9 Noteworthy Minor League Debuts

Jackie Robinson grounding ball at first base.
Jackie Robinson grounding ball at first base.
Hulton, Getty Images

On Sunday, Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will make his minor league debut for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators against the Altoona (Pa.) Curve. Just how big is the hype surrounding the No. 1 overall pick of last year's amateur draft? ESPNEWS has announced it will broadcast every half-inning that Strasburg pitches. As the former San Diego State star prepares for his big day, here's a look back at nine other hype-worthy minor league debuts.

1. Jackie Robinson

Perhaps no minor league debut was as significant as Jackie Robinson's. Signed by Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey in 1945, Robinson appeared in several exhibition games during spring training and made his minor league debut with the International League's Montreal Royals on April 18, 1946. Playing in front of a capacity crowd at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, N.J., Robinson had four hits in five at-bats, including a three-run home run, to lead the Royals to a 14-1 win. "Eloquent as they were, the cold figures of the box score do not tell the whole story," Joseph Sheehan wrote in The New York Times. "He looked as well as acted the part of a real ball-player and on the base paths was a positive demon."

Jersey City's fans greeted Robinson warmly, but the reaction in other cities wasn't always so positive. Robinson, who attracted large crowds throughout the season, led the league in hitting and fielding percentage and was named MVP. He broke the major league color barrier the following season.

2. Michael Jordan

What does the world's greatest basketball player do when winning a championship becomes a bore? He takes up baseball. After winning three straight NBA Finals MVP awards during the Chicago Bulls' first three-peat, His Airness announced his retirement from basketball in October 1993 and signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox a few months later. Jordan made his minor league debut on April 8, 1994, with the Birmingham Barons, Chicago's Double-A affiliate. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in the Barons' 10-3 loss. More than 10,000 fans and 150 media members, including television crews from across the world, attended the game. "They told me that there would be nights like this," Jordan told reporters after his debut. "But what I learned in basketball was that you have to have resiliency. Every great athlete has had one bad day, or two, or three or more. How you bounce back determines what kind of person you are."

Jordan hit .202 with three home runs, 51 RBI, and 30 stolen bases that season. He officially quit baseball in March 1995 and returned to the Bulls—and winning championships.

3. Bo Jackson

A baseball and football star at Auburn, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, Bo Jackson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the first pick of the 1986 NFL draft. Jackson decided to pursue a professional baseball career instead and signed with the Kansas City Royals, who assigned him to their Double-A affiliate, the Memphis Chicks. Jackson made his minor league debut on June 30, 1986, before a less-than-capacity home crowd of 7026. "I feel great," Jackson said during a news conference before the game. "There's some people nervous but I'll let them worry. I'm just going to go out there and play baseball." Jackson hit an RBI single in his first at-bat and finished 1-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Chicks' 9-5 loss to the Columbus Astros. The Memphis fans, many of whom came early to watch Jackson take batting practice, gave the rookie a standing ovation before his first at-bat and again after his professional hit. Jackson hit seven home runs in 53 games for the Chicks and became a regular with the Royals the following season. That year, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted Jackson in the seventh round and he joined the team when the baseball season ended.

4. Willie Mays

Willie Mays made his minor league debut with the Trenton Giants on June 24, 1950, at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., home of the Hagerstown Suns. Mays' line that day was forgettable—he went hitless—but the hateful atmosphere he endured was not. Fans yelled racial epithets at the outfielder, who was the first black player to play a minor league game in Hagerstown and was forced to stay at an all-black hotel. Mays hit .353 with four home runs in 81 games for Trenton that season. In 2004, the Suns invited Mays back to Hagerstown and he accepted, announcing that all was forgiven.

5. Todd Van Poppel

A can't-miss prospect, or so most people thought, Van Poppel was drafted 14th overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 1990 amateur draft. The only reason the Texas high schooler, who turned down a scholarship to the University of Texas to go pro, wasn't drafted higher was because teams were afraid of his contract demands. After receiving a $600,000 signing bonus from the A's, Van Poppel made his minor league debut for the Southern Oregon A's, Oakland's Single-A affiliate, on July 23, 1990, in front of 4,600 fans. Van Poppel didn't disappoint, allowing one hit and striking out five in three-plus innings against the Bend Ducks. Held to a 60-pitch limit in 100-degree heat, Van Poppel's best fastball was clocked at 94 mph and he left with a 6-0 lead. "It felt cooler than Texas to me," Van Poppel said afterward. "It was still hot, but not as hot as I'm used to." The phenom moved quickly through the minor leagues but never lived up to the hype in the majors.

6. Ken Griffey, Jr.

After he batted .478 with seven home runs as a senior at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, the Seattle Mariners selected Ken Griffey Jr. with the first pick in the 1987 amateur draft and assigned him to their rookie league affiliate in Bellingham, Washington. Griffey made his minor league debut on June 16, 1987, and went 0-for-3 in a 5-4 loss to the Everett Giants. Incidentally, left-handed pitcher Eric Gunderson, the No. 2 pick in the 1987 draft, made his professional debut in the same game. Griffey received a huge ovation during pregame introductions. "I wasn't expecting all of that," Griffey told reporters after the game. "I was expecting maybe a few people (would cheer), but not that many. That helps knowing you have the fans behind you." The future star hit a three-run home run for his first professional hit in the Mariners' next game.

7. Darryl Strawberry

The No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 amateur draft, Darryl Strawberry made his minor league debut for the New York Mets' Single-A affiliate in Kingsport, Tenn., on July 14, 1980. Strawberry went 1-for-4 with a single in a 9-3 loss to the Paintsville (Ky.) Yankees. The fanfare that followed his debut was a baseball promoter's dream, as teams throughout the Appalachian League capitalized on Strawberry's celebrity and recognizable name. According to a New York Times article, promoters in Elizabethtown, Tenn., sold old-fashioned strawberry sundaes when Kingsport visited. Paintsville offered free admission to anyone holding a strawberry, dropped strawberries from a helicopter, named the area beyond right field the "Strawberry Patch," and served only strawberry soda at the concession stands. "I enjoy it," Strawberry said of the hype. "I know people are aware of my name, and I think that's going to help me throughout my career."

8. Ben McDonald

The Baltimore Orioles selected Big Ben out of LSU with the first pick in the 1989 amateur draft. After 10 weeks of contract negotiations, McDonald was signed and sent to Baltimore's Single-A affiliate, the Frederick Keys. McDonald made his minor league debut on August 23 against the Winston-Salem Spirits in front of a sellout crowd of more than 5,000. The lanky right-hander, who led the United States to a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics, allowed five hits and one run over three innings. His only strikeout came against the first batter of the game.

"I think I could have done a little better," said McDonald, who balked, threw a wild pitch, and was the beneficiary of a triple play. "But I was reasonably pleased." McDonald made his major league debut two weeks later.

9. Roger Clemens

Okay, so we're cheating a little with this one. The Rocket made his official minor league debut for Winter Haven back in 1983, but his first appearance with the Lexington Legends after coming out of retirement for a third time in 2006 was more memorable. Adding to the intrigue of Clemens' return to the Houston Astros was the fact that his oldest son, Koby, was a third baseman for the Legends, Houston's Single-A affiliate. Koby Clemens had an RBI double, while his dad allowed one run in three innings and walked off the field to a standing ovation. More than 9000 fans packed the stadium—3000 more than the listed capacity—and 120 media credentials were issued for Clemens' first start in Lexington. Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and president of baseball operations Tal Smith both attended the game, for which ESPN provided live look-ins.

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.