Record-breaking baseball gum distributed, marketed from Lincolnshire

You loved it as a kid. Lincolnshire has thousands of square feet of it right now.

Big League Chew, the bubble gum built to look like shredded tobacco, has used smart marketing to stay viable in the eyes of both kids and moms, despite the declining popularity of the seemingly unrelated products — tobacco and baseball — with which it aligns itself.

A publicity event earlier this month in Maryland earned the gum’s makers a Guinness World Record, and its sales and marketing office in Lincolnshire is humming.

On Aug. 8, BLC got 721 people at a youth baseball tournament in Aberdeen, Md., to chew BLC for 60 seconds, then blow and sustain a bubble for 30 seconds.

“This is a business, but it’s a candy and there needs to be some fun associated with it,” said Steve Greene, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Ford Gum & Machine Co., which manufactures and distributes Big League Chew.

Available in Little League dugouts since 1980, Big League Chew is a confection that looks like nothing else. The original bubble gum flavor is colored pink, but it also comes in grape, watermelon and sour apple.

Regardless of color or flavor, the gum is shredded into long strands of sugary, elastic goo, meant to look like chewing tobacco. The distinctive pouch was designed to fit nicely into the back pocket of baseball pants.

Although more kids are playing soccer and American football these days, Greene said adaptation to the 21st Century has not been that difficult.

“There’s tremendous brand loyalty,” he said.

Big League Chew has diversified its retail presence, landing everywhere from grocery stores to Dick’s Sporting Goods to Toys ‘R Us. “We’re just interested in partnering with, and being relevant with, today’s kids,” Greene said.

The BLC story began in the bullpen of the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor-league baseball franchise. There, in the mid-1970s, former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton spent a lot of time sitting with other relief pitchers, including one named Rob Nelson.

Many chewed tobacco, and many enjoyed berating each other by spitting on each others’ shoes. Nelson and Bouton disliked that practice, and Nelson started thinking of alternate products their teammates could chew.

Nelson conjured up the Big League Chew idea, and Bouton became the business agent who pitched it to the Wrigley Company —which went for it, Greene said.

First manufactured in Yorkville, Ill., Wrigley later moved the operation to Mexico. In the mid-’90s, the brand lost direction and sales dropped. In 2010, Ford Gum bought the manufacturing and distribution rights, with Nelson and Bouton still the license owners.

Based in Vernon Hills from 1997 to 2001, Ford moved to 640 Margate Drive when the “perfect” 30,000-square-foot warehouse became available, Greene said. Today, Ford manufactures BLC at a facility outside of Buffalo, N.Y., but uses nearly all of its Lincolnshire space for Midwest distribution.

Much has changed — in sports, health awareness and marketing — since Nelson and Bouton sat in the Mavericks’ dugout.

Today, parents are more frequently dreading sugar consumption. And then there is the tobacco reference. Do moms ever accuse BLC of being a gateway to smoking or chewing real tobacco?

“We do hear it occasionally,” Greene said. “We think it’s an alternative to chewing tobacco. We don’t see it as a gateway.”

Company officials have considered sponsorships and products that would take them outside of baseball, but Little League Baseball maintains robust participation numbers, he said.

Ford officials know what they have in BLC, and a little adaptation here and there should keep it viable, Greene said.

“It’s just a fun kids’ item,” he said.

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