When Alex. Brown & Sons, Baltimore's venerable investment house, went shopping for a star to showcase in a recent advertising campaign, it figured to limit the search to people with credentials in the world of high finance.
Maybe even Eli Jacobs.
But after much brainstorming, Alex. Brown officials came up with a surprising choice: Babe Ruth.
Not that Ruth ever so much as balanced his checkbook. But he did possess a quality the company was seeking, namely, a mammoth reputation as a home run hitter that overshadowed his early success as a left-handed pitcher.
That fit well with Alex. Brown's message, which played on the idea that many of the company's financial services go unnoticed because of the success of a few.
So, last December, Ruth found his way into the Wall Street Journal, a vintage photo of the Babe dominating Alex. Brown's full-page ad.
Casting the Babe as the sultan of mergers and acquisitions is pretty creative stuff. But there's nothing new about tapping into the Ruth legend for commercial gain.
These days, Ruth's name and likeness are used to peddle everything from collector's plates to baseball cards to limited-edition teddy bears. This year alone, revenue from the commercial exploitation of the Babe's persona is expected to top $1 million.
That's not bad for somebody who has been dead going on 47 years and homerless going on 60. But it's no surprise to Mark Roesler, the Indianapolis-based lawyer who negotiates licensing deals for Ruth's family.
" Babe Ruth has withstood the test of time," says Roesler. " For almost all of the 20th century, people have held up this man as the greatest sports legend of all time."
Roesler gets a big chunk of credit for turning Ruth and other
deceased stars into hot properties. His company, Curtis Management Group, has been cutting deals for the survivors of departed celebrities for more than a dozen years. His first clients were James Dean and Elvis Presley. That list since has grown to include about 200 sports, entertainment and public figures.
Before Curtis came along, dead celebrities were easy targets for unscrupulous companies, which used their fame to crank out unauthorized T-shirts and other merchandise. Family members occasionally fought back, but the legal battles could be exhausting.
Curtis offers one-stop shopping. It keeps a lookout for unauthorized use, negotiates licensing deals and makes sure the quality of any authorized product is up to snuff. Revenue from the contracts, after Curtis takes its share, goes to family members or others named in the deceased person's will.
For families of the biggest stars, the money accumulates quickly. Curtis collected $15,000 from Alex. Brown just for its use of Ruth's name and photo in the Wall Street Journal ad and two others.
That was a small part of a record year for the Ruth family. This year should be even more lucrative, owing to hoopla of the Ruth centennial.
" His [earning power] dwarfs any other sports personality we handle," says Roesler.
He's evasive about giving specific figures for Ruth or others he represents. But George Pollack, the attorney for Lou Gehrig's estate, says the Babe's New York Yankees teammate collected $75,000 last year. Since the death of Gehrig's wife, the money has gone to medical research.
For their part, Ruth's survivors see the income as found money.
" It has changed my life so," says Julia Ruth Stevens, the Babe's 77-year-old daughter. Since signing up with Curtis 10 years ago, she and her husband have bought a two-bedroom home in a fashionable suburb of Phoenix. They also traded in their car.
" We drive a Volvo now instead of a Chevrolet," she says.
Stevens takes one-third of the proceeds generated by her father's name. Other equal shares go to the children of Babe's daughter Dorothy, who died in 1989, and to Babe Ruth Baseball youth leagues.
She didn't know it then, but the day Stevens met Roesler was one of the most profitable of her life.
It was 1984, eight years after the death of her mother, Claire. Stevens was living in a modest home in Florida, paying bills with retirement and Social Security benefits. She received a phone call from Dorothy telling her that she was flying down to visit with a man who would make both of them a lot of money.
Julia recalls being unimpressed. " I wasn't particularly interested in having a lot of money. It's a burden in some ways, managing it and figuring out what to do," she says.
She was comforted after meeting Roesler. " He presented a very, very nice brochure and said we would have approval on everything," Stevens recalls.
" I said, 'Fine, just as long as it's a class act.' "
Descendants of deceased ballplayers say they particularly relish the control they now exert over use of their loved ones' images. Until Curtis stepped in, the Ruth family cringed at some of the products.
" When they finished with him, he looked anywhere from Porky Pig to Lawrence Welk," says Linda Tosetti, the Babe's granddaughter. " They had a terrible time getting the Babe. Don't ask me why."
Jim Cobb, son of Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, recalls being sent a package of baseball cards with his father's pictures on them. He counted eight factual errors on a single card before he stopped in disgust. " How's it possible to be that wrong?" he says. The Cobb family since has signed with Curtis.
In her Arizona home, Julia Ruth Stevens has collected many novelty items. Curtis sends her samples, and she displays them. There's a mohair teddy bear on the couch, a set of Ruth medallions in the dining room.
What would her father say?
" It's so phenomenal to have all this," she says. " He'd be overwhelmed."