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Minor Leagues, major exposure11/21/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
In recent years, there have been many instances of Minor League team logos finding their way into television and movie productions. However, the most famous and enduring example of this relatively recent phenomenon occurred over three decades ago. Unlike any other famous American success story, this one involves cross-dressing, the city of Toledo and the most popular television show of all time.
I am speaking, of course, about the Toledo Mud Hens achieving worldwide fame as a result of regularly being featured on M*A*S*H. It goes without saying that the individuals involved can tell the tale much better than I.
"I grew up in Toledo, and all through childhood I was a fan of the Mud Hens," explained actor Jamie Farr, who played Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H. "I was a member of the 'Knothole Gang,' in fact. They called it that because us kids would pay 50 cents for the privilege of watching the game through a hole in the fence. I left the city in 1952, however, and did not return for years after that."
Nonetheless, Farr's Toledo roots were well known in Toledo, and Mud Hens general manager Gene Cook decided to capitalize on that fact.
"As the series went on, Farr started to get a lot of attention for the fact that his character was wearing women's clothing week after week," remarked Joe Napoli, the Mud Hens current vice president and general manager. "So Gene Cook sent a Mud Hens care package to the show, as if it was to Corporal Klinger in Korea. The care package had a jersey, cap, T-shirts and souvenirs, and basically said 'Well, if you ever decide to stop dressing up as a woman, here's all this Mud Hens stuff you can wear.'"
The writing staff of M*A*S*H loved the idea (especially Ken Levine, who went on to broadcast Major League Baseball games for the Orioles, Mariners, and Padres), and Corporal Klinger was soon sporting a Toledo Mud Hens cap in front of tens of millions of attentive television viewers.
"It was just great, because there wasn't another team in the world named the Mud Hens. I mean, there certainly isn't anything competitive about a Mud Hen," recalled Farr. "So, we started incorporating the team into the show more and more. In one episode, we even got Colonel Potter to wear one of the caps."
Back in Toledo, the club was enjoying a remarkable boost in merchandise sales.
"What used to happen before the advent of the internet was that we'd receive native-tongue mail orders from all over the world," recalled Napoli. "So we'd run over to the university to have them interpreted. Now, with the internet, we still receive orders from all over the world, but it's not as much fun as getting an envelope full of Japanese yen."
The Mud Hens' enviable partnership with M*A*S*H kick-started a trend that shows no signs of abating. Since Minor League clubs often lack the resources to advertise their merchandise through traditional means, strategic product placement often represents a club's best chance to be seen by a mass audience.
For example, those who tuned into last Wednesday's episode of NBC's new police drama Life were quickly drawn into a complex murder investigation, one in which the hats of five California League franchises (the Bakersfield Blaze, Lancaster JetHawks, Modesto Nuts, Stockton Ports and Visalia Oaks) emerged as clues. While the appearance of these team caps was admittedly brief, it still represented an ideal opportunity for the clubs involved to market their wares for a much larger audience.
But how do situations such as these come about, and how can teams benefit from them? The answer to this, like pretty much anything else in the unendingly diverse world of Minor League Baseball, depends on a variety of factors.
Brad Seymour, the general manager of the Lancaster JetHawks, is the first to admit that his team benefits from its proximity to the heart of the entertainment industry.
"Quite honestly, a lot of this sort of thing falls in our lap and is a product of being located in Hollywood's backyard," remarked the GM, whose club unveiled a new logo and uniforms this past month. "Our facility [Lancaster's Clear Channel Stadium] has been featured several times in movies, music videos and commercials, and that has often been the result of having a film office in our community that actively markets us as a resource that is available to production companies."
"This is an offshoot to our business. In the instance of this episode of Life, we have to make sure the community is aware that this is going on. When the city gets recognition such as this it is a source of pride, like when the video for [Trace Adkins'] "Swing" was filmed in the stadium. And, internally, we have to be prepared for a bump in merchandise sales. A successful example of product placement that occurred in the past was the television show McBride, starring John Larroquette. He lives nearby, was aware of the team and decided to make a JetHawks hat a part of his character. We got a lot of great publicity because of that."
