From Baseballs to Brassieres: The Use of Baseball in Magazine Advertising, 1890-1960

Article excerpt

When we think of advertising, we usually mean advertising on television. Slogans, logos, printed ads, radio promos, and junk mail notwithstanding, it is the ubiquitous TV commercial that stands out as the quintessential form of advertising. With this in mind, it should not come as a surprise that, even though advertising has been around for a long time, it wasn't until television came along that advertising really had any significance in the baseball world. Over forty years ago, James Farrell observed that television was the chief force influencing baseball. What he meant was that advertising was the chief force influencing baseball. Even as early as the late 1950S, advertising fees were in the tens of millions, and Major League clubs were receiving several million of this amount directly through broadcasting rights. One baseball executive stated at the time, "The beer companies temporarily saved baseball."(1)

Not long ago, there was much concern and anticipation raised in baseball circles regarding the prospect of allowing players to wear advertising imagery on their uniforms. With advertising emblazoned on billboards inside and outside stadiums, scattered through programs, yearbooks, and even the backs of tickets, and covering the outfield walls and the backstops (not to mention radio and television advertising and broadcaster pitches for the sake of the listening and viewing audiences), the clothing worn by the players themselves may well be the last frontier for advertising and baseball. Advertising owns Major League Baseball.

In light of this, it may be difficult to imagine a time when baseball was a common theme in national advertising, yet baseball itself neither profited from nor was significantly influenced by this advertising.

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

During the first half of the nineteenth, and particularly after World War I, the magazine was perhaps the most important national advertising medium, rivaled only by radio, and then only by the 1940s. Yet, teams could not profit from baseball-themed advertising in magazines because the advertising couldn't be tied to broadcasting rights, and player endorsement contracts paid little compared with what they bring now. In a sense, this was the "age of innocence" in baseball advertising.

This is somewhat ironic, since the magazine, particularly the national magazine, was born of advertising. Although it is essentially an eighteenth-century invention, even as late as the start of the Civil War there were only a handful of national magazines, such as Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly. But the advent of individual product packaging, improved distribution brought by railways, and product identification through trademarking really opened the door to advertising, in particular, national advertising.

In the 1870s and 1880s, publishers began to realize the profit potential of selling advertising space, and indeed, whole new magazines were created for the express purpose of selling such space. Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Collier's, the Saturday Evening Post, and American Magazine, to name a few, all either got their start or really took off during this time by candidly promoting themselves to the business world as vehicles for advertising. (2)

EARLY BASEBALL ADVERTISING

By the 1890s, magazines were a growing medium for national advertising. However, baseball advertising was limited largely to sporting goods and instructional literature. The messages were simple and direct, almost indistinguishable from a modern classified ad, with little in the way of illustration. Endorsements of a kind can be found very early on but are exceedingly rare, and it was not until shortly before World War I that anything we would recognize as truly being endorsements appeared.

Apart from the promotion of sporting goods, baseball's only role in advertising at this time was metaphorical. Baseball was used as a symbol for health, strength, and vitality. …