As I prepare to announce the 2012 Preseason Bobblehead All-Americans later this week, I had the opportunity to talk with Michael Silber of P-Squared Promotions and get an insider’s perspective on the business of bobbleheads.
The Baseball Diaspora: Hi Michael, welcome to The Baseball Diaspora.
How exactly did you get into the business of manufacturing bobbleheads? It seems like a little bit of a non-traditional career path.
Michael Silber: I started out in the promotions business. And my specialty, really – I’ve done this a little over 20 years now – my specialty was kids’ meal toys. I used to make all the kids’ meal toys for Dairy Queen, did a lot of Arby’s, Jack-in-the-Box, the little antenna balls that people see on their cars. I would make all of those items. And the bobblehead dolls was just something we kind of fell into accidentally due to a relationship with a factory that made a lot of polyresin, which is what the bobbleheads are made out of and which, coincidentally, is what most Christmas ornaments are made out of.
They were making polyresin ornaments, the bobblehead trend had just started. Alexander Global, Malcolm Alexander was the first guy to start making them. He was making some Minnesota Timberwolves bobbleheads* – that’s the first time I’d ever seen them. And Dairy Queen, which happened to be in Minnesota – I was back there every couple months – and I had seen them at a giveaway, thought it was kind of neat and just investigated what to do from that point forward.
* As best I can tell, the bobbleheads Michael is referring to were given away in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 NBA seasons.
TBD: So, when you got into the bobblehead business, was it more from a sports promotions perspective?
MS: Yeah, it was from a sports promotion perspective and I’ve always said this: that the bobblehead doll is the greatest giveaway item ever invented, ever created. It stimulates more business traffic, it has a very high perceived value, it’s collectible, it’s great for kids and adults, anybody. But, what it really accomplishes is everything you’re trying to do in a promotion.
What it’s never really seemed to be able to accomplish is being a successful retail product. And we’ve tried. We manufactured for the World Wrestling Federation when they were the WWF and the WWE. We’ve done other retail products in the bobblehead industry and they’ve never been anything quite as successful as the promotional field has been.
TBD: So, when you got involved with bobbleheads, were you a sports fan – were you a baseball fan – who found this as a novel opportunity to work around the game or was it just more you saw this as a great business opportunity and jumped to it from that perspective?
MS: There were two things. It was certainly, first and foremost a way to make money. And secondly, it was a great promotional item to do because it was something that everyone talked about.
When you’re making a bunch of kids’ meal promotions, it’s fun to see Jack-in-the-Box antenna balls on cars and things like that, but it’s nothing that you really hear people talking about and seeing up on eBay all the time. It was a nice little attention-getter. The subject matter was a lot better than baseball caps and toys.
TBD: So you’ve produced bobbleheads now for a number of years. And I’ve seen a photo of some of your offerings; you’ve produced for a number of teams on both the major league and the minor league level. What was the process like of establishing those relationships with teams? Was it something where one led to another? Were the teams looking for bobbleheads and you just had to convince them on the quality of your product or was it something where you brought the idea to them?
MS: Right after the Minnesota teams – I really give full credit to Malcolm Alexander for starting the run – the Minnesota teams started it and people saw the draw and the attention and it was simple after that, because the price point at which you can sell it to the stadiums was a lot lower than they could buy many other items with not such a perceived value and certainly not with the collectibility factor. So, it worked on many levels for the teams and it was more or less them looking for it.
And then our bobblehead, to get into different areas and different teams, our pitch – and I still believe it – is that we just have a much more detailed bobblehead, something that’s a little different. I tease Malcolm about his all the time. His success is unparalleled, so good for him. It’s a different style of bobblehead doll, though.
TBD: Are you talking more about the stocky body, standing straight up, just holding something in the hand?
TBD: That’s another question I wanted to ask you and it sounds like you’re the guy for the question. As a bobblehead collector myself and a guy who has followed the development of the item, you see – and maybe this is a function of the process or maybe it’s a function of the teams’ interest or maybe it’s you and other folks coming into the production end of it and trying to make a better product – but I have noticed that there is definitely a progression in terms of the detail and the quality of the bobbleheads and the close-to-life factor that you see in a lot of the giveaways that are being given away now as opposed to even 5 and 10 years ago. Was there a manufacturing element of that – that it used to be more difficult to make bobbleheads that way or was it more just innovation and people like you coming in and saying “we can make this look more like an action shot of the player” and being able to deliver?
