Bob Prince – The Green Weenie & Babushka Power

Bob Prince interviews Pirates players including Bill Mazeroski after their Game 7 World Series victory over the Yankees

While Myron Cope was unique in his own right, there is no doubt the he was heavily influenced by the legendary Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince. Prince was one of baseball’s best known play-by-play broadcasters and spent 28 seasons with Pirates. He was hired in 1948 to replace Jack Craddock and do play-by-play alongside Rosey Rowswell, and then fired at the conclusion of the 1975 season. He had a distinct voice, brash style and rapid fire delivery, which earned him the nickname “The Gunner”. He also handed out his fair share of nicknames to Pirate players, and was known for his colorful metaphors and equally colorful sports jackets. Prince was an unabashed “homer”, and his firing in 1975 led to disaffection amongst the Pirates fanbase which took many years to repair. Prince was extremely charitable and was a cofounder of the Allegheny Valley School and major fundraiser for the school, reportedly raising upwards of $4 million. He recommended the school to Myron Cope for his son Danny, and got Cope involved in fundraising for the school as well. Cope would eventually turnover the trademark of The Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School, and to date the towel has raised an additional $5 million for the school. Prince was also a great promoter. When the Pirates were struggling to maintain interest amongst its fanbase and fill seats, Prince came up with gimmicks like The Green Weenie and Babushka Power. There is no doubt that the success of these gimmicks directly influenced the creation of The Terrible Towel.

The Green Weenie

Danny Whelan Photo

Pirates trainer Danny “Doc” Whelan created the Green Weenie hex

The Green Weenie hex was promoted by Bob Prince during the 1966 season, but it was actually created by Pirates trainer Danny Whelan. Whelan was an Irishman with a larger-than-life personality who spent nine years with the Pirates, but was best known for his eleven seasons as the trainer for the New York Knicks from 1967 through 1978. Whelan was  part of the Knicks championship teams of 1970 and 1973 and was always visible courtside wearing his trademark orange warmup shirt. Whelan helped Willis Reed make his dramatic return in Game 7 against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers. Reed tore his right thigh muscle in Game 5 and missed Game 6, which the Lakers won and tied the series to force a decisive game 7. Most people thought there was no way Reed would start. But after being shot up with a healthy dose of Cortisone, he made a dramatic entrance into Madison Square Garden and provided the emotional spark that the Knicks needed to put the Lakers away and win their first ever World Championship. Whelan was also credited with giving Walt Frazier the nickname “Clyde”.

Danny Whelan with Willis Reed during Game 5 of the 1970 NBA Finals

But in Pittsburgh folklore, Whelan is known for sparking The Green Weenie gimmick during the 1966 season. Prior to joining the Pirates in 1959, Whelan spent twelve seasons as a trainer in the minor leagues for the Rochester Red Wings in the International League. Whelan was a local celebrity during his time in Rochester. The Red Wings held a “Danny Whelan Night” celebration during the 1956 season, and after it was announced that Whelan was leaving to join the Pirates, the mayor of the city declared February 10, 1959 as “Danny Whelan Day.” Whelan was known for the nicknames he gave players and his unique expressions, which included yelling “Green Weenie” from the dugout at opposing batters to “shake them up.” Whelan had served in the Navy during World War II, so it is likely that he picked up the term “Green Weenie” while in the service. Marines coined the slang term Green Weenie as a reference to the military’s bureaucracy, and the connotation usually means “getting screwed over.” Whelan’s use of the term during ballgames was meant as a hex on opposing batters. When the Green Weenie gimmick took off during the Pirates 1966 season, it was very popular among servicemen overseas.

Danny Whelan wearing his trademark orange warmup shirt in the 1970-1971 Knicks team photo

During the 1960 season with the Pirates, Whelan bought a rubber hot dog and painted it green. The novelty hot dog was a fixture in the dugout during the Pirates World Series championship run and was an “inside” supersticious gimmick for players. After each game Whelan would ceremoniously lock it in the training room medicine cabinet. After winning the 1960 World Series, Whelan put his green weenie away. But during the 1966 season, a clubhouse gimmick from six years earlier suddenly became a national phenomenon. Myron “The Hot Dog King” O’Brisky oversaw concessions at Forbes Field for over 40 years on behalf of his parent company, Sportservice. Prior to the Pirates June 28, 1966 game against the Houston Astros at Forbes Field, O’Brisky served some spoiled hot dogs at the pregame spread in the Pirates clubhouse. Whelan grabbed one of the rotten hot dogs and taped it to the dugout railing. Going into the bottom of the second inning, Astros pitcher Dave Giusti had a 1-0 lead. Willie Stargell singled to lead-off the inning and advanced to second on a groundout. Giusti was facing Pirates first baseman Donn Clendenon when Whelan shouted at Giusti from the dugout “You’re gonna walk him!” while pointing the hot dog in the direction of the pitcher’s mound. Giusti did indeed walk Clendenon. Pirates catcher Jim Pagliaroni followed with a single to drive in Stargell and tie the game at 1-1. Bill Mazeroski then doubled in Cledenon to put the Pirates on top 2-1. Giusti would be chased in the fifth inning with the Pirates leading 4-3, which would ultimately be the final score. During his broadcast, Bob Prince noticed the hot dog attached to the dugout railing and called it to viewers’ attention.

