On the Road: A blowout in Staten Island

Yankees throw back to '75 with Bevacqua, Bazooka bubblegum

Kurt Bevacqua and Little Leaguer Chris Bedford took part in the bubble-blowing contest, overseen by team president Will Smith. (Robert Pimpsner)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | September 3, 2018 11:00 AM

When Kurt Bevacqua gives bubblegum blowing advice, he's speaking from a position of authority. 

"When I used to blow bubbles I didn't blow into the bubble, and that's why mine were four, five, six inches bigger than everybody else's. You breathe into it, you don't blow air into it. Because then the wall becomes thinner and thinner and you'll blow the air right through it."

Bevacqua, a utility infielder who played in the Major League from 1971 through 1985, is best known for his heroics in the 1984 World Series. His three-run fifth-inning dinger in Game 2 lifted the San Diego Padres to a 5-3 win over the Detroit Tigers; 34 years later, this remains the only World Series game the franchise has ever won.

But nine years earlier, as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, Bevacqua made World Series history of a far different sort. Prior to Game 3 of that year's fabled Fall Classic between the Cincinatti Reds and the Boston Red Sox, he won a Bazooka bubblegum blowing contest that was documented in a special episode of The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola. Bevacqua defeated Johnny Oates of the Philadelphia Phillies in the final round, blowing a 19 1/2 inch bubble that was later immortalized on a 1976 Topps card. 

All of this, improbably enough, leads us to Friday evening's Staten Island Yankees game. Or, more accurately, the Pizza Rats game. The Yankees assumed this alter-ego for the final time in 2018, playing in a food-fight game against the Vermont Lake Monsters-turned-Maple Kings.

Tweet from @SIYanks: 🗣FOOD FIGHT!Your Staten Island Pizza Rats will be taking the field one final time this season in a Food Fight game vs. the Vermont Maple Kings @VTLakeMonsters Get your tickets NOW for a food fight for the ages! 🎟 https://t.co/xUiqnJogY4 pic.twitter.com/I0h7jAhTRu

Bevacqua, still imposing at 71, was the guest of honor, on hand to compete in a postgame bubblegum blowing contest against three opponents: Staten Island Little Leaguer Chris Bedford, Staten Island Yankees backstop Jackson Thoreson and myself, MiLB.com writer Ben Hill. We all owed our participation in this unlikely event to Staten Island Yankees president Will Smith, a man with a self-described "geeky fascination" with baseball cards. 

"I discovered this 1976 Topps card, and there's Kurt Bevacqua blowing this bubble measured by a pair of calipers that's signed on it with the Bazooka brand and everything," said Smith. "And I was just kind of like, 'What is this, I've never seen this!' ... So it was really kind of like this big, neat thing. And I thought, 'What is more pure and fun than baseball and bubble gum?'"

Smith got Bazooka on board with his idea, and then, utilizing his mechanical engineering background, constructed a pair of calipers modeled after the one used in the 1975 contest. (These calipers were decorated by Smith's wife, Jada.) Bazooka is owned by Topps, and on Aug. 10 the team staged a bubblegum blowing contest that also featured a baseball card (upon entrance) and gum (upon exit) giveaway. I emerged victorious in the bubblegum blowing contest, setting the stage for the Aug. 31 showdown against reigning champ Bevacqua.

Bevacqua, speaking prior to Friday's game, said he always chewed gum during his playing days but that it wasn't something he gave much thought to one way or the other. But, unbeknownst to him, he was being scouted by those in a position to make him a bubble-blowing star. 

"Joe Garagiola came up to me one day, well before the contest was ever started, and he goes, 'Would you be interested in being in a bubble gum blowing championship?'" recalled Bevacqua. "He goes, 'We're gonna have a championship and have a representative from each team, and I'm picking you to win.' He watches me on the bench! You don't realize it. You're on the bench talking, messing around, you're doing this, you're doing that, you're on the field and you're blowing bubbles."

After advancing through the requisite regular season qualifying round, Bevacqua traveled to the World Series for the televised showdown against Oates. Hank Aaron was his personal bubble blowing coach, though Bevacqua said the legendary Hall of Famer was "pretty quiet" and mostly just provided him with towels. 

"There was absolutely preparation," said Bevacqua. "Because the rules were, you were allowed to use only up to six pieces of gum. You couldn't use more. So we weren't used to putting six pieces of gum in our mouth. We'd chew a piece or two and then when it was dried out, chewed out, didn't have any more sugar in it we just spit it out put in some fresh. So we never had that much.

"There's a technique, and the guy I thought was gonna win was Rick Rhoden, and he got disqualified," he continued. "You weren't allowed to touch the gum, and Rhoden used to blow his bubbles by grabbing it.... When he used to blow a bubble, right at the beginning, he would grab that part of it. Keep it stronger, and as he was blowing the bubble he'd just pull it out a little bit."

Bevacqua, cognizant of Rhoden's fate, followed the rules to a tee and won it all. The resulting Topps card has become iconic in the collecting community; Bevacqua says he still gets asked about it "all the time." 

Friday's competition, conducted on the top of the home team dugout after the game, was anticlimactic. Bevacqua, unable to summon the magic of 1975, blew a bubble that barely exceeded the three-inch mark before it popped. I, meanwhile, was unable to absorb the lessons I'd learned in my interview with Bevacqua, and, well, blew it. The winner was Thoreson, recruited in the immediate wake of his team's 9-0 loss to Vermont. 

Tweet from @SIYanks: Tough loss, but congratulations to our own Jackson Thoreson on winning on Bubble Gum Blowing Showdown! Join us for our final regular season on Sunday! The first 1,000 will receive a Scooter Bobble-head, presented by Healthfirst!https://t.co/XLkyyivUrI pic.twitter.com/lz2wGfJAFP

Despite the lackluster final showdown, Friday's contest set the template for an event that has plenty of room to expand to other markets. 

"I think it would be a lot of fun, and I think it would take hold if it was marketed right," said Bevacqua, "where you've got an adult division and a kids division. So what could be better than a father and his kid sitting home watching a baseball game on any given day and then practicing blowing bubbles to get in the contest?" 

"It's a story I'll have forever," added Smith. "I'd love to see it grow."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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