BUSINESS February 6, 1995
Illustrated It’s a Babe-o-nanza!
On the eve of Ruth’s 100th birthday, Curtis Management has reason to cheer
-by Jeffrey Marx
BABE RUTH, still dead after all these swing. A button starts the muffled audio, now account for some 45% of a thriving
years, is nonetheless having a remarkable which offers a radio replay of Ruth’s leg- business that employs 35 people.
season. In corporate America, that is. endary “called” home run in the 1932 How impressive is Curtis’s roster of cli-
Thanks to an aggressive marketing cam- World Series. The frame sells for $129.95. ents? The New York Times Greatest Sports
paign tied to Ruth’s 100th birthday, on Feb- Though Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal Legends has profiles of 50 of this century’s
ruary 6, we are being treated to a retail and Joe Montana are not about to disap- greatest athletes; Curtis handles contracts
Babe-o-Rama. pear from the marketing landscape, the for 26 of them, including Ruth, Lou
There are images of the Bambino on plates stars of yesteryear are proving to be valu- Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Cy
and beer steins, stamps and coins, watches able players in both advertising and the sale Young, Casey Stengel, Shoeless Joe Jack-
and wall clocks, telephone debit cards and of sports memorabilia. And an Indianapo- son, Vince Lombardi, Jim Thorpe, Jesse
Owens, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey.
Ruth, who died in 1948, is once again
knocking out the biggest hits. And the
greatest number. He has appeared in a va-
riety of advertising and marketing cam-
paigns-for Chevrolet, Coca-Cola,
McDonald’s, Hallmark, Zenith, Sears and
others-and, of course, has made the man-
datory appearance on Wheaties boxes. And
this year, as Curtis pushes the birthday
angle to entice licensees, Ruth products are
expected to bring in more than $25 mil-
lion in retail sales, with royalties and li-
censing fees alone running “well into seven
figures,” according to Mark Roesler, presi-
dent of Curtis.
“Oh, my,” says Julia Ruth Stevens, the 77-
year-old daughter of the Babe and a prin-
cipal beneficiary of this windfall. “Daddy
would be amazed. And so proud. He did
very well when he was alive, but now he is
generating more money than when he was
bottles of nonalcoholic wine, magnets and lis firm called Curtis Management Group, It is no wonder, then, that Roesler, a 39-
computer mouse pads. which represents the families and estates year-old lawyer, speaks of Ruth and other
And don’t forget the obligatory baseball of Ruth and 51 other late great sports fig- late athletes in such exalted terms. While
trading cards, T -shirts and caps, crystal ures, is leading the way. the rest of us are comfortable thinking of
and, of course, a talking picture frame. Curtis was founded in 1981 to protect and dead athletes as merely, well, dead athletes,
Almost 100 “official” Ruth products are promote the names and images of dead Roesler prefers to call them “legends past”
available. Each for a price. Each adorned artists and entertainers, people such as and “images of excellence for all seasons.”
with a special 100th-anniversary logo de- Norman Rockwell, Elvis Presley (no longer There is at least one major advantage to
noting “brand” status. Some of the items a client), James Dean and Buddy Holly. Its an “endorsement” or commercial “appear-
even carry the Sultan of Swat’s “exclusive list of nonsports clients (Humphrey Bogart, ance” by a dead athlete rather than a live
replica signature.” Greta Garbo and Malcolm X, to name a one: There is no danger that the deal will
But a talking frame? Tempered glass cov- few) has grown remarkably. be sullied by, say, a labor stoppage or a
ers a picture of Ruth completing his mighty But sports figures-once an afterthought- drug bust.
“They’re not going to be in the headlines made for Diet Coke with film footage of important, they say, is maintaining con-
for the wrong reasons,” Roesler says of Bogart, who seems to be mingling with a trol of the departed’s name and image.
athletes who are out of action-permanently. 1990s crowd. Most of sports marketing still Curtis provides legal assistance to protect
“You can count on them.” It was in 1984 hangs on the here and now, but it appears against unauthorized use of these, and be-
that Curtis made its move-albeit tenta- that the throwbacks have also claimed a fore any deal involving a dead athlete is
tively-into sports. “There’s a big difference permanent niche. “Everybody wants the made, the company usually seeks input
between entertainment and sports,” new guys to be more like the old guys,” from surviving relatives.
