By Dave Sheinin
Read online at WashingtonPost.com
PORTLAND, Ore. — Rob Nelson dips a meaty thumb and a meaty forefinger into the pouch and pulls out a fat plug of shredded pink goodness. He cocks his head sideways, stuffs the teeming hunk in his mouth and starts chomping. He brushes his fingers against his suit pants to get the sugar dust off and passes the pouch to his right.“Yougoddachewforaboudde nminudesbeforeyoucanbrowbubbres,” he gurgles as he works the gum with his molars. “Cuzyougoddaged allthesugaroudfirsd.” And so, we will wait 10 minutes for Nelson to get all the sugar out first, so he can show off his legendary bubble-blowing skills. . .While you wait, you might as well reach in and grab some for yourself. Ahhhhh. Feel that familiar texture. Smell the sugar dust. Taste that memory. It is the taste of ancient ball-glove leather, the taste of infield dirt, the taste of neon-green Gatorade out of a giant cooler in the corner of a tiny, chicken-wire dugout.It is all of those together. It is the taste — unadulterated and unmistakable — of childhood.A long, long time ago, Rob Nelson, “Nellie” to his friends, invented this stuff, and gave it its name — Big League Chew. For folks of a certain age, this makes him some sort of patron saint of youth baseball, because the moment it came along, in 1980, it freed them of the yucky, gag-inducing charade of chewing tobacco.
No longer did you need that disgusting, brown wad in your mouth, and that thick pouch in the back pocket of your dirt-stained uniform pants, to look like a big leaguer. No longer did you have to hide the vile stuff from your mom for six days a week, then parade around right in front of her and everyone else on Saturday afternoon with a giant hunk of it in your cheek, spitting streams of brown ick into the grass every couple of minutes, like the big leaguers did.
When Big League Chew came along — shredded gum in a tobacco pouch! — you could chew gum instead of tobacco and still retain the look. It wasn’t the real thing, but it also wasn’t going to leave you doubled over in the outfield grass, vomiting up your Cheerios, if you happened to make the mistake of letting some of that tobacco juice go down your gullet.
That’s Nelson himself, a former minor league lefty of no renown whatsoever, on the front of the pouch — the model (“About 30 years and 50 pounds ago,” he cracks) for the cartoonist who drew the original design.
And right over there — in that corner of what is now a soccer stadium but was once the home of the independent (and dearly departed) Portland Mavericks — was where the idea was hatched. It’s a field-level bar now, where high-rolling fans of the MLS’s Portland Timbers watch games and sip cocktails, but back then it was the Mavericks’ raucous bullpen, where the washed-out and washed-up, the has-beens and never-weres at the bottom rung of pro baseball, passed the time.
“It was right there,” Nelson says, pointing. He looks out at the soccer stadium known as Providence Park, remembering it as an old ballpark called Civic Stadium. He’s lost in baseball, oblivious to the youth soccer camp taking place on the artificial turf, right about where second base used to be. “I’m getting goosebumps just being here again.”
His wad of gum nice and worked-over now, with the sugar dissolved and the consistency perfectly rubbery, Nelson blows a bubble the size of his head and lets it collapse into his face, leaving a pink mask of sticky sweetness across it. And he laughs.
Looking back, Nelson can see there must have been some sort of guiding hand — call it God, or fate or karma — that made this all possible. There can be no other explanation.
Why Portland? Nelson was an east-coaster, raised on Long Island, schooled at Cornell, but living and playing baseball in South Africa in 1975, when his father sent him a pack of newspaper clippings. One of those stories was a Sporting News brief announcing open tryouts for an independent team called the Portland Mavericks — founded and owned by former actor and Hollywood mogul Bing Russell. So Nelson went to Portland.
What made him stay in Portland? He didn’t make the Mavericks — cut during tryouts after giving up a home run that might still be flying — but told Russell he wanted to stay. He would sell tickets, pitch batting practice and run a youth camp — or all three, which is what he did.
“I said, ‘I’m not leaving this town. Good things will happen if I stay,’” Nelson recalls. And good things did happen. Eventually, Nelson was allowed to suit up for the Mavericks, and eventually, he got into some games. Eventually, in 1977, in what would be the final home game in the Mavericks’ short but storied existence, he got his only professional win in the states.
Who was this 11-year-old kid, the one with the beautiful older sister? That was Todd Field, batboy for the Mavericks and a camper in one of Nelson’s first “Lil’ Mavericks” youth baseball camps. The sister was Peggy, and Nelson asked Todd to introduce him to her. They dated for a while, but the important part was that one day, Nelson noticed Todd reaching into a chewing tobacco pouch and putting a hunk of blackish stuff in his mouth. Was this kid chewing tobacco?
“No,” the kid said. “It’s a Red Man pouch, but I’ve got ripped up pieces of black licorice in there, so I can spit black juice — like the big leaguers.”
Nelson pulled out a notebook — he always carried one — and a multi-colored pen — he always had one of those, too — and started writing furiously.
“He took a very simple idea,” says Field, who went on to become an accomplished actor and filmmaker, “and became an evangelist for it.”
