As a young sportswriter covering the White Sox in the 1970s, Rob Gallas often talked with Chicago owner Bill Veeck.
It was a bit like taking a graduate course in marketing and creativity from baseball’s master promoter.
Years later, when Gallas became senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting for the same Sox, he could still hear Veeck's voice in his head.
“He would say it many times,” says Gallas, now the vice president and chief marketing officer of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. “ ‘Baseball should be fun. It’s a game.’ That’s what he wanted to do, just provide fun for the fans. So that’s what we tried to do.”
So along with coming up with the major leagues’ first Turn Back the Clock Night and Elvis Night and Sleepover Night, Gallas and what he calls his “great, creative department” came up with an idea that had legs. Four of them, actually.
In August 1996, the White Sox held a promotion called the Dog Days of Summer that allowed fans to bring their canine companions to New Comiskey Park and sit with them in the bleachers.
“It sold out in a heartbeat,” says Gallas. “It sold out every year I was there, and it sold out well in advance.”
By 1998, the Montreal Expos, too, were hosting a dog day afternoon at Olympic Stadium, and a year later the Minnesota Twins were packing in the pooches at the Metrodome. Gallas had unleashed a promotion that has become a standard in minor and major league baseball.
This season, 16 major league teams are hosting dog days, with some -- such as the Pirates, who lead the pack with eight Pup Nights at PNC Park -- holding multiple events.
In the minors, nearly 50 teams have dog-friendly promotions, from Man’s Best Friend Mondays with the Inland Empire 66ers in San Bernardino, Calif., to the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ twice-per-season Bark in the Park games, where fans and their furry friends sit on a grassy hill beyond left field and watch the humans and the doggy duo that regularly works at NewBridge Bank Park (Miss Babe Ruth takes balls to the umpire; Master Yogi Berra chases a ball shot out of a cannon).
To Gallas -- who says he was about 11 years old when he started learning from Veeck via reading his autobiography, “Veeck as in Wreck” -- it’s not surprising that dog days took off. People love both their dogs and baseball, so why not combine the two?
He said the idea sprouted from the fact there was a kennel at New Comiskey where fans could keep their dogs while they watched the Sox.
“We thought, ‘How about if we allowed fans to bring their dogs out to a game?’ ” he recalls.
So they reserved about 500 seats in the bleachers, set up a “doggy comfort area” with sod and fake fire hydrants, provided water stations, and had vendors with dog treats patrol the area. Plus, the Humane Society was invited.
“If you didn’t come with a dog, you could adopt a dog,” Gallas says.
Owners paraded their dogs around the warning track before the game, and many of the dogs were dressed in baseball gear.
Gallas said he and his co-workers noticed immediately that it wasn’t just the dogs and their owners who enjoyed the event. The rest of the fans at the game did, too.
“It put a lot of smiles on people’s faces as they were sitting there watching this dog parade,” he says. “And then they’re sitting there [during the game] watching all these dogs sitting next to their masters in the bleachers, just enjoying the game.”
• • •
The Jupiter (Fla.) Hammerheads have the Dog Days of Summer. The Cleveland Indians have Puppypalooza. The St. Louis Cardinals have Pooches in the Ballpark. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs call their two dates Dog Day at the Park. In Albuquerque, N.M., and Richmond, Va., the Isotopes and Flying Squirrels (respectively) host Bark in the Park. The Kansas City Royals have Bark at the K.
At San Diego’s Petco Park, where the Padres play, up to 500 dogs can be accommodated in the annual Dog Days of Summer promotion that includes a pregame “tail” gate party.
In Chicago, the White Sox have Dog Day, but across town the closest Cubs fans will get to taking their dogs to a game will be to Wiggly Field (a dog park not too far from Wrigley Field).
Though the names of the promotions are slightly different, they most often include:
• A pregame parade;
• Costume contests and judging;
• Separate seating areas for fans who bring their dogs, where the pets are leashed;
• A day without fireworks (to avoid chaos);
• Adoptions and/or fundraising for canine causes;
• Pre-event registration (to ensure all dogs are healthy and have proper vaccinations);
• Tricks on the field (such as by Frisbee-chasing dogs)
In Colorado Springs, where the Triple-A Sky Sox have hosted Bark in the Park since the late ’90s, up to 250 dogs can be accommodated in a grassy area down the left-field line, says Jon Eddy, the team’s director of marketing and promotions.
In past seasons, the team held the popular dog-friendly games almost every Wednesday, but this year -- because of an increase in other promotions -- the team has just three Wednesday dog dates.
