Of Branding and Baseball

I hugged a grown man yesterday. A complete stranger in fact…and it was exactly what I needed.

Ironically, as I began taking steps to create the new Curveball Keepsakes brand this summer, life threw me some big ol’ yakkers of its own. Both personally and professionally, the last three months have been the most challenging of my life.

I haven’t done a market since July and was busy re-packaging my old product, making new merchandise, and creating new signage until 1AM on Saturday morning – just 8 hours before I was to arrive for load-in at the Magnuson Park Night Market. Even though my repackaging included a “Plan B” after some new boxes failed to arrive in time, I wasn’t really stressed – I was just busy trying to make my customers’ shopping experience a little bit better.

What gave me confidence was the new packaging that DID get done in time. Even though it’s the v1 for Curveball Keepsakes, it’s a HUGE upgrade from the homemade packaging that I created for Sodo Mofo Designs during my first two years. I’m really proud of it and the initial response to it yesterday was fantastic!

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One of the things I share in common with most of my customers, is a deep – almost unexplainable – connection to the game of baseball. We hang memories like masterpieces in the galleries of our mind and relish every opportunity to share them with others… The plays we made in our youth…our first big league heroes and the first time we got to see them in-person… the biggest moments of the biggest games we ever saw… for crying out loud, the smell of the ballpark! … and perhaps most importantly, the friends and loved ones with whom we shared it all. It’s quite often enough to bring a grown man to tears.

In both our branding and packaging, among the main values I want to convey with Curveball Keepsakes is our deep commitment to maintaining the integrity and telling the story of the MLB-authenticated baseballs from which we make all of our keepsakes. Because I have deep connections of my own, I want you to know that I respect yours – and love helping bring them to life!

Because it had been so long, I’d forgotten how our booth routinely turns into a pop-up gallery of those baseball memories shared by our visitors and shoppers – and how much it really charges me up!

Among the things that draws the baseball fans into our booth are the retro jerseys that we use for decoration and sometimes offer for sale. This was clearly the case for a 50+ year-old man who came striding-in yesterday saying “OK, I just have to get the opinion of a professional…”

“Well if I can’t answer your question, I’ll try to find you one,” I responded.

Ignoring my self-deprecation, he proceeded to ask me what I thought to be a somewhat odd question: “Do you think it would be in bad taste to wear a Thurman Munson replica jersey?”

Every time I hear the name Thurman Munson, it evokes some of my first memories of big-league baseball and the characters who played it. The first World Series I remember watching was the 1976 matchup between the Cincinnati Reds and Munson’s New York Yankees. I was 6. The Reds swept the series in 4 games and catcher Johnny Bench won MVP honors with a .533 batting average. Munson batted .529. The year before the Seattle Mariners came to town, these were my first two baseball heroes.

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In 1978 I played organized baseball for the first time and always wanted to play catcher because I got to wear the same kind of two-color orange and blue shin guards as Thurman Munson. His 1975 Topps Mini baseball card was the most cherished of my shoebox collection.

Sadly, on August 2, 1979 Munson died when the small plane he was piloting crashed as he was practicing takeoffs and landings. While I remember hearing this tragic news at home in the Pacific Northwest, it certainly didn’t land on me with the same weight that it did for kids who witnessed the entire greatness of his amazing 11-year career with the New York Yankees.

John was one of those kids. The question he asked me about wearing a replica Munson jersey was based on the deepest reverence for his baseball hero. Munson won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1970 and was a 7-time All-Star. After being named team captain of the Yankees in 1976 – its first since the immortal Lou Gehrig almost 40 years prior – he won the A.L. MVP award.

He was largely considered the heart and soul of the Yankees, so it’s only natural that THOUSANDS of kids would have grown up idolizing the scrappy catcher. As John told me about his own boyhood adulation of Munson, he described how crushed he was when he heard his hero had died at the height of his career. He couldn’t attend the impromptu memorial for Munson at Yankee Stadium the day after the accident – but his sister did.

The more he spoke, the more emotional I realized this was for him. “Are you tearing-up?” I asked him as I noticed his eyes reddening.

He nodded his head. “Yeah” is all John could manage as the tears now welled-up in his eyes.

“Aw man, come here!” I said as I put my arm around him and gave him a couple big squeezes. “I LOVE this!”

In that moment, all of my own hard work felt validated. This is EXACTLY what I want Curveball Keepsakes to be. It’s not just the stuff we create – it’s the memories we bring to life.

To answer his question, I emphatically encouraged John to get himself a pinstriped #15 Yankees jersey and wear it PROUDLY.

I can’t think of anyone better to keep Thurman Munson’s memory alive.

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