Inventor of Big League Chew talks about getting in the bubble gum zone

Children (8-9) wearing baseball uniforms sitting in dugout, side view(Getty Images/Ryan McVay)

Perhaps now more than ever, we need to be reminded that it is OK to dream and that good is possible.

In the summer of 1977, Rob “Nellie” Nelson was a pitcher for a minor league baseball team in Portland, Oregon, and while sitting in the bullpen waiting for his turn to take the mound, he had time to dream.

Nelson watched his teammates chewing and spitting tobacco, typical of baseball players back then, and he wondered: What if, instead, he shredded bubble gum and put it in a pouch like the ones ballplayers stuffed in their back pockets?

Nelson’s dream turned into Big League Chew and now, with more than 900 million pouches sold, it is part of the baseball landscape. Big League Chew is even the official bubble gum of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Nelson has given clinics on bubble gum blowing as part of the Hall of Fame’s Classic Weekend when former baseball stars also provide playing tips to kids.

Designed as a fun and healthier alternative to chewing tobacco, Big League Chew became reality because Nelson the dreamer also had a believer in that Portland bullpen.

Sitting next to Nelson was Jim Bouton who, at 38-years-old, was pitching for the aptly-named Mavericks because the former New York Yankees star was hoping for one more shot at getting back to Major League Baseball.

“He said two things. I love that idea and more importantly, I could sell that idea,” Nelson remembered Bouton telling him.

“I was the dreamer. I was the guy who was the middle school teacher with a philosophy degree from Cornell, and Jim was a hard-nosed minor leaguer than big leaguer, Major League All Star, World Series hero. We became partners, we really were the odd couple.”

It makes sense that something like Big League Chew came out of that summer in Portland. The team was called the Mavericks and indeed, that’s what they were. It was the only team in Single A ball that year not affiliated with a Major League Team. It was a mixture of guys with no chance, like Nelson, and guys like Bouton who wanted another chance.

The invention of Big League Chew came out of an atmosphere of fun created by team owner Bing Russell who also had his actor son Kurt Russell involved.

The stories were wild, from a player who would jump on the dugout with a flaming broom when the Mavericks were about to sweep a series, to a Labrador puppy mascot who occasionally created chaos on the field and left “deposits” at home plate. The Mavericks spawned a hit Netflix documentary, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball.”

Another documentary should be made on the unlikely partnership between Nelson and Bouton.

Bouton told Nelson he had the inspiration, and he would provide the perspiration. In short, Bouton knew how to take an idea and run with it, but the concept of shredded bubble gum in a pouch that excited players in a bullpen was not as well received in corporate boardrooms.

Bouton told Nelson “they are not getting it” and he needed samples. But Nelson was a baseball wannabe and philosophy major from Cornell — not, as he said, “Willy Wonka in a white coat coming up with candy ideas.”

Fortunately, Nelson read People magazine in January of 1979 where he saw an advertisement for a home bubble gum kit.

Nelson took the kit and linked up with former Portland Mavericks batboy Todd Field. If that name sounds familiar, Field went on to become an actor and three-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker. Nelson knew Field’s mother had a great kitchen where they could concoct the first batch of Big League Chew.

“Her name was Candy, so that was fortuitous,” said Nelson. “We baked maple-flavored and then root beer-flavored Big League Chew. It was like a flat sheet of brownies. We shredded it with one of those round pizza knives. I found a little art company to design some pouches for me. I shipped it back to Jim (Bouton) and in no time at all he said we got a deal.”

Actually, before shipping his first batch of Big League Chew to Bouton for prospective buyers to try, Nelson had his own focus group. Nelson was pitching coach for Portland State University and he gave some Big League Chew to his players for their impression.

“I gave each guy a pouch and they were chomping on it, they said, ‘This is a great idea,’” said Nelson. “Nobody said this is really good gum because the gum was terrible, but they loved the concept and they said you are on to something.”

Coincidentally, that first batch of Big League Chew was made on Feb. 6, 1979, which was also Babe Ruth’s birthday. Nelson’s invention was viewed as a novelty and the initial deal for manufacturing Big League Chew, made with a subsidiary of the Wrigley Co., was only for three years.

But more than 40 years since Nelson first invented Big League Chew, the shredded bubble gum in a pouch has proven much more than just a novelty — outlasting the chewing tobacco trend it initially emulated.

“When I ask kids what they like about it, they love the fact they can share it, they can take a little, they can take a lot,” said Nelson.

“Most kids today don’t really get that the origin was as a fun alternative to chewing tobacco. MLB has banned it, and let’s face it, ballplayers make more money now, they’re smarter, and they understand tobacco is a performance-debilitating drug, so they don’t do it.”

While chewing gum is healthier than chewing tobacco, Nelson is under no illusions, or as he puts it, “he is not selling granola.”

Big League Chew is not meant to be a nutritional supplement, but there is no substitute for fun, and sometimes, there is nothing better, especially at a baseball game, then just the simple joy of blowing a good bubble.

“I’m grateful every day for Bing Russell giving me the chance to sit in his bullpen and for Jim Bouton to put up with my nonsense,” said Nelson.

“Let’s face it there is not a Nobel Prize for bubble gum but it’s made a lot of people smile. I am absolutely the luckiest left-hander that ever sat in a minor league bullpen by far.”

Big League Chew bubble gum is seen. (Courtesy Big League Chew)

Rob Nelson’s tip for bubble blowing tips

Preparation is key:

“If you have an 11 o’clock bubble gum blowing contest, start chewing at about 10:15 or 10:30. You really have to work it, because what you need to do to blow a seriously big league bubble is you have to get most of the sugar out of the gum. That means you probably have to get a lot of the flavor out of it, but you want a kind of a leathery texture and just be patient.”

Keep it simple — don’t look at the bubble:

“When I pitched, I threw two pitches at two speeds from two arm angles. I kept it as simple as I possibly could, and that’s really true when you’re blowing a bubble. When you first coach kids how to pitch, a lot of times they’ll throw the ball and look at the ball rather than look at the catcher’s glove. So I have to remind kids when blowing a bubble, don’t look at the bubble, look straight ahead, the bubble will take care of itself.”

Get in the zone:

“As I tell my three kids when we’re competing against each other: be the bubble. You know, it’s very cosmic. Just go slow with it and don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Nelson’s mantra:

“The key is to go slow and be the bubble.”

And a secret: Grape is the best flavor for blowing bubbles.

Packages of Big League Chew bubble gum are seen.
Packages of Big League Chew bubble gum are seen. (WTOP/Dave Johnson)

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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