Rob Nelson had graduated from Cornell University and was playing professional baseball in Cape Town, South Africa, when his dad sent him a collection of newspaper clippings from America. One stood out in particular: an open tryout for the Portland Mavericks baseball club.
That was enough for Nelson to pack his bags and move back across the world, beginning an adventure that ends not in professional baseball glory, but in a bubblegum empire. Now 70, Nelson's legacy is the invention of Big League Chew: a pouch of stringy bubblegum that mimics the chewing tobacco once ubiquitous in Major League Baseball games.
Since 1980, Big League Chew has sold an estimated 800 million pouches of bubblegum. Back in 1977, Nelson was still a left-handed pitcher for the Mavericks. He was sitting in the bullpen, watching players spit chewing tobacco on the field.
He started talking with fellow player and former New York Yankees star Jim Bouton about dip. Neither was a fan.
“I’d only tried it once for about 30 seconds it never made sense to me,” Nelson said. “But I did chew a lot of bubblegum.”
A few innings later, Nelson brought up an old idea he’d once had: “Suppose we shredded bubblegum and put in a pouch? We could look cool and wouldn’t make ourselves ill,” Nelson recalled saying.
Bouton’s eyes got as big as baseballs. “I could sell that idea,” Bouton said.
Big League Chew was born.
Nelson bought a make-your-own bubblegum kit from an article he found in People Magazine and got to work in the kitchen of the Portland Mavericks’ batboy, Todd Field. But first they had to get approval from his mother, the prophetically named Candy Field. The first batch was maple and root beer flavored, which he tested on the young baseball players he was coaching at Portland State University.
“They were very kind,” Nelson said. “They said, ‘This is a great idea.’ Nobody said, ‘This is great gum.’”
But the duo kept working: Nelson on the recipe, Bouton trying to sell their invention to candy companies across the country. They eventually found a small division of Wrigley that bought into the idea with a three-year contract. “I couldn’t believe it,” Nelson said. “I paid off my student loans.”
Still, no one could have anticipated the product’s astronomical success.
“As it turned out, in the first year we sold $18 million worth of bubblegum,” Nelson said, clearly still a bit shocked 40 years later. “My brother Ed says in the beginning I was like Charlie Bucket in the Willy Wonka movie; now I’ve morphed into Willy Wonka myself.”
Even though his early dreams of being a big league pitcher never panned out, Nelson is still a fervent baseball fan. He's excited by the prospect of professional baseball returning to Portland, if the efforts of the Portland Diamond Project pay off.
“I, for one, would be on board. I’d be out on the bleachers with everyone else,” he said.
Still, every baseball diamond needs a name: Chicago has Wrigley Field. How about a Big League Chew Field in Portland?
Nelson laughed at the idea.
“If I had to name the park here, I would name it after the Portland Mavericks batboy,” he said. “It would be ‘Todd Field.’”
Hear the full conversation with Rob Nelson on OPB’s “Weekend Edition” by using the audio player above.