Who is the baseball bobblehead on Dwight Schrute’s desk in The Office?

I’m notoriously late to jump on the bandwagon of transient trends. My pop culture reference are admittedly outdated, and I tend to binge hot Netflix shows a half-decade after they peak in popularity. Take Narcos, for instance, or Friends. I binged both during pandemic lockdown and became belated intrigued. Many consider this peculiar, but hey, I watch a lot of sports, ok? There is little time left for idle consumption.

Nevertheless, Patrycja and I have recently returned to The Office – the US version, not the English original – after ignoring it for the best part of a year. It is just the right kind of trash TV you can dip in and out of without becoming discombobulated by complex narrative arcs. Oh, and it is pretty hilarious, so it makes for light relief each evening. Especially when there are no election debates to chuckle at.

Anyhow, I mention this because there is a vague baseball link to The Office that sparks serendipitous joy for hardcore seamheads like me: on the desk of Dwight Schrute – the sycophantic ‘assistant to the regional manager’ at Dunder Mifflin, Scranton, a fictional paper distributor ran by goofy honcho Michael Scott – lies a baseball bobblehead. More specifically, it appears to be a Philadelphia Phillies player enshrined in rubber – an apparent simulacrum of local pride.

That player, I’m pleased to report, is Mike Lieberthal, a salty catcher who spent 14 years in Major League Baseball with the Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers. Perched next to Dwight’s computer monitor, the bobblehead captures Lieberthal in full catcher’s gear – including a backwards-facing batting helmet – wearing a #7 jersey. It is a harmless little tribute acknowledged by only the most dedicated of baseball nerds – myself included.

However, Mike Lieberthal never wore #7 during his big league career. Moreover, upon closer inspection, the bobblehead on Dwight Schrute’s desk does not wear Phillies regalia. In actual fact, contrary to popular perception, the famous bobblehead celebrates Lieberthal during his minor league days, back when he played for the – yes, you guessed it – Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate. As such, the cryptic ode is even more local than most people realise.

Digging deeper, I discovered the Mike Lieberthal bobblehead in question was given away at a Red Barons doubleheader on 22 June 2003. Alexander Global Promotions manufactured the dolls, which were sponsored by Fox 56, a local television station, and Novel T-Shirts Sports Promotions. The Red Barons split a twin bill with the vaunted Durham Bulls that day, before a crowd of 6,194, but Lieberthal was not present. He was already established as the Phillies’ major league starting catcher by that point, but the Red Barons wanted to fete their alumnus anyway. 

After identifying Schrute’s baseball bobblehead, one question swirled in my mind: why Mike Lieberthal? It is admittedly an uncommon question, even among sad baseball obsessives, but I recalled Lieberthal as a good but not great backstop with occasional pop. I have a vague memory of him clouting a mammoth home run at Wrigley Field, perhaps on to Waveland Avenue, but corroborating that murky recollection has proven difficult. Nevertheless, why Mike Lieberthal? It is a question that keeps me awake at night.

The Lieberthal reference makes little sense inside The Office universe, not least because Dwight Schrute has no professed love for sports. In fact, the only time he mentions baseball in the entire series is to lampoon America’s national pastime. “People underestimate the power of nostalgia,” Schrute says in season nine, episode 17. “If baseball can use it to get people to care about that worthless sport, then I can use it to get my siblings to care about the farm.”

There is one possible meaning to Schrute’s worship of Lieberthal, however, and it resides in the catcher’s full name: Michael Scott Lieberthal. Of course, Schrute’s lust for power – and his willingness to dutifully serve Michael as a means to attaining it – is a recurring motif throughout The Office. Schrute has a clumsy messiah complex, and he yearns for the approval of Scott as a would-be successor. Therefore, maybe the Lieberthal bobblehead is a subtle nod to that ulterior devotion – an easter egg to be deciphered by eagle-eyed baseball nuts.

Ultimately, though, the more likely explanation has the Lieberthal bobblehead as a coded inside joke among real-life showrunners, producers and writers. Perhaps they were given creative license to dress the set, and the opportunity to embalm their own niche interests in a generational show was too good to pass up. Quite possibly, it was just a harmless little gimmick embraced by those on the inside, later discovered and memorialised by internet sleuths with too much time on their hands. Guilty as charged right here.

In this regard, one Reddit thread points to Michael Schur as a possible linchpin between baseball and The Office. A writer, producer and actor on the show, Schur is a renowned baseball fan who once penned a cult sports blog named Fire Joe Morgan, referring to the Hall of Fame second baseman and derided ESPN analyst. Schur is also known for packing baseball easter eggs into his shows, including the Babip, Pecota, Vorp and Eckstein law firm in Parks and Recreation. Maybe Schur had a thing for Mike Lieberthal. After all, who doesn’t, right?

Another theory – broached by show writer and producer Greg Daniels on The Office Ladies podcast – loosely attributes the Lieberthal bobblehead to prop master Phil Shea. “[Phil] used to go to Scranton and return with truckloads of tchotchkes from the different businesses,” said Daniels. “Giveaway pens, local sports figure bobbleheads, stuff like that.” Shea may have wandered into the Red Barons’ ballpark, or the Scranton headquarters of Novel T-Shirts Sports Promotions, on one such excursion, and returned with a plastic reincarnation of Mike Lieberthal. Perhaps sheer happenstance plonked that figure on Dwight’s desk.

However, there are other baseball references in the show that suggest a more concerted effort to leave a mark. Take Ryan Howard, for example. Yes, the hapless Dunder Mifflin administrator played by BJ Novak, but also the Phillies’ superstar and 2006 National League MVP. Oh, and Kevin Malone? Sure, he is the rotund paper accountant portrayed by Brian Baumgartner, but also the former Dodgers and Expos general manager prone to verbal gaffes during interviews.

In the furthest recesses of sitcom cyberspace, there are even passing references to a John Kruk bobblehead on Schrute’s desk during a few episodes. A prominent Phillies slugger in the 1990s, Kruk was known as a practical joker, so he probably would have appreciated such comedic recognition, but I have been unable to identify that particular bobblehead while watching The Office. It may well exist – after all, it would be a pretty random thing to make up – but I do not intend to comb through more than 75 hours of Dunder Mifflin hijinks to confirm or deny the claim. Somebody else can do that. 

Of course, The Office came to an end in 2013, by which point the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball team had a new name (the RailRiders) and a new parent organisation (the New York Yankees). The Phillies cut ties with Scranton after the 2006 season, and today partner with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to produce a pipeline of homegrown talent.

And as for Mike Lieberthal? Well, he played parts of five seasons in Scranton, from 1992 through 1995, plus an incongruous stint in 2006. Lieberthal eventually played 1,212 games in the big leagues, twice making the All-Star team while winning a Gold Glove in 1999. Lieberthal collected 1,155 career hits, including 150 home runs, and compiled a respectable .274 lifetime batting average.

Still, few baseball fans readily remember Mike Lieberthal – even when asked to name random, obscure catchers from their childhood. I remember Mike Lieberthal, though, and I’m pleased to honour him with this paean. The Phillies remember Mike Lieberthal, too, placing him on their Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park. But most importantly, Dwight Schrute remembers Mike Lieberthal, and that may be the greatest honour of all.

Sources


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