SI Vault
William Johnson
January 26, 1970
Anxious to make their play to men, the sellers of cars, insurance, travel, cigarettes, razors, tires and long-lasting heads eagerly pay a premium price to spread sports-and their commercials-across the land
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January 26, 1970

'you Know You're Not Getting Maudie Frickert'

Anxious to make their play to men, the sellers of cars, insurance, travel, cigarettes, razors, tires and long-lasting heads eagerly pay a premium price to spread sports-and their commercials-across the land

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Here, too, is Stanley Peroutka, 46, who has managed the Land O'Lakes creamery in Morristown for 25 years and has watched the changes. "It used to be that my farmers would come in with their milk in the mornings and the talk would be about the weather and the crops and maybe a bad word for Harry Truman or Henry Wallace. Farmers didn't give a damn about sports a few years ago. They wouldn't go to no high school games, and they wouldn't let their sons go out for sports either because it took them away from the farm. My farmers didn't know a touchback from a touchdown. But you should hear them now in the mornings. They're talking zig-outs and flare passes and blitzes like Bud Wilkinson or something. A lot of them like baseball best though, because they understand it a little better. Now that we got the Twins, there's a real strong baseball following here. I think there's even more people going to our Sunday town-team games. I know that a lot of my farmers at the creamery go up to five, six Twin games a year. Ten years ago these guys never even seen a town game, and now they're at the big leagues all the time."

So the Land O'Lakes creamery has become big-league territory. The Twins, the Vikings and the North Stars belong to Stan Peroutka's farmers. In Irv's Bar you can see a schedule tacked up showing that the Morristown Comets will take on the Ellendale Raiders, the Medford Tigers and the Blooming Prairie Blossoms. And next to it is another schedule: the Vikings vs. the Packers, vs. the Lions, vs. the Bears.... It is a wedding of two worlds, the majors and Morristown living happily ever after.

It is a fine gift that the farmers, the bartenders and the quarterbacks living along Highway 16 have received. Superficially the giver is television, for neither the Twins nor the Vikings could survive without their TV revenues. Yet the real origins of the gift lie across a chasm of time, space and motivation in places far from the rows of men in bib overalls on the stools in Irv's Bar, far from the network executives at Toots Shor's bar, far from Rick Ellingworth's barn, far from the spacious suites of Pete Rozelle and Bowie Kuhn.

In South Boston is a factory, huge and blocky. It is built of bricks and glass and looks like any other industrial complex. Its distinguishing characteristic—until its occupant recently outgrew the premises—was a smell. Quite a nice fragrance, if rather too palpable, hung over an area of several square blocks. It was a familiar aroma, familiar because it was the scent of the nation's top-selling underarm antiperspirant spray: Right Guard deodorant. This was the place: 90 million cans of Right Guard turned out each year. Just being near the spot—an honest-to-goodness deodorant plant—made one feel almost reverent. For isn't this the symbolic center of American life in the late 20th century, a kind of pop shrine in an age when every living American has been alerted (at last!) to the desperate need to seem clean?

Deodorant was not the only issue of the place, for this was and still is the headquarters of the Gillette Safety Razor Company. Right Guard is merely a late addition to the traditional razors-and-blades business of this esteemed old firm. No company has had more influence on the early advancement of sports through MassCom than Gillette. Long before Right Guard was helping underwrite the World Series, the company was selling its blades to men who enjoyed sport. As far back as 1915, Gillette was running baseball scores in its newspaper ads. By 1929 a favorite radio feature on the NBC Blue Network was Gillette's Graham McNamee reading The Sports News Review. In 1935 Gillette got in on its first major sports broadcast when it sponsored the Max Baer-Jim Braddock fight and launched a far-reaching merchandising plot that kept the fight—and Gillette—before the radio-listening public for weeks.

"We have always merchandised the devil out of our relationship with sport," says Al Leonard, Gillette's public-relations manager, who has been affiliated with the firm's promotion and advertising creations for 40 years. "The Baer fight was only one of the first." For 26 weeks prior to the match, Gillette had Max Baer playing a private eye in a radio drama called Lucky Smith. Beyond that, Gillette launched a national contest to name Max Baer's dog. There were more than 250,000 entries, and the first prize of $1,000 went for the name Livermore Gay Blade. But Max Baer lost the fight, and Gillette did not plunge into action sports again until the summer of 1939 when a man named A. Craig Smith (no relation to Lucky) was the advertising manager of the firm. Smith was a brilliant idea man who had come to Gillette when the company was under the direction of Gerard Lambert, whose name should live as long as men breathe because he engraved the term "halitosis" upon the world's consciousness during an earlier stint as the head of Listerine. Craig Smith led Gillette into its halcyon days as sport's No. 1 commercial backer.

In the summer of 1939 Craig Smith sat down with Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and arranged to pay $100,000 for the radio rights to the World Series of that year. Eager to capitalize on what was, for those depressed days, a major investment, Smith took a 49¢ cardboard pack of razor and blades that Gillette had introduced the year before and ordered a special batch of World Series wrappers printed up bearing the picture of Yankee Third Baseman Red Rolfe. He flooded Gillette's retail outlets with the package and sat back to wait. During the Series the company bombarded the world with 16 commercials per game, but disaster struck: the Yankees knocked off the Reds in four straight. Gloom descended on Gillette, for the company had gotten absolutely minimum advertising exposure for its $100,000 adventure. Smith was disconsolate. But then sales figures began arriving in Boston and—eureka! "We couldn't believe our eyes," says Al Leonard. "Sales were up 350%. It wasn't even a new product and here were these fantastic records coming in. We didn't wait: we went running all over the country to buy every major sports event we could find."

Gillette wound up doing the Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl in 1940, plus the Kentucky Derby, the World Series again, and on Dec. 8, 1940—for the grand sum of $2,500—the National Football League championship. That unforgettable game was carried by 117 stations of the Mutual Network, and it led sport-page Cassandras to predict the early death of pro football as a viable entertainment because George Halas had allowed his Chicago Bears to eradicate the Redskins 73-0.

Over the next 20 years no single commercial concern was more closely associated with sport broadcasts than Gillette. It invested heavily in the birth of the American Football League by buying a quarter sponsorship of each game in those ungainly early days, and until 1965 it owned the radio-TV rights to the World Series. Probably Gillette's best-remembered television involvement was its Friday-night fight series. In a 20-year period the company sponsored no fewer than 600 boxing matches on television. Gillette was insistent on continuing its electronic bouts long after both the public and the networks had begun to express dismay over the forlorn caliber of the fights—as well as the unscrupulous characters promoting major-matches. Not until 1964 did Gillette finally cancel its boxing programs, and then it was reluctant to do so. "We simply could not clear enough stations, although we pounded the table as hard as we could," says Leonard. "Boxing was not in vogue. But we had splendid profiles from our National Shaving Habit Study, which surveyed 3,000 homes twice a year, showing that fight fans were using Gillette blades more than almost any other group. Finally we had to give in. Granted hindsight, we might have made it a Fight of the Month instead of a Fight of the Week."

In the past three or four years, Gillette has given up its supremacy in sponsoring the mass communication of sports. No longer does a nation thrill to the words, "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports Is on the Air!" And all those fine old commercial phrases—"How're Ya Fixed for Blades" and "Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp"—have vanished along with the hyperthyroid parrot that did the soft-shoe dance.

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