When he was 11, Rob Nelson cherished the 1959 Bazooka baseball card of legendary White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox, which featured his hero gripping a thick-handled bat and packing a big wad of tobacco behind his left cheek.
"I was called 'Nellie' too so I always wanted to stuff my mouth with bubble gum as a kid so I could look like the real Nellie," said Nelson, 69, who grew up a Mets fan in Long Island, N.Y.
That boyhood desire never left Nelson, the inventor of Big League Chew who hatched a plan one night sitting next to Jim Bouton in the bullpen of the Portland Mavericks.
It was 1977, and Bouton was trying to make a comeback on the independent-league team after Major League Baseball blackballed the All-Star pitcher due to his tell-all book "Ball Four." One of Bouton's teammates was Nelson, a crafty left-hander whose circuitous path to Portland weaved through community college and Cornell University, where the Ivy Leaguer enjoyed one good season.
As their Mavericks teammates spit tobacco, Bouton asked Nelson if he ever tried the stuff. Nelson did once, playing in South Africa, and became so sick he couldn't pitch batting practice. Their discussion veered toward Nelson's healthier alternative.
Earlier that season, Nelson had noticed the Mavericks batboy reaching into a pouch and putting a wad of black stuff in his mouth. The boy explained it was licorice he had ripped into pieces to mimic the major leaguers who chewed tobacco.
A light bulb went off.
"So when I started talking to Bouton about it, I mentioned I had this idea to shred bubble gum so we could look like cool guys chewing but not be ill," said Nelson, in Chicago for the Sweets and Snacks Expo. "Jim said, 'I love that idea, Rob. I can sell that idea.' His next question was, 'What would you call it?' I pulled the name out of the air. I said, 'I don't know, Big League Chew?' "
Big League Chew is the stringy pink gum packed into a pouch that tastes like adolescence and smells like so many summers at the ballpark. It only takes a whiff of the sugary aroma fresh out of the package to kick off a nostalgia tour for every wannabe major leaguer who grew up in the 1980s.
Bouton put up the first $10,000 investment to get the business up and running. Nelson ordered a do-it-yourself gum-making kit, which he used to concoct an experimental batch of brownish maple- and root beer-flavored gum in his kitchen.
"But I was a philosophy major and didn't think that kids weren't going to chew brown gum," Nelson said.
By the time Bouton flew to Chicago to meet with executives from Amurol Products in Naperville, a subsidiary of Wrigley Company, they had refined the product enough to test it. An Amurol official dropped off about 20 pouches at a 7-Eleven before a lunch meeting. They sold in 10 minutes.
Big League Chew's first year, 1980, generated $18 million in sales. Nearly four decades and more than 800 million pouches later, Nelson still marvels at the success of the product now produced by Ford Gum in upstate New York.
"I remember my parents asked me after I opened the first pouch, 'What does it smell like?' " Nelson said. "I said, 'It smells like fun.' My dad used to say it was lightning in a pouch. I'm a lucky guy."
Nelson's charmed baseball life culminated last year when the Baseball Hall of Fame announced a three-year licensing partnership with Big League Chew. Baseball took Nelson, who pitched into his 50s in the British National League as his gum business grew, from Australia to South Africa but nothing topped Cooperstown, N.Y., for the married father of three.
Not even a trip to Chicago, where he met former White Sox owner Bill Veeck. Veeck shares a birthday — Feb. 9 — so Nelson wrote a letter around 1975 hoping to meet the innovator during a visit. Veeck's return note included a number for Nelson to call when he arrived.
"So I called and the voice says, 'Hello, White Sox,' " Nelson said. "I asked for Bill Veeck. He says, 'Speaking.' Who does that? He took time to talk to me during a doubleheader. A man of the people."
The same term has been used to describe Nelson, most at ease interacting with the curious public at candy conventions in his self-described role as the "Willy Wonka of bubble gum."
"I think people like the fact this is an authentic baseball story," Nelson said.
To think his unlikely tale took a fortuitous turn in 1975 when Nelson saw an announcement in The Sporting News for a tryout with the Mavericks, owned by former actor Bing Russell — Kurt's father. Nelson still chuckles recalling how he initially got cut but talked Russell into letting him stay to run a baseball day camp for youths. That persistence eventually led to a roster spot — and a fateful seat in the bullpen next to Bouton that eventually created one of the sport's most unique brands, a staple of a pastime.
"Everybody has a Big League Chew story, whether it's a bartender, the guy at Hertz or a waitress," Nelson said. "Nobody's ever said I hit a home run with two outs in the ninth inning because of Big League Chew. But it produces these memories of an innocent time in people's lives. It brings people back."
A wistful smile covered Nelson's face.
"I think the best part," he said, "is it never changes."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.