Chunk-o-luck Voodoo Stick 1965

The Chunk-o-luck Voodoo Stick was the original incarnation of the Green Weenie that fans brought to Forbes Field to hex opponents

The following night, Pirates announcer Bob Prince asked Danny Whelan about the hot dog incident during his broadcast, and the Green Weenie hex was officially born as Whelan described the backstory. However, it was Myrtle Miller who supposedly sold Prince on the idea of invoking the Green Weenie during future broadcasts to hex opposing players and teams when the Pirates needed a boost. At the time, Myrtle Miller was the manager at Gus Miller’s Newsstand, a novelty store located across the street from Forbes Field. Her father Gus Miller was chief usher at Pirate games starting in 1901 when the team played at Exposition Park. He followed the Pirates to Forbes Field in 1909 (where he remained chief usher until 1947), and started a newsstand and novelty shop next to the ballpark that would become a landmark in the Oakland neighborhood. Gus Miller’s newsstand sold the original version of the Green Weenie, a novelty item produced by toy manufacturer Chunk-o-luck called the Voodoo Stick. The elongated, green rubber voodoo doll had long hair and metal bell earrings that jingled when the doll was shaken, and the doll squeaked when squeezed. While it in no way resembled a hot dog, it was green and that fact it was a voodoo doll made it perfect for hexing opponents. While Danny Whelan used his green rubber hot dog from the dugout, and Prince decorated his broadcast booth with long green balloons representing the Green Weenie, fans initially adopted the Chunk-o-luck Voodoo Stick sold at Gus Miller’s Newsstand as their version of the Green Weenie.

Green Weenie Hex Gun Finished

The Green Weenie Hex cardboard gun was pointed at opponents to jinx them

The Green Weenie gimmick was working as the Pirates came out of the All-Star break and defeated the Cubs 10-4 on July 14, 1966 and took over first place in the National League. They would remain in first place until the last day of July when they dropped both games of a doubleheader to the Phillies. But on August 4, 1966 the Pirates beat the Dodgers 8-1 to improve to improve to 63-44 and again assumed first place, which they held most of the month of August. With the Pirates success, the Green Weenie was starting to attract national recognition, even garnering an article “Whammy With a Weenie” in the August 12, 1966 issue of Time magazine. During the Beatles third concert tour of America in August 1966, John Lennon was presented with a Chunk-o-luck Voodoo Stick. Department stores like Kaufmann’s piggy-backed off of the Green Weenie’s popularity by referencing it in advertisements.

Heinz Green Weenie Inflatable

Heinz sold their own version of the Green Weenie, a 3′ inflatable pickle

With the popularity of the gimmick skyrocketing as the Pirates battled for the NL pennant, other versions of the Green Weenie began to be produced and marketed. Heinz sold a giant 3′ inflatable Green Weenie (which was actually a pickle). On September 1st and 2nd, the Pirates held an autograph session at a local mall where thousands of cardboard Green Weenie Hex guns were given away. Fans and players participated in a Green Weenie Whammy ceremony, where they pointed their guns in the direction of Forbes Field to hex all upcoming opponents. A few weeks later as the pennant race entered its final stretch,  A.G. Trimble Company jumped into the Green Weenie merchandising craze by offering buttons and stickers.