MS: When you look at the evolution of it, if you go back and look at the original 5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves – which is about the earliest ones I can think of – and you look at the way they look, they look like that old, made in the ’60s, plump bobblehead doll. And I think in the very beginning, that’s what teams saw and there was nothing wrong with that. It’s a collectible, it gives it a retro look.
But then there had to be some distinction of why you should by mine instead of theirs and why mine might cost a little bit more instead of theirs. It’s just really the evolution of the product – of making it better, of making it a little more interesting. We try and do things to the bobbleheads where we’ll add dirt to them where they have dirt, or pine tar, or batting gloves to pockets. We just try to do things that make them a little more interesting, a little bit more to talk about, a little bit more to the players’ style, characteristics. If you looked at the Manny Ramirez, the pine tar that was all over him, we would add that type of thing. A number of these guys have batting gloves, they have certain wristbands that they wear. We try and add on those kind of things to give it more of a personal touch for each of the players. I think they notice that as well. It gets right down to doing the tattoos on Ryan Roberts.
TBD: I was just going to say – that was one that I loved that little touch, especially all the attention to his very extensive tattoos and that seemed to be something where a lot of attention was put into that. You also mentioned to me in an email that you had a specific pen that was used by Fernando Valenzuela to sign his autographs and you modeled that pen.
MS: We did Fernando last year. We’ve done a couple Fernandos, but last year he was signing an autograph. We put it together and sculpted it and everything and handed it back to the Dodgers for approval and they said, “well this isn’t the kind of pen he uses.” I said “Come on. Seriously? I gotta resculpt this because of the pen?” They said, “Well, he uses a blue Sharpie.” They literally sent me a photo of the pen and had me change it to the exact pen that he used back then.
TBD: That’s great.
MS: I tried to find a picture with him holding our type of pen, but I didn’t have as much luck. They had more archive photos to look at. But yeah, they definitely pay a lot of attention to those type of things.
TBD: So I guess that kind of takes me right into my next question, which is: I’d love for you to walk us through the life-cycle of a bobblehead, from the team’s initial request, through the design and manufacturing and then delivery. What is that process like for your company? How does that go?
MS: The way the process goes is they come up with the person, obviously, and the pose that they like. They’ll send me a picture of the person. Let’s take Orel Hersheiser. So they’ll start off and they’ll send me a picture of the exact pose they want. Then they’ll denote things that are important to them. Like he has this one stare, the way he looks, the way his eyes are when he’s releasing the ball. And in this pose, it was a picture of him releasing the ball. Or Fernando, for example. In his windup, he always looks up to the sky. So they’ll send me any characteristics they want to make sure that we get out of the photo. And then it’s sending us a great deal of front, back, side, side photos. A body shot front, back, side, side and a head shot front, back, side, side. The better the photos to begin with, the better your bobblehead.
Go back to the Ryan Roberts. We needed to see what every tattoo looked like. There were some we couldn’t make, but you have to see what they all look like to get them exactly right. We do a lot of harness racing guys, harness drivers they’re called, and these guys have these extravagant designs on their helmets. Unless you have pictures close up, you’re going to leave it up to the interpreter in Asia to do it.
Once they get all the pictures together, they start the sculpting process. The first thing that’s done is put together a sculpt of the bobblehead in the position you want. And we send that back to the team or the person to review. They take a look at that, there’s always changes. The nose size, the flares of the nose, those types of things you can see in the early sculpt, but they really need correcting.
So once we get the sculpt down to where we think it’s right, we’ll go ahead and paint it. And once it’s painted, you get into different flesh tones, you get into different areas where you want to add the dirt and you dust them and things like that. You go ahead and you do that and then you send that back for approval. And once that’s approved, then the bobbleheads really go into production.
You first have to get the workers set up, because every bobblehead is hand-painted. The first thing you have to do is teach each worker this is what we’re doing, this is how it has to get painted. And it’s kind of paint stations. It’s an assembly line process. If there were 5 colors on the bobblehead, you’d have 5 different stations. If it’s the Dodgers, for example, you might have a flesh tone, a blue, a white, a red, a green, whatever the colors are. And you’d have one section of people in charge of each one of those.
So you go through, you have them get all the samples prepared, get them approved, and once they are, you’re ready to go into mass production. If there’s decals or patches on the sleeve, those are all done with a water decal. You can’t paint those fine details. A tiny decal is made, which creates a problem in itself, because if you mess the decal up when you’re putting it on, you scrap a bobblehead doll. So you face that trial, too. But that’s the process from start to finish on them.
TBD: So, you said each one of them is hand-painted, which makes sense given the small size and detail that’s necessary. Once you get that original sculpt, I’m assuming by an artist who forms that, do you then make a mold that casts a bunch of unpainted resin sculptures?
