- Here's the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising by Roberta J. Newman
In an age when the endorsement deals of professional athletes dwarf already exorbitant contracts and when superstar "brands" have become an obsession, a look into the origins of sport and advertising proves timely. Such is the basis for Roberta Newman's Here's the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising, which examines the seamless interweaving of these twin institutions of American life. Rather than simply providing an overview of the relationship between baseball and advertising, Newman hones in on "various instances in which baseball and advertising have come together to create a clear lens through which to view certain aspects of American culture" (xv).
That Newman should use this lens is wise, as the rise in baseball's popularity as a national pastime roughly coincided with the emergence of America's advertising industry, and that they have grown mightily together demonstrates that baseball had, from the very beginning, a business model. This shatters the illusion, often employed by breathless commentators and the league itself, that baseball is a sport of timeless innocence. As Newman's research demonstrates, the advertising that wallpapers every conceivable surface of modern ballparks is a tradition as old as the game itself. And when the Chicago Cubs were purchased by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley in 1916, the field that came to bear his name—one of baseball's great cathedrals to the game's past—was but an early example of now-ubiquitous corporate naming rights.
Newman's primary tactic in tracing this relationship is to examine the endorsement deals secured by star performers through the decades. One of the strongest aspects of her [End Page 181] study is chronicling the crusade by players to control the use of their own image. The absence of right-to-publicity laws before 1953 allowed the unauthorized likeness of players to be used to endorse products, such as the presence of Ty Cobb on tobacco trading cards, a product the use of which he publicly and vehemently opposed.
Newman exhaustively mines these endorsements not for what they tell about the athlete or the product but for what they reveal about American culture at a certain time. One particularly genius observation is based on research that found that, from 1950 to 1965, endorsements for athletes were at least five times more common in Ebony than Life. Noting that the vast majority of these athletes were baseball players of color, Newman contends that Jackie Robinson and others made such effective endorsers because "not only were they race heroes, they were American heroes They were the true representatives of the American Dream for many African-Americans. They were aspirational figures made flesh" (134).
Another intriguing argument is made about the ascension of Yogi Berra as a pitchman in the 1950s and early 1960s. As much as idealized postwar masculinity was embodied by Berra's teammate Mickey Mantle, the comparatively rumpled Berra's appeal as the trustworthy "everyman," endorsing products ranging from beer to underwear, made him a transitional figure in athlete endorsement. This was due, in no small part, to being one of the first professional athletes to employ an agent. As Newman writes, "The age of player agents and professional handlers had arrived. No longer did players have to create their own image. They hired others to do it for them" (166).
There are occasions when Newman's otherwise skillful dissection of specific endorsements is torturous. Lengthy discussions of Rafael Palmeiro's endorsement of Viagra and Mariano Rivera's commercial spot for the Taco Bell chalupa turn psychological, a bit too based on the subliminal. Regarding the latter, Newman's larger argument is that endorsements featuring Latino and Afro-Latino ballplayers remain largely rooted in the "Chico Escuela" stereotype. The conspicuous rise and fall of Sammy Sosa support this argument, but the discussion of Rivera...