1966 Green Weenie

The “Official Green Weenie” rattle has become synonymous with the gimmick

But it was a souvenir plastic rattle produced by Tri State Plastics in Coraopolis, PA that became synonymous with the Green Weenie gimmick. The “Official Green Weenie” was an 8-inch-long, hot dog-shaped piece of green plastic with beads inside that rattled when fans shook it at opposing players. It had a cardboard backing with directions on how to use it, which read: “POINT at opposing player and give ’em the GREEN WEENIEeeee SOUND. CAUTION – use only when in deep trouble.” While it was branded as the “Official Green Weenie”, it was actually not affiliated with Bob Prince or the Pirates. Two local Pittsburgh natives, Ned Cole and Louis Guardian, applied for the copyright and started the GW Goodluck Charm Company, which was also known as Jinx Enterprises. They subcontracted the manufacturing to Tri State Plastics and the distribution to John Robbins Company. The Official Green Weenies began production in late August, and by September 7, 1966 over 250,000 had been produced, with 30,000 more being produced each day. A local grocery store chain and Pittsburgh-area Ford dealerships used them for promotional giveaways. Myron O’Brisky (who inadvertently spawned the Green Weenie phenomenon) sold them at Forbes Field, and local stores in the area retailed the Official Green Weenie for $0.50.

AG Trimble Buttons and Sticker

Pittsburgh-based promotional company AG Trimble produced Green Weenie buttons and bumper stickers

The Pirates held on to first place until back-to-back losses to the Cardinals on September 10 and 11 dropped them back to second place. The Green Weenie remained popular as fans used it to will the Pirates back into the lead for the NL Pennant throughout the month of September. But the Pirates would never regain first place, and they ended up finishing third (three games behind the NL Champion LA Dodgers) after getting swept by the Giants in the final series of the year. The Green Weenie’s magic had run out, and demand for the plastic rattles completely vanished. Tri State Plastics put the extra materials in storage thinking that the gimmick would make a comeback. But even with World Series wins in 1971 and 1979, the Green Weenie never reemerged. As a result, Tri State Plastics threw away all extra material at the conclusion of the 1979 season.

1990 Giant Eagle and Buick Green Weenie

In 1990 the “Official Green Weenie” was briefly brought back into production as the Pirates battled the Mets for the NL East crown

But in August 1990, the Pirates organization contacted Tri State Plastics to produce Green Weenies once again. That year the Pirates, led by Barry Bonds, broke a decade of mediocrity and raced to an NL East Division title. Tri State Plastics was able to source the necessary materials, and in six weeks they churned out 200,000 units which were distributed to Giant Eagle and Buick and local retailers. Buick gave away the Green Weenie at Pittsburgh-area dealerships, while Giant Eagle sold them for $0.99 with ten cents of the proceeds from each sale going to Bob Prince Charities (which included the Allegheny Valley School). While the 1966 versions contained no corporate branding, the 199o versions did contain either the Giant Eagle or Buick logo on the cardboard backing. The Giant Eagle branded Green Weenie also had the KDKA logo printed on it since KDKA was the radio station of Bob Prince (the creator of the Green Weenie), as well as the official radio and television station of the Pirates. The Buick branded Green Weenie did not have the KDKA logo because rival radio station WLTJ had worked out the promotional deal with Buick. The Green Weenie’s were also sold at Mike Feinberg’s in the Strip District and McCrory’s drug store in downtown.

While it only lasted for three months in 1966 (and reappeared for a month in 1990), the Green Weenie was a successful gimmick. It got fans fired up and interested in the Pirates, it was marketed successfully and it was often mentioned in Pirate game recaps. It even garnered national attention, which in turn peaked the interest of companies who used it in their advertisements and promotions. Bob Prince had created and successfully promoted Pittsburgh’s original good luck charm.

Babushka Power

But Prince wasn’t done. In 1975 he created another gimmick, Babushka Power. The Pirates moved from Forbes Field to their new home at Three Rivers Stadium midway through the season in July 1970. All of the sudden the Pirates went from a 35,000 seat stadium to a 50,000 seat stadium. Even when the Pirates were doing well at Forbes Field, they usually finished near the bottom in the National League in attendance. For instance, their best attendance at Forbes Field was 1960 when they went on to win the World Series against the Yankees on Bill Mazeroski’s game 7 walk-off home run. That year they totaled just over 1.7 million fans, an average of only 22,000 fans a game. So the Pirates never came close to filling Forbes Field on a regular basis. Now the Pirates found themselves in a much larger stadium that was geared more towards football than baseball. Attracting a large enough crowd to create a noisy atmosphere became a constant challenge. The Pirates were contenders each year throughout the 1970s, winning the NL East six times and bookending the decade in 1971 and 1979 with World Series trophies. But over the course of the 1970s, the Pirates only averaged about 15,500 fans per game (total attendance from 1971 through 1979 was 11,291,829). The Pirates wouldn’t break the attendance record set in 1960 (1.7 million) until 1988 (1.86 million).

