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How the Latest Bobble Craze Began with Willie Mays

When California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger demanded earlier this month that a bobblehead doll in his likeness be terminated because it was made without his permission, it made the usual headlines. 

Willie Mays Bobblehead And it made Mario Alioto bob his head with a knowing smile. 

"I saw that Schwarzenegger reference on the news and I thought, 'Wow, I remember how this all started,'" said Alioto, vice president of corporate sponsorship for the San Francisco Giants. "It all started with Willie." 

 That would be Willie Mays, and May 9 marks an anniversary of one of the Hall of Famer's least-known contributions to the game. Five years ago on that day, the Giants gave away 20,000 Willie Mays bobblehead dolls to fans at Candlestick Park. It was such a successful promotion, many of the bobbles were on eBay later that day -- and a fan phenomenon was born, transcending the national pastime. 

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"It was our 40th and final year at Candlestick, and we were looking for promotions that went with the final-year theme and trying to do some things we'd done in the past," Alioto recalled. "I remembered as a kid, growing up and going to Candlestick Park, they had sold bobbles at the concession stand. I still had one. We saw them in old Giants publications, looking at old souvenirs, and we said, 'Wouldn't it be neat to see if we could do a bobblehead giveway?'" 

Enter Malcolm Alexander, a gentleman who grew up in an Australian country town, who had been working on a United Nations peacekeeping force during the Iran-Iraq war before moving to the Seattle area and starting a modest promotional merchandise company. Alexander had never followed Mays' career. Bobbleheads (or "bobbin-heads") had been around baseball years earlier, typically made of paper mache or as a big baseball head on a body, and Alexander certainly never had heard of them. 

"I suppose I was in the right place at the right time," said the owner of Alexander Global Promotions, which now sculpts more than one million bobbles a month for all walks of life, leading the ever-growing industry. "We'd been doing some work with the Giants already, and they approached us and said, 'Could you make a bobblehead doll?' I said, 'Of course!' 

"I'm a sales guy from Australia, so anything that happened in the States in the '50s or '60s I really didn't see. The first time I saw TV was when man walked on the moon; everyone brought a TV to school, I saw TV and the moon at the same time. It was not quite the Outback but a fair way out of civilization. When you're selling merchandise to sports teams and someone asks if you can do something, the best answer is, 'Yes.' 

"It took us three to four months to design the piece, go through prototypes, modifications, to come up with Willie Mays. It was interesting, because not knowing anything I ended up reverse-engineering the process. 'What budget do you have, how tall should it be, what should it weigh, what attributes do you want it to have?' From there, we developed the piece. What we did was make the best piece possible for the price point we were looking at with the Giants, rather than looking at the most possible profit we could make on the highest price point. We were fortunate, because that drove the perceived value of it. We became known as the refiner of the concept." 

Alioto remembers the process this way: 

"Valerie McGuire, our promotions director at the time, gave Malcolm a call, met with them, said, 'Here's what we want to do: We want a Willie Mays bobblehead. They didn't know what one was. They came up with a sample. The first sample was a very thin body and a little teeny head on the top, so it wasn't quite what we were looking for. We went back and forth, they molded it, and we said, 'There, that's the look we want.' It was kind of a caricature. 

"When we handed them out, it was the first time in many years we knew we had a hit, only because when the fans got them through the gates, it was heavy, rather than a tote bag or something else. By that afternoon, they were on eBay, and the rest is history. 

"I think we're still amazed by how strong the interest in bobbles continues to be. We get asked, 'Why do you think it's so successful?' It's hard to say. It feels more like quality, it feels like a commemorative piece, but I think it's also important that it's about the player. It gets down to what's happening on the field. Movies have movie stars, and our players are our stars. This is one way to really promote the personalities of the game. That's what it's been all about." 

Today every Major League club has at least one bobblehead giveaway a year, and generally more than that. Just think how much fun it will be when Don Zimmer bobbleheads are given to fans Aug. 2 at Tampa Bay's home game against the Red Sox. You never forget your first bobble, and there is a constant flow of young fans entering games who are receiving their first ones. 

