Everyone loves gum but what if you wanted to pretend you were using chewing tobacco but you were a little kid, what would you use?
Big League Chew was a pink shredded gum that was invented in 1980 by former baseball player Rob Nelson as a chewing tobacco substitute. It was first made by the Wrigley Company and is now manufactured by Ford Gum & Machine company. Big League Chew has sold over 800 million pouches and is considered “the hall of fame bubblegum”.
I don’t know what your local variety store was like but I feel like Big League Chew was placed front and center just to catch my eye. As much as I told myself that I would get something new each time I went there I kept on buying Big League Chew.
Every kid likes gum but Big League Chew made it so much more fun and almost more adult-like as It came in a pouch like chewing tobacco did. We watched baseball players use this all the time and I think some of the appeal was that you weren’t supposed to be mimicking it. This was like the similar effect of Popeye cigarettes. You were allowed to have them but still felt a bit rebellious.
Here’s the story of the bubble gum of every kids childhood, Big League Chew.
Setting The Stage For Big League Chew
So it’s starts in the dugout bench. Like I had mentioned, chewing tobacco had been a mainstay of baseball pretty much since day one. Unbeknownst to the old timers this stuff was pretty bad for you but it was always part of the culture. You would even see guys smoking in the dugouts during the 70s.
I love baseball but there is a lot of, lets say, “downtime” during the game. And what better way to pass the time than with chewing tobacco. Smokeless tobacco — as it’s referred to — had been banned in ballparks and dugouts in 2016. It was found in 2014 that 1/3rd of pro ball players were still actively using chewing tobacco which is pretty crazy to think about. It must have been 100
With new rules in place you’re seeing it phased out altogether and players now are opting for sunflower seeds or good old fashioned chewing gum.
But the creation of Big League Chew all starts with the son of Kurt Russell…
The Creation Of Big League Chew
Bing Russell was the son of legendary actor Kurt Russell and he was a huge baseball guy. He bought a minor league team in 1973 called The Portland Mavericks. Bing was big on finding players who ate, slept, and breathed baseball. He wanted players that loved the game more than anything and one of those guys was Rob Nelson.
Rob Nelson was a left-handed pitcher who grew up as a big fan of bubblegum, like most kids were. He collected a lot of baseball cards and one of his favorite players was Hall of Famer Nellie Fox. In Nelson’s favorite card the picture featured Fox with a huge cheek full of chewing tobacco. He knew he couldn’t use the same stuff so he would chew a lot of gum to get the same look.
Rob would end up following baseball as far as he could and eventually got a tryout and made it onto the Mavericks. There was a player on the team named Todd Field who would always cut up black vine licorice and Rob would seem to subconsciously make note of it.
Rob would ask what he was chewing and Field told him saying he was using it instead of tobacco. Rob then asked if he could do the same thing with gum and Field assumed he could. That was it for the moment and it would be a year until Rob would revisit the idea.
During the season of 1977, Rob went up to Field and asked him if it should be in a tin.
This is something they wanted to use on the bench but didn’t want to look like little kids in front of their teammates by sticking big pieces of bubblegum in their mouth. Rob wondered if having it shredded like the chewing tobacco was would make it easier for them to fit in.
The idea for a healthy form of chewing tobacco was born right there and even the name Big League Chew was created right away. They played around with a few others such as “Red Steer Chew”, “Maverick Chew”, and “All-Star Chew”.
Taking The Next Step With Big League Chew
Rob had a teammate named Jim Bouton who had played for the Yankees and Rob approached him about helping get this idea off the ground. Bouton designed the image on the pouch which was based on himself in a baseball uniform. This would give the impression that this would be a product meant for children.
Bouton put up $10,000 to get a patent on Big League Chew and this was right after Nelson had stopped playing baseball. Bouton was still pitching in the minors in 1978. Nelson had gone to see him to keep this idea alive, and it’s when Bouton invested the money. Bouton had good connections but his focus was still on getting back to the major leagues so it was hard for him to promote anything at the time.
Rob Nelson wanted the money to patent and protect the idea but the problem was you couldn’t patent the idea of shredding gum. You could however trademark the name and packaging that it came in.
