Big League Chew!
When children of the 1980s and ’90s meet Rob Nelson, they share with him a version of the same misty, water-colored memory: the dusty dugout of a hometown baseball field, a scrappy summer little-league team, and a communal pouch of Big League Chew—the shredded bubble gum that Nelson, a former minor-league pitcher, invented in 1979.
Forty years later, Nelson’s creation has become closely allied with our national pastime, a sport of spitting and gum chewing and chewing things over. More than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold. The company does about $16 to $17 million in revenue each year. And a pouch hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“I like to say that my arm’s not in the Hall of Fame, but my gum is,” Nelson told me. “It’s not the way I thought I’d get in, but I have no complaints.”
He stood amid the vast aisles of candy displays at the National Confectioners Association’s Sweets & Snacks Expo inside Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, manning the Big League Chew booth as a sort of mascot for the brand. It is a cartoon of his face, after all, that graces the current pack of Outta’ Here Original flavor. “That’s me from very, very long ago, when I was in my 20s,” Nelson said, somewhat wistfully. At the age of 70, though, he has maintained an athletic physique as well as his Redfordian good looks, with a square jaw and tousled graying blond hair.
Rob Nelson during his days playing for the Portland Mavericks.
BIG LEAGUE CHEW
A lefty hurler while earning a degree in philosophy at Cornell University, he went on to a long career as a journeyman on teams in places as far flung as South Africa and Australia. “I finished pitching in my late 40s,” he says. “I had a great run for somebody who, frankly, just wasn’t that good.” It was his halcyon days in the mid-70s with the independent Portland Mavericks—the ball club owned by Bonanza
actor Bing Russell, the father of movie star and former minor-leaguer Kurt Russell—that led Nelson toward improbable baseball immortality with his invention of one of the most legendary sports-associated confections.
As one of the millions of kids who grew up playing ball with a wad of pink saccharine goo nestled in my cheek, I felt a certain nostalgic charge talking with the man behind Big League Chew. Nelson spoke about baking the first batch of gum, going into business with All-Star New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, butting heads with activists who viewed his product as a gateway to chewing tobacco, and why a product that can be relatively difficult to find in stores has managed to endure for four decades. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Esquire: How did you come up with the idea for Big League Chew?
It was the summer of 1977. I was a pitcher for the Portland Mavericks, and there was a teenage batboy named Todd Field. He’s now a writer, director, and actor in Hollywood. He co-wrote and directed In the Bedroom
, which was nominated for a few Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Anyway, Todd had a pouch full of licorice that he had chopped up because he wanted to look cool like one of the older ballplayers. I said to him in the clubhouse, “Hey, Todd, what do you have there?” He said, “Don’t worry, it’s not Red Man. It’s just licorice.” That idea just kind of stayed with me, I guess.
Did you ever chew tobacco?
At that time in the minor leagues, a lot of guys did chew tobacco. But I never did. I spent a lot of time in the bullpen just observing guys. Jim Bouton, a former World Series hero for the New York Yankees, became my teammate on the Mavericks as he tried to mount a comeback after being away from major league baseball for a few years. He looked at me during one game and said, “Did you ever try chewing tobacco?” I said, “Yeah, for less than a minute.” Bouton said, “Yeah, me too. It just never made sense to me.”
Maybe an inning later, I said to Jim, “You know, if we shredded bubble gum and put it in a pouch, we could look cool and have some fun with it. We’d look like tough guys but wouldn’t make ourselves ill.” Another inning later, Jim said to me, “I really like that idea. What would you call it?” I remember saying, “I don’t know, uh, Big League Chew?”
BIG LEAGUE CHEW
You grabbed the name out of the ether?
It was just right there. It was the perfect name for the gum. Jim became my business partner on a handshake. He put up about $10,000 for prototypes. It all happened like in a movie. Everything fell into place.
In January 1979, I read an article about a small make-your-own-bubble-gum company out of Arlington, Texas. I bought a case of the stuff. I went to the Meijer supermarket and got flavor extracts of maple and root beer. On February 6, 1979, I made my first batch of what would become Big League Chew. I baked it in batboy Todd Field’s mom’s kitchen. I had to use her kitchen because I was a ballplayer—I didn’t have utensils and stuff at my place. It came out of the oven looking like a pan of brownies. I thought brown would be cool because it would have that Red Man look. Stupid idea! I shredded it with a pizza wheel. I had some pouches made, sent it to Jim, and said, “Good luck with this!”
How did the initial batches of Big League Chew taste?
I was a pitching coach with the Portland State University team at the time. I brought the gum down to the stadium for the guys to try. They were so sweet, because they knew I was an idea guy and that I was a little bit wacky. I brought out the pouches. All of them said, “Rob, this is a great idea.” None of them said, “Rob this is great gum.” [Laughs
Big League Chew’s inaugural package in 1980.
BIG LEAGUE CHEW
Who illustrated the characters that grace the outside of the Big League Chew pouch?
