The Ad Man

Albert D. Lasker

Albert D. Lasker

I’m going to interrupt my set on the 1991 World Series to stick this post in. Found this information and wanted to share it now. Back to the ’91 Series in a short while.

Born in Freiburg, Germany in 1880 (his parents were visiting Germany), Albert Davis Lasker grew up in Galveston, Texas, the son of a banker. After trying his hand at journalism and in politics, he moved to Chicago to work in advertising. He became in many ways the father of modern advertising.

Working for Lord and Thomas he began to create ad campaigns that were both revolutionary and modern. His first campaign was for a hearing aid company and featured the following newspaper ad:

Lasker's Wilson's Ear Drums ad

Lasker’s Wilson’s Ear Drums ad

It’s nothing special today, but in 1899 it was revolutionary.

He continued with successful ad campaigns until 1903 when he became a partner. By 1912 (aged 32) he owned the firm. And he continued making successful ad campaign after ad campaign. He made Lucky Strike America’s number one cigarette. He made Palmolive soap a household necessity, He made feminine hygiene products something that could be discretely advertised. And of course he made a lot of money. In 1908 he took over the Sunkist Growers account and made a small fruit company into a national institution. And for good or ill he conceived the idea of making a short (15 minute) continuing radio drama that aired daily and sponsored by a soap company. It became a staple of radio and then moved to television. We call them “soap operas.”

In 1920 he became, along with Will Hays (later of the Hollywood Hays Commission), an advisor to Republican Presidential candidate Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding (there seems to be no truth to the idea he invented the saying “A return to normalcy”), When Harding won, he appointed Lasker to the United States Shipping Board, a position he held for two years (resigning on his own and not being involved in any of the Harding Administration scandals). He went back to advertising, remained President of Lord and Thomas, and retired in 1942. He became a major philanthropist, giving money especially to the National Institutes of Health. He also founded the Lasker Awards, which recognize individuals who make significant contributions to science.

“OK, he sounds like a gem of a guy, but what,” you ask, “does he have to do with our favorite sport?” Glad you asked.

Lasker made a lot of money and he was a baseball fan. In 1916 (one hundred years ago this season), he bought an interest in the Chicago Cubs. He held that interest to 1925 when he sold his part of the Cubs (he was the owner with the second most stock) to William Wrigley, Jr. thus beginning the Wrigley family association with the Cubs. But he’s most important for an idea he had that, although subsequently changed, revolutionized baseball.

In 1920 baseball was in trouble. The Black Sox scandal was exploding and baseball seemed unable to figure out how to handle it. The National Commission, the body that ran baseball, was short a member, August Herrmann having just resigned. Traditionally, the Commission consisted of the National League President (John Heydler in 1920), the American League President (Ban Johnson in 1920) and the owner of one of the teams (Herrmann owned the Reds). With or without Herrmann, the Commission was unable to deal with the scandal because of the personal and financial interest of all the members and replacing Herrmann with another owner merely kept the problem going. Lasker came up with a plan (cleverly called “The Lasker Plan”) for a new National Commission. This Commission would retain the two league Presidents, but the third member would be an outsider with no ties to Major League Baseball. In this circumstance it became obvious that this Commission member (a “Commissioner”) would, in many cases, be the deciding vote in running baseball and the Commission would have “unreviewable authority” to run baseball, meaning the owners couldn’t stage a vote and overrule the Commission. They didn’t adopt the entire plan, but Major League Baseball, for the first time, seems to have recognized the advantage of having a non-owner and non-league man run the show. Ultimately, they dumped the two league Presidents (and a later change that would have created a board of three independent commissioners) and decided on a single commissioner. Lasker’s first choice for that job was General John J. Pershing, who didn’t want it. His second choice was a Chicago federal judge named Kennesaw Mountain Landis (In fairness, a number of owners also wanted Landis).

So the modern baseball Commissioner system comes from an idea by a non-traditional baseball man. Lasker is, in a sort of sidelong way, responsible for the Commissioner. Lasker died in 1952, more famous for his advertising genius than for his role in creating the Commissioner of Baseball. He is buried in the family mausoleum in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Lasker mausoleum from Find a Grave

Lasker mausoleum from Find a Grave

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3 Responses to “The Ad Man”

  1. wkkortas Says:

    I’d never heard of the man before–this is a wonderful post. As an aside, shouldn’t the Reds or Indians build a roof on their place, and re-name it the Teapot Dome?

  2. Precious Sanders Says:

    I always wondered how they ever came up with the name “soap opera.” Now I know. Fascinating how the Commissioner came about. Thanks for this.

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