How Did Bobbleheads Start? | Collector of Sports

How Did Bobbleheads Start?

Bobbleheads, the popular figurine collectibles frequently made in the likeness of baseball players, are believed to date from 19th century Europe. The first recorded reference to a bobblehead dates to 1842 when a character in a German short story is described as having a neck "like the neck of plaster cats which wag their heads."

Modern bobbleheads debuted in the mid-1950s and by the end of that decade major league basketball had fully adopted the concept. The first of MLB's bobbleheads were papier-mache dolls, nearly indistinguishable from one another. The face of each of these early bobbleheads bore the same angelic features. A bobblehead was produced for each team, rather than any particular player, and the small team uniform was the only way to tell them apart.

MLB Bobbleheads

For the 1960 World Series, major league baseball released bobbleheads featuring player-specific uniforms. Bobbleheads were created for Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Roger Maris, though all four shared the same face. The papier-mache construction of these dolls made the bobbleheads quite fragile and, unfortunately, quite destructible as well. Very few of the 1960s bobbleheads survive today.

By the early 1970s a new generation of bobblehead dolls, this time constructed with ceramic materials, gained in popularity. The bobblehead tradition expanded beyond baseball into other sports and into the realm of popular culture. Cartoon characters and popular musicians became the inspiration for new bobbleheads. For instance, a Beatles bobblehead set released in this era become quite iconic and maintains its popularity (and value) to this day.

In baseball, however, bobbleheads waned in popularity due to the production costs associated with ceramic materials. By 1980, neither Major League Baseball nor any individual baseball teams were producing the bobbleheads. For nearly two decades it seemed as though the bobblehead might be consigned to drift quietly into the pages of history.

Basic economics once again brought the bobblehead back to prominence. By the 1990s new production methods enabled producers to substitute plastic for the costly and fragile ceramic that had been previously used. Costs plummeted and plastic bobbleheads became cost efficient to mass produce.

Willie Mays Bobbleheads

Perhaps the watershed moment in bobblehead history occurred in 1999 when the San Francisco Giants distributed over 30,000 Willie Mays bobbleheads to ticket holders during a regular season game. The Willie Mays bobblehead, with its unique Mays-inspired facial features, became a surprise hit. Other teams took notice and the renaissance of the bobblehead had begun.