The original illustrator was Bill Mayer, a really talented artist out of Decatur, Georgia. Jim Bouton took one look at Bill’s drawings, and he said, “These guys look like Portland Mavericks!” The Mavs were scruffy and paunchy, with a cigarette and a beer in the clubhouse. It was like Bull Durham
How did you get Big League Chew to the marketplace?
Jim was the one who went door to door, pounding the pavement. Eventually he found a small division of Wrigley, Amurol Confections out of Naperville, Illinois. They specialized in gimmick gum: Bubble Tape, Ouch! bubble gum that looked like a Band-Aid—you know, dopey stuff. They gave us a three-year deal. They thought, This will be a cool novelty
. But that first year, we sold $18 million worth of gum. The following year, in 1981, the Wrigley family sold the Cubs to the Tribune Company for $20.5 million. So Big League Chew was in the ballpark, so to speak, monetarily.
Why do you think the gum immediately found an audience?
I remember looking through a one-way mirror during market research studies and hearing kids talk about why they liked Big League Chew. They said they liked the fact that they could share it easily with their teammates or friends, that they could open up the pouch and someone could take a pinch. It is gum as a communal experience.
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Aligning a gum with baseball was also smart. It is the sport of chewing and spitting.
Absolutely. Big League Chew would never work in basketball. There’s too much going on. In baseball, you’re sitting around between innings and between plays.
Another inspiration for Big League Chew, beyond Todd Field’s shredded licorice, was seeing guys in the bullpen who chewed tobacco having competitions on how far or how accurate they could spit. It was just disgusting. And it could have tragic consequences. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who dipped his whole career, died of cancer of the salivary gland. Gwynn’s former agent John Boggs mentioned to me that Tony had said during his last years: “If only I had started chewing bubble gum instead of tobacco, I wouldn’t be in the soup I’m in now.”
It’s interesting that you’ve always seen Big League Chew as an alternative to chewing tobacco. When I was growing up, some parents saw the shredded gum as an introduction to Red Man and the like, just as they viewed bubble gum cigarettes as a gateway to smoking Marlboros.
The gateway idea is all fantasy. I’ve never had anyone come up to me and say, “I got hooked on Red Man because of you.” The reason nobody has ever said that to me is because that person probably doesn’t exist. I don’t think anyone goes from shredded bubble gum to chewing tobacco any more than kids who use Nerf guns become terrorists.
Big League Chew rose to popularity at the same time as the Reagan administration began the war on drugs and during the era of the expansion of the D.A.R.E. program. Did you ever get any guff from the governmental or activist organizations?
There was an organization called NSTEP, the National Spit Tobacco Education Project. They were not
fans of Big League Chew. Joe Garagiola, the late catcher turned broadcaster, was a big crusader for NSTEP.
BIG LEAGUE CHEW
Did you get gum requests from MLB players?
Yes. And I still get them. San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey loves the gum. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle—a huge fan. Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager told ESPN he chews a lot of gum, but only Big League Chew's Outta’ Here Original flavor. He said when he was in high school, he used to chew Ground Ball Grape—but then he hit a bunch of grounders, so he doesn’t chew that flavor anymore. [Laughs
Big League Chew remains relatively unchanged since you made the first batch in 1979 and went to market in 1980. You’ve innovated in terms of flavor selection and today you sell gumballs in addition to the shredded gum. Have you, as a businessman, ever had the itch to evolve or do you see consistency as a virtue?
I’ve always wanted to keep it really simple. I like to think of Big League Chew as the In-N-Out Burger of confections. I never wanted to get into line extensions. I didn’t think things like Big League Root Beer or something would be very fun. The thing I understood from the very beginning was that my brand was Big League Chew.
How wealthy has Big League Chew made you?
My dad, who was a police officer, used to say, “It’s probably cool to be rich and famous. But to be comfortable and anonymous is even better.” Except for Halloween, when I’m giving away a boatload of pouches of Big League Chew to trick-or-treaters, my life is a relatively under-the-radar kind of life. And I’m comfortable. My daughter is a freshman at Boston University, my twins are 15 and going to public high school. So I’m comfortable and relatively anonymous.
Nelson attending a Little League game.
BIG LEAGUE CHEW
Would you trade it all for the experience of having had a major league career?
I don’t think so. That question makes me think of a conversation Kurt Russell recalls having had with Jim Bouton before a Portland Mavericks game. It’s in the 2014 documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball
, which is available on Netflix
and tells the whole story of the Mavs. Kurt said to Jim, basically, “What are you doing here on the Mavs? You’re a former big-leaguer!” Jim said to him, “Look at this. We’ve got a good crowd. It’s a summer night. Is there any place you’d rather be?” I don’t think there’s any place I’d rather be.
Jake Malooley is an editor and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, and other fine publications.
Rob Nelson, who baked the first batch of the iconic gum 40 years ago, talked to Esquire about the Genesis behind an American rite of passage.