- - Tuesday, October 16, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The news that retail legend Sears declared bankruptcy this week touched a nostalgia nerve for many who grew up in America with the department store as an all-encompassing merchandiser – from the stores that anchored main streets and later shopping malls to the two-ton catalog that arrived in the mailbox every year.

Sears sold everything, and, before the days of Dick’s Sporting Goods and Modell’s, was the go-to outlet for sporting goods, from baseball gloves to fishing rods. And, as part of their marketing plan on their way to becoming a sporting goods giant, they married one of the greatest sports icons in America – Hall of Famer Ted Williams – in an athlete-marketing deal ahead of its time. That relationship between Williams and Sears may have led to the Hall of Fame slugger taking the managing job with the Washington Senators in 1969.

The relationship between Williams, perhaps the game’s greatest hitter and an avid sportsman, with Sears began in 1960, his final playing year with the Boston Red Sox, according to the book “The Kid,” by Ben Bradlee, Jr. Williams had already established Ted Williams Enterprises back in 1946. He sold Ted Williams hats, shirts, belts and hunting boots, and, along with other endorsement deals, was making more than $100,000 annually.

While exploring post-playing career options, a friend of Williams suggested he reach out to Sears. The retailer was elated to have such an iconic figure as their sporting goods spokesman, and within days of their first contact, made a deal for Williams to develop and test baseball, fishing, hunting, camping and boating equipment – all with the “Ted Williams” seal of approval. He would also be a big part of the store’s marketing and promotion campaigns for its sporting goods line. In a five-year deal, Williams received $125,000 annually as a base salary, plus a percentage of anything sold with his name on it, according to the Bradlee book.

Athlete endorsements were nothing new, but Williams would become the identity of Sears sporting goods, and therefore one of the biggest sports marketers in the world. Before Williams, the company’s sporting goods equipment had been marketed under the brand “J.C. Higgins” – a store manager who started working for the firm in 1898 and retired in 1950 as company comptroller, according to the Sears archives.

Williams replaced J.C. Higgins as the store’s sporting goods brand.

This was not just a rubber-stamp operation. Williams would become chairman of Sears’ “Ted Williams Sports Advisory Staff,” a group consisting of some of the biggest names in the world of sports and outdoors activities. Among them was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest; two-time U.S. Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias, basketball star Jack Twyman and golfer Doug Ford, among others.

A 1963 advertisement in Life magazine featured a photo of members of Williams‘ group, with this promotional copy that boasted of the influence Williams and the group had on Sears sporting goods. “Before any piece of Sears sports equipment can earn the Ted Williams name, it must be personally approved by a member of the Sports Advisory staff. It must be thoroughly proved by the Sears laboratory. And it must be given the final okay by Ted himself.”

As part of the Sears marketing, Williams – who had a well-documented war with Boston sportswriters – would produce a ghost-written syndicated column on sports and sometimes other leisure activities, from 1962 to 1967. It was carried in as many as 90 newspapers – including the Boston Globe, according to Bradlee’s book.

Near the end of the decade, though, America was going through some dramatic changes. Other sports stars were emerging, and with it a generation who had never seen Williams on the baseball field.

He would return to uniform as manager of the Washington Senators in 1969 – the woeful expansion edition of the Senators – and led them to their best season in that first year with an 86-76 record.

How that return happened is in question.

Denny McLain, the former Detroit Tigers pitching great who won 31 games for the Tigers in 1968, was traded to Washington after developing arm problems and a falling out with Detroit management, in October 1970. Going from a pennant contender to a cellar-dweller, McLain was not happy, and feuded with Williams throughout the 1971 season.

In a conversation on my podcast “Cigars & Curveballs,” McLain maintained that Washington owner Bob Short was able to convince Williams to come to Washington to manage the Senators because of Short’s influence with Sears.

“The only reason Ted came back after being out of the game so long is because he lost his contract with Sears,” McLain told me. “He had a monster contract with Sears…all of a sudden the generations did not know who Ted Williams was. So Williams needed to get himself back in the limelight. Bob Short said to Ted ‘If you come manage my baseball team I will get you your Sears contract back for another 25 or 30 years.’

“He (Short) owned one of the largest trucking companies in the world,” McLain said. “In fact, his biggest deal was with Sears and because he had that relationship with Sears was the reason he was able to get Ted that deal.”

The only reference to this arrangement McLain spoke of in the Bradlee book is a phone call Williams made to Sears when Short was courting him: “Williams called his bosses at Sears to ask if they would support his taking the Washington job, and they immediately said yes. His $100,000 contract with Sears was ending in 1970. Becoming a manager would get him back in the limelight, something Sears had already thought was important…Williams realized that managing…would position him well when it came time for Sears to decide whether to extend its contract.”

Williams‘ managing tenure ended when the Senators moved from Washington to Arlington, Texas after the 1971 season. His contract would eventually end with Sears as well, and Williams died in 2002 at the age of 83. Sears found itself on the defensive in a changing and competitive retail world over the last few decades. Not even Ted Williams could save them.

• You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and also on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.


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