How did former American League all-star Jim Bouton — of New York Yankees fame, of “Ball Four” fame — wind up sharing a bullpen with Rob Nelson? After the publication of Bouton’s controversial tell-all book, he was essentially blackballed from organized baseball — so that, when he decided to make a comeback in 1975 at age 36, only the Mavericks would have him.
It was Bouton who would become the first person Nelson told of his idea — bubble gum in a chewing tobacco pouch, called Big League Chew — out there in the Mavericks’ bullpen, and it was Bouton who put up the first $10,000 in seed money. Nelson himself put up nothing — because he had nothing. He was making $300 a month with the Mavericks. He didn’t have a car, or furniture. He typically acquired his dinner by tossing baseballs to the kids above the bullpen in exchange for a hot dog.
How would Nelson even know how to start making gum? Sometime in 1978, he happened across a copy of People magazine containing an ad for an Arlington, Tex., company selling a do-it-yourself gum-making kit. Nelson ordered the kit, and on Feb. 6, 1979, in the kitchen of Todd Field’s parents, he cooked up the first batch of Big League Chew, using root beer extract and maple syrup as flavoring and coloring agents — shooting for a brownish-black color that mimicked chewing tobacco.
It was horrible.
By the time Nelson got the taste right and sold the idea to Amurol Products, a subsidiary of Wrigley — on a three-year contract that earned him five percent of all profits, a share he would continue to split with Bouton for 20 years (buying him out in 2000) — the professional gum-makers had already nixed the idea of brown/black gum.
“They said, ‘Mothers will never buy the brown stuff,’” Nelson recalls. “It was like, ‘You keep coming up with the ideas. Leave the gum-making to us.’”
That was roughly 800 million pouches ago.
In one of the first meetings with the Wrigley folks, a company executive remarked to Nelson, “The reason I like you is because you have the mind of an 11-year-old” — at which point Bouton nudged him and whispered, “I think that’s a compliment.”
Now 66 years old, a father of three, Nelson still has that 11-year-old’s mind, and telling him so is still a compliment. Ask him what his job duties are, and you might hear, “I’m the Willy Wonka of bubble gum.” You might also hear, “You can’t really call this a job.”
Seven years ago, when Mars acquired Wrigley in a $23 billion mega-deal, Nelson decided to make a break with the company and become a free agent. Sales had been slacking off, as Wrigley focused its energy on newer, trendier products.
After meeting with several prospective partners, including some of the world’s largest candy companies, Nelson went with Ford Gum, a relatively tiny operation in Upstate New York — maker of those ubiquitous quarter gum ball machines. Today, of Ford’s roughly $45 million in annual revenues, 35-40 percent of it comes from Big League Chew. Sales are back on the rise, increasing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent per year.
“I have two daughters, and one of them was in softball. Big League Chew was a constant at the games,” said George Stege, president of Ford Gum. “It brings back nostalgic memories to lots of people. And it’s great gum. The flavor lasts a long time. It blows great bubbles. The sentimental aspect makes you take look at it [as a potential investment], and then the more you look at it, it makes good business sense.”
Nelson explains the difference between partnering with Wrigley rather than Ford like this: “When I was with Wrigley, I was in the big leagues, but I was the 25th man. With Ford, I’m pitching and batting cleanup.”
Nelson still spends large chunks of time dreaming up new slogans (“Gum is better when it comes from a shredder!”) and ideas (rolling the gum shreds into a ball and wrapping it in a package that looks like a baseball!), and sending them to the folks at Ford.
“He’s one of the most creative thinkers I’ve ever been involved with,” Stege said. “He comes up with a massive amount of ideas. Most of them are interesting and worthy of discussion. Some of them are really far out.”
Otherwise, Nellie’s “job” is simply to be Nellie. He represents the company at candy trade shows. He visits ballparks to judge bubble-blowing contests.
He still hasn’t made the big leagues — Major League Baseball has contracts with Bazooka and Dubble Bubble, two of Big League Chew’s biggest rivals, to stock its clubhouses — but he did just receive word that he has made it to the Hall of Fame. Or at least his gum has, as part of an upcoming exhibit on baseball in the 1980s.
“It’s an incredible story,” Field said. “But it doesn’t surprise me, because Rob is a very, very positive person. He really did believe he could make anything happen. It just didn’t happen that he’d be the greatest pitcher in the world — it happened to be something else.”
Sitting now in the box seats at the old stadium, right behind where home plate used to be, a long home run from his old apartment across the street, Nelson considers the fateful twist in his baseball career and can do nothing more than laugh. He’s an Ivy Leaguer, a world traveler, a former professional baseball player — and his legacy is bubble gum.
“It’s preposterous,” he said. “When I was 16 years old, I thought I was going to be the next Whitey Ford. I had his [pitching] motion, his pick-off move. Now, here I am 50-some years later, and my gum is going to be in the Hall of Fame, but I’m not.”
He reaches into his pockets for a piece of paper, holds it up to his mouth and disgorges a giant wad of flavorless trash. Like childhood, the flavor of Big League Chew eventually fades and fades until it’s gone. But unlike childhood, Nelson knows where he can get some more bubble gum. He has an unending supply of it.