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Babe Ruth, still dead after all these years, is nonetheless having a remarkable season. In corporate America, that is. Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign tied to Ruth's 100th birthday, on Feb. 6, we are being treated to a retail Babe-o-Rama.
There are images of the Bambino on plates and beer steins, stamps and coins, watches and wall clocks, telephone debit cards and bottles of nonalcoholic wine, magnets and computer mouse pads. And don't forget the obligatory baseball trading cards, T-shirts and caps, crystal and, of course, a talking picture frame.
Almost 100 "official" Ruth products are available. Each for a price. Each adorned with a special 100th-anniversary logo denoting "brand" status. Some of the items even carry the Sultan of Swat's "exclusive replica signature."
But a talking frame? Tempered glass covers a picture of Ruth completing his mighty swing. A button starts the muffled audio, which offers a radio replay of Ruth's legendary "called" home run in the 1932 World Series. The frame sells for $129.95.
Though Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Joe Montana are not about to disappear from the marketing landscape, the stars of yesteryear are proving to be valuable players in both advertising and the sale of sports memorabilia. And an Indianapolis firm called Curtis Management Group, which represents the families and estates of Ruth and 51 other late great sports figures, is leading the way.
Curtis was founded in 1981 to protect and promote the names and images of dead artists and entertainers, people such as Norman Rockwell, Elvis Presley (no longer a client). James Dean and Buddy Holly. Its list of nonsports clients ( Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo and Malcolm X. to name a few) has grown remarkably.
But sports figures—once an afterthought—now account for some 45% of a thriving business that employs 35 people. How impressive is Curtis's roster of clients? The New York Times Greatest Sports Legends has profiles of 50 of this century's greatest athletes; Curtis handles contracts for 26 of them, including Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Casey Stengel, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Vince Lombardi, Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey.
Ruth, who died in 1948, is once again knocking out the biggest hits. And the greatest number. He has appeared in a variety of advertising and marketing campaigns—for Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Hallmark. Zenith. Sears and others—and. of course, has made the mandatory appearance on Wheaties boxes. And this year, as Curtis pushes the birthday angle to entice licensees, Ruth products are expected to bring in more than $25 million in retail sales, with royalties and licensing fees alone running "well into seven figures," according to Mark Roesler, president of Curtis.
"Oh, my," says Julia Ruth Stevens, the 77-year-old daughter of the Babe and a principal beneficiary of this windfall. "Daddy would be amazed. And so proud. He did very well when he was alive, but now he is generating more money than when he was playing ball."
It is no wonder, then, that Roesler, a 39-year-old lawyer, speaks of Ruth and other late athletes in such exalted terms. While the rest of us are comfortable thinking of dead athletes as merely, well, dead athletes, Roesler prefers to call them "legends past" and "images of excellence for all seasons."