Murphy’s Mart produced these “Babushka Brigade” babushkas for the August 19, 1975 Babushka Night game against the Giants

Attendance was steadily declining from the Pirates first full season in Three Rivers Stadium in 1971 through 1974. Despite finishing first in the NL in 1974, the Pirates were averaging 5,000 less people per game than in 1971, when they won the World Series. So in 1975, the Pirates turned their attention to promotions and getting people back into the stadium. One promotion the Pirates ran in 1975 to fill seats was Ladies Night. For select games ladies received $1.35 off of regular ticket prices (regular ticket prices were $4.50 for box seats, $3.50 for reserved seats and $2.00 for general admission). The first two Ladies Night games on April 17th against the Expos and on June 18th  against the Cardinals had mixed results. The initial Ladies Night against the Expos only drew 5,500 fans, while the promotion had better success against the Cardinals where attendance topped 30,500. But the Pirates still needed something more engaging like the Green Weenie gimmick, so Pirates VP Jim O’Toole turned to Bob Prince to brainstorm some ideas. Playing off of the Ladies Night promotion, Prince proposed nicknaming the throngs of women that attended the promotional games the “Babushka Brigade” and encourage them to bring babushkas to the game and wave them in support of the Pirates. Babushka is the Slavic term for headscarf, and babushkas were mostly worn by older women. Pittsburgh had the largest population of citizens with Slovak descent, so the babushka had a gimmick quality that was uniquely Pittsburgh. O’Toole approved Prince’s idea, and the Pirates added a special Babushka Brigade Ladies Night to the schedule for July 8th against the Dodgers. Prince promoted the Babushka Brigade during his broadcasts and encouraged fans to bring babushkas to the July 8th game.

The Babushka Brigade cheers on the Pirates against the Giants on August 19, 1975

Fans responded to the promotion, and over 29,000 people attended the Tuesday night game. In the five previous Tuesday night home games that season, the Pirates had averaged only 8,800 fans. Although the Pirates lost 3-0 to the Dodgers, the stands were full of babushka-waving women. Given the huge success of Babushka Brigade night, the Pirates decided to do a babushka giveaway that would coincide with the next Ladies Night promotion scheduled for the July 30, 1975 game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The “Babushka Night” promotion was only promoted during Prince’s broadcasts. On the night of the game, the walkup gates that sold tickets could not handle the crowds since not enough gates were open, and the game had to be delayed 18 minutes to get fans into their seats. Ladies received plain black and gold babushkas, which they ended up waving throughout the game.  The Pirates ended up beating the Phillies 8-1 in front of 43,260 fans, which was a record weekday crowd up to that point at Three Rivers Stadium. The promotion also drew a record 12,345 women to the game. Prior to that Wednesday night game, the Pirates had played seven other Wednesday night home games that season and averaged  just a little over 12,500 fans.  The Babushka Brigade was out in full force and the  “Babushka Power” gimmick was officially born.

Ford Dealership Babushka Power

Pittsburgh-area Ford dealerships gave away babushkas to customers

Fans started twirling babushkas during games for good luck and Prince would invoke it in the broadcast
booth when the Pirates needed a boost. The Pirates added another “Babushka Night” to the schedule for their August 19, 1975 Ladies Night game against the Giants. This promotion was sponsored by local retail chain and Pirate ticket broker G.C. Murphy’s (Murphy’s Mart). They produced the babushkas, which this time were branded with the Pirates logo and “Babushka Brigade”, which became the name for the thousands of women who attended the games moving forward and twirled their babushkas for good luck. For $1.49 women received a ticket to the game along with a babushka. In fact, Murphy’s had first promoted the August 19th Babushka Night on July 30th, one day before the Babushka Night against the Phillies. So even if the babushka gimmick had been a dud against the Phillies on July 31st, it appears that Prince and the Pirates were invested in the gimmick no matter how it was received. While the second Babushka Night only drew 22,602 fans (almost half of the first promotion), it was still almost 7,500 more fans than their average that year. The Pirates would beat the Giants 4-0, snapping a six game losing streak and propelling them back into first place in the NL East. Babushka Power had worked again.

s-l1600-14

As the Babushka Power gimmick continued to grow, eventually babushkas were available at the stadium