"We did our first bobblehead giveaways in 2000, and the first one was Harmon Killebrew," said Patrick Klinger, the Minnesota Twins' vice president of marketing. "We knew we had something special when fans began lining up at 9 that morning for a 7 p.m. game. We went through the bobbleheads literally in five minutes. From there, the legend began. The next week we had another giveway, the lines were longer, started earlier, and literally reached the point where people were camping out for days to get bobbleheads." 

Klinger said Alexander approached the Twins in 1999, before the Mays bobble, and that they immediately liked the prototype. "We tried to get it done in 1999, but lack of time and lack of a sponsor prevented us from doing our own version," Klinger said. "So we committed to doing it in 2000. We committed to doing four of them, rather than just a one-off and maybe do it again next year. We made it a collector series. That's a big reason why it's been successful. Once a fan received the first doll, they wanted to make sure they got the second. And they wanted the full set." 

This is a typical season on the bobble front for the Twins, showing imaginative variety. There is a Shannon Stewart bobble for an active marquee player; one for former Twin Paul Molitor, who will be enshrined at Cooperstown this summer; one for popular third-base coach Al Newman, and one for the ages: Walter Johnson, the great right-hander who pitched the Washington Senators (now the Twins) to the world championship 80 years ago. 

"We see many of the same people in line for every giveaway," Klinger said, "because it's important that their set is complete. We started out with legendary players like Killebrew the first couple of years, and as our team became more successful and more popular, we then moved into our current guys. It's a good mix." 

Alexander said his company has produced more than 5,000 different characters and "close to 18 million pieces." His company has produced them for at least 90 minor league teams this season, and for most Japanese pro teams. The pieces invariably draw a reaction from the players upon whom they are based -- but Alexander adds that "the best reaction is the ones we don't make. 

"The reason I say that is, when I talk to marketing/promotions people, they'll say, 'I had someone come to me and say we haven't had a bobble done of him and he'd like one done of him. We've had a mixed bag of comments of players. Some can say, 'It doesn't look like me because I'm not 7 1/2 inches tall.' They're supposed to be humorous. It's a bobblehead doll. 

"Some players have a chin that protrudes, and we'll make their chin protrude a little bit. The head is a little out of sync as far as proportion. The head focuses on the personality, and that's where the fans enjoy collecting the pieces. The personality best comes out with the face. There have been pieces we've done that focus on other attributes. One was a Tommy John that we did, where his arm moved. It had a scar on the arm, because, of course, he was first to get Tommy John surgery. Then, for Tampa Bay's mascot, we did a Double Wobble Raymond bobblehead, with a big, chubby body and the belly bobbled also. 

"The single attribute that still keeps it engaging is really the personality of the piece. That's what it comes down to." 

Alioto said variety has become an important consideration in today's bobbles. 

"Everyone's trying to think differently now," he said. "Every bobble doesn't have to stand there like a statue. We had the Barry Bonds Bobblehead to celebrate his 600th home run, and it had a home run counter on it so you can actually keep updating it. We had Juan Marichal with a high leg kick." 

They have even gone verbal. Alioto said the Giants sold the first bobble with a sound chip in it. It featured the voices of Giant broadcasters Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, and you could push a button to hear their signature lines. For the former, it was a home run call; for the latter, it was "Grab some pine, meat!" 

"You've got to do something fun," Alioto said. "Giveaway days aren't really what they used to be. The first 20,000 people might get a totebag, and that's still what we do, but the customer expects more in quality now -- something they can actually hold on to as a souvenir." 

Five years after the Willie Mays bobblehead, Alexander, 44, now knows far more about the Say Hey Kid than your average guy not far from the Outback. 

"We didn't have any reference material or art, we created the piece almost from scratch," he said. "As far as what Willie looked like, I was able to get some facial images of him as a player and go from there. The piece we made was a caricature that was really a happy, smiley guy. It's changed quite a bit based on the experience of the sculptures. We don't make bobblehead dolls now like we made then. 

"I tell people that the bobble sits next to a kid's bed on the nightstand, in the living room of someone's house, and on the desk of a CEO."