If you've never tried Big League Chew before: I’m so sorry. If you have, you are probably imagining the taste right now.
If you’re not familiar with it, Big League Chew is a pink shredded gum invented in 1980 by former baseball player Rob Nelson.
It would go on to sell over 800 million pouches. Big League Chew was also controversial and seen as promoting chewing tobacco to kids.
I don’t know what your local variety store was like, growing up, but Big League Chew was a focal point of mine.
I always told myself I would get something different, but I always ended up buying it.
All kids love gum, but Big League Chew made it so much more fun. Chewing it felt adult-like as it came in a pouch just like chewing tobacco.
We watched baseball players use this all the time, and I think some of the appeal was it felt off-limits.
Here’s the story of the bubble gum of every kid's childhood: Big League Chew.
Setting the Stage for Big League Chew
It all starts in the dugout. Chewing tobacco has been a mainstay of baseball pretty much since day one. The old-timers didn’t know it was bad for them — but it was part of the culture.
You would even see guys smoking in the dugouts during the 70s.
There’s a lot of “downtime” during baseball, and what better way to pass the time than with chewing tobacco.
Even though “Smokeless tobacco” was banned in ballparks and dugouts in 2016, In 2014, they found that 1/3rd of pro ballplayers still actively use chewing tobacco.
The creation of Big League Chew would all start with the son of Kurt Russell.
Creating Big League Chew
Bing Russell is the son of legendary actor Kurt Russell. In 1973, he bought a minor league team: The Portland Mavericks. He was focused on finding players who ate, slept, and breathed baseball.
He wanted players that loved the game more than anything, and one of those players was Rob Nelson.
Nelson was a left-handed pitcher who also loved gum. He collected baseball cards and one of his favorite players was Hall of Famer Nellie Fox.
Nelson’s favorite card of Fox showed him with a huge cheek full of chewing tobacco.
As a kid, Nelson knew he couldn’t use tobacco, so he would chew a lot of gum to get the same look.
Nelson eventually got a tryout and made it onto the Mavericks. One of Nelson’s teammates was Todd field who always cut up black vine licorice.
Nelson thought it was odd — but made note of it.
Field told him he was using it instead of tobacco. Nelson inquired if gum might create a similar effect, and Field thought it would.
It would be a year until Rob would revisit the idea.
During the season of 1977, Nelson approached Field and asked him if it should be in a tin. Field did not understand what he was talking about, but Nelson had brought back the gum idea and wondered if it should be in a tin like chewing tobacco.
Both of them decided that tobacco should be in a tin — and gum should come in a pouch.
They wanted to use their gum in the dugout but didn’t want to look like little kids in front of their teammates. Nelson wondered if having it shredded like the chewing tobacco was would make it easier for them to fit in.
Big League Chew was created right there and then. The basic idea was to create a healthy form of chewing tobacco.
Even the name was nailed down at that moment, though they considered “Red Steer Chew,” “Maverick Chew,” and “All-Star Chew.”
The Next Step For Big League Chew
Nelson had a teammate named Jim Bouton who had played for the Yankees and approached him to get his idea off the ground.
Bouton designed the image on the pouch, which was based on himself in a baseball uniform.
This was important as it would relay that they meant it for children.
Bouton put up $10,000 to get a patent on Big League Chew. Bouton also had good connections but was still playing and trying to get back to the majors.
It would be hard for him to promote the new product.
Nelson wanted the money to patent and protect the idea, but the problem was you couldn’t patent the idea of shredding gum.
You could however trademark the name and packaging the gum came in.
With that in place, they could take the product to show companies. But there was one other problem: they didn’t have any actual product. Make that two problems: they hadn’t even created the gum.
Nelson ordered a gum making kit out of the back of a magazine. He got some empty pouches and mocked up a logo.
They bought some food coloring and licorice flavor and put the mixture together — and it came out looking like a sheet of thin brownies.
They then used a pizza cutter to cut into thin strips: and it tasted like crap.
But Bouton and Nelson didn’t care: they knew they had a great idea on their hand and they could perfect the recipe later on.
Attempting to Get Big League Chew On the Market
Once they found an art studio to make the proper logo for the pouch, they shopped it around.
They approached Topps and Fleer’s but the companies didn’t think anyone would be interested in shredded gum.
After 6 months, they found a company called Amurol, which was a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company; and who also owned the Chicago Cubs.
Amurol worked in sugarless candy, but it wasn’t going well. They needed something to make a splash in the market.
Big League Chew looked like the perfect idea. Their chemists got to work and were able to make a great shredded gum.
To test it out, the team flew to Chicago and put 15 to 20 pouches in a local convenience store.
They left for lunch and would come back to observe how the kids responded to it.
When they got back to the store, all the pouches had been cleared out in ten minutes.
They were ready to negotiate.
The Launch of Big League Chew
One big issue was Wrigley didn’t want to be associated in any way with Big League Chew. This was because they didn’t want any connection to a tobacco product — even if it was pretend.
The chemists also had a problem: they had to make the shreds of gum taste different from all the other gum on the market.
They also had to stop it from sticking together in the pouch. It needed to be loose the same way chewing tobacco was.
They finally had the product down and could make a pouch from mixing to packaging in two days. They had a great logo and launched Big League Chew in the spring of 1980.
In the first year, Big League Chew made $18 million dollars.
This was pretty substantial because Amurol as a company was only worth $8 million. This one product was now worth more than twice what their company was.
They would also put out pouches with Popeye on the front to directly target younger kids. This wouldn’t be needed as sales were going through the roof.
Nelson stated how it got ten times bigger than what their wildest dream expectations were. The product, the packaging, and the marketing perfectly appealed to kids — and adults, too.
Because of Big League Chew, Amurol become the biggest novelty manufacturing company in the world.
The company went from $2 million to $126 million. That’s a lot of shredded gum.
The Future of Big League Chew & Controversy
After only two years, Big League Chew had made $27 million. It would level off, but still pull in $10–12 million a year. These sales would stay incredibly steady over the years.
Regardless of the variety, they are still pumping out 100,000 pouches a day.
The Mars company would buy out Wrigley for $23 Billion and Nelson and co. didn’t want Big League Chew to be caught up in a bigger corporation.
To avoid losing their factory, they talked Wrigley into selling it to Ford Gum.
Despite the strong sales, there was still the thought a package of shredded chewing gum was installing chewing tobacco in the minds of kids.
This is like using a cartoon such as Joe Camel to make cigarettes appeal to younger potential customers. Some thought that Big League Chew was glorifying chewing tobacco, and it was not a responsible product.
The creators never had this intention: they were looking for a chewing tobacco substitute. As a kid, my parents had no problem with Big League Chew but weren't crazy about the idea of Popeye cigarettes.
Depending on your age, Big League Chew was probably a huge part of your childhood. There was nothing more exciting than going into a convenience store, seeing all the novelty candies, but always seeing that distinctive pouch.
I still think it’s the best chewing gum ever made and no other gum compares with its softness and chewiness. It also lent itself to the best bubbles of any gum.
Fun fact: Bubbles blow best once we dissolve all the sugar from chewing.
Big League Chew is a great story of a simple idea for two guys just looking to pass time in a dugout — and not be embarrassed in front of their teammates.
That simple solution they came up with would end up being worth hundreds of millions of dollars.