Bobbleheads from Milwaukee museum keep Opening Day vibe alive
Feeling like everything during these pandemic days carries a negative tone? There is at least one thing out there that will always give you a positive nod.
Bobbleheads in various forms have been around for centuries, but their popularity has exploded in the last 20 years –– largely due to sports. Nowhere is that popularity captured more than at the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum located in downtown Milwaukee.
Co-founders Phil Sklar and Brad Novak had no idea in the early 2000s what going to some bobblehead giveaway nights at Milwaukee sporting events would lead to. Slowly but surely over a 10-year period their bobblehead collections grew to a point where something had to be done.
“The collection at that point was growing out of control,” said Sklar, who serves as the museum’s CEO. “It was in the kitchen of our condo. It crept from one display case to two to three and then all the bookshelves. It was pretty crazy. It was like, OK what can we do? We sorta combined the two ideas of producing and having a museum dedicated to bobbleheads.”
While the concept has been in place since late 2014, the Hall of Fame and Museum didn’t physically open to the public until Feb. 1, 2019 on the second floor at 170 S. 1st Street in Milwaukee above Stack’d Burger Bar and Colectivo’s Foundry Cafe. It’s just over a mile from Fiserv Forum, just across the Milwaukee River from the Summerfest grounds and a five- to 10-minute drive from Miller Park, depending on traffic.
“We’re right in the downtown area where the Third Ward meets Walker’s Point,” Sklar said. “It’s a really bustling area, lots of shops and restaurants and things to do.”
The bustling has come to a temporary halt due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the museum itself is currently closed and Major League Baseball’s opening day is nowhere in sight, business continues as the Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum (www.bobbleheadhall. com) unveiled its newest creation on March 26, an officially licensed, limited edition dual bobblehead featuring Milwaukee Brewers mascot, Bernie, and Chicago Cubs mascot, Clark, squaring off for the I-94 rivalry. The bobbleheads were produced exclusively for the Hall of Fame and Museum by FOCO, an official licensee and manufacturer of Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball merchandise.
The two mascots are facing each other with their fists up and ready for battle on a base that says “I-94 Rivalry” with Bernie wearing the Brewers’ new 50th anniversary pin-striped jersey and Clark wearing his blue jersey. Each bobblehead is individually numbered to 1,000 and they are only available through the museum’s online store and at the museum when it re-opens, while supplies last. They are priced at $60 with a flat-rate shipping charge of $8 per order.
“No one knows when the MLB season will start, but we wanted to give fans a reason to smile and something to look forward to on what would have been Opening Day,” Sklar said. “The I-94 Rivalry is one of the most intense in baseball, and this bobblehead is the perfect way to commemorate the passion and excitement of both teams and fan bases.”
Sklar said delaying the release of the new bobbleheads was considered, but there were more positives to stick with the original idea of unveiling them on what would have been opening day.
“We were like, we already have the bobbleheads, we paid for them, we want our employees to be able to keep working remotely as long as we can possibly do that, so we’re sort of plugging through and trying to keep all of our employees employed,” Sklar said. “We actually did a Bernie and Clark rivalry one back in 2017 when we were first getting started. We sent a message to people on our email list and they sold out so fast that really only previous customers got one. Since then we’ve been getting a lot of requests ‘you guys need to make a new one.’ We were always working on other projects, but now it was like, OK the Brewers have new jerseys and everything. On the last one, Bernie had the blue jersey and Clark had the pinstriped Cubs jersey. So this one has the opposite jersey colors and gives people the opportunity to get one.”
For Sklar and Novak, Rockford, Ill. natives who had known each other since middle school and both attended UW-Milwaukee, the opportunity to get a bobblehead or two as college students turned into something they could never have dreamed of at the time.
“It just started as a hobby,” Sklar said. “It goes back to my dad who collected baseball cards growing up and got me into baseball and sports cards at a really young age. I enjoyed collecting and looking at them with him at card shows and watching sports.
“(Novak) was working for the minor league baseball team in Rockford in the summers and they gave away a bobblehead for the first time in 2003,” Sklar added. “He got that bobblehead and we thought it was pretty cool. We decided to go to some of the bobblehead games in Milwaukee, so we’d circle the Brewers, Admirals, Bucks and Wave games. Anybody who was giving away a bobblehead, we’d try to go to those games. We built the collection up slowly and then after school, we made a goal to go to all of the baseball stadiums. So every year we’d usually go to a couple and we’d pick up some bobbleheads. By 2014 somehow the collection had grown to about 3,000.
