Greg Cote

A visit to Marlins Park inspired lifelong friends — now known as the bobblehead kings

This would have been September of 2012, late in the inaugural season of the new Marlins Park. It was a nightmare, really. Acrimony and lawsuits were flying over the financing of the stadium. And the big-name team assembled to christen the new park was failing to such a degree manager Ozzie Guillen was about to get fired.

Ah, but not all was lost!

There was an epiphany happening then. A spark. You didn’t know it. No one did, until now.

Phil Sklar and Brad Novak, lifelong buddies from the midwest there on a bucket-list tour of major-league ballparks, were ambling along the concession concourse when their life changed., (Angels sang, if there were a really hokey movie version of this).

“We saw the bobblehead display. We hadn’t even heard it was there!” Sklar told us on Monday. “We were shocked to see that. We were blown away. It got us even more excited. What we saw at Marlins Park had an impact It took off from there...”

The rest is history. Ok, well, yeah, a really tiny little niche of history. But still.

Sklar and Novak had been collecting bobblehead dolls since around 2003; their first was a giveaway by the Rockford (Illinois) Riverhawks minor-league baseball team. But seeing the Marlins’ glass-enclosed case of a few hundred nodding ballplayers on regal display helped inspire the two friends beyond their modest private collection.

The result? They co-founded the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee. It opened five weeks ago. Some 6,500 bobbleheads (75 percent sports related, and most of those baseball) are on display from a total collection now at around 10,000. The Guinness Book Of World Records is in the process of certifying them as the international Bobblehead Kings.

Pete Rose, holding his bobblehead, sits beside National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum cofounder Phil Sklar. The recently opened Hall traces its inspiration to Miami’s Marlins Park. National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

(By the way, contrary to rumors, the Marlins bobblehead display has thankfully survived the Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter makeover. The display is now located in the Billy’s Kid Zone beyond center field. So, thank you, Jeffrey Loria. Everybody hated you, but for sharing your love of bobbleheads, at least, a hearty nod of approval).

The Marlins actually donated about 20 bobblers to the Hall of Fame. There are other nods to Miami. There are three versions of UM’s Sebastian the Ibis wearing a Turnover Chain. A Miami Maniac baseball mascot bobblehead is about to come out. Somewhere in the museum is a hard-to-miss three-foot bobblehed of Shaquille O’Neal.

The museum is a mix of old collectible bobbleheads and those created and licensed by Sklar and Novak. The biggest seller? Sister Jean, 99-year-old superfan of the Loyola basketball team, has sold some 18,000 nodding dolls.

There is no end tot the variety of dolls, from the Brewers’ five racing sausages to Teddy Roosevelt to Flo the insurance lady to Al Capone. Not to forget Jenna Jameson, who is a former porn actress (I’m told). A new set of bobbleheads will honor the 1954 Milan High School basketball champions that inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”

(I am imagining the Sister Jean bobblehead displayed next to the Jenna Jameson bobblehead, except that instead of nodding Sister Jean’s head is moving sideways in an “uh uh” gesture).

Sklar and Novak did not enter this venture lightly. Sklar, 35, quit a six-figure-salary job in corporate finance. A year after seeing the Marlins Park display they began seriously discussing a Hall of Fame and Museum with a retail arm.

“It was a like a presidential exploratory committee,” says Sklar.

Phil Sklar with Sebastian the Ibis

There have been three watershed developments in the modern history of bobbleheads, according to me.

1. In 1960 Major League Baseball issued a series of papier-mache’ bobblheads for each team, all with the same angelic face. Player--specific bobbleheads were sold for the first time during the ‘60 World Series.

2. In 1999 the San Franciscio Giants gave out 35,000 free Willie Mays nodders to reinvigorate a fad that had been in decline for, inspiring fans and collectors and palpably causing a bobblehead resurgence.

3. In 2019, two buddies inspired by what they saw at Marlins Park christen the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum.

The “Hall of Fame” has one member, by the way. Inducted in 2017 prior to the hall’s formal opening. The inaugural inductee is a bobblehead of Pete Rose seen holding himself in the midst of a headfirst slide. They actually got cranky Pete to show up in Milwaukee for the induction ceremony.

“He can’t be in the Baseball Hall of Fame,” noted Skalr, “but his bobblehead was inducted.,”

Greg Cote is a Miami Herald sports columnist who in 2018 was named top 10 in column writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Greg also appears regularly on the Dan LeBatard Show With Stugotz on ESPN Radio and ESPNews.