guangzhou in the late 18th century, were early forerunners to the bobbleheads of today. More than a century after Zoffany’s face time with the Queen, German producers began to ship porcelain and ceramic “nodders” of animals and prominent people to the United States. The concept found footing and a mass audience in baseball in 1960, when MLB commissioned bobbleheads for each of its teams and a special line of its biggest names: Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Willie Mays. The players were distinguished by uniform, but shared one generic face.
Ceramic bobbleheads were expensive to make, and production cratered after the 1960s until the 1990s, when a shift to plastic-based manufacturing helped revive the lost art. Fittingly, credit for setting off the current craze goes to a baseball team. In May 1999, when the San Francisco Giants were playing out the last of their 40 seasons at Candlestick Park, they presented the first 20,000 patrons at a Sunday home game against the Brewers with a Mays bobblehead — this time, with a face more resembling his own.
Fans’ nostalgic tendencies were piqued, and demand skyrocketed from there.
“Teams thought, OK, there’s all these thousands and thousands of people who lined up to get the bobblehead and got there early, and they were selling them on the secondary market for all these high prices,” said Phil Sklar, the co-founder and CEO of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame in Milwaukee.
“Now, if a team doesn’t have a bobblehead on their promotional schedule, fans are up in arms.”
Since the Mays promotion, Sklar says, bobbleheads have been the preeminent giveaway item at North American sporting events, for various reasons. They’re free with a ticket, of course, and the design — athletically contorted body, oversized head — has stayed consistent over time. They’re ubiquitous in baseball because the season is so long: MLB teams play 81 home games a year, and they all have five or more minor-league affiliates that also have seats to fill.
“Teams have to be more creative in terms of how they get people through the turnstile,” Bradish said.
Mostly, Sklar says, bobbleheads are fun. He and a childhood friend, Brad Novak, established the Hall of Fame in 2014 with the personal fruits of a dozen years in the collection game, a preoccupation that started with Novak’s stint as an employee of the Rockford RiverHawks in baseball’s independent Frontier League. They bill the Hall as a one-stop celebration of all things bobblehead: facts, anecdotes, an exhibition of 7,000 to 8,000 unique pieces that will be on permanent display in downtown Milwaukee as of next month.
Sklar and Novak also produce and sell their own bobbleheads, including a new, limited edition release of the Blue Jays mascot Ace flaunting two World Series trophies. Sklar says Torontonians have shown particular enthusiasm for the Hall’s merchandise. They’ve gotten requests for Joe Carter and Maple Leafs-themed creations and once tried to pitch Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia on a bobblehead in his own image, though Sklar said they never heard back.
Ever since the Rios giveaway, Wlodarski has made Toronto and its teams his niche in the market. His collection has grown to exceed 650 bobbleheads, including his scores of Blue Jays keepsakes and a couple hundred others with a connection to the city. He has season tickets to the Raptors, the Argonauts and the National Lacrosse League’s Rock, and mostly attends Jays games that feature a promotion. Easter plans will keep him away from the Rogers Centre on Saturday, meaning he’ll have to try to buy or trade for a mini-Smoak later on.
Wlodarski doesn’t intend to sell his bobbleheads, and if circumstances don’t compel him to, he’d eventually like to hand them off to someone who’ll appreciate them. People should become collectors if they think it would be enjoyable, he says — and not for any other reason.
“The bobbleheads are just something extra that is part of my collection, but being there at the games with the people I like hanging out with, that’s the most important thing for me,” he said. “Experiences, to me, are everything.”
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