TBD: So they come out formed and then they are hand-painted by a group of folks over in Asia?
MS: Yeah, they’re put together as well. The heads come off separate from the bodies. So you paint the heads separately. And the bodies a lot of times are in a different piece, too, because sometimes we adhere the bottom, the base, to it. Sometimes they’re holding bats that you can’t have inserted because they’ll just break off in shipping. So we have to produce screw-in bats or other things like that. So yes, they’re all done like that, then they’re assembled and hopefully get here nice and safe.
TBD: So what’s the turn around time? Let’s say the Dodgers call you up and say “we need a bobblehead of Orel Hersheiser,” what would be that first call to when you could deliver it to the stadium?
MS: If they called us on January 1st, and we won’t go with as fast as we could if we were desperate. Because 2 years ago when the Manny Ramirez hysteria happened, when he hit the grand slam on his bobblehead night, we were given – if you look at the date of the game*, which I don’t have in front of me, and the date they gave away the next 50,000**, it was like 90 days; it was almost impossible to do.
* The original giveaway took place on 7/22/2009.
** The second giveaway took place on 9/16/2009, less than 60 days after the original.
But in a perfect world, especially when you’ve already made one so you kind of have approval on how the face should look and everything it’s a little easier. But when you start from the beginning, it takes about a month to sculpt it. And then figure you need another 2 weeks to revise it, so you’re at about 6 weeks. Then you need another 60 to 90 days to make them. Then figure at 30 days for transportation.
TBD: OK, so what are we getting out to, about 6 months?
MS: Yeah, we really would like that time. So, if you were desperate and you’re pretty much approved, you could probably do it in 3 months. But 6 months is perfect to make sure you have time to do revisions and such.
TBD: So when you’re talking about that Manny, the second one was the one actually commemorating that grand slam?
TBD: OK, so that was same face, but different style of body, different pose?
MS: Right. The first one he was hitting, he was batting. And the second one was…
TBD: He was holding the helmet.
MS: He was holding the helmet in the air. But if you look at the date of the giveaway and the date they gave away the second one, I think it was 90 days.
TBD: So in a pinch you can turn it around relatively quickly. I was wondering what that timeline was, because I know that there are moments that happen in a season where I’m sure a team would love to get a bobblehead out later in the year, but I’m sure that sometimes that’s just not possible.
MS: Yeah, because they’re expensive to start airing in. If you have to air them in, it gets expensive. My whole thing with the teams a lot of times is, I look at what it costs to go to a ballgame these days and what it costs to air something like this in and I’m thinking to myself: for what you derive from a couple dollars more, it really doesn’t sound like a lot to me, but the way their budgets are, it is.
TBD: So, you’ve mentioned to me previously – switching gears a little bit here – that the biggest bobblehead promotion you’ve ever done was not baseball-related. What was it and what was that experience like?
MS: It was actually really fun. It was a great experience. It was with the band *Nsync and it was for a million bobbleheads for Best Buy. Best Buy did a promotion where they manufactured 1 million *Nsync’s. They did, if I remember right, 500,000 Justin Timberlakes and 500,000 divided amongst the other 4 guys. But they did a million of them total and it was coupled with a concert tour they were going on, they autographed some of them for charity. I had done a promotion previously with the guys and they were fun to work with, they had fun doing what they were doing and obviously it was very profitable for everybody.
TBD: That sounds like a really massive undertaking.
MS: We used a bunch of different factories. What we did is we tried to keep one bobblehead with each factory so that you have consistency with how each of the people look. So if one factory was doing Justins, they just did Justins. If one was doing Lance, they just did Lance. If one was doing J.C. and so on. They just went and did them that way. But that was the biggest promotion I’ve ever done. I’ve done kids’ meals toys where I’ve made a couple million toys at a time, but they were just a 30-40 cent type item.
TBD: So that was the biggest promotion you’ve ever done and sounds like it was also the most fun. But from the baseball perspective, what was the baseball bobblehead you enjoyed most being involved with over the course of your time making bobbleheads for baseball teams?
MS: It had to be the first Manny one, for sure. Because the first Manny one, where he hit the grand slam, it was a story within a story. In every paper, when they talked about Manny hitting a grand slam, it wasn’t “Manny hit a grand slam,” it was “Manny hit a grand slam on his bobblehead night” and showing all the pictures of people holding them. And if it was on the television stations, they talked about it, too. KABC at the time was doing the Dodgers, they wanted to do a whole discussion about the bobblehead. The bobblehead was more the focus than even the home run because of the circumstances. I would have to say without a doubt that was the most enjoyable of them all.