Perfect, now they could take the product to show the companies. The problem was they didn’t have any actual product. They hadn’t even created the gum yet…
Rob would order a gum making kit out of the back of a magazine, got some empty pouches — that they mocked up a logo for — some food coloring, and licorice flavor. The mixture was put together and came out looking like a sheet of thin brownies. They then used a pizza cutter to cut into thin strips.
And it tasted like crap.
Bouton and Rob Nelson didn’t care, they knew they had a good idea on their hand and everything could be enhanced and improved later on.
Trying To Get Big League Chew On The Market
They found an art studio to make the proper logo for the pouch that was a cartoon likeness of Jim Bouton in his Yankee pinstripes and he started to shop it around.
The approached Topps and Fleer’s but they wouldn’t
They then left for lunch and would come back to observe how the kids responded to it. They get to the store and find out all the pouches had been cleared out in ten minutes.
They were ready to negotiate.
Launching Big League Chew
One issue was that Wrigley didn’t want to be associated in any way with Big League Chew because they didn’t want any connection to a tobacco product. Even a pretend one.
The chemists also had a problem, they had to find a way to make the shreds of gum taste unlike any other type of gum on the market. They also needed it to not stick together in the pouch and be loose the same way chewing tobacco was.
They solved all these problems and finally had the product down and could make a package from mixing to packaging in two days. Along with that, they also had a great logo of a rugged ball player on the pouch and rolled out Big League Chew in the spring of 1980.
In the first year Big League Chew made $18 million dollars.
This is pretty insane because Amurol as a company was only worth $8 million and this one product was worth more than twice what their company was!
I don’t know if you remember this also but they released the pouches with Popeye on the front of it as a way to really promote to young kids. This did not sell nearly as well, but it didn’t matter because Big League Chew was going crazy.
Rob Nelson states how it got ten times bigger than what their wildest dream expectations were. They knew how to appeal and market to kids and as one of those kids, I can tell you that it worked. Because of Big League Chew, they actually become the biggest novelty manufacturing company in the world at the time. Their company went from $2 million to $126 million.
And this is in the early 80s so when converted for today is more in the neighbourhood of $350 million. Also, that $18 million the first year would be the equivalent of about $52 million.
That’s A LOT of shredded gum.
The Future Of Big League Chew & Controversy
So after just two years Big League Chew had made $27 million and would then level off a bit but still pull in $10-12 million a year. These sales would stay incredibly steady over the years though. Rob Nelson would eventually buy out his partner Jim and then Wrigley would sell their interests to a company called Ford Gum.
The Mars company was buying out Wrigley for $23 Billion and Rob and crew didn’t want Big League Chew to be caught up in a bigger corporation and potentially lose their factory so they had talked Wrigley into selling to Ford Gum.
They’ve also played around with the flavors over the years adding in a neon green one which had a sour apple flavor along with a bright purple version which was grape flavored. Regardless of the variety they are still pumping out 100,000 pouches A DAY. Wow.
Big League Chew has still gone strong over the years but the controversy surrounding it was the thought that a package of shredded chewing gum was installing the idea of chewing tobacco in a young kids mind.
The thought was similar to companies like Joe Camel using a cartoon to catch the eye of kids and maybe draw them in as future customers some day. A big issue was that it was called “chew” the same way that people refer to chewing tobacco. Some had the idea that Big League Chew was glorifying chewing tobacco and was not a responsible product.
This was never the case with the creators because they were not wanting to go the route of chewing tobacco and were looking for a substitute in creating it. I don’t remember my parents frowning on the use of big league chew the way they would with Popeye cigarettes. I’m also now just making this connection of Popeye being involved in some addictive vices here…
Wrapping It Up
If you’re like me Big League Chew was a massive part of your childhood. When I think of a tangible product from the 1980s that wasn’t a toy this is the product that comes to mind. There was nothing more exciting than going into a convenience store and seeing all the novelty candies and products and always seeing that distinctive pouch.
Chewing gum goes hand in hand with childhood and Big League Chew is the ultimate gum. To me, it’s still the best chewing gum ever made and nothing can compare with its softness, chewiness, and that it lent itself to the best bubbles of any gum. Fun fact; Bubbles blow best once all the sugar is dissolved from chewing. (that’s a tip from the head of Ford Gum…)
Every pack was so fresh when you opened it and had that distinctive smell. It was so chewy and tasty you almost wanted to eat it compared to those rock hard varieties put out by other companies.
Looking at you Bazooka Joe…