Phil Sklar in recent months gave up his career in finance and accounting, along with a six-figure salary, to go full bore in the bobblehead business with his longtime pal, Brad Novak.
That’s right, bobbleheads, the tiny plastic figurines typically found on the tops of desks and essential to decorating man caves across the land. Right now, if you’re reading this in the Boston Globe (or its related digital platforms) you might have a Larry Bird or Tom Brady bobblehead nodding away and smiling at you as you reach for your favorite team’s coffee mug.
“I’m looking at the Brady bobblehead right now,’’ said Sklar, reached by phone last week at his office in Milwaukee. “The football he is holding appears to be fully inflated.’’
For the record, Sklar mentioned nothing about Natural Gas Law, fines, suspensions, a Wells report, or appeals. Bobbleheaders are immersed in the fun of sports, as we all once were, dating even to before bobbleheads first came into vogue at the start of the 1960s.
Sklar and Novak, both 31 years old, mutually decided to chuck their careers and create the soon-to-open National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Milwaukee. If all goes as planned, in January they’ll debut a preview exhibit of their Bobblehead HOF, just a couple of blocks north of the Bradley Center, home of the NBA’s Bucks, then move later in 2016 to bigger downtown digs.
Admission price has not been determined, but Sklar suggested it will be a modest $5 to $10, with visitors treated to the full treasure trove of some 4,000 bobbleheads, most of them sports related.
Some pieces don’t qualify as purely sports. Take, for instance, the Presidential bobblehead collection released in recent years by the Milwaukee Admirals minor league hockey team. The Admirals have issued the likes of George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt all decked out in the club’s gear. The Roosevelt “nodder” is unique in that it has the “Teddy Bear’’ opening up his coat to reveal a blood stain on the right side of his chest.
“He was shot in Milwaukee while giving a campaign speech,’’ noted Sklar, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “He actually finished the speech and then went to the hospital.’’
Yep, Teddy Roosevelt, hockey guy! He was shot by John Schrank, an unemployed saloonkeeper, in front of Milwaukee’s Gilpatrick Hotel on Oct. 14, 1912 (the same day the Red Sox lost Game 6 of the World Series, 5-2, to the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds). Shot at close range, the then-former President assured the crowd, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,’’ delivered his 90-minute speech, then rushed off to a local hospital.
Schrank spent the rest of his life in a Wisconsin asylum for the insane. Roosevelt, then 53, lived out his life with the pistol’s bullet lodged between his ribs. Now he’s a bobblehead legend in ol’ Milwaukee.
Sklar and Novak aren’t banking on ticket buyers or quirky sports-political lore to fund their bobblehead dream. They’ve formed a related business in which they produce customized bobbleheads, stamped out in small lots (in the 1,000-5,000 range), that they sell for use in various capacities, some including school and community fund-raisers. Instead of students at Hometown High going to door-to-door to sell, say, candy or magazine subscriptions, they’ll do the same with a bobblehead particular to that hometown.
According to Sklar, the bobblehead business took root in the ’60s, with many MLB teams selling them as cheap trinkets at souvenir stands, and it lasted through the ’70s before, let’s say, nodding off. He credits the San Francisco Giants, with a Willie Mays bobblehead giveaway in 1999, with reviving the industry.
Just last month, in an auction held by the Heritage Auction House in Dallas, an oversized (14-inch) bobblehead of a generic New York Yankee sold for a record sum of $59,750 — almost twice the price a matching piece sold for just a few years earlier. Only two of the oversized pieces were made, and were used as promotional pieces to help sell the smaller, identical versions at Yankee Stadium. The name of the bidder who paid $59,750 was not made public.
“We were hoping someone bought it to donate to us,’’ kidded Sklar. “But we haven’t received it yet.’’
Sklar and Novak, friends since childhood, began collecting bobbleheads together in middle school, kept it up while roommates in college, and stayed with it when they shared an apartment upon graduation. Through no particular plan or grand business design, the collection grew, to the point it overtook their apartment, leading in part their Hall of Fame vision.
Now they’re both up to their own bobbling heads in shaping a business, with two interns aboard this summer to help with inventory and ready for the Hall’s formal opening in January. As kids, they didn’t see this coming, although it does seem to fit a pattern for Sklar.
“When I was 12,’’ he recalled, “I was selling Beanie Babies on eBay. That was when you could buy them for $5 or $6 and sell them for hundreds or even thousands at the height of the craze. Now I’ll be at Goodwill, and those same Beanie Babies are 50 cents.’’
It’s a lesson that Sklar and Novak keep in mind. The bobblehead industry was born a half-century ago, died off, came back, and remains on a very strong run. Their belief, said Sklar, is that bobbleheads follow a Barbie-like path of perpetual sales and not the Beanie Baby’s crash-and-burn trajectory.
“We look and wonder, ‘Is it sustainable?’ ” said Sklar. “We hope so. We’ve put a lot of eggs in one basket.’’
Market forces ultimately will dictate. Supply and demand. In the bobblehead world, it’s no so much wins and losses that dictate. It’s who’s hot, who’s not, and who can stand the test of time tucked away in the corner of the man cave.