It’s a good thing Dr. Anthony Fauci has a secure job heading up the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, because Major League Baseball won’t be signing him anytime soon.
On July 23, fans will recall, the revered physician and pandemic authority jogged out to the mound at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and threw Opening Day’s first pitch—if “pitch” is the right word for it. The ball missed the strike zone by a mile, dropped onto the infield lawn, and rolled toward the dugout. At least fans didn’t boo (since there were no fans allowed in the park, anyway).
As great moments in baseball go, then, this was not one of them. It is, however, about as great a moment as the Topps brand of baseball cards has seen in years.
Earlier today, Topps announced that the Dr. Fauci trading card it made to commemorate the game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees has sold 51,512 copies, shattering the previous record by a factor of two.
The Fauci card’s popularity “is indicative of how excited fans are for the return of baseball,” Topps ecommerce director Jeff Heckman said in a statement, “as well as a tribute to a man [who] has helped guide the country through this coronavirus crisis.”
Another way of putting it? Fauci’s lousy pitch made for a fine bit of brand marketing.
Five years ago, Topps introduced a new, fast-moving series of cards called Topps Now, which portray “the greatest moments in sports and entertainment.” Topps execs essentially keep an eye peeled for any heroic plays and, if they find one worthy of commemoration, produce a Topps Now card for it literally overnight. The card goes on sale the following day—and stays on the market for only 24 hours. The enforced scarcity galvanizes fans’ attention while also underscoring Topps’ reputation as a sports authority.
In 2017, for example, when New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge hit his 50th home run, he notched a Topps Now card. And a year later when the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani became the first player since Babe Ruth to pitch 50 innings and hit 50 home runs in one season, Topps made a Now card of him, too.
At $9.99 each, these cards loaded the bases for Topps as well, with 16,138 Judge cards and 17,750 Ohtani cards sold.
What nobody expected was that these young, lean, hitting machines would get bested by a 79-year-old doctor whose last team sports experience was playing basketball for New York’s Regis High School in 1958.
If nothing else, the brisk sales of the Fauci baseball card are a sign of the (highly unusual) times and how Fauci—whose reassuring, unifying presence has made him a national celebrity—has become a brand unto himself.
Since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci’s face has appeared on T-shirts, buttons, mugs, backpacks, socks and, of course, face masks. In May, the immunologist’s likeness set another record when the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum made his likeness available for purchase—and promptly got 34,000 orders.
And that was over two months ago. As of this morning, “we are nearly sold out of them,” museum CEO Phil Sklar told Adweek. “They are numbered to 42,020, and we have about 500 remaining.” (Since a portion of each $25 figure goes to the Protect the Heroes campaign, Fauci’s springy head has raised over $200,000 for the country’s healthcare workers.)
As for that dismally bad pitch on Opening Day, Fauci had a good excuse. Two days prior to his big moment, he decided to practice throwing with a local high-school kid. The practice felt good until he woke up the following morning. “I completely destroyed my arm,” he told a reporter.
Mercifully, when choosing the photo for its trading card, Topps selected the earlier part of Fauci’s pitch that still looked, well, like a pitch.