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5 Sports Innovations That Didn't Quite Take

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iStock

A lumber-based storm is gathering over Major League Baseball, and it's all about how the bats are made. Popular maple bats have the advantage of being denser than bats made of the other wood of choice, ash, and players feel this quality helps them hit for more power. On the other hand, the maple bats tend to have fat barrels for striking the ball and thin handles and are prone to shattering. When one breaks, pieces of its barrel turn into flying knives ready to impale anyone in their path. Players and coaches are starting to worry about ending up with a sharpened hunk of maple hanging out of their bodies, so the wonder-bats may not stick around much longer. In their honor, though, lets look at a few more sports equipment innovations that didn't quite take.

1. FoxTrax
Better known as the "glow puck," "techno puck," and "thing that was going to make every American love hockey," FoxTrax was an innovation Fox debuted for its coverage of the 1996 NHL All-Star Game. Market research showed that the average novice hockey viewer had trouble finding and following the puck on the ice. Fox execs, ever innovative, decided the solution was making a puck that glowed blue so fans always knew exactly where it was.

Creating the glowing FoxTrax puck was no easy technological feat. The puck itself had to be perfectly identical to a regular NHL puck, but it also had to house a circuit board, battery, and infrared transmitters. When the puck was slapped or dropped for the first time, it would begin transmitting infrared pulses to 20 pulse detectors and ten cameras located around the arena. These signals were then sent to a huge truck outside where the blue glow was added to the TV signal. In short, getting the puck to glow to glow on your TV set was quite a production.

Unfortunately, no one really appreciated the fruits of these labors. Hockey purists were understandably miffed that their viewing experience had been changed and that it now looked like their favorite players were batting around a small blue pillow. The blue glow didn't show up very well against the white ice, and the red shooting-star tail that was added whenever the puck's speed when over 70 mph was generally irritating to fans. Casual fans liked that the puck helped them follow the game, but it didn't generate huge interest in the sport. Worse still, players claimed the FoxTrax pucks didn't have the same feel as their low-tech counterparts and thus affected game play.

FoxTrax continued to make occasional appearances, but public opinion to it never warmed. It made its final appearance in Game One of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals before retiring to the land of failed gizmos.

2. The Alert Orange Baseball
FoxTrax had a few forefathers, though. Take, for instance, Charlie Finley's alert orange baseball. Finley, the cantankerous and eccentric owner of the Athletics, was always looking for a new way to improve the game and the viewing experience. He felt that the white baseball was too tough for players to pick up in the air and difficult for fans to see from the stands. His solution was painting the ball the color of a road cone to make it easier on the eyes. If batters could see the ball better, they'd hit better. Scoring would go up, games would be more exciting, and fans would flock to stadiums in record numbers. Finley set out to convince his fellow owners that his innovation was perfect.

The other owners weren't buying it, though. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declined Finley's offer to use the ball, so an indignant Finley set about proving the orange ball's value. He used the ball in an exhibition against the Indians in 1973 to test his theory. Turns out he was half right: fans could see the ball much better as it moved around the field of play. Batters, though, couldn't pick up the rotation on the bright ball, and pitchers complained that the orange covering was too slippery to grip. The ball never made it into a real game.

3. The Ball Rabbit
Finley's ball-related innovations weren't limited to the color of the sphere itself, though. He also had a revolutionary idea about how to get the ball into play. In a standard game, the home plate umpire wears a pouch full of balls around his waist, and as balls are lost to scuffing or hit out of play, a bat boy brings a fresh set out balls out to the umpire. It's a simple, efficient system. Finley saw room for improvement, though. He installed an underground device near home plate that the umpire would tap with his foot upon running out of balls. At that point, a mechanical rabbit would emerge from a subterranean lair bearing a basket of fresh balls. Details on how long this necessary innovation lasted are sketchy, but unless I really haven't been paying attention during baseball games, I feel pretty confident saying it never quite took off. [Image courtesy of The Sporting News.]

4. The White Sox Shorts Plan
If any owner could rival Finley's eccentricities, it was Bill Veeck of the White Sox, a tireless and crafty promoter. In 1976, he had a strange idea of his own: outfitting the Sox in shorts instead of pants. The revealing uniforms made their debut on August 8, 1976 against the Royals. The Sox strode out of their dugout wearing short for the first game of a doubleheader, and after only a few innings came to a rather obvious realization. While it's certainly not always comfortable to wear pants in the August heat of Chicago, baseball is a game that necessitates covered legs. Sliding into a base or making a play against an opposing baserunner in metal spikes is considerably less fun with exposed shins.

To add insult to injury, the Royals players mercilessly taunted the Sox, including John Mayberry's quip that the Sox were "the sweetest team we've seen yet." The Sox won the game but switched back to pants for the second half of the doubleheader. The shorts made one more appearance that season before disappearing into the lore of terrible uniform choices. [Image courtesy of MopUpDuty.com.]

5. The NBA's Synthetic Ball
Few equipment changes in recent years have caused as much of an uproar as the NBA's switch from leather to synthetic balls in 2006. Unlike the original leather ball, the new rock had a microfiber composite exterior and a paneling system that changed the number of ribs on the ball. The NBA's brass thought the new ball was more consistent than its leather equivalents, and cows everywhere rejoiced at the development.

The people who actually had to use the ball, however, hated it. Players started whining about the switch almost immediately. The synthetic surface was easier to grip at the beginning of games, but since it didn't absorb sweat it soon became slippery. The ball's cover was designed to aid grip by generating more friction on the player's hand, but several stars like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash claimed that the surface was actually cutting their fingertips. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban requested a study into the way the ball bounced, and physicists at the University of Texas-Arlington discovered that the composite ball didn't behave the way its leather predecessor did. Shaquille O'Neal added his own droll spin on the issue when he quipped that comparing the new and old balls was "like touching an exotic dancer, and then going and touching a plastic blow-up doll."

As players continued to gripe, the NBA did something almost totally out of character: it admitted it made a mistake. On December 12, 2006, the league announced that all games would return to the old leather ball on January 1, 2007.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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General Mills
10 Winning Facts about Wheaties
General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
The Sandlot Is Returning to Theaters for Its 25th Anniversary
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Few films from the 1990s have grown in stature over the years like The Sandlot. Though it gained respectable reviews and box office receipts when it was released in April 1993, the movie's standing in pop culture has since ballooned into cult classic territory, and you can still find merchandise and even clothing lines dedicated to it today.

Now you can revisit the adventures of Smalls, Ham, Squints, and The Beast on the big screen when Fathom Events and Twentieth Century Fox, in association with Island World, bring The Sandlot back to theaters for its 25th anniversary. The event will be held in 400 theaters across the U.S. on July 22 at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., and Tuesday, July 24 at 2:00 p.m and 7:00 p.m. (all times local).

Each screening will come complete with a preview of a new documentary detailing the making of the movie, so if you wanted to know even more about how this coming-of-age baseball classic came to be, now’s your chance.

For more information about ticket availability in your area, head to the Fathom Events website. And if you want to dive into some more trivia about the movie—including the fact that it was filmed in only 42 days—we’ve got you covered.

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