When I get the magazines and programs and other materials I’ve used for this project thus far, my first step is to flip through the entire thing, looking for the headlines that most catch my attention. The one constantly fascinating item, in every piece I’ve collected from 1927 through 1990, has been the advertisements.
And why not? We live in a society where people need to sell things to survive. As such, advertisements can reveal some fascinating perceptions of society from the time. What did the ad men think would get other people to willingly spare their money for stuff they didn’t think they needed before they opened the magazine? Specifically, what did ad men think would make a sucker out of a baseball fan?
My first selection is a classic and of a formula still recognizable today, despite its origins in the August 1927 issue of Baseball Magazine. Observe, Strongfortism, the way of life to save men from their soft, pudgy selves:
Ads of this type — muscle up, you weakling, so you can get those girls! — have been around as long as the practice of advertising itself. Since 1927, it has become a little more refined — and a little less blunt.
“You are not fit if you are weak, sickly and under-developed. You dare not marry and ruin some trusting girl’s life if dissipation and excesses have sapped your vitality and left you a mere apology for a real man. Don’t think you can save yourself with dope and drugs. Such unnatural materials can never remove the cause of your weaknesses and will surely harm you. The only way you can be restored is through Nature’s basic law. She will never fail you if you sit at her feet and learn her ways.”
Strongfortism — so named for Lionel Strongfort (no mention of his friend Blast Hardcheese?), the strapping lad pictured above — promised to be a savior for men “cursed” to be unfit. Such a market has never died, and as long as there are men who fail to attain the chiseled phsyique of Mr. Strongfort, one imagines it will always survive, only on cable TV infomercials instead of in the magazine for the intelligent baseball fan.
Of course, these ads have evolved over time. Check out this version from a June 1989 magazine, “Great Moments In Sports: Baseball,” which proclaimed on its cover such claims as “The Baltimore Orioles: Always The Team To Beat.” They were weird years, those 1980s, and this ad is no different:
Here, we can see instant gratification is not just a Millennial fascination. Instead of selling through shame, the 1980s attempted to sell their muscle building scams through speed. Just five minutes a day! “I feel much better after 2 weeks,” customer “Eric” says. And it no longer attempts to cut the ad reader down at the knees, instead saying “You could do it! In fact, any man in normal health could do it.”
But the message remains the same, 60 years later (and nearly 85 years later, for anybody watching the infomercials or clicking the banner ads still around now): of baseball fans, those who spend their lives watching athletes perform amazing feats, some subgroup is likely to be insecure about their bodies and willing to try anything to fix it. Hence Strongfortism in the 1920s, the HERCULES system in the 1980s, and whatever the next evolution of the form is in 2014.
Another set of fascinating advertisements comes from the multiple publications I’ve picked up spanning the late 1970s through the early 1990s. The tobacco industry, particularly when intertwined with “manly” activities like sports, was ubiquitous in advertising of the time, but it was clear the industry was increasingly grappling with the health concerns that have seen cigarette advertisements dwindle severely, especially from arenas like sport in which kids were clearly being targeted.
A 1979 Sports Illustrated (purchased for its feature on former Brewers manager George Bamberger) featured six different cigarette advertisements covering seven full pages. Similar ratios were seen in a 1982 Milwaukee Brewers gameday program as well as a 1990 Brewers gameday program. But, as a few selected ads show, cigarette companies were already on the health defensive:
From the inside cover of the 1982 program:
Note the focus on the “low tar” in the description at the bottom. This will be a recurring theme. Also note the distance between the Surgeon General’s warning at the top to the note at the bottom: “11 mg “tar”, 0.9 mg. nicotine av. per cigarette.” And finally, note it’s not just tar; it’s “tar.” Smooth usage of quotation marks, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Similarly, from the first page of the 1979 Sports Illustrated:
Great taste! Less filling! I mean, uh, low tar!
Of the six ads in the 1979 Sports Illustrated and the three ads in the 1982 Brewers program, seven refer to tar (or “tar,” usually) explicitly in the advertisement and all nine displayed the tar contents in fine print. It was clear already cigarette advertisements were struggling to balance safety and their end goal of selling tobacco, and it should come as no surprise in the 30 years since such advertisements have all but disappeared from sports media. They were even dying out by 1990 — a Brewers program from that year had moved on almost completely to alcohol advertisements instead of tobacco advertisements.
Finally, let’s finish with some advertisements I found interesting for either their subject matter or their design.
From a 1944 issue of Baseball Magazine:
Life in America during World War II, spelled out in advertisements: the kids still wanted to learn to throw a curveball, but the war effort still needed their money for War Bonds.
From a 1988 publication, Grand Slam Baseball Magazine:
Clearly, YouTube killed the mail order video star.
From the 1982 Brewers program:
Remember HD DVD? Remember Laserdisc? These things seemed like such good ideas at the time.
From a 1990 Brewers gameday program:
Of all the anti-drug propaganda from my lifetime, McGruff was almost certainly the most successful. And who wouldn’t want to help such a good dog close down a crackhouse?
And finally, from the 1979 Sports Illustrated:
This was on the inside cover. There’s a lot going on here. Natural Light in a glass bottle? Who is that wacky guy? Did anybody ever think Natural Light was good? Eyefocals? If anybody has any answers, please help me out on this one.
These ads, in a perverse way, serve as a reflection of ourselves, of sports fans, distorted through the eyes of the advertisers. This is what they think of us, how they see us. What will they buy? How will they fool us? In these ads, I see some of the most fascinating snapshots of what it meant to be a sports fan throughout history. After all, we are what we consume, right?