Wrigley Field was already lifeless by mid-May 1997. After the beloved Cubbies started the season 0-14, fans up and vanished. But on May 18, slammin’ Sammy Sosa launched two dingers as Chicago beat the Giants before the first sellout crowd of the season. Thing is, much of the crowd couldn’t have cared less about home runs or breaking that damned billy goat’s curse. Apparently, a blue Beanie Baby named Cubbie the Bear was more than worth the price of admission.
“That team was horrendous,” says Denny Connell, a lifelong Cubs fan who tended bar at nearby Murphy’s Bleachers in 1997. “At least Beanie Babies were a reason to show up.”
At 14-26, playoff hopes were zilch for Sosa and company, and the front office was desperate to refill the seats. Meanwhile, Beanie Baby fever was sweeping the nation: Stores sold out of the plush toys almost instantly, and a lucrative resale market emerged. Ty Warner, the eccentric Beanie Babies creator and owner of toy giant Ty Inc., had banned all partnerships except with McDonald’s, but it couldn’t hurt the Cubs to ask, right?
After discontinuing one of his early Beanie Babies (Lovie the Lamb) … Warner realized that customers would pay more for ‘retired’ toys.
Lucky for them, and for all of Major League Baseball, Warner was a fan. The following season, just as Sosa and Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire began their steroid-fueled race up the record books, Beanie Babies became the hottest in-stadium promotion ever, all thanks to that Wrigley test run in May 1997. The Steroid Era made for captivating gameplay, but no amount of long balls could overshadow Warner’s racket.
Determined to make the next great children’s toy, Warner mortgaged his house and invested his life savings into founding Ty Inc. in 1986. By stuffing his toys with beans in the limbs and base, he created a unique line of stuffed animals with what he termed “poseability.” He also correctly theorized that exclusivity would work wonders for the brand, according to Zac Bissonnette in The Great Beanie Baby Bubble. Thanks to constant product alterations and Warner only doing business with mom-and-pop shops that would push his toys, business skyrocketed to $6 million in sales in 1992. After discontinuing one of his early Beanie Babies (Lovie the Lamb) due to a supply chain issue, Warner realized that customers would pay more for “retired” toys. Soon, a lucrative secondhand market appeared. At the peak Beanie Baby craze in 1998, Ty Inc. grossed $1.4 billion in sales, and some of Warner’s more exclusive toys resold for four figures.
But moms and kids weren’t the only ones who wanted in on the action. John Hall, former vice president and general manager of the now-defunct New York City Hawks Arena Football League team, told Bissonnette that he faxed Ty Inc. every day for three weeks in hopes of attaining a license to distribute 10,000 toys at his games. “Finally, I got the person in charge of Beanie Babies sales,” says Hall. “She told me they get 500 faxes a day, and they’re not opening up to any football league.”
McDonald’s, though, was a different story. Even given his love of exclusivity, Warner wanted his product in the hands of every child. “Warner knew that McDonald’s could offer him something no one else could,” wrote Bissonnette. “McDonald’s could get the Ty logo in front of lower-income consumers who never set foot inside specialty stores.” On April 11, 1997, a special line of Teenie Babies landed at McDonald’s locations nationwide. One hundred million of the toys produced for a five-week promotion sold out in two. Beanie Babies madness had officially transcended industry. “Some customers ordered a hundred Happy Meals and asked the cashier to keep the food,” Bissonnette wrote.
Warner was just a high school outfielder, but his love for baseball ran deep: He was even named after legendary Hall of Famer — and notorious racist — Ty Cobb. So, three days after the McDonald’s deal ended, Warner blessed one more industry with his magic. A capacity crowd of 37,958 flooded Wrigley Field on May 18, 1997, and the first 10,000 children took home a limited-edition Cubbie the Bear. It was the Cub’s biggest ticket draw since the team’s first home night game in 1988.
Unsurprisingly, other teams followed suit. Thirteen clubs held Beanie Babies promotions in 1998. Five days after hosting just over 16,000 fans for a game on May 12, 1998, a stuffed bear named Valentino brought 49,820 fans to Yankee Stadium. From 1998 to 2001, the Cubs held 13 Beanie Babies promotions, selling out every date, and overall MLB attendance rose 37.4 percent for those games. This season, New York Mets Executive Communications Director Harold Kaufman tells OZY that the team’s most successful promotion was a crossover with Marvel Comics that saw star pitcher Noah Syndergaard immortalized as a Thor bobblehead. But that, in comparison, led to only a 27.6 percent boost in attendance.
On Sept. 8, 1998, against the Cubs, McGwire shattered Roger Maris’ 37-year-old home run record of 61, and by year’s end, he’d smacked 70 long balls to Sosa’s 66. Together, the two sluggers ripped open the door to a wild decade known as baseball’s Steroid Era. League revenue surged to $2.5 billion, up nearly 10 percent from 1997. But, like Warner’s Beanie Babies, the steroid bubble would soon burst. In 2004, Ty Inc. reported a $34 million loss. Warner’s model of exclusivity had created an unsustainable secondhand market that, once the mystique wore off, came crumbling down. Similarly, McGwire, Sosa and most of that era’s best players have been assigned an asterisk in the record books — written off as fads.
Today, after a decadelong drop, the home run is back. Bobbleheads are the most popular promotions in sport, and we all still dig the long ball.