TBD: Let me ask you this: have you ever gotten any feedback from any of the players you’ve made a bobblehead of, “you really nailed this part of me” or do you really not interact with the players too much?
MS: I don’t interact, I hear it from the people I deal with. And more and more, I believe – and I’ll tell you a story outside of baseball – that the players really do, whether they say they do or not, they notice the bobblehead, they like the bobblehead, they make comments about it: “Mine did this, yours didn’t do that.”
There was a player one time, I was manufacturing for some NHL teams, and this is where it shows you they care. I get a call from the NHL club and they said “We need to do so-and-so player.” I said, “Ok, why?” They said “We just need to do a couple of them right now and then we’re going to do them next season.” I said, “Ok, what’s the rush?” They said, “Well, you know he’s been the captain of the team since we’ve been here and we’ve done bobbleheads of 8 or 9 other players. And he’s got kids and his kids won’t let him alone about ‘How come so-and-so gets a bobblehead and you don’t and you’re the captain?’ And his agent went in to see our VP yesterday and wants to know why he hasn’t been made a bobblehead yet, when he’s been the captain since we’ve been here.”
TBD: That’s a great story.
MS: I made on quickly for the kids, enough for his kids to each have one and then the next year he was the first bobblehead that they did.
TBD: So the players really do take note?
MS: Absolutely. I think so
TBD: I’m not surprised by that. There’s a guy I’ve followed on the internet who is doing a little do-it-yourself bobblehead making of sorts. He’s taking old bobbleheads of players on different teams and they’ve now been traded to his favorite team and so he’s repainting them. And he showed one to one of the players at the fan fest and I saw the piece that he did on it and the player was really excited about it and asked him to make one for him. So you can tell that they definitely like it.
MS: I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot of times that I make them and they ask me for additional samples for the players. This player wants 100 of them. This one wants 50. One time a person requested 500 of them.
TBD: To give out to friends and family mainly?
MS: They’ve got a lot of friends.
TBD: To close it all up, let’s talk about 2012 and bobbleheads. You know that we do the Bobblehead All-Americans here at The Baseball Diaspora. Obviously we’re constantly keeping our eye on the bobblehead ranks and what’s coming out. I’ve already pored through the upcoming bobbleheads for this season to prepare for my preseason Bobblehead All-Americans for 2012, but I wonder what you’ve got in store for us for baseball bobbleheads in this upcoming season.
MS: We have tried a couple things that are different this year which I think are going to be great. The traditional bobbleheads that are coming out – the ones I’ve seen so far – all look really, really fantastic. It’s a great series. One thing we’ve done, this year we’re doing a twin set and a quad set. We’re doing one set for the Dodgers that has 4 mini-type bobbleheads, of Cey, Garvey, Lopes and Russell. I was really a little concerned as to how it was going to come out because of the size and everything else that went along with it. And I’ve seen all the prototypes already, because they’re in production, and they came out fantastic. And it’s amazing even for me to look at the detail that these guys produce when you’re talking about a bobblehead that’s a little bit larger than half the size of a regular one. And yet, you still get all the facial expressions, the grimaces, the batting gloves on their hands, things like that. It really is fantastic.
And then we have a dual set where we did the managers. We did Tommy Lasorda and Walter Alston. Those came out looking great.
And then the regular ones, we try and come up with some new poses, some interesting things. As a limited edition, the Dodgers are doing a talking Vin Scully, which will have his call of Kirk Gibson’s home run and then for the masses it will be a regular Vin Scully bobblehead, which will be fantastic. They’ve tried to get Vin, for 10 years that I know of to do a bobblehead. And just really out of graciousness and not wanting to deflect any attention from the playing field, he hasn’t wanted to do it. But he agreed to this year. So it should be a great night for Vin out there.
TBD: For those that don’t know, this is a big year for the Dodgers, this being their 50th anniversary in LA*. And they’re doing 10 bobbleheads, so you’re involved in about half of them because I believe you’re making the Orel Hersheiser as well.
* Correction: 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium.
MS: No, I’m making all 10 of them. And when they first gave me the schedule, my first inclination was: “Come on, you guys have the guy that should have been the MVP; you have the Cy Young Award winner, come on, we’ve gotta do these guys.” And they said “No, we’re sticking to the retro.” And they’re really fantastic. The Orel Hersheiser is one of my favorite ones. I’ve seen them all. They’re just finishing up doing Mike Scoscia right now. They’re doing Kirk Gibson. They’re doing a bunch of great guys and the poses are fantastic. They look good. We’re excited about it.
