John Madden the Pitchman Even Made Baseball Look Good

Hall of Fame football coach John Madden, who passed away on Tuesday, was unquestionably a gridiron legend, and his legacy lives on not only in the generation of sports broadcasters he inspired but also, perhaps more important, through EA’s billion-dollar Madden video-game series.

What fewer people may know is that Madden, who is being honored at NFL games this week with a moment of silence, once lent his talents to the baseball world by appearing in a Miller Lite beer commercial as a speedy outfielder. It happened in 1983, five years after Madden had retired as a highly successful coach for the Oakland Raiders.

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Scooped up as a color commentator for CBS Sports in 1979 and then famously partnered with Pat Summerall in 1981, Madden’s national visibility (aided by a Super Bowl championship following the 1976 season) made him a perfect choice for a new brand about to revolutionize the beer world.

For much of the 1970s the dominant national beer brands were traditional lagers or pilsners such as Budweiser, Pabst and Schlitz. But in 1973, Miller, then owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris, began test marketing a low-calorie beer designed to support Miller’s clear-bottled High Life (“the Champagne of Bottled Beers”).

The problem for Lite was its perception. If a beer brand was intent on counting calories (“a third less than our regular beer”), it implied the beer might be targeting women more than men. And male drinkers at the time reportedly made up 80% of the volume.

The solution: Get brawny male celebrities to tell viewers “Lite Beer from Miller was everything you always wanted in a beer … and less.” Or that Miller Lite allowed thirsty men to drink multiple beers and not get bloated. The famous tagline? “Less Filling. Tastes Great.”

While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) prohibited the use of active professional athletes from appearing in beer advertising, Miller found a creative way to get around federal regulations by signing retired athletes.

The campaign took off, as the most famous of tough guys wanted to share in the debate. Football stars like Matt Snell, Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Ben Davidson all chimed in. So did Madden who filmed his first Lite commercial in 1980.

Meanwhile, on the baseball side of the ledger, the ad campaign used MLB notables such as Billy Martin, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Dick Williams, Boog Powell, Bob Uecker, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Marv Throneberry (who made more money doing Lite beer ads than he did playing baseball), and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

Eventually, Lite’s advertising was famous enough that Miller started combining the All-Stars in reunion spots showing off each celebrity’s most famous nuance. Madden’s “bit” was barroom ranting and then, more famously, breaking through the Lite’s commercial-ending pour shot.

In 1983, one of Madden’s greatest endorsement moments came when Miller’s ad agency Backer & Spielvogel staged (and filmed) a softball game between the Tastes Greats and the Less Fillings. As the 60-second commercial began, former Baltimore Orioles slugger Powell had come to bat with the Greats trailing 15-0.

At this point, co-managers Martin and Williams decided to use their bullpen and gave the signal for comedian Rodney Dangerfield to wrap things up.

As can be expected, the hapless Dangerfield promptly gave up 15 runs, leading Greats manager Frank Robinson to seek a pinch hitter for the game’s only female player, actress Lee Meredith—whereupon Uecker, never known for his batting prowess, offered to bat in her place. True to his Miller Lite persona, Mr. Baseball (“I must be in the front row”) was immediately shouted down by his teammates.

Meredith smokes Dangerfield’s first pitch over the Miller Lite billboard in centerfield, appearing to win the game for the Greats. But as the commercial ends, Madden, playing outfield for the Less Fillings, abruptly bursts through the Lite signage claiming to have caught the ball somewhere outside the stadium.

As author, journalist and Miller Lite endorser Frank Deford wrote in his 1984 book, Lite Reading: The Lite Beer from Miller Commercial Scrapbook, the brand produced the most popular advertising on television. It prompted Deford to ask: “Have you ever met anyone who disliked the Lite campaign? Have you ever even met anybody who went to bathroom when a Lite commercial came on the TV?”

R.I.P. John Madden. Most historians will talk about your greatness as a coach or broadcaster. But a few of us are still out there who remember you as a terrific center fielder.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Early in his business career he was the national advertising manager for Miller Lite beer (but not when the famous All-Star commercials noted above were filmed and aired).