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Let's Go to the Videotape: Tom Seaver Spreads Baseball Fever with Stats

Do you remember "Baseball Fever: Catch It!"? Of course. Do you remember Tom Seaver teaching you ERA? Probably not.

Next, Tom Terrific's gonna show you how to calculate gas mileage for your Buick LeSabre.
Next, Tom Terrific's gonna show you how to calculate gas mileage for your Buick LeSabre.

In the late 1970s, MLB launched a marketing campaign designed to bring fans out to the ballpark, a series of commercials that aired under the umbrella slogan BASEBALL FEVER: CATCH IT! This was the brainchild of Tom Villante, a former BBDO exec who went on to become MLB's head of marketing and television. (According to this UniWatch article, Villante was also responsible for this classic Schaefer Beer jingle.)

That slogan--BASEBALL FEVER: CATCH IT!--became an iconic phrase of Mad Ave history, alongside such illustrious advertising calling cards as "Where's the Beef?" and "Wazzup!" Like the best ad slogans, it became so associated with its product that it entered our shared lexicon and transcended literal meaning. This was good for MLB, because if you decided to dig too deep, the slogan makes little sense. Was baseball saying the only way to enjoy the sport was to acquire a disease? THERE IS NO KNOWN ANTIDOTE FOR BASEBALL FEVER. IF YOU HAVE BEEN INFECTED WITH BASEBALL FEVER, DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND DO NOT ATTEMPT TO GO TO WORK. DO NOT ASK YOUR DOCTOR FOR ANTIBIOTICS, BECAUSE BASEBALL FEVER IS A VIRAL THING AND YOU'LL JUST CREATE GENERATIONS OF SUPER-RESISTANT BASEBALL BACTERIA.

Regardless, every fan of a certain age remembers this slogan, and you've no doubt heard it yourself even if you're too young to have lived during its heyday. The commercials that actually featured this slogan, however, are far less remembered. And if this sample from 1979 starring Tom Seaver is any indication, it's with good reason.

Look, we all love Tom Seaver, no matter what uniform he may be wearing at the time. But even the most loyal fans among us must admit his on-air personality is a bit cold and distant, as evidenced by his broadcasting gigs and every public appearance he's ever made. Once upon a time, I dragged my family to a brand new Nobody Beats the Wiz in Paramus, NJ, just because Tom Seaver would be there, signing things. When I got the front of an almost two-hour line, Seaver signed a bunch of my cards without saying a word or even looking up at me. I, in my childish naivete, was crestfallen to find out he was not all that thrilled to be there. Nor would you be, signing a billion baseball cards for a buncha mooks at a Nobody Beats the Wiz in Paramus, NJ. But still.

All of this is to say that any commercial featuring Tom Seaver isn't the most thrilling thing ever filmed. (This spot for Light N' Lively Yogurt will bear that out.) MLB decided to exacerbate this issue by not asking Tom Terrific to do anything remotely athletic, or even show us how to throw a curveball. Nope, Seaver was asked to explain ERA calculation.

I don't know if this makes Seaver True SABR, but I do know it makes for powerfully uninteresting television. This spot feels less like a rousing call to take yourself out to the ballgame and more like a grim early-80s afterschool PSA. "Kids, learn how to calculate your ERA. Don't become a statistic." FYI: despite the math on display here, Tom Seaver's ERA was not 2.25 in 1979. He did log a respectable 3.14 that season, though his K totals plummeted to 131. (He struck out 226 the previous season.) Explain that statistic, Poindexter.

MLB retired BASEBALL FEVER: ACQUIRE IT! as their slogan some time in the 1980s, and played around with a few other catchphrases that never quite caught on. I remember GET UP AND GO was used in the late 80s, to no real effect, probably because it sounds rather bossy. ("Get off the damn couch and do something already!") So in the early 1990s, MLB tried to recapture some of the old magic by re-adopting the old slogan with a new twist: CATCH THE FEVER. Of course, this being the early 1990s, it resulted in ads like this one from 1993.

One of eight billion things you will notice in this commercial is that footage of actual baseball playing is minimal and obscured by grainy "static" effects and jumpy camerawork, to the point where it's impossible to identify a single baseball player featured in it. This is the style of commercial filmmaking popular in the early 1990s, which I refer to as "British Knights vérité." Rather than show us much real baseball action, the makers of this ad thought we'd rather see random people gesturing while wearing MLB gear. A surprising number of them are wearing Mets jerseys, despite the fact that the Mets were horrifically bad at that time. They also thought we'd enjoy rap stylings that would have been rejected from an MC Skat Kat album. (Yes, there was a whole album.)

If you weren't around in the early 1990s, this is what it looked like all the time. Pray we never go back.