TBD: These 10 Dodgers are they taking up pretty much your whole schedule for this season?
MS: They take up a lot of time, because when you start to think about getting them in production, we’re pushing them out in a 4 to 5 month period and you have to pay close attention to everything. There’s some instability in China and sometimes you don’t have the workers that you need. And it’s not like you can get people off the street to paint these. There is a certain talent level that they have to have and that you have to adhere to for quality purposes.
TBD: Let me ask you a couple follow up questions on these Dodgers bobbleheads. You talked about the 4 infielders and I think this is really fascinating, because this is one of the first where you get 4 guys on the same base. Are they all going to be on the same single base?
MS: Yep, they’re all standing on the same base and they look great. We had a lot of concern about how it would come out, because they’re only about 4-4 1/2 inches tall and when you start making them small like that, you could lose detail if you don’t really pay attention.
And of course, the Dodgers wanted if Garvey or someone was wearing a red, white and blue wristband, it had to be red, white and blue. And I’m sitting here trying to lobby, “Let’s just do a white wristband.” Nope, it’s gotta be red, white and blue. So you’ll see all those. And with Davy Lopes, his shirt, the way he wore it it was almost like open collar, it had to be open collar, had to be folded back. Go look at those type of things and realize that everything they do they pay very close attention to the detail. What I’ll have to try to do is get you one and send you a picture they copied and then you can see where they start to follow these types of patterns.
TBD: Now let me ask you one more question, because this is the one I’m interested in. I may even try to drive down from Northern California to try and get my hands on this because I’m sure that once it goes on eBay it will be selling for an absurd amount of money because the classics always do, but what do you think of the Sandy Koufax? What can we expect from that one?
MS: They’re doing two. They’re doing a limited edition where he’s standing in the locker room and holding up his 4 no-hit baseballs.
TBD: Oh my goodness, that’s a classic.
MS: And we actually built a small locker in the background, so it looks like he is right in front of an open locker. And for the regular one, I honestly can’t tell you yet, because they haven’t decided on the final pose. So you’ll find out as I find out.
TBD: Let me ask you this, you talk about a limited edition for the Scully, for the Koufax, are they kind of mixing them in and it’s luck of the draw?
MS: No, the limited are for season ticket packages. They did 2,000 of each of them. And then the Vin Scully is the same exact pose, it’ll be Vin sitting at his desk. But for the limited editions it’ll have the sound chip added for the call. The Koufax is actually a different pose, though. And like I said, I haven’t seen the second one yet because we’re just trying to lead up to those.
TBD: Well I’m not a Dodgers fan, but we did our NL West Preview just a couple weeks ago – our final one of the preseason to get ready for the Opening Day that just happened earlier this week – and the guy we had on is a big Dodgers fan and he was helping us break down the division and he is really looking forward to that Vin Scully bobblehead. So I know that Dodgers fans are going to have a lot to look forward to this year in terms of bobblehead.
And those that don’t know, you made the Andre Ethier bobblehead last year in the Brooklyn throwback uniform that garnered MVP honors for the 2011 Bobblehead All-Americans. So we’re certainly going to have our eye on everything you’re putting out this year at Dodger Stadium to add to this year’s team. Certainly we’re going to have to create some kind of Hall of Fame wing, because they’re all throwback bobbleheads, but they’re going to warrant inclusion in this year’s team.
MS: Well I appreciate it and I appreciate the stuff that you guys do. When you asked me earlier why I do it, it’s like I told you: it’s a lot more exciting to do these types of things and go out with my kids to the stadium and see the looks on their faces when they tell the kids next to them “Yeah, my dad made the bobblehead.”
I’ll leave you with one quick funny story. I have young kids, they’re in elementary school. They have their career days and you have to go in there and talk about what you do and stuff. I went in there and brought the bobblehead dolls and brought a couple Jack-in-the-Box antenna toppers and talked about this is what I do. And the kids were all excited and they obviously got some sort of a trinket or a toy to take. And I was leaving and a mother stopped me in the hall and she’s a good friend and she said, “You ever do that again, I’m going to make sure my kid’s not in your kid’s class next year.” I said, “What?” She said, “I had to follow you and talk about selling life insurance…not happening ever again.” So, that’s it. It’s a very fun thing. It’s fun to do, fun to see people excited about it in the stadium and meeting people like you and I appreciate the publicity and the time you put into the hobby.
TBD: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining me on The Baseball Diaspora and I am looking forward to seeing what you have in store for us this year as they come out month-by-month over the course of this summer.