Like Seymour, Modesto Nuts general manager Mike Gorrasi is grateful for the fact that his team is located near the entertainment industry.
"That's a great benefit of being here in California," he said. "With Life in particular, we got a phone call from the show, and were told that one of the writers specifically asked for Modesto. We sent along a couple different styles of hats as well as extras for the cast and crew. Nuts is a unique, fun name, and I think that also helps us stand out a little bit. We track our website numbers, and we definitely have had a spike in visitors since the episode aired."
While the Nuts' cameo in Life was undoubtedly a boost for the team, it did not match the buzz that surrounded the club's first foray into the world of product placement. In January 2006, an episode of the WB drama 7th Heaven included a subplot in which one of the show's characters had to choose between attending college or signing a professional baseball contract and joining the Nuts.
"At first they were only going to mention our name on the show, but we started working with the producers and found a way to get our merchandise in there as well. The scene portrayed a typical recruiting visit, where a scout brought the team's hat and jersey to the kid's home as part of his attempt to get him to sign. The episode created a huge amount of buzz for us, and it was great to be able to show our local fanbase that people are aware of us on a national level as well. Plus, 7th Heaven was a family show, and obviously we are always trying to market ourselves as a great family activity."
Of course, most Minor League teams do not have the benefit of being located in the heart of the show business industry, and must make a more conscientious effort to get their merchandise in front of a national audience. One option that has arisen in recent years is Sports Branded Media, a company that, according to its website, is dedicated to the "seamless integration of sports products and brands" into a wide array of traditional and non-traditional media.
John Meindl, the president of Sports Branded Media, believes his company represents the best way for Minor League teams to make an impact in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.
"There is a need for Minor League teams and smaller sports companies, because they can react quickly," said Meindl, who started Sports Branded Media after working as a sports production coordinator on the set of the 2006 romantic comedy Failure to Launch.
"If a production needs merch on a Thursday, we can call a team and get it there. Production companies and studios want to keep things simple. Unless a script specifically calls for the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers, or whoever, they will look to go elsewhere, and Minor League teams have cool logos and are off the beaten path. There's a definite appeal to working with organizations that represent Americana and have a grassroots approach to how they operate."
"There's no other company in the world that specializes in what we do, so we're the go-to guys. All sorts of different productions will give us a call, and when we bring on new properties we let them know. There are so many Minor League teams out there; the landscape is cluttered. There's a definite reward out there for the teams that understand the value in this."
In addition to being involved with a scene during Failure to Launch in which the New Orleans Zephyrs took on the Omaha Royals at Zephyrs Stadium, Meindl has helped facilitate the inclusion of his clients in movies such as Georgia Rule, Night at the Museum, Things We Lost in the Fire and many more.
"There's a viral aspect of product placement that's just unpredictable," he said. "For example, after Ashton Kutcher wore a John Deere hat on MTV, then the John Deere company had to create a merch department. And movie sets can just be crazy sometimes. Like, the director could spot an extra wearing a Lakewood BlueClaws jersey, and he'll have that guy take it off and suddenly the main character is wearing it. It's a crazy world, and there's a lot of stuff that happens that doesn't really make sense. There's just a tremendous upside to putting yourself out there."
That's a lesson the Toledo Mud Hens learned many times over, of course, as the club is still reaping the benefits of Cook's light-hearted care package to a fictional corporal stationed in Korea.
"When we first mentioned the Mud Hens on the show, a lot of people didn't even believe that that was a real team," said Farr. "And then, once they found it was for real, everybody wanted to have a hat. This is the kind of thing that really illustrates the power of television."
"To this day, the show still runs in syndication all over the world, so we're still receiving orders from all over the planet," said Napoli. "What we learned as a result of all this is to put ourselves out there in front of as many people as possible, because you never know what's going to happen."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.