Written by: Jeff Zillgitt
MILWAUKEE – Don’t shake your head no. Just nod yes and come along for a trip to the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum.
Over there, a three-foot tall Giannis Antetokounmpo bobblehead that sells for $850. Over there, the Wall of Champions, featuring players from the most recent champions of the four major North American pro sports leagues. Over there, a bobblehead homage to players, mascots and coaches from local sports teams – the Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks, Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers.
Nestled in a brick warehouse in Milwaukee’s historic and vibrant Third Ward, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum opened Feb. 1. There are 10,000 bobbleheads on display, and there is a retail area with 500 on sale. The price to see them all in person? A $5 entry fee.
“This baseball season, we’ve seen a lot of visitors when the Yankees, Mets or Cardinals are in town,” Hall of Fame and Museum CEO and co-founder Phil Sklar told USA TODAY.
A trip to the museum reveals that not only are bobbleheads part of pop culture, they also capture a slice of pop culture, from sports to entertainment to politics to cereal, from LeBron James to The Beatles to Michael Scott from The Office to presidents of the United States to Count Chocula.
“They say if you have a bobblehead, you’ve made it,” Sklar said.
The new bobblehead of Antetokounmpo holding a Greek flag was released Wednesday morning and sold out in one day. Antetokounmpo has not visited yet, but Sklar is hoping he does in the offseason.
“The Bucks have been extremely popular both here and online,” he said.
Aaron Judge sits on a very special throne. (Photo: Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY Sports)
From Star Wars to Game of Thrones
The museum is divided into sections: baseball, football, basketball, hockey, politics, pop culture and regional. Local singer/songwriter Pat McCurdy composed a theme song.
Next to the Star Wars display are bobbleheads of Mike Trout and Aaron Judge sitting on the Game of Thrones’ iron throne. It is a pop culture phenomenon wrapped inside a pop culture phenomenon.
The Sister Jean bobblehead – made famous by Loyola’s 2018 NCAA Sweet 16 run, was a best-seller: 16,000 moved. Actor Macaulay Culkin stopped by earlier this month, and yes, there is a collection of Home Alone bobbleheads, including Culkin's character, Kevin.
According to the museum’s timeline, the first bobbleheads date to England and Queen Charlotte in the late 1700s. One from that era recently sold for $35,000, Sklar said. The vintage 1964 Beatles bobbleheads remain popular, and the set is for sale on ebay for $2,500.
The first sports bobbleheads appeared in the U.S. in the early 1960s at NFL and Major League Baseball games where they were sold. They were generic and were not designed to resemble specific players.
“One of the things that have sustained them is that they have remained basically the same – just a simple body, spring and head,” Sklar said. “Even as they have gotten more elaborate, it’s still that traditional bobblehead design.”
The first bobblehead giveaway was in 1999 at a San Francisco Giants game. It was of Willie Mays, and it jump-started the modern craze. By then, manufacturers could produce them on a large scale and get creative.
Baseball took advantage of the interest, making them a feature of game-day giveaways.
“There’s so many baseball teams, and every team has at least four minor-league teams, and all those teams are giving away bobbleheads,” Sklar said.
The racing sausages and racing presidents from the Brewers and Nationals are on display at the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum. (Photo: Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY)
Pete Rose is in this Hall of Fame
The museum’s collection started as most do - with one.
Co-founder Brad Novak and Sklar are friends and big sports fans. Novak worked for the Rockford RiverHawks, and the team gave away a mascot bobblehead in 2002. They began going to sporting events on bobblehead days and also purchased them. One turned into a hundred, a hundred turned into hundreds and hundreds turned into 3,000 by 2014.
They began to notice collectors paid top dollar for them.
“Bobbleheads that we got for the cost of a ticket or $10 were selling for $70-$80 a couple of years later,” Sklar said.
At first, they were on display at Sklar’s condo.
“Once they crept in the kitchen, I said, ‘We can either start boxing these up or display them somewhere.'
“The collection was getting out of control.”
For a while, they were featured at an art gallery. Then Sklar and Novak realized they needed a permanent location.
“We put ideas together and said we can have a one-of-a-kind museum dedicated to bobbleheads and also produce them,” Sklar said.
Some bobbleheads tell a story, such as the one of Lou Gehrig standing at the microphone for his famous “Luckiest Man” speech, Babe Ruth holding his bat out calling his shot, and Rick Monday draped in the American flag after he stopped two protesters from trying to burn it at Dodger Stadium in 1976.
Some bobbleheads are unexpected, such as those of Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein and various popes.
The crying piccolo girl from Villanova, made famous during the 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament, is on display. (Photo: Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY Sports)
Some are fun. Remember the crying piccolo girl from Villanova during the 2015 NCAA tournament? Yes, there’s one of her. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon from ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption are on display near the racing presidents (Washington Nationals) and racing sausages (Brewers). Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character from Saturday Night Live is featured, and Pete Rose is in this Hall of Fame.
“Mascots are some of the favorites,” Sklar said.
Some help benefit charities, such as the Sister Jean bobblehead. The bobblehead of Tyler Trent, the Purdue student whose courageous and inspirational fight against cancer captured the nation, raised money for the V Foundation for Cancer Research and the Tyler Trent Cancer Research Endowment.
Sklar and Novak have made this a business, working with a manufacturer that has licensing rights to produce bobbleheads they think will sell.
“We’re always looking for new ideas,” Sklar said.
They just created a set of bobbleheads ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Negro League, featuring Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and Cool Papa Bell. They also made a set of the 1954 Milan (Indiana) High basketball team, which was the inspiration for the movie Hoosiers.
They produced a talking bobblehead of Chicago Cubs play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes calling the final out in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The blue-shirt version sold out in a day, and they restocked it with a red-shirt version.
“Most people think of sports when they think of bobbleheads,” Sklar said. “It’s so much more than that.”