Just A Bit Outside Link: Tom Emanski and the Wild World of Baseball Instructionals

No, that’s not the title of a long shaggy-dog story by Erik Malinowski posted today at Rob Neyer’s new Fox-affiliated baseball site.

The actual title is Pitchman: How Tom Emanski Changed the Sport of Baseball–And Then Disappeared.

This is not a good title. It’s debatable how much Emanski changed the game of baseball. The telling of the tale shows him to be more of an a striver who ended up in the right place at the right time who happened on a good idea than a visionary who saw something and decided to make it better. But that’s quibbling.

lldvdbox-webI have my own part of this history. In 1986, while Emanski was coming up with the idea of making baseball instructional videos, a baseball coach from Oswego New York and I were–thanks to a video producer named Richard Stadin, who thought this was a good idea, and we were the guys to do it–creating Little League’s Official How to Play Baseball Video. (You can buy it (or learn more) by clicking the box.)

Shot over the course of a week in Union New Jersey, with consulting help from NBC’s baseball director John Gonzalez, and deft production from NBC sports producer David Stern, our Little League instructional was a good-sized hit. Rave reviews in newspapers across the country, the Village Voice loved it, an A grade in Entertainment Weekly and apparently decent sales, led to a tie-in book, which Ted and I wrote for Doubleday, called the Official Little League How to Play Baseball Book.

I don’t know the video sales numbers, but I do know the book sold more than 100,000 copies, and was still selling thousands of copies a year before falling out of print a few years ago. We’re trying now to get it back into stores, and as an e-book. But enough about me.

Malinowski doesn’t nail the story. He never does speak with the modern day Emanski, and clearly never has enough info to make a true mystery about what made this baseball obsessive disappear. Illness? Certainly not shyness, but is he a tax cheat? Does he harbor some dark secret? Or is he just tired and happy to move on? Malinowski has nothing but conjecture, which isn’t very satisfying.

He also fails to do the math to show just how much money Emanski may have made out of his enterprise, which seems like a material part of the mystery (if there actually is a real mystery, apart from his subject’s withdrawal from public life).

Malinowski talks about the Baseball World camp, which was charging kids $100 per week for individualized baseball instruction using video.  That doesn’t sound like  a big money maker, even running full time from April to September each year. And when the video really started selling, they shut the camps down. Money might have been made, but Ermanski didn’t get rich on Baseball World camps.

He also talks about the videos, which were sold via direct marketing on ESPN from 1997 to 2007. But a reality check on the math says ESPN got $10 of the $30 list price. A telemarketing company would no doubt charge a few dollars to process each sale. A credit card company would take a cut. VHS and DVD production and packaging might cost a few dollars per piece, unless the quantities were high (and if they are then the storage costs for inventory would chew into the profits). Plus, there are shipping costs.

It sounds like the productions were bare-bones, so there were no doubt profits to be made, but it’s hard to see how Emanski made $76 Million, as one folktale the story cites implies. If he were clearing $10 a tape, which is possible, Ermanski would have to have sold more than 7 million tapes to have pre-tax profits of $76 million. That doesn’t seem plausible, but then, who knows?

Malinowski does say that the commercial ran more than 50,000 times, which sounds like a lot. But if they sold 100 videos per showing they would only get to 5 million videos, and 100 per showing would be a crazy number for a commercial dumped into time slots when ESPN wasn’t selling real commercial inventory. But, of course I don’t really know.

And still, despite the thinness of parts, I enjoyed the story. Ermanski’s is a tale like many on the periphery of baseball, of the love for the game, of a devotion to getting something done, with all the quirks that come along with the personal approach.

And it’s full of resonance. The section where real players are quoted calling mistakes Ermanskis is lovely, connecting the bigger world to this quirky story. Maybe not 5 million tapes, but the meme is out there if Dustin Pedroia is on it.

So it doesn’t matter a great deal that Malinowski doesn’t nail it. Maybe it wasn’t all the story he imagined, at first. Or maybe Ermanski has chosen exile rather than expose himself to the price his past exploits might exact, and his past is fiercely protected.

Maybe that’s why the Crime Dog seems to have wiped his hands of him. (You have to check out the story just to watch the video of McGriff’s commercial pitching the videos.) Whatever. Here’s a window on baseball culture, maybe not the last word, but many other words opening up the broad swaths of something, and suggesting where maybe more of the story lies.