“Looking back and every time I say that it’s like I don’t know how we possibly accumulated that many. Somehow we ended up having close to 3,000 and we thought, ‘OK what are we going to do with all these bobbleheads?’” In 2013, Sklar and Novak decided to produce their own bobblehead of their friend Michael Poll, a longtime manager for UWM Panther athletic teams and a Special Olympian. All proceeds from that sale benefitted Special Olympics.
“We had a really good experience with that process and also realized that there might be a need in the market for somebody to produce and bring bobbleheads to the market,” Sklar said. “A lot of the companies out there were just focused on the stadium giveaway bobbleheads. So we sorta filed that in the back of our minds. We combined those two ideas of producing and having a museum dedicated to bobbleheads.
“During those (baseball) trips we’d go to the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown and some off the wall museums, really just different attractions locally and I think that sort of sparked it a little more,” Sklar continued. “I was in corporate finance, spent about 11 years in accounting and then corporate finance and Brad was in retail sales for cell phones. So it was definitely a big switch. We both went all-in when we announced the concept in November of 2014.”
It took longer than expected to get the museum open, mainly due to finding out the building needed to have a sprinkler system installed. The museum, which has about 4,000 square feet of space, currently has 6,500 unique bobbleheads on display, a store featuring bobbleheads and merchandise and the online store is always available for those looking to add to their collections.
“Now people and teams will send them in to have them on display,” Sklar said. “We don’t even necessarily have to go to the games or reach out to a lot of teams to get them unless there are some that we see and really want to add.”
While sports-themed items make up the majority of the bobblehead market, Sklar said people are often amazed at the variety that’s out there.
“People are definitely surprised to see the variety of non-sports,” he said. “They’re coming in expecting to see the baseball, basketball, hockey and football. They they see the animals, poker players, Marilyn Monroe, Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, just dozens of Star Wars and Disney one, cereal characters, Scooby-Doo. Bobbleheads have been made of pretty much anything and everything.”
Since producing the original bobblehead of their college friend, the co-founders have produced several different series on their own. Among their most popular were a bobblehead of Sister Jean, whose fame took off when Loyola Chicago made its run to the Final Four in 2018, bobbleheads of longtime University of Wisconsin band director Mike Leckrone and two series of the football Watt brothers, JJ, TJ and Derek. One series depicted them in their Wisconsin jerseys and another series with them in their NFL jerseys.
The large-production series are where companies like FOCO jump in.
“Others like the Cubs/Brewers ones, we’ll work with the company that has the license, FOCO, and we go to them and say hey we want to do a bobblehead with Clark and Bernie with their fists up,” Sklar said. “They go to MLB and get the approvals and they do it for us and then we market them. Every day I think we have some new idea that we jot down and reach out to whoever we need to, to see if we can make it a reality.”
So what is it about bobbleheads that makes them so popular? Sklar believes there are three main factors.
“First, they’re fun. They bring a smile to people’s faces,” he said. “Second is people really have a lot of pride in their teams and favorite players and bobbleheads are a perfect way to display that pride either at home or at the office. If Christian Yelich is your favorite player what better way to show it than with a Christian Yelich bobblehead? If you’re a Cubs fan or a Brewers fan, the rivalry is a lot of fun. They’ve had some really intense series over the last 10 years or so where fans are traveling to each other’s parks and there’s been some just epic games with more to come.
“The third thing is just the value,” Sklar added. “People can see that they have a value they appreciate. They’ve been around for 20-plus years since they sort of had a resurgence. Back in the 1960s when the first sports bobbleheads came out, people can see they paid $30 for it, now it’s selling for $100 or the bobblehead I got a Bucks game for free is selling for $75. It’s sort of a combination of those three things that really has kept them so popular.”
Sklar said a vintage, very limited edition New York Yankees bobblehead that was made in the 1960s with the purpose of being placed in storefront displays, recently sold for $60,000. On a local scale, there’s the first Milwaukee Brewers’ Stitch and Pitch bobbleheads, with Bernie Brewer sitting in a ball of yarn while knitting that Sklar said have sold for close to $1,000. A bobblehead of team owner Mark Attanasio that was a gift to team employees sells in the $700 range.
“There was one of Bill Hall in a tracksuit that was sort of a spring training joke thing,” Sklar said. “They had some made but they were never distributed to fans. For these collectors that want all the Brewers, it’s big. Bill Hall was only with the Brewers a few years, but he was sort of a fan favorite. It’s not like it was Robin Yount, Yelich or Paul Molitor. But that makes it fun, getting the special pinstripe jersey one or the pink bat or the one of T-Plush (Nyjer Morgan) making his sign.”