Talking With Rob Nelson About Big League Chew
The story of the creation of Big League Chew in the Portland Mavericks’ bullpen in 1977 is told in shorthand on the back of every package of “the ballplayers bubble gum,” and Rob Nelson, the co-creator, along with Jim Bouton, has told the longhand story on a few occasions. I talked with Nelson recently about some other aspects of Big League Chew, and his life with the Portland Mavericks in the mid-’70s. Here is the first part of our talk: you can also read part two, which focuses on his time with the Mavericks.
In this part, Nellie describes his good fortune in developing an enduring gum brand that recently left the Wrigley company and a production plant in Mexico for independence and production at a Ford Gum & Machine plant near Buffalo, in Akron, New York. Here it is, for the enjoyment of gum-loving people everywhere:
I’ve heard you talk quite a bit about all the lucky elements that together produced Big League Chew, but wasn’t there some skill involved?
It was a combination of remarkable convergence and good fortune. I came up with Big League Chew, which was a really lucky name–Jim Bouton and I kept thinking of other names, like All-Star Bubble Gum, but that name worked. But the development was largely Bouton’s effort. I really didn’t know where to go with Big League Chew, but he handled all the managerial stuff. He was an aggressive partner, making things work, pushing the idea.
And the technology came together. There was a company that wanted to go ahead with a shredded gum product with Wrigley, and Wrigley had a shredding machine. But the company had some changes in management and abandoned the strategy. Wrigley could have gone ahead with the shredded gum idea, and named it something else, left me out of the process. Their unit, Amurol Confections, in Naperville, Illinois, took over production. Ron Ream was the engineer who made the gum work. He also perfected bubble gum tape, the 6-foot rolls of gum, and Hubba Bubba bubble gum.
I got a pack of Big League Chew a while ago, the first time I’d had some in a long time. What struck me was how soft, almost liquid the gum is; it takes a long time to firm up.
What makes Big League Chew so soft is the glycerin. That’s also what keeps the gum shredded in the package, makes sure it’s not congealed during shipping. Ron Ream, who came up with the formula, really knew his stuff.
It struck me as odd that Wrigley is leaving behind Big League Chew, because there’s that name, Wrigley Field, and it seems like such a nice tie-in between the stadium and the gum.
That is something, yes. But, it was a business decision by the Mars company (which bought Wrigley in 2008). They sell more M&Ms in a three-day weekend than Big League Chew sells in a year. And they have a very strong mission statement, not to advertise to kids until they’re 12, and they focus more on kids who are 15 and up. I thought it might be an undervalued brand, a good thing for Wrigley to hold onto, but it wouldn’t have worked.
A lot of people there didn’t want to see it go, but business is business. Wrigley helped me find Ford Gum to take over production. They’re a smaller company, a really good fit for Big League Chew. It’s a great situation, where I might get Big League Chew from an $8-$10 million annual business to a $15-$20 million business. And Wrigley steered me in that direction.
Just last week, Lucas Erickson at Wrigley sent me an email: there were 180,000 pouches of Big League Chew left over at the end of the year as Wrigley inventory, and that question of what do you do with it? Because Ford Gum had taken over distribution rights at the start of the year. And what Wrigley did was send all the pouches to U.S. armed forces around the world, Afghanistan, Iraq, and everywhere else, at no charge to me. Wrigley did the right thing, it was like coming through with a pinch-hit grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to win the World Series.
The situation reminds me of the last months of the Mavericks, how we knew the end was coming. I’m at a competent firm in Ford Gum, left Wrigley with a happy ending, and now a new beginning with Ford. The people there, they’re in the bubble gum business, they just make gum: that’s their focus. They do a couple things really well. We have a 15-year agreement with them; such a long time.
Now, Bouton, is he a silent partner in Big League Chew at this point?
Jim is no longer a partner in Big League Chew. He left 10 years ago, had some other things he was working on, and didn’t have much time to run our business. So I bought out his share.
You’ve talked a bit about the origins of Big League Chew, how growing up you were a big fan of Nellie Fox.
Yes. When I was growing up, there were two bat types, the Jackie Robinson model and the Nellie Fox model: both had thick bat handles, just like the barrel of the bat; you could hardly tell end from end.
So Nellie had the two bulging cheeks of tobacco, and I’d imitate him. I’d get logs of Bazooka gum, I’d start working on them an hour before the game, one in both cheek, chewing them down to get them soft. And that whole idea seemed fun, being a kid again with Big League Chew. I’m still “Nellie” to this day, that’s what people call me, even my wife calls me that. Only in baseball do you get those sorts of names sticking with you when you’re 30, 40, 60 years old. It’s a fun part of life.
About $18 million of Big League Chew sold in the first year of production. What do you think explained why it was so popular so quickly? And was there anything somewhat like it on the market beforehand?
No, there wasn’t much resembling the idea, Bazooka was the closest thing. It was a case of right time, right place. The MAD magazine-style characters drawn by Bill Mayer helped quite a bit. I was not surprised the brand was successful. I had a three-year deal with Wrigley, and was not sure what would happen at the end of it. I figured I could always go back to teaching if it didn’t keep going. [Nelson has a Masters in teaching from SUNY-Cortland.]
I remember seeing Ringo Starr say in an interview back in the ’70s that he figured if the Beatles had just a couple years of fame and fortune, he would open up a couple of hair styling salons, barber shops, and do that. It was the same kind of thing with me.
Is Big League Chew an overseas brand at all?
No, it’s a U.S.-only brand now. I’d like to get into the Asian market, and am looking at possibilities for that. I thought it’d be great to sign on Shin-Soo Choo; he’d be a great help there. [Think of how the name rhymes with Big League Chew.]
Do people write you letters saying that Big League Chew helped keep them from chewing tobacco, or helped their kids by having them chew the gum instead of tobacco?
There’s some of that, high school kids switching from tobacco to Big League Chew. A lot of parents say “what a fun idea.” There are a few crank letters saying that it promotes tobacco and all, but the whole point of Big League Chew was to not use tobacco. I was never chewing tobacco; we didn’t like it, so we came up with the product.
About 2 percent of guys in the bigs use chewing tobacco now, some dip a little from the tin, but the rate’s gone down. If you look at Wakefield, Moyer, guys playing well into their 40s, they’re looking for the big contracts late in their career. If you’re going to do that, you can’t use debilitating drugs, you have to maintain your body.
Bill Ripken said each cubicle in mlb, in the ’90s, had both a spittoon and an ashtray. That didn’t last long, it was on the way out then. When incomes went up, the stakes were higher; guys know in their later years that time is running out, they have to put the kids through college. It doesn’t make sense to use tobacco.
I love how you see Jeter blowing big bubbles at shortstop, at the plate, guys going into their motion blowing bubbles. You get to be an 11-year-old with our gum, and it’s so good for blowing bubbles.
I was going to bring that up: how important is the bubblability factor?
Oh, it’s huge. That was something I had to make sure companies could do, switching from Wrigley. There was one really good company, a big one, I can’t disclose the name, but they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t make the bubblable gum. It really matters.
I like grape. The sour apple is good too, but grape is the best. It’s what I go with when I’m at the baseball camps for kids, going up against them in the bubble-blowing contests. I’m still undefeated with grape.