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Bobbleheads become star attraction at ballparks

1 Mr. Mett 20200827_103748

Inclement weather and stifling summer humidity didn’t keep my kids from pleading with me to take them to Citi Field one year so they could get a Mike Piazza bobblehead. As we stepped off the 7 train and peered at the ballpark from the station’s platform, we could see numerous long lines. It was only 10:30 in the morning for a 1 p.m. game. As we descended the steps of the station, we made our way to a line. Ballpark attendants did their best to keep the people in good spirits as it began to drizzle. “Gates will open at 11:30,” they shouted. Then the sky opened up. Luckily, we brought some cheap garbage bag ponchos.

By 11:30 the rain subsided, and the line began to move. Past the ticket scanner was a crush of people. My kids were nearly trampled as we made our way to the employees handing out the bobbleheads. Once we had the bobbleheads, I was able to collect myself and release the grip I had on my kids’ hands. With a couple of shakes of their numb little hands the kids were ecstatic.

Bobbleheads, or Nodders as they were originally called, have become the single-biggest attraction at major and minor league ballparks throughout the country. For some it’s the collecting aspect that excites them and for others it’s a monetary investment. I’ve seen it firsthand while watching the joyful faces of kids and adults alike as they walk the concourses clutching their boxed gift, and I’ve seen those at the front of the line walk in, get their bobblehead and immediately leave the ballpark. The Mike Piazza bobbleheads were on sale on eBay before they were even all handed out.

Where did all this begin? The original bobbleheads (unrelated to sports) have been documented as far back as the late 1700s, but we’ll stick to baseball.

During the 1950s, there were a few teams that sold ceramic bobbleheads at their respective ballparks. None of them were player specific but simply the little country boy in his favorite team’s uniform—hitters with a bat at their side, pitchers wearing a glove. In 1960, four paper-mache and ceramic bobbleheads of Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were the first to feature specific players. There are no records to show how well they sold. My guess is that most that were sold broke, which made them pretty rare. Today, each can fetch between $1,200-$2,500. The bobblehead and their generic country boy look was semi-popular for the next 35 years. Still, all were only available at the ballpark and at a cost.

It wasn’t until May 9, 1999 at Candlestick Park when the Giants gave away 20,000 Willie Mays bobbleheads that the craze grabbed hold of America’s baseball fans. To cut costs for the giveaway, the bobbleheads changed from ceramic to plastic, which also made them lighter.

By 2002, the National Baseball Hall of Fame began a collection to officially recognize the bobblehead as an important part of the game’s history. Ten years later, the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark displayed almost 600 bobbleheads in a large illuminated case that lightly vibrated so that all the bobbleheads were constantly in motion. In 2019, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame opened in Milwaukee.

In 2013 alone, Major League Baseball handed out 2.59 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers giving away 560,000. Over 4 million bobbleheads were given away during the 2019 season. No doubt, if there had been a 2020 season with fans, teams would have handed out close to or more than 5 million.

Usually teams only offer these giveaways to the first 15,000-20,000 fans. According to the New York Mets Customer Service Department, the number that is given away is determined by the sponsor of the bobblehead. I have always felt it is a small amount as lots of kids are told at the gate that the they have run out, causing heartache and a lot of wasted time waiting in line.

My kids and I sat in our seats in the upper deck and began to enjoy our hot dogs and fries. My daughter, not knowing why our bobbleheads were just sitting in a bag, asked if she could see one. I figured we’ve got an hour and a half before the game begins so I obliged and opened a box for her. She proceeded to pull Mike Piazza’s head off and drop it. The sound of the hollow plastic head could be heard bouncing on each row in front of us. The last bounce was a high one and went over the rail to the section below us. I stood up nearly dropping the food on the row in front of me. I turned to my daughter, who just looked at me and said calmly, “Don’t worry Daddy. We can come back tomorrow and get another one.”