Tokens & Icons offers nostalgia to fans
Cuff links, wallets, pens made of ballpark items big sellers at Shop
The word "nostalgia" is frequently associated with baseball, whose roots date back more than 150 years. Say the word and it feels like something good: a first trip to the ballpark with parents, a Hall of Famer's heyday, a great game, a celebration scene.
But what exactly is nostalgia? And when does it begin?
"Tomorrow, the memory already starts. The memory from that game becomes nostalgic immediately, with the next game," said Ward Wallau, founder of Tokens & Icons. "It doesn't have to be like an antique that is 50 years old. The next day it becomes a nostalgic memory, and it builds like that over time."
The word "nostalgia" itself is a formation of a Greek compound that translates loosely to "homesick." Its early usage depicted a disease or medical condition, from explorer James Cook's ship log to the Civil War. In standard usage today, it usually means a yearning for the past, the way something was, the way it made you feel.
For Wallau, manufacturing "recycled nostalgia" is the best way to help fans preserve those memories that mean so much. You probably have seen his company's products at the MLB.com Shop, where they are becoming some of the most popular items today.
A pair of cuff links made from weathered-green wooden seats used last century at Wrigley Field. A pen crafted from authentic wooden seats salvaged during a renovation at Fenway Park. A stained-and-scratched bottle opener made from a bat swung by a Cardinals player.
Or how about 125 pair of uniform pants discovered when they cleaned out the original Yankee Stadium before tearing it down? What do you do with those?
"The Yankees offered it to me, after finding them in the bowels of the stadium," Wallau said. "They couldn't find anyone to take them, and asked if I would be interested. I gave it some thought, and they became wallet liners."
Indeed, Wallau likes to say that "you never know what will unfold when you go to a Major League ballpark," and that literally includes a wallet. The game-used wallet is now one of the biggest sellers at the MLB.com Shop, complete with liner fabric from players' pants such as those Bronx artifacts.
"Why go out and make something new today," Wallau asks, "when there is so much stuff right in front of us that can be fashioned into something functional?"
One fan who purchased a game-used pen wrote in a customer review: "... great idea for the baseball nut; or someone who really enjoys history and having a piece of it."
That was pretty much what set Wallau on his journey to equip people with usable memories. It started in 1980, the year Pac-Man was released, Mount St. Helens erupted, CNN launched, Ronald Reagan was elected president and the Phillies won it all. That year in the Big Apple, which Wallau called home, Reggie Jackson was hitting everything in sight and the familiar New York City subway token was modified.
The "Y" of "NYC" had been cut out of the token in previous years, and when they filled in that letter, Wallau, an entrepreneur just out of college, "thought it kind of worked for cuff links."
"I collected 100 tokens and made 50 pairs of cuff links," he said. "I kind of offered them to people."
He was able to get advertising in The New Yorker magazine through a connection at his Plaza Hotel job, and he approached the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the subway, in search of a license. It took 11 years, but Wallau finally succeeded in 1991, joining Bulova as the first manufacturers to get licenses from the MTA.
Twenty years later, those subway-token cuff links are still big sellers. And baseball fans have become key customers.
"A woman said, 'I've given my dad gifts for the last 25 years and have never elicited any emotion whatsoever, but since I gave him Yankee Stadium cuff links, every time I talk to him on the phone he brings it up,'" Ward said. "They think they struck an emotional chord with him and he really appreciated the gift."
One distinction of the Tokens & Icons area is the lack of your favorite team's logo. You can find it on virtually everything else at the MLB.com Shop. It is implied here.
"One of the criteria here is to keep it in as original a state as possible," Wallau said. "With the wallet, it was used as fabric. It wasn't just slapped on the front of an iPad holder and just sitting on the front. We don't do anything with logos at our company here. ... what's important to us is that it's existing, and that we can re-use it in a functional, fun, whimsical format."
Tokens & Icons, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is especially appreciated by MLB's authenticating department, because it is a way to clear its stock of game-used artifacts. You can find a Derek Jeter or a Ryan Howard game-used memorabilia piece easily enough at the MLB.com Shop -- something for everyone. But there is so much more out there at the ballpark, not really about specific players but about a feeling, about nostalgic love for days gone by.
"We're treating the products generically," Wallau said. "We're celebrating the venue or the artifact. We don't trade on a player's name. We're trading on the team names."
As with the subway tokens, who knew a pair of red-stitched cuff links could prove so popular? It is another lesson in our collective desire for nostalgia.
"I didn't think someone would like a white cuff link as a background. I was very nervous, very tentative," he said. "And as of right now, it is our strongest selling item. I just don't know of any white-ground cuff links. My problem was, I was thinking cuff links. The pens are not pens. We're not in the pen business. It's nostalgia. Same with cuff links. It's not jewelry, it's nostalgia. People look at this as an important artifact.
"We're helping celebrate the art of giving, and we're helping someone who is giving it find a comfort level. It's such a satisfaction that they are giving something people want to open. That's why we are in business."