Release Party: Game Faces

fields game facesSports figures have a public profile once reserved for the likes of reigning monarchs and movie stars. In the new UIP book Game Faces, Sarah K. Fields looks at six people faced with what they considered attacks on their privacy and images, and the legal ramifications of the cases they pursued to address their grievances.

Major league baseball pitcher Don Newcombe was part of the first wave of African American players to cross the game’s color line, arriving in Brooklyn to play for the Dodgers in 1949. Newcombe won the Rookie of the Year award and earned a place on the All-Star team en route to starting two games for the Dodgers in that year’s World Series.

A drinker from age eight, Newcombe used alcohol to cope with the game’s pressures, the overt racism he faced both inside and outside the ballpark, and life in general. In later years, Newcombe blamed his problem for keeping him from reaching what he believed was his Hall of Fame potential. He got sober in 1966. Post-retirement, he preached an anti-alcohol message to groups, became a spokesperson for the National Institute on Drug and Alcohol Abuse and other governmental organizations, and worked with those with alcohol problems.

Given that background, Newcombe faced an ironic and personally painful challenge to his image and legacy in 1994. But not only did the Coors Brewing Company exercise astonishing tone-deafness in reference to Newcombe’s one-time problem. It actually diminished the racism he had faced and, being a no-nonsense guy, faced down for many years. Newcombe sued Coors. Fields explains why:

In the February 14, 1994, swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated a one-page ad ran for Killian’s Red beer (an Adolph Coors Brewing Company product). In the ad was a drawing that featured an African American baseball pitcher in mid-windup. Newcombe believed that he was the subject in the drawing because the image seemed to portray his unique, unusually expanded windup stance. The number on the jersey was thirty-nine, however, which was Roy Campanella’s number. Newcombe wore number thirty-six.

The ad itself is an interesting attempt to play on words of color. The left half of the ad contains the image of the pitcher; his face is obscured by his shoulder and the brim of his blue-and-red cap. An infielder crouches behind him in the same uniform, but the name on the front of the jersey is blurry and unreadable. The uniforms are clearly from the middle of the twentieth century and not the mid-1990s. On the right side of the page, underneath a superimposed photo of a pint of beer with the George Killian’s Irish Red logo obscuring part of the text, the text reads:

Most of all, it’s always been a game about color. Where the grass is green and the ball is white and the men in blue yell at guys nicknamed Whitey and Red (who wear hometown white pinstripes and away city greys). And in the stands, blue and white collared fans wave multi-colored pennants, eating red-hots and drinking Red cold. Killian’s Irish Red has the face of [unreadable under photo] Irishman Casey, wi[unreadable] town of Mudville [unreadable] mightily struck out [unreadable] Killian’s Red as fro[unreadable] opening day when pour[unreadable]ed badged vendors fr[unreadable] cherry bat shaped bottl[unreadable] brown paper cups (the crisp amber lager softly spilling over with a wave of red). Yeah, it’s always been a game about color . . . and I think about this as I sip a cold Killian’s Red–watching my team whitewash their rivals. Killian’s Red[.] Ask for it by color.

Although the ad attempted to tap into a nostalgic memory of the game, the overt references to a “game about color” with a drawing from the era when baseball dissolved the color line was perhaps in questionable taste. Newcombe told the press that he found the headline and reference to color to be “racially derogatory.” Coors said that the tag line about color was not problematic but simply playing off of the “color” theme of the red-tinged beer as it had in a number of ads.