The 10 Worst Promotional Ideas in Baseball History
Bad promotions, bad ideas, bad results. Here’s 10 concepts that didn’t quite work out as baseball had hoped.
For as long as this great game has been played, baseball has been full of terrific ideas to help make it more popular. Ladies’ Day was a nice touch to help combat the notion a century ago that going to the ballpark was not for men only. Bill Veeck showed everyone how to mushroom attendance figures by pulling off one great promotional stunt after another, most notably when the Cleveland owner declared one game as Joe Earley Night because an Indians fan by the name of Joe Earley felt the common man wasn’t getting enough promotional love. Goodness, they even invented the hotdog at the ballpark.
Sometimes, however, a promotional stunt or business idea just doesn’t work out—or worse, it backfires, either through negative reaction or unintended consequences. For the following list of 10 promotional thoughts gone wrong, we’re giving the minor leagues a pass because it’s their job to think up shameless ideas to lure fans in, such as Who Wants to be a Turkish Millionaire Night, Mike Tyson Ear Night or Rod Blagojevich Prison Jersey Night. The majors try to play it more dignified, but sometimes they just don’t get it, such as…
The Yellow Baseball, 1938-39
When Ray Chapman was killed by a Carl Mays pitch in 1920, there was a huge push to always place a new ball in play because the fresh white ball would be brighter and easier to pick out of a background to reduce the possibility of a similar tragedy. But some wondered if that was good enough. A bright yellow baseball, which would really stand out, was experimented as early as the late 1920s and used on rare occasion over the next decade at the college level. Brooklyn Dodgers president Larry MacPhail, who was always looking for ideas to enliven the game, decided he would give the yellow ball a shot in the midst of the 1938 campaign.
The yellow ball had been devised by Frederick Ruhr, a “color scientist”—something that conjures up visions of guys in lab coats looking through microscopes at color charts. The idea was that the yellow ball would not only be safe for hitters but more visible for fielders—and it might promote more offense, something baseball owners always welcomed. And while the first two side effects were true, the third wasn’t; it was discovered that the ball’s yellow dye would start to run and make the ball moist—and therefore deader. Scoring didn’t jump through the roof when the Dodgers played the St. Louis Cardinals, nor did it in two additional games played over the next year with the yellow ball. Enthusiasm waned, and the yellow ball became a collector’s item.
As dark batting backgrounds became more of the norm at major league parks, it was determined that the white ball was fine enough, at least until irascible Oakland owner Charles Finley pushed for an orange ball early in the 1970s. It lasted one exhibition game before baseball shook its head no to the experiment.
The Chicago White Sox Wear Shorts, August 1976
The aforementioned Bill Veeck had some pretty sharp marketing ideas throughout his long reign as baseball owner. Some, however, weren’t so sharp. Imagine the surprise of his Chicago White Sox players who came to the park one mid-summer day to discover that they’d be taking the field wearing shorts.
Players had showed off the shorts as part of a fashion show of sorts before the season, but they didn’t think they’d actually wear them at some point. When told to put them on, pitcher Goose Gossage was heard to say, “Hope they give us a little notice so I can go buy some Nair.” First baseman Lamar Johnson, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to wear the shorts, saying, “I got the nicest thighs you ever saw.”
Three times in August, the White Sox put on the Bermuda-style shorts—but they weren’t the first team to do so; the Hollywood Stars once did it back in the glory of the Pacific Coast League’s days. There’s a reason it hadn’t been tried since; the White Sox looked awful in them, like a men’s team masquerading as a women’s softball squad. But the shorts and the exposure of the players’ kneecaps and lower legs didn’t deter the White Sox from playing all out. On the contrary; they won all three games played in shorts and were successful in all eight stolen base attempts while risking scrapes to the naked skin.
Sanity eventually won out; the players grew weary of further use, while Veeck decided that the shorts would be nothing more than a fad that had run its course.
