Not even Ted Williams could fix Sears’s problems
Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, the once-proud, humongous retailer caught in a pickle of declining sales, stagnant inventory, and the evolution of American shopping habits (read: Amazon).
Which made me wonder: What would Ted Williams say?
Teddy Ballgame, in his thunderous voice, likely would boom: “Hell, no, Sears ain’t going anywhere . . . and I’ll put my name on it!”
Williams did that for Sears for a very long time. On virtually every bit of sporting goods equipment it peddled for decades, beginning soon after his retirement in 1960 as the last of the game’s .400 hitters.
Ted Williams was a brand, and Sears plastered his flowing, meticulous signature on virtually all its sporting goods, from ball gloves to fishing rods to bicycles to boats to rifles and to whatever else it could stuff into its big, thick catalogs and gargantuan stores.
Ted’s name meant something, in an era when Sears meant something. In the ’60s, ’70s, and into the ’80 a large portion of America made Sears its “go-to” for sports stuff. Check your cellar. You’ll likely find a Ted Williams-signed glove still kicking around down there, or maybe one of his bikes or popup tents or trolling motors.
Williams left the Red Sox outfield and signed on as chairman of a Sears sports advisory staff that included, among others, Sir Edmund Hillary, the famed New Zealander who was the first, along with sidekick Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to summit Mount Everest.
Yep. If you bought your sports gear at Sears, you were going places. Not even the sky was the limit if you were buying “Sears Best.”
I had my share of Sears sporting goods, including my first three-speed bike, circa 1960-62. It was a J.C. Higgins model. Before Williams, most of the Sears sporting goods were branded by Higgins, an Irishman who began working for the store in 1898 and some 10 years later began slapping his name on most of the goods Sears would have Williams and his co-adviser big names start branding more than a half-century later.
My shiny red bike arrived in kit form, as many Sears things did. In fact, Sears sold full houses in kit form, beginning in the early 1900s and up until World War II. My first house, a small two-story in Chestnut Hill, was a Sears model. Sears also sold entire ready-to-assemble school houses out of its catalog. Like the residential units, they were shipped by rail, accompanied with inventory list and construction manual. Pour the foundation, get out the hammer and nails.
It was a tidy business, with most of the stick lumber milled and shipped out of Illinois. Sears added to the bottom line by financing many of the sales. All well and good, until the Great Depression hit and Sears had little choice but to foreclose on homes countrywide. It was a PR disaster, the destitute packing up and telling neighbors it was big, bad Sears that put them out on the street.
My dad assembled my spiffy Sears J.C. Higgins bike, and it was a little confusing because Mike “Pinky” Higgins was the Red Sox manager at the time. No relation, J.C. and Pinky, but the Sox were awful in those days and it was embarrassing to pedal around on a bike that carried the name of the hapless Sox skip.
But nothing was nearly as painful as when the front braking apparatus unbolted, fell into the spokes, and sent me flying down a hill on Hancock Street. See ya later, Pinky. The next bike was a Raleigh, rear brake only.
By the ’90s, even before the Internet began to dictate our shopping habits, America was looking elsewhere for its sporting goods. We shifted to big box stores such as Dick’s and Modell’s. Walmart became a behemoth.
Mom and pop shops, born pre-and-post the Sears era, came and went. Thankfully, some still carry on, typically as specialty shops for sports such as ice hockey, golf or running. Today those big box brick-and-mortar sporting goods shops, essentially businesses that hijacked a sector Sears incorporated for decades, must struggle with many of the business pressures that have gutted Sears.
In recent days, I compared notes with a number of pals, fellow Boomers, who also grew up with Sears at the center of their sporting world.
Dale Arnold, fellow longtime hockey guy and WEEI host, bought his first rifle, .22 caliber, some 40 years ago at Sears. Cost: $40. He bought his first .22 at a store in Minot, N.D. — a line just begging for a Jackson Browne tune.
Good pal and Baseball Hall of Fame scribe Dan Shaughnessy, who grew up in Groton, recalled shopping for a Ted Williams glove at Searstown in Leominster (today: The Mall at Whitney Field). “That was a big deal for us,” he recalled. “Going to Sears was like going to Paris.”
Sports columnist Terry Jones, Hockey Hall of Fame honoree, grew up in Lacombe, Alberta, just outside Red Deer. When the Simpson-Sears Christmas catalog arrived each year, it was a “big deal,” said Jonesy, recalling the thrill of finally pulling on a Red Wings sweater after first putting a circle around it in the catalog.
It was a “family event” when the Sears catalog arrived at his childhood home on Martha’s Vineyard, noted former Globe sportswriter Ron Borges, whose purchases back in the day included an Enos Slaughter glove ($3.98) and a Frank House catcher’s mitt ($9). Still in his possession? “I wish,” he said.
More and more Sears stores shutter by the day. Big stores. Pricey lease agreements. Consumers hooked on brand names attached to specific products and stores, their brains trained to shop first on the Internet.
“Ted Williams challenged us,” boasted the copy in a 1970 Sears ad, “to come up with a glove that’s broken in right. Sears did. Ted signed it.”
Now Sears is all but broken and not even Teddy Ballgame could make it right.