"Dear Celtics Fans, for the past five years, my family and I took great pride in calling Boston home. We have loved living in this city, being members of the Celtics family and being part of your community. These memories will be cherished forever. From my heart, THANK YOU Boston for this incredible journey. Ray Allen #20."
When Ray Allen unceremoniously left the Boston Celtics—to sign with the locally and nationally hated Miami Heat, no less—he purchased an ad in the Boston Globe. It was standard fare, a few sentences of cliché-intensive verbiage meant to focus fans' attention not on the recent betrayal, but on some shared and unnamed happy memories in the past, whatever those might be. The missive was sweeter than "so long and thanks for all the cash," but only slightly. Still, despite the transparency of it all—transparent in terms of "Here are my emotions" and transparent in the flimsiness of that assertion—Allen's farewell ad played well in Beantown.
These things always do. Cavaliers supporters have a soft spot for Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Chicago Bears faithful will always smile when they think of how Tommie Harris left town. Phillies fans fondly remember Shane Victorino, not that they have to think back all that far. (And there's the Philly tradition of buying billboards, which is another issue for another story.)
Buying an ad upon one's departure is not a tradition reserved for fan favorites forced to move on by some issue out of their control. Before Allen left Boston, Rick Nash requested a trade away from the Columbus Blue Jackets, then took out a "goodbye and thank you" ad in the Dispatch. C.C. Sabathia left Cleveland for the riches of the New York Yankees, with a brief layover in Milwaukee. This angered some Tribe supporters, but Sabathia's parting well-wishes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer helped provide a salve for the wound, and may have salvaged some goodwill among the Tribe's more soft-hearted fans.
"I think C.C. was a little bit tougher [than Ilgauskas leaving] because of the rivalry with the Yankees. We lost a lot of players that year, but I think it's still a nice parting gift from the athlete," Sean Buffum, who works in ad sales at the paper, says. "The ad was very well done and I think the fans liked that he made a connection while he was here. There's never a time when it's not going to be well-received by the community." (For proof, check out the loving comments in a Cleveland.com post from the month of the trade to the Brewers in 2008.) According to Buffum, Z and C.C. paid standard space rates. There is neither a going-away special or massive increase. Stars on their way out of town pay the same rate as condo-hawking real estate moguls, tanning salons offering specials, and Applebee's.
But if it has become almost commonplace for athletes to take out newspaper ads thanking fans, that does not obscure the fact that it is also and still kind of a strange thing to do. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I talked to professors, scholars, newspaper admen about when and why this particular tradition started. I got some highly educated guesses, and an interesting nugget about LeBron James, but nothing like an exact date or the hard truth I'd hoped for.
One thing is for certain, though: using advertising in newspapers for the purpose of expressing gratitude is not a new practice. "Classified ads have served a similar function for perhaps 200 years," Doug Ward, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, told me. "People in small towns still take out newspaper classifieds to offer thanks for many things. The most common is to thank people for sending flowers, cards and remembrances after a loved one has died. I've seen classifieds from people thanking an anonymous Good Samaritan for a good deed."
Tom Pendergast, author of Creating the Modern Man, suspects the practice started with a baseball player or a boxer like Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis. He spent some time investigating on my behalf but also failed to find any concrete examples of an early sports icon making this particular practice iconic. "There were a series of magazines that were publishing in the years between roughly 1917 and 1933 that truly began to promote sports and the masculine ideals associated with the sporting life," he wrote in an email. "American Magazine, Athletic Journal, Athletic World, Collier's, Sporting Life, Success/The New Success, Vanity Fair, and even the venerable Saturday Evening Post... My guess is you will find evidence [there]."
I also asked Amber Roessner, assistant journalism professor at the University of Tennesee-Knoxville, who wrote her dissertation on the relationship between Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb, and four sportswriters: Grantland Rice, F.C. Lane, Ring Lardner, and John N. Wheeler. She also believes the practice began in baseball, since the public relations machinery around athletes developed there first. Roessner thought she would find examples in the 1920s or '30s—perhaps Cobb, Mathewson, Babe Ruth, or Lou Gehrig—but didn't, which she credits to the existence of ghostwriters. Simply put, players didn't need to take out ads because of the direct access they had to the fans in other ways, primarily through the columnist of their choice. Wheeler, especially, frequently penned articles on behalf of players like Mathewson and Cobb.
"At that point in time, athletes didn't have to take out these types of ads because they had other direct forms of communication. [Editor's note: Twitter?] The more that I think about it, in the '20s and '30s [athletes] are still able to reach their public through sportswriters and ghostwriters through free promotion," Roessner explained. "They aren't going to need to take out full-page ads until I'm thinking the '50s or even the '60s." Unfortunately, there are no clear answers in those decades, either. We're left, lost, in and with the present.
Perhaps the most polarizing ad in recent memory was one that never ran. LeBron James took out a page in the Akron Beacon-Journal after The Decision. It read, in part, "Akron is my home, and the central focus of my life. It’s where I started, and it’s where I will always come back to. You can be sure that I will continue to do everything I can for this city, which is so important to my family and me."
He ignored Cleveland, except that he didn't entirely. "I believe there were some folks from his group—he has a slightly bigger entourage than Z(ydrunas Ilgauskas)—who called to discuss, but ultimately nothing happened," Buffum says. "But there was definitely some interest from folks on his side. There was never a direct discussion with him, but some people reached out." In the end, LBJ—quite understandably, given the hate then in full fester in Cleveland—went with the Beacon-Journal and only the Beacon-Journal.
However it started—and, honestly, I'm still looking—it seems safe to say that the practice of buying ads will continue. If the tradition fades away, though, it will almost certainly have something to do with the rough, rapid fade of newspapers themselves. Athletes can thank their fans directly through Twitter or YouTube, after all, and most young players—the next generation of heartbreakers and ship-jumpers and triumphal ad-taker-outers—already interact with their fans primarily through social media.
Still, there really is something special about a good old-fashioned newspaper ad, something that makes a personal connection. When Allen returns to Boston wearing the Heat red, the Boston fans will boo. But they will do so less loudly than they would have had his people not picked up the phone and called the Globe. Wherever it came from, and whatever it truly means, a player taking out a thank-you advertisement in a newspaper clearly still matters. If the practice only sticks around for one reason, that's a pretty good one.