Roesler says. “With entertainment figures, “There is some remuneration,” says James
we knew we had potential throughout the Cobb, 73, son of Ty, “but that’s not the idea
world. With sports, we would be limited with me. The important thing is that people
primarily to the U.S. I thought there was go according to the law: no using the Ty
a need to protect the names and images Cobb name for advertising or selling some-
of sports figures from unauthorized use. thing without permission.” Cobb says he
The question was: Could we make more was thankful to Curtis for enabling him to
money than we spent doing that?” inspect a small statue of his father before
The way Roesler saw it, Ruth is among it was reproduced for sale. He thought the
the greatest sports legends of all, so Curtis ears were sticking out too much-a prob-
began a computer search to locate the lem that Curtis had fixed. “But I still don’t
Babe’s surviving relatives. He found two know if they sold any or not,” Cobb says.
daughters, Dorothy Pirone (who has since “I think they were charging too much.”
died) and Stevens, and arranged to meet On its client list Curtis tactfully distin-
with them in Florida. guishes the living from the dead with an
“No one had ever approached either one asterisk meaning “available for personal
of us with anything like this,” says appearance bookings.” Jim Taylor, for ex-
Stevens, who was living comfortably but ample, gets an asterisk. Bronko Nagurski
modestly on Social Security payments and does not.
her father’s estate. “I said, ‘Well, it all But wait. Ruth has no asterisk, yet we are
sounds very nice,’ but I really didn’t think told he is available for appearances. In fact,
that much about it.” Until the he has already been out on the road. Pos-
checks started arriving in ing for pictures. Signing autographs. Is it
1985. “A real gift from possible? No, of course not. Even slick
heaven,” Stevens says. “It says John Stote Ill, marketing could not deliver the real Ruth
started out around $5,000 the vice president of for an encore performance. But Ruth look-
first year. And it went up Anaconda Sports, a a-like Willis (Buster) Gardner, a.k.a.
steadily, up to six figures two large sporting-goods Buster the Babe, is fully licensed and ready
years ago. If you want to in- distributor that has to go. The 57-year-old mechanic and tow-
clude the first few years, its own memorabilia truck operator from Oberlin, Ohio, proves
which were much slower, I division and is a that almost anyone can get in on the act.
would say it has probably av- Ruth licensee. “They Buster the Babe, who charges $500 a day
eraged between $50,000 and used to play baseball plus expenses, is hoping his sideline work
$75,000 a year. Just my just to play baseball. will eventually provide him with a
part.” Now it’s all lawyers, comfortable retirement. If nothing else, the
After Curtis takes its cut- the portable phones 100th-anniversary year should give him
60% or so-the Ruth income in the dugout, some plenty of practice.
is divided three ways, among guy making three And he ought to keep an eye on the calen-
Stevens, her late sister’s five million a year who dar. The real Ruth died in 1948, which
children and the Babe Ruth can’t play because he means that 1998 will mark the 50th anni-
Baseball League Inc., a youth baseball pro- has a little tape wrapped around his pin- versary of his death. Yet another grand
gram. kie.” opportunity for the creative team that is
Roesler sees the day-not far off, he says- Cobb, Gehrig, Lombardi, Owens and transforming the Sultan of Swat into the
when the blending of old footage and new Thorpe (not necessarily in that order) fol- Legend of Licensing.
scenes will create an entire genre of com- low Ruth as the most profitable dead sports
mercials in which his sports legends ap- clients, Roesler says. But he and family Jeffrey Marx, who lives in Washington,
pear to be interacting with contemporary members of the late greats emphasize that D.C., has written several stories for Sports
actors. Such a commercial has already been income is not their only interest. Equally Illustrated.