The “Spider-Man 2” Bases, 2004
During Bud Selig’s reign as commissioner—an era ruled by the concept that no revenue opportunity was spared—advertising had crept more visibly into major league ballparks. They were on the main entrance through naming rights, on every square inch of backstops behind home plate and prominently displayed on giveaways sponsored by corporations. But putting ads in the field of play? Well, that just went too far for almost everyone who heard that Major League Baseball was planning to place graphics for the upcoming summer blockbuster Spider-Man 2 on the bases at first, second and third for a weekend interleague series in June.
Fearing that this encroachment would lead to the unforgiveable sin of putting ads on the uniforms themselves a la European soccer teams, fans, politicians and former commissioners all blasted the idea. As quickly as the promotion had been announced, it was scraped as part of a mutual agreement between MLB and Sony Pictures, the studio behind Spider-Man 2—though they would continue with other aspects of the partnership that didn’t include desecration of the playing field.
“I’m a traditionalist,” said Selig, speaking from both sides of his mouth again. “The problem in sports marketing, particularly in baseball, is you’re always walking a sensitive line. Nobody loves tradition and history as much as I do.” Of course, nobody loved money more, either. Still, give baseball credit for doing the right thing and sensing the slippery slope it nearly created.
Scrap Metal Day, September 26, 1942
On the last day of the regular season at their home base of the Polo Grounds, the New York Giants put out an offer of free admission to any kid who came to the ballpark baring scrap metal to help aid the war effort as America fought World War II overseas. Thousands of kids took the Giants up on it—and ruined the scheduled doubleheader an inning short of its completion.
The Giants won the first game over the Boston Braves, 6-4, and looked to have the nightcap in hand with a 5-2 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth inning. Some kids, perhaps thinking that it was the middle of the ninth and that the Giants had clinched the sweep, stormed the field like it was the end of the school year, not the regular season. They were joined by more kids, then more, then more…until the field became a mob of youth that was beyond the control of park officials, who had thankfully long since collected all the scrap. When order couldn’t be restored, umpires had no choice but to declare a forfeit win for the Braves.
An odd statistical sidebar emerged in that Boston starting pitcher Warren Spahn—making only the second start of his storied career—was not given credit for the win but was acknowledged for going the distance, making him one of the few (if only) pitchers to finish a season with a 0-0 record despite officially logging a complete game.
Wet T-Shirt Night, May 20, 1977
In the 1976 movie Network, a struggling, fictional television network decides it will go to any extreme to draw in big ratings, even if it means killing their out-of-control veteran news anchor on the air. A year later, the Atlanta Braves, a struggling, non-fictional major league baseball team, went to any extreme to attract attention, no matter how shameless, to lure in the fans and watch a squad on its way to 101 losses. And the most shameless of the shameful promotions would be Wet T-Shirt Night, which put a whole new spin, wash and rinse on Ladies Day.
A crowd of 11,451, assumedly mostly male, showed up to watch the rotten Braves (13-24) take on the Chicago Cubs. Or at least that’s what they told their wives and girlfriends. But rain threatened the whole thing; for two hours, everyone sat around—interesting enough, no one left—before the first pitch finally took place. You would think the Braves would have simply let the female contestants stand on the field during the delay and let the heavens take care of wetting them down, but there was a whole crew of judges salivating to do just that. And besides, no one would have stayed around to watch the game—as well they shouldn’t have, with the Bad News Braves ultimately suffering a 13-4 trouncing.
Somewhere around the sixth inning, the Braves announced that registration for the contest was under away, to be done in full view of the fans so they can see the pretty girls sign up; it took a while for the first woman to rev up the courage and walk to the table, but once she did, 42 others followed. After the last out of the Braves’ defeat, the main event ensued; the winner was said to be the daughter of a Methodist minister. We’re guessing she didn’t come running to Daddy to tell him how her night was.
The Baseball Network, 1994-95
Before the MLB Network and mlb.tv, there was the Baseball Network. There’s a good reason why two of them are going strong and the other is not.
