Why Do Sports Teams Give Out Bobbleheads?

Flickr User chrisjtse
Flickr User chrisjtse / Flickr User chrisjtse

Silly as they are, some bobbleheads have been sold for crazy amounts of money. The tchotchkes are a signature piece of sports memorabilia, but their history dates back far beyond the world of athletics.

An early reference to the figurines we know as "bobbleheads" appeared in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 short story “The Overcoat.” According to Bobblehead.com, the tale features a character whose neck was "like the neck of plaster cats which wag their heads.” Bobbleheads—or "nodders" or "bobbers," as they were originally known—were produced in Germany in the mid-18th century. These early incarnations stood about six to eight inches tall, with heads that were attached to their bodies with a spring.

Bobbleheads as sports memorabilia first hit the scene in the 1920s. According to SB Nation, the first team-related figurine was a generic Knicks basketball player. Bobbleheads didn't reach baseball until the 1960 World Series, when fans could buy papier-mâché bobbleheads honoring Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente (because of their flimsy construction, few remain).

Bobbleheads dipped in popularity, and they didn't become a ballpark staple again for decades. SB Nation credits the San Francisco Giants for helping revive the tradition when the team had a Willie Mays bobblehead promotion in 1999. The figurine became an instant collector's item, and a fad was (re)born. Cheaper manufacturing methods also meant that teams could regularly include bobbleheads as free giveaways, adding incentive for fans to buy tickets.

Between 2010 and May 2013, SB Nation reports, there were 334 bobblehead promotional giveaways at major league ballparks. Of those promotions, the Giants have hosted the most, with 34 in that three-year span and 77 in total since 1999.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum is set to open in 2016. Newsweek reports that the museum's founders, Phil Sklar and Brad Nova, already have 4000 bobbleheads and hope to have 6000 more by the time it opens.