The summer he turned 12 years old, a boy in Milwaukee found a hero in New York City. The boy was Buddy Selig, and his hero was Joe DiMaggio. "From '46 on, there wasn't a picture or anything with his name on it that I didn't send away for," says Selig, now the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and the quasi commissioner of baseball.
Today Selig is looking for another hero. Baseball needs ambassadors to sell the game to an increasingly uninterested audience and an equally underwhelmed advertising community. Selig and his fellow owners need someone to do what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did when they resuscitated the NBA in the '80s, and what Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and others continue to do for pro basketball in the '90s. So far, Selig's star search has turned up only this cold truth: Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.
Nowadays the true baseball hero, the player big enough to catch the fancy of fans and advertisers outside his own backyard, is rarer than a spotted owl. Most national idols play other sports, as evidenced one day in spring training when Taylor Mattingly, the eight-year-old son of the New York Yankees' Don Mattingly, bought an entire Jordan uniform to wear: a number 23 Chicago Bull shirt, baggy shorts, low socks and, of course, the proper shoes. Pro football has Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason, all of whom are popular enough to endorse products that are not sports-related. And hockey, though it doesn't have a network television package in the U.S., has Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and a coming attraction in the Mighty Ducks of Disney and Anaheim.
"What really startles me," says Selig, "is in the '40s and 50s, baseball had DiMaggio, Williams, Musial and Jackie Robinson. That kind of dominance [of the public consciousness] by today's individual players doesn't exist. What happened? It's a culture shock for people like me. Like the federal deficit, it didn't happen overnight. It shouldn't be this way, but it is, and we are concerned."
Though baseball has produced stars on a regional level—Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn—only one player began this season with a national television advertising deal for a non-sports-related product: the Texas Rangers' Nolan Ryan, 46, who pitches an analgesic tablet. Ryan also is involved in national print ad campaigns as well as regional TV and print endorsements. (We've excluded Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders from consideration because, having also played football, they still are more curiosities than baseball stars.) George Brett, 39, of the Kansas City Royals has a national campaign with an arthritis balm due out this summer. Terrific. The Ryan and Brett deals should really grab the junior high kids, huh? The game's two top spokesmen are on the brink of retirement and hawking remedies for aches and pains.
"Companies aren't asking for baseball players because they're not as well known across the board as some of the other athletes," says Vangie Hayes, director of talent for advertising giant J. Walter Thompson. "The fact that baseball is falling off in popularity is the reason the players aren't known better—except for when they complain about their contracts."
Last year attendance dropped at 18 of the 26 major league ballparks. In four years the regular-season ratings for network broadcasts of games have plummeted from an average of 5.1 to 3.4. A national poll conducted in March by EDK Associates of New York, a polling company, found that 42% of the respondents identified themselves as baseball fans, a precipitous plunge from the 60% who said they were fans in a similar survey conducted by The New York Times four years ago. You can read all about it in the bookstores, too. Where once the game inspired numerous hardcover musings, this spring a host of sobering what's-wrong-with-base-ball books have sprouted like crocuses.
"Let's face it," Mattingly says, "baseball doesn't have a great image. The problem for a lot of people is that every four years, there's lockout or strike talk. The fans get tired of it. And it seems like the owners and the players are in a fight every year about contracts."
Brett says all the mewling over money is "like a record that has a scratch. If you hear the same thing over and over again, pretty soon you're going to get sick of it and throw it away." In the late '70s and early '80s, Brett gained three national endorsements—for a soft drink, a razor and a chewing tobacco. That was also the era when Reggie Jackson, Steve Garvey and other ballplayers were national celebrities. But as baseball labor tensions heightened in the mid-'80s, the endorsements faded for Brett and the next generation of players. Most of the mud slung between the owners and players has stuck to the players. According to the EDK poll, 55% of baseball fans characterized the players as greedy, while only 37% labeled the owners that way.
Major League Baseball, slow as ever to change and now without a commissioner, has responded to the quandary of the game's dingy image with its usual tack: It formed a committee of owners to study the problem with virtually no input from the Players Association. Philadelphia Phillie owner Bill Giles, a member of this marketing committee, admits it may be several months before his group comes up with any answers. The players' union will be involved later, he says.