In its insatiable thirst for revenue (see #8 above) and also power in the wake of Fay Vincent’s removal from the commissionership, MLB decided to try running its own baseball network—producing the game broadcasts itself and basically renting out time on ABC and NBC, using their broadcasters. The networks were initially fine with this, given they would neither benefit nor suffer from advertising sales as CBS did in the previous, more traditional TV deal that resulted in $500 million worth of red ink.
Reaction to the Baseball Network was cool at first, then grew gradually more choleric. First, MLB didn’t even begin its coverage until midseason, which left many scratching their heads over a half-season of opportunity lost. When the broadcasts did begin, they were shown in highly restrictive fashion, sticking solely to regional broadcasts (Yankees and Red Sox fans on the West Coast rarely if ever got to see their teams) while not allowing any other TV stations and networks contracted to MLB or its teams (WGN, TBS, ESPN, et al) to broadcast at the same time. But the Baseball Network’s biggest mistake was in continuing its regional coverage during the postseason, with no staggering of game times; this became painfully apparent when TV markets were given the choice to view just one, not both, League Championship Series. How MLB thought that would make for a good idea was beyond anyone’s sane mind.
The Baseball Network was contracted to last six years, but lasted only two—and to some it lasted only one, after the 1994 strike kept it from gaining an early foothold and allow criticism of the concept to pile up even sooner. MLB quickly trashed the Baseball Network and, in 1996, went back to a more common method of national TV coverage, with Fox and NBC sharing the duties.
Ball Night, August 10, 1995
When 53,000 fans gave their tickets at the Dodger Stadium turnstiles and were given a free baseball in return, nobody gave much thought of it being a dumb idea. But that was before three Dodgers were ejected in a tight battle with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, enraging fans who just happened to have a potentially lethal object to take out their frustrations with.
The hazards of handing out such hard stuff were exposed in the seventh inning when fans began littering the field with the free balls they apparently found no value in keeping. At that point, they were just having fun. After a six-minute delay to clean things up, the game moved on—and it began to get testy on the field. Leading off the bottom of the ninth inning and trailing 2-1, the Dodgers’ Raul Mondesi drew the count to 3-0, then took two pitches clearly outside that were somehow called strikes by umpire Jim Quick; when Mondesi next swung at an outside pitch to strike out, he let Quick know how he felt about it and was promptly ejected—the second Dodger in as many innings to get the thumb.
The fans, a bit furious, showered the field anew. As the grounds crew again went into action to clean up, there was incredulously no announcement from the P.A. booth to cut it out, as there had not been earlier. Meanwhile, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was ejected for arguing Mondesi’s ejection—and down came more balls, for the third time. Quick and his crew waived everybody off the field and said it was time to go home, giving the Cardinals a forfeit victory.
The moral of this misadventure could be summed up as advice for the future: Next time, soft toys.
Turn Ahead the Clock Night, 1999
When MLB teams in the 1990s began wearing throwback uniforms similar to those worn as much as 100 years earlier, it proved highly popular with fans who were increasingly into the yesteryear thing with all the interest in old baseball cards, retro ballparks and movies such as The Natural and Eight Men Out. Along the way, someone decided to double down and try Turn Ahead the Clock Night across MLB ballparks, using jerseys that had yet to be invented—and, God willing, never will be.
Teams took the field wearing “futuristic” uniforms that looked like rejects from a Nike T-shirt brainstorming session. They were overbearing, over-designed and just flat-out ugly, somehow managing to make the Houston Astros’ warm-toned Testcard unis of the 1970s look respectable by comparison. “They’re too shiny, and they’ve got a silky appearance,” said Tampa Bay pitcher Rick White. “They look like something my wife would wear to bed.”