On Saturday August 23, 1975 the Pirates played an afternoon game against the Reds that was nationally televised on NBC. While it wasn’t a Ladies Night promotion, the babushka was still prevalent and made it’s national debut as thousands of fans twirled them in the stands for the cameras. The Pirates would end up losing that game 12-7. A few days later on August 27, 1975 the Pirates held another Ladies Night promotion when they played the Braves, and Prince did the game broadcast from the center field seats where he sat with the “Babushka Brigade”.  The Pirates would lose to the Braves 6-2, but over 21,000 people did attend the weekday game. The final Ladies Night was on Saturday September 13, 1975 against the Expos, where the Pirates lost 5-2 in front of only 17,310 fans. While the four official Babushka Night promotions produced mixed results in terms of crowd size and team success, they succeeded at creating buzz around the team, and Babushka Power permeated all home games down the stretch. The gimmick motivated a disinterested fanbase to not only go to the ballpark, but to cheer and feel connected to the team. It was estimated that the gimmick brought 100,000 extra people to the ballpark, and it reinvigorated enthusiasm. A more lively crowd helped the Pirates excel at home and make up for their troubles on the road. It also got local businesses involved like the aforementioned G.C. Murphy’s, as well as Pittsburgh-area Ford dealerships who used Babushka Power in their advertising and gave away babushkas to customers. And Babushka Power also garnered national attention, including a mention in the September 1, 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Bob Prince interviews Pirates players including Roberto Clemente after their World Series victory over the Orioles in 1971

While the Green Weenie failed to power the Pirates to the playoffs in 1966, Babushka Power propelled the Pirates to an NL East title and a playoff matchup with the Reds for the NL Pennant. Pirate pennant fever and Babushka Power spread throughout the city, but was short-lived as the Reds swept the Pirates in three games. A few weeks later, Bob Prince was surprisingly fired by KDKA, and Pirates management did not intervene to try to reverse the decision. One of KDKA’s criteria for the firing was the declining attendance at games which ultimately affected sponsorship money for the broadcasts. Prince took the fall, despite the fact that his off-the-wall Babushka Power gimmick had increased attendance on average 2,000 fans per game from the previous year. Fans were shocked and on Wednesday November 5, 1970 nearly 10,000 fans showed up for a farewell parade for Prince (the Pirates had twenty home games that season where they were unable to get 10,000 fans to show up). Many people in the crowd waved babushkas, and Prince carried his Green Weenie as he road in a fire truck down the parade route. Pirates attendance would drop in 1976 by an average of 3,000 fans per game, which many fans attributed to Prince’s firing although many factors were at play. Attendance would remain relatively stagnant until the Pirates brief resurgence in 1990, when they topped 2 million fans for the first time in team history.

The Terrible Towel

A month after Prince’s farewell parade, Steelers color analyst Myron Cope was called into his general manager’s office at WTAE-Radio. In the office with his GM Ted Atkins was VP of Sales for WTAE-Radio Larry Garrett. They tasked Cope with creating a gimmick that would involve Steeler fans. WTAE-Radio was the flagship of the Steelers since 1970, and with the Steelers coming off of their first Super Bowl victory in 1974 and already locking up a playoff spot for 1975, the higher-ups at WTAE were looking for a way to show that Cope and the station had influence over the fans. If they could get the Steelers fanbase to adopt a gimmick for the playoffs, they could prove to advertisers that Cope had huge influence over his audience, and thus sponsorships would pour in for Cope’s nightly radio show and Steelers broadcasts. WTAE also had to renew their contract with the Steelers every few years, and they had to prove to the Steelers that they could bring in the listening audience and promote the team effectively. There is no doubt that WTAE had been studying their rival station KDKA and the influence that Bob Prince had on his audience with the Pirates, including Prince’s ability to get the Pirate fanbase not only to embrace the Green Weenie gimmick in 1966, but to also get behind “Babushka Power” only a few months prior. The suits at WTAE wanted Cope to be more like Prince, and they wanted to prove to the Steelers and their current & potential sponsors that their station had a large listening audience which they were able to successfully engage with calls to action. When it came time to brainstorm ideas, Larry Garrett suggested a towel, which was a strikingly similar to the concept of the babushkas that were twirling at Three Rivers for the Pirates just months prior. And furthermore, this towel was to serve as a good luck charm for the Steelers, much like the babushka.

There is no doubt that Babushka Power led to the creation The Terrible Towel. Without Bob Prince and his successful gimmicks, particularly his babushka, WTAE would have pressured Cope to create and promote a gimmick for the Steelers. Without Bob Prince, there would be no Terrible Towel. But without Myron Cope, The Terrible Towel would have never come to fruition and still be around 40 years later. Without Myron Cope, The Terrible Towel would have just been a concept kicked around in a boardroom meeting and would have never materialized into the symbol of Steeler Nation.

 

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