The promotions include distribution of free chew toys, pet tricks between innings, and prizes such as free dog food for a year. Or the team might have a dog bark “Play Ball!” -- loosely translated, of course, by the PA announcer.
Eddy says they get everything from beagles to Saint Bernards, with about the only common denominator being how few incidents have ever occurred with the animals -- a claim echoed by other teams that host these events.
“Frankly, what amazes me is, as a pet owner my entire life, how incredibly well-behaved these pets are on a consistent basis,” he says.
One thing the Sky Sox won’t do, though, is send team mascot Sox the Fox into the dog area.
“You know, naturally dogs and foxes don’t get along,” jokes Eddy. “Especially the way this character moves is very animal-like. We don’t want him out there.”
When baseballs plop among the pooches, though, fun can ensue.
“You’ll get foul balls in there and, just as much as on a crowded family day when you see a bunch of kids running after a foul ball, you’ll see a bunch of dogs run after a foul ball,” says Eddy.
At Greensboro Grasshopper games, the team hires a “doggy dung squad” to pick up messes. At Flying Squirrels games in Richmond -- where as many as 750 dogs have gathered -- the national anthem has prompted howling. At IronPigs games in Allentown, Pa., where 200 to 400 dogs attend, a team rep says gatherings have featured “fabulous costumes.”
For many years, dog days in Detroit included a show by former pitcher Milt Wilcox and his Frisbee-chasing dog Sparky (named after former manager Sparky Anderson). At White Sox games, celebratory fireworks were replaced by a soundtrack of barking dogs.
• • •
Last season in Oakland, the Athletics’ Dog Day at the Park attracted about 750 dogs, which the team says is an unofficial record for a major league game.
This season, the team is out to break that total, says Troy Smith, the team’s senior director of marketing. Smith said the team determined last year’s total was a big league best through “a straw poll taken with our colleagues around the league.”
“We filled out the paperwork with Guinness [World Records] and now we’re just trying to reach our goal, which is somewhere more than 750 of last year,” Smith says of the team’s upcoming July 19 Dog Day game against the Yankees. “Our ultimate goal is to get to 1,000. We’re tracking somewhere in there. I hope we can get it certified. That would be kind of fun.”
Several hundred miles to the South, the Padres in 2011 set a Guinness world record for “most dogs in a pet costume parade” with 337 dogs in their pregame parade.
In Oakland, meanwhile, this will be the seventh season for the team’s Dog Day, and it’s a hit.
Each year, the day includes a Pup Rally and Pup Parade before the game, when judges vote on best costumes -- they wear hats, jerseys or ribbons, and some even have painted green and gold fur -- and then fans stroll with their dogs around the park.
For the game, one section is set aside for the dogs and their owners.
“Our camera that we use to show fans up on the video board spends the whole game out there, because it’s just hilarious to see everybody with their dogs. … And the highlight of the evening is probably the only time we do Kiss Cam, on Dog Day.
“In general, dogs are always willing to lick their owners. We’ve had funny shots of dogs looking at their owner, who’s holding a hot dog. This longing look on their face.”
He remembers one incident when the Athletics’ in-game host was interviewing one fan on camera during the game, and an enormous Great Dane sloppily smooched her entire face.
“The replay of the lick was hilarious in slow motion,” says Smith.
In Oakland, the dog section is a standard area, with concrete and plastic seats that can be easily washed down.
Smith says he can’t recall any incidents of bad behavior by the dogs, though they do speak up at odd times.
“Sometimes there are quiet times, maybe in between pitches or whatever, and you can hear these dogs barking off in the distance,” he says, laughing. “And you think, ‘What?’ ”
Smith says Dog Day seems to bring out “a collective kind of pride.”
“Fans have so much joy [around their dogs],” he says. “It’s like their kids. They love to show off their dogs.”
Not all dogs are welcome or invited, however. A record of good behavior in groups is mandatory.
After the Expos’ Dog Day in Montreal in 2001, for instance, the Reds’ Ken Griffey Jr. -- who homered and drove in four runs in Cincinnati’s 17-4 win in front of 11,785 humans and 200 dogs -- told reporters: “That’s nice, you could bring your animal to the ballpark. I just can’t bring mine because she’s an attack dog, so she doesn’t make it out of the house that much.”
Though dog days don’t outdraw bobblehead, hat or T-shirt days, they have become a fixture. When Pittsburgh Magazine last year rated its top family activities, the Pirates’ Pup Nights at PNC were No. 7.
Baseball is just better with a friend, even a furry one.
“It’s like going to the ballgame with a buddy,” says the Sky Sox’s Eddy. “And having an opportunity to do that is kind of a unique treat for a lot of these pet owners.”