Turn Ahead the Clock Night didn’t begin and end with the jerseys. For a night, teams changed their identity, such as when the New York Mets became the Mercury Mets; players were called by different positions (left field was referred to as “left sector”); and the Baltimore Orioles renamed the girls scooping up foul balls down the lines as “orb girls”—a title that likely cracked up anyone who ever saw the Woody Allen film Sleeper.
The promotion—wisely avoided by a number of teams including the Dodgers, Yankees and Chicago Cubs, who carried on with their standard iconic jerseys—was given a big thumbs down. The uniforms were never used again and have yet to develop into a hot collector’s item via the online auction block, a strong sign that nobody cares to look back—or forward, for that matter.
Disco Demolition Night, June 12, 1979
As we mention in #9 above, not every Bill Veeck promotion worked. But at least the White Sox wearing shorts didn’t lead to a riot at Comiskey Park. Disco Demolition Night did.
As disco fever swept America in the late 1970s, those who never got infected hated it—and when Veeck decided to channel the anti-disco establishment and try Disco Demolition Night during a twinight doubleheader against Detroit, he would soon realize that this was one promotion that would turn out to be more than he bargained for.
Anticipating a crowd of no more than 15,000, the White Sox were overwhelmed to see a sellout crowd of 50,000—with nearly that many turned away. Those who did score tickets and brought along disco albums to be piled up and exploded in between games paid only 98 cents to get in, a reference to a local rock station (97.9 on the dial) sponsoring the promotion. The White Sox soon realized they had more records than they needed and stopped taking them, leaving those who couldn’t give them up to start dangerously throwing them around the ballpark like Frisbees.
Because of this and other distractions such as firecrackers, the first game—a 4-1 win for Chicago—barely was made official as umpires considered a forfeit even then. During the intermission, the pile of records was brought out and exploded—and the raucous crowd turned riotous, invading the field and tearing the field apart. It took Chicago riot police to dispel the crowd; amazingly, only 39 people were arrested. The second game was postponed and forfeited to the visiting Tigers because of the ripped-up field.
10-Cent Beer Night, June 4, 1974
Who in their right minds would have come up with the idea of luring baseball fans and other drunkards into a ballpark with the promise of unlimited beer sold at a dime apiece? And who in their right minds would have said, “What a great idea”?
People in the Cleveland Indians’ front office, that’s who.
This concept wasn’t just misguided and stupid, it was flat-out dangerous. And it led to one of the ugliest episodes in modern baseball history, one that recalled the rowdy hooliganism of the 1890s.
Even before the 25,000 fans—double the season average at Cleveland Stadium—took their seats with their cheap beer, there was tension in the air between the Indians and the visiting Texas Rangers, who a week earlier engaged in a brawl-filled contest that itself had nearly turned into a riot in Arlington. Now it was Cleveland’s turn.
Throughout the game, drunken fans interrupted the game; some shed their clothes and streaked around the field, while others threw objects toward the players. Rangers first baseman Mike Hargrove, the future Indians manager, just missed getting nailed by a wine jug. (That, the Indians weren’t selling for a dime.) Inexplicably, Cleveland management did nothing to curb the growing alcohol-fueled antics of the fans, continuing to pour the beer with no increased security presence. Not even a bottom-of-the-ninth rally by the Indians that tied the game and put the winning run on second base could appease the rowdier fans, who by now must have been out of their inebriated minds. When Rangers outfielder and star hitter Jeff Burroughs had his cap swiped by an onrushing fan—and tripped in pursuit of him—Texas manager Billy Martin, no stranger to confrontation, said enough and ordered his team out of the dugout, bats in hand, to deal with the issue.
That only made things worse; on cue, a flood of fans entered the field in attack mode, and even the Indians—who a week earlier had made the Rangers their mortal enemies—decided it was time to come to the rescue of the Texas players. Numerous players from both teams were hit by objects and punches, though no one was seriously hurt. Umpire crew chief Nester Chylak had no choice but to declare a forfeit with the game tied 5-5. Only nine fans were arrested—but needless to say, seriously discounted beer was never, ever offered again at a major league ballpark.