There’s an expression in advertising that celebrity sells. And when it comes to celebrities, few can capture the public imagination like popular athletes. Today, it’s common to see athletes hawking everything from sports shoes and headphones to cars. But back in the day, athletes were even more eager to pitch products; before the era of multimillion-dollar contracts, many sports stars relied on endorsement money to pay their bills. We reached way back for many of these ads, showing some of the biggest stars from the 1950s through the early 1970s touting various products.
10. Bob Gibson Can’t Break a Window With His Fastball
What an ingenious concept in this commercial, having flame-throwing hurler Bob Gibson throw fastball after fastball, trying to crack a sheet of Lexan. General Electric began production of the revolutionary new polycarbonate in 1960. Today, of course, that clear, tough substance is used in everything from bullet-resistant glass to football helmet visors.
9. Don Drysdale Pitches Vitalis
Nice job by the director in making this 1968 commercial feel as if it were filmed during an actual game. Don Drysdale still ranks second on the Dodgers’ all-time list with 209 career victories.
8. Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke Go Upscale For Oldsmobile
Two of the greatest linebackers of all time dress up to sell the Oldsmobile Cutlass. True fact: Nitschke once had a dog named “Butkus.”
7. Roger Maris Plugs His New Baseball Game
Kids today with their “MLB The Show” PlayStation games would laugh at this state-of-the-art sports game from the early 1960s. Roger Maris plugged his new “Roger Maris Action Baseball” game in 1962, the year after he cracked 61 home runs to break* Babe Ruth’s historic record.
6. Gale Sayers Looks a Bit Stiff in Phillips 66 Commercial
One of the smoothest runners in NFL history, Gale Sayers looks a bit uncomfortable sticking to the script in this 1971 commercial for Phillips 66.
5. Paul Hornung Fires Up a Marlboro
Seems hard to believe now, but years ago many athletes smoked cigarettes. Here, running back Paul Hornung, one of the stars of those 1960s Packers championship teams, fires up a Marlboro. “I feel pretty good about this cigarette …” Hornung says. Hornung scored 176 points in 1960, which still ranks second for most points in a season, behind LaDainian Tomlinson (186).
4. Pete Maravich Gets His Hair Under Control
Pistol Pete Maravich’s floppy hair was part of his iconic image as one of the game’s greatest showmen — and scorers — of all time.
3. Hank Aaron is a Brut Man Off the Field
Hank Aaron was less than a year away from breaking Babe Ruth’s vaunted career home run record when he made this ad for Brut aftershave.
2. Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath Front Job Agency
This commercial looks like a spoof, but Yankees legend Mickey Mantle and Jets QB Joe Namath were the public faces of an employment agency, Mantle Men and Namath Girls, Inc., that opened in 1969. According to Bill Chastain’s book, 100 Things for Jets Fans to Know & Do Before They Die, it became the second-largest employment agency in the world before folding during a 1970s recession.
1. Bill Russell Gives Phone Company a Hook
NBA legend Bill Russell won 11 NBA championships in a span of 13 seasons with the Celtics in the 1950s and ’60s. While he was best known for his defense and rebounding, he had a mean hook shot, too, as he shows in this famous early 1970s commercial for Bell Systems.
One More: Bud Lite Pays Tribute to Babe Ruth in Retro Ad
The larger-than-life Babe Ruth would have been the ultimate pitchman in commercials, but unfortunately his career ended well before the TV age. Anheuser-Busch gave the Bambino a spot a few years ago in a retro commercial spoofing his famous “called shot” home run in the 1932 World Series.