Nod to the past: The ties between baseball and bobbleheads

Nod to the past: The ties between baseball and bobbleheads

Arizona Diamondbacks fan Giovanny Alvillar smiles for a photo with his Zack Greinke bobbleheads at Chase Field during the 2016 MLB season. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Arizona Diamondbacks fan Giovanny Alvillar smiles for a photo with his Zack Greinke bobbleheads at Chase Field during the 2016 MLB season. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – America’s pastime has long been remembered through the preservation of its memorabilia, telling its rich history through the jerseys, gloves, hats and trading cards of its legendary figures.

Giveaways are popular around the league, but one souvenir has cemented itself as a staple to fans and collectors everywhere: bobbleheads.

If you’ve gone to a baseball game, you’ve probably seen and heard advertisements for the team’s seasonal giveaways. Bobbleheads have been used as promotional tools for teams around the league and therefore the knick-knacks have boomed in popularity.

This wasn’t always the case, however. While bobbleheads can be dated back to the late 1700s as decorative figurines, they didn’t get their start in the sports world until 1960.

Four baseball legends of the time were turned into caricatures of themselves – Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Roberto Clemente. They were made out of paper-mâché and despite being set apart by different uniforms, all shared the same face.

The San Francisco Giants paved the way for today’s bobblehead obsession on May 9, 1999, when they gave away 20,000 Willie Mays bobbleheads. Since then, bobbleheads have become a staple in promotion schedules around the league.

“They (bobbleheads) took off in the ‘60s and they sort of faded off into the ‘70s, ‘80s — even in the ‘90s — until the San Francisco Giants gave away a Willie Mays bobblehead … and that’s what really ignited the bobblehead craze,” said Phil Sklar, co-founder and CEO of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame showcases the evolution of bobbleheads, from simple caricatures to player-specific designs. (Photo courtesy of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum)

As time moves on, advancements in technology and the use of different materials has allowed for more creative designs and different special features on the collectibles. Some newer bobbleheads have even had audio features.

Carlton Hawkins, director of marketing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, credits improvements in production value for the evolution of player likeness and posing for bobbleheads.

“I think the sculpting is getting better. The materials are getting lighter,” Hawkins said. “But the problem is the more lifelike they get, the more complicated they get, the more expensive they get. So it’s like you give and take.”

Despite the increased cost to produce the souvenirs, the Diamondbacks still use them as tools to encourage fans to attend a ballgame. The team has been giving out bobbleheads since 2001, with the exception of the 2020 and 2022 seasons.

The team has four bobblehead giveaways slated for the 2024 season. The first took place on March 30 with a Corbin Carroll bobblehead to commemorate his 2023 Rookie of the Year award.

To commemorate Corbin Carroll’s 2023 Rookie of the Year award, the Diamondbacks gave away bobbleheads to the first 20,000 fans at Chase Field on March 30. (Photo by Daniella Trujillo/Cronkite News)

Hawkins said the bobbleheads are useful promotional tools for baseball more so than other professional sports leagues like the NFL or NBA because of the quantity of games. He noted they help get casual fans out to the ballpark and that giveaway games can lead to a 5-25 percent increase in attendance compared to regular games.

Teams around the league strategize when they schedule giveaways to maximize potential attendance. Hawkins said the San Diego Padres, for example, give their bobbleheads away on weekdays because they don’t have trouble filling seats on weekends. The Diamondbacks schedule most of their giveaways for weekends due to the heat in the summer.

On bobblehead giveaway days, the lines to get into Chase Field can stretch all the way across the concourse. To prepare for that, fans sometimes show up early – very early.

“We got here around 11:30 (a.m.),” said D’Andre Hulett, a 19-year-old Diamondbacks fan who wanted to secure the Carroll bobblehead and scheduled his day around the 5:10 p.m. first pitch.

Hulett has been coming to Diamondbacks games since he was around 5 years old and enjoys collecting the giveaway bobbleheads.

“It’s a piece of history,” Hulett said. “It’s a trinket that shows a member of a team that you enjoy and it’s a thing that you can take forever and enjoy.”

The Arizona Diamondbacks increase fan attendance through bobblehead giveaways. In June 2018, the team created the Paul Solo bobblehead – a combination of former Diamondbacks infielder Paul Goldschmidt and Han Solo of Star Wars. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

The desire to acquire these bobbleheads has led to fans re-selling – even pre-selling – them online. Fans can go on eBay and pay to have someone go to the stadium and get them a bobblehead. Multiple listings can be found for Diamondbacks catcher Gabriel Moreno’s bobblehead to celebrate his first Gold Glove award, which will be given away Saturday.

Each guest – depending on the quantity available – gets one bobblehead when they enter the stadium, but it’s not uncommon to see people walking around the stadium with several. Sklar has developed a few different strategies to secure multiple bobbleheads at games.

To improve their collection, Sklar and his friend, Brad Novak, who is the other co-founder of the museum, simply ask people if they wanted theirs. They even offer money to kids and teenagers who may not care to keep the souvenirs.

“They (kids) were excited, we were happy and it was a win-win,” Sklar said.

Sklar and Novak got the idea to open the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum when Novak was working for the Rockford RiverHawks and he would bring home bobbleheads the team would give away. It then led to collecting more and more.

While the two had a passion for collecting sports memorabilia, they also recognized the value in bobbleheads. Once they opened the museum, they expanded to collecting pop culture and political bobbleheads, which led to a sizable collection. They even began making their own, starting with Special Olympian Michael Poll, a friend of theirs.

“We saw the value,” Sklar said. “You could go to a game and get a bobblehead with your ticket and the same bobblehead might be selling for $25, $50, $100 or even more.”

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In order for demand to be high for the bobbleheads, however, the teams need players the fans are invested in. Hawkins said the reason the Diamondbacks produced no bobbleheads in 2022 was because of the lack of a solidified star, plus some supply chain issues.

The stars of today’s MLB once grew up idolizing their favorite players. The significance of getting a bobblehead night can vary depending on which player you ask, but for some, it’s a dream come true.

Maikel Garcia, infielder for the Kansas City Royals, dreamed of playing in the major leagues while growing up in Venezuela.The Royals are giving away 15,000 Garcia bobbleheads on July 20, the first time the young Venezuelan will be transformed into a bobblehead.

Garcia said he aspired as a kid to see all the fans line up for a mini version of him and was honored that the Royals chose him to be featured on a bobblehead.

“It’s a dream come true,” Garcia said. “When I was young I dreamed of that and I recognize how hard I’ve worked all my career and that’s a blessing.”

Hawkins said while players don’t usually have input on the design process, it’s still important to them. He said Carroll looked at his first bobblehead as a moment to know he’s really made it to the big stage. It’s also a special moment for the players’ families when they get a bobblehead night.

For Carroll’s second bobblehead on March 30, lines stretched all the way from the box office to Jefferson Street. It was a bustling scene outside Chase Field, and Hawkins and the Diamondbacks have heard from fans and expect that to be a trend moving forward.

“The fans want more and as they get to know the players we have more,” Hawkins said. “They’re happy that we’ve got four planned for this year. And we’ll see, but it always seems like ‘more is better.’”

(Timeline by David Ricuito/Cronkite News)

James Lotts

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

James Lotts expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Lotts interned for Times Media Group, where he has been published in a number of different newspapers and magazines in Arizona and Southern California.

Daniella Trujillo

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Daniella Trujillo expects to graduate in spring 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in digital audiences. Trujillo has interned as a sports photographer and videographer for BJ Media.

David Ricuito

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

David Ricuito expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism.