Rob Nelson still remembers one particular afternoon 40 years ago as though it were yesterday. It was 1977, and Nelson was a wannabe sports star whose left-handed pitching had only been good enough to land him on a Portland, Ore., minor league team called the Mavericks. Warming the bench beside him in the Civic Stadium dugout was Jim Bouton. Bouton had once been a famous New York Yankee, but Ball Four, his tell-all book about the drinking and skirt-chasing in the Major Leagues, had made him persona non grata with the ball clubs—all of them, that is, except the lowly Mavericks. So the two men sat in the dugout, watching the players out on the diamond—many of whom had wads of chewing tobacco stuffed into their mouths.
“We were observing guys spitting Red Man all over themselves and on the ground,” Nelson recalls, “and [Bouton] asked me, ‘Have you ever tried that stuff?’”
Nelson responded that he had—once. But plug tobacco was so nauseating that Nelson had barely tolerated a minute with it before feeling sick. Bouton nodded: He had the same experience. Another couple of minutes passed, and Nelson decided to share an idea that had been knocking around his head for a while. When he was 11 years old, Nelson had stuffed his mouth with bubble gum so he could look like White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox—famed for the bulge of pouch tobacco sitting in his left cheek. The idea of substituting gum for tobacco had always lingered in the back of his mind.
Indeed, its winning season is still going strong. Having reached $18 million in sales in its debut year of 1980, Big League Chew—which Ford Gum & Machine bought from Wrigley in 2010—has sold more than 800 million pouches.
“Maybe we could shred gum and put it in a bag,” Nelson told his teammate. That way, he said, “We could look cool, and wouldn’t make ourselves ill.”
This idea apparently floored Bouton, who immediately turned to Nelson and said, “Rob, I could sell that idea.”
Bouton did sell the idea—to Wrigley, after putting $10,000 of his own money behind it. Nelson worked on product development. After seeing an ad for a make-it-yourself gum kit in the back pages of People magazine, Bouton baked up a tray of gum in the oven and then used a pizza cutter to slice it into ribbons. The first batch tasted like hell, but Big League Chew (a name Nelson had also thought up in the dugout) was on its way to the big time.