Ah, baseball. America’s pastime. And what is America’s pastime’s favorite in-game snack? Bubble gum—now that chewing tobacco is a no-no, of course. For decades, baseball players have been attempting world records blowing bubbles during a game. And it’s not just for ballplayers; bubble gum has been an American favorite for years, so much so that the bubble gum flavor is right up there with vanilla, strawberry, and other iconic, instantly recognizable flavors. But what is it, really? Bubble gum is… well, bubble gum, not something worth questioning. Until now.
Where does bubble gum come from?
People have been chewing on sticky stuff for millenia. In ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, people chewed on something called chicle, a natural gum found in trees. Sadly, it doesn’t come out of the trees tasting like bubble gum—that’s reserved for your Willy Wonka fantasies– but chicle did have several uses, including as a hunger suppressant and a cavity filler.
The cultural tradition of chewing chicle existed well into the 1800s, when European influences were dominating the Americas. Enter scientist and inventor Thomas Adams. He took his cue from his Mexican neighbors and began developing it as a chewing gum—with flavor! His first two flavors were black licorice (gross) and tutti frutti (yum). He founded the American Chicle Company that also began creating Chiclets gum. So now you know where that name comes from!
However, chicle isn’t bubble-able, so there needed to be further innovation to get us there. In 1928, an accountant named Walter Diemer worked at the Fleer Chewing Gum Company. Here’s this numbers guy and he says, “Hey, I’m going to get down in the factory and mess around with the gum.” Fleer has a product called Blibber-Blubber and, as you might expect from something with a name like that, it was an abject failure. Diemer, either in a moment of brilliance or in a horrendous accident, added latex to the gum. This addition greatly enhanced the stickiness of the gum and provided it with the tactile strength needed to blow a bubble.
This first iteration of bubble gum was named Double Bubble, and it still exists to this day. Also, a fun note: bubble gum was nearly gray. The only food coloring Fleer had was pink, and they correctly assumed that no one would want to chew on a wad of gray mush.
What makes bubble gum flavor?
The flavor of bubble gum can be described mostly as sweet with hints of some fruit. Turns out, Adams’ product name tutti frutti was pretty accurate. Bubble gum flavor is created with artificial flavors called esters, which replicate the smell of fruits. So the flavor is a vague combination of strawberry, banana, cherry, and, depending on the brand, generic berry, pineapple, or even cinnamon flavors. By Frankensteining all these very recognizable flavors together, we get an entirely new one: bubble gum.
Brands can mess with the formula by adding more strawberry or watermelon or some other fruit. But that iconic, instantly recognizable flavor of classic bubble gum cannot be denied.
What’s the baseball connection?
Early gum manufacturers were companies like the aforementioned Fleer Chewing Gum Company, Topps, and The Wm. Wrigley, Jr. Company. Anyone with a passing interest in baseball can see the connections here: Fleer and Topps were dominant baseball card creators and Wrigley is, famously, the same family that owns the Chicago Cubs. These companies began as gum manufacturers and then got into the baseball game. Fleer and Topps sold packs of cards with their gum inside it; a tradition that lasted well into the 1980s.
You’d think after Wrigley bought the Cubs in the 1920s, they’d force the gum onto the players. However, ballplayers were more interested in another chewable: tobacco. It was common to see a pitcher on the mound with a massive wad of chew in their lips. But by the 1980s, gum started replacing tobacco amongst players and, by 2016, all tobacco products were banned from use by players in the MLB. Thankfully, bubble gum was there to make the save.