That time baseball superstar Rafael Palmeiro advertised Viagra

Rafael Palmeiro has a complicated legacy. An epochal Cuban-born slugger, Palmeiro embodied the caricature-like charisma of 1990s baseball, and his eye-popping achievements – including 569 career home runs – enthused a generation of Latin American fans. However, persistent rumours of steroid abuse besmirched Palmeiro’s reputation, to a point where he is ostracised from the game’s golden echelon.

Yet beyond moustaches and moonshots, steroids and scepticism, Rafael Palmeiro is synonymous with something else to baseball nerds who enjoy such inane tchotchke: for two years, he was the face of Viagra. Yes, you read that correctly: during the twilight of his career, a prominent baseball superstar became the premier pitchman for erectile dysfunction pills. This is the story of how, and why, and when. Strap yourself in.

Viagra, a Pfizer brand name for sildenafil, was first approved for use in erectile dysfunction treatment by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March 1998. Male sports fans were a captive audience, of course, and Pfizer focused its marketing efforts on that demographic. In 2001, NHL Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur became a Viagra spokesman, while NASCAR driver Mark Martin carried the brand’s logo on his car and race jacket. Viagra ads also appeared during MLB telecasts, with positive results encouraging deeper collaboration.

To that end, in February 2002, Pfizer struck a three-year, $30 million deal to make Viagra the official erectile dysfunction drug of MLB. And while that strapline seems oddly verbose, there was active competition in the market. Levitra, a rival brand developed by Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, also eyed sports fans and eventually hired legendary NFL coach Mike Ditka as an ambassador. Such competition encouraged Pfizer to formalise its baseball outreach, and the $30 million commitment was the largest of any MLB sponsor at the time.

On paper, it seemed like a logical investment for Pfizer. After all, chicks dig the long ball, and its MLB partnership meshed with the peak of baseball’s steroid era, as chemically-enhanced superstars rewrote the record books with dubious displays of power. Just four years before Viagra partnered with MLB, of course, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire reignited the American love affair with muscle-bound sluggers as they topped the hallowed single season home run mark of Roger Maris. For Pfizer, then, tapping into baseball’s testosterone-fuelled zeitgeist was a prescient ploy.

Along with stadium billboards and licensed MLB fantasy games, the sponsorship agreement entitled Pfizer to a public baseball figurehead to be used in marketing materials and advertising drives. Quite hilariously, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole was the original face of Viagra in America, but Pfizer sought someone younger and more diverse via its baseball tie-in. Seattle Mariners star Edgar Martínez was the top choice, per Here’s the Pitch by Roberta Newman, but Palmeiro was the pivot when Edgar demurred.

Why Palmeiro? Well, everything is bigger in Texas, right? And Palmeiro was firmly ensconced on the Texas Rangers when Pfizer came calling. A certain Alex Rodriguez was also on that Rangers squad, and an A-Rod/Viagra collaboration would have lent itself to some exquisite puns, but Palmeiro got the gig. After all, he was a four-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glover and two-time Silver Slugger by that point. Palmeiro was also 37 and presumably more familiar with Viagra than the prodigious Rodriguez.

Regardless of the rationale, Palmeiro soon appeared in Pfizer ads, bedecked in full Rangers uniform and captured at strategically euphemistic angles. Palmeiro also appeared on the home page of viagra.com, while a Seattle Post-Intelligencer report said he earned $400,000 per hour shooting television ads for Pfizer. The following zingers emerged among the Palmeiro-Viagra marketing copy:

  • “I take batting practice – 450 home runs. I take infield practice – three Gold Gloves. I take Viagra – let’s just say it works for me.”
  • “Like Rafael Palmeiro, Viagra has some impressive stats. In four years, more than 44 million prescriptions have been written in the United States alone. Plus, Viagra has helped more than 13 million men worldwide rediscover their love lives. Hey, it all adds up. So do what Rafael did. Ask your doctor if a free sample of Viagra is right for you.”
  • “Palmeiro comes through in the clutch.”
  • “Going, going, gone to the doctor.”
  • “For Rafael Palmeiro and so many other guys, Viagra is a home run. That’s why Palmeiro stays with it. Because it works.”

Rather predictably, Palmeiro was ribbed by fans, journalists and teammates for hawking such a taboo – if clinically innovative – product. Some fans had Palmeiro sign boxes of Viagra, and relentless kidding forced the faded star to speak out. “I guarantee you, everybody in this clubhouse has tried it, and most are asking me for it,” Palmeiro told the Tribune News Service. In other dispatches, he denied needing Viagra but said he still took it anyway. The entire episode carried an absurd hue, and Pfizer may have doubted its return on investment. 

“In following septuagenarian Bob Dole as the face of sexual impotency, he had to be prepared to be the butt of some jokes,” wrote Garrett Kolb in Spoiled Sports, a book of comical explorations. “But when the Rangers came to play an interleague game in Pittsburgh, he couldn’t have been ready for the greeting that was in store. The first time Palmeiro stepped to the plate, a boing sound effect came over the stadium speakers. The organ player then followed the dig with renditions of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and the theme music to Woody Woodpecker. If that wasn’t enough, the stadium scoreboard ran pictures of a spurting and gushing fountain on its screens. Meanwhile, fathers throughout the stadium were heard stuttering and stammering through explanations to their little boys and girls as to why such a display was so funny.”

Powered by his little blue pills – and perhaps a whole lot more besides – Palmeiro hit the 500th home run of his major league career in May 2003, becoming just the nineteenth member of that esteemed club. Nevertheless, Pfizer dropped Palmeiro at the end of that season. No specific reason was ever given for the move, and Viagra continued as a prominent MLB sponsor through the 2004 campaign, but some say Pfizer caught wind of Palmeiro’s deteriorating reputation and cut bait before scandal sullied his name.

Indeed, controversy followed Palmeiro during his waning days in the baseball limelight. In February 2005, fellow big league slugger José Canseco accused Palmeiro of taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in Juiced, his seismic expose. A month later, Palmeiro testified before Congress during a hearing into doping in baseball. “Let me start by telling you this,” Palmeiro infamously said under oath, wagging a finger. “I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.” 

Alas, just five months later, Palmeiro was suspended after testing positive for Stanozolol, a banned testosterone facsimile purported to enhance muscle growth and athletic recovery times. Palmeiro always denied knowingly taking steroids, and even implicated Orioles teammate Miguel Tejada in a possible explanation. According to Palmeiro, Tejada offered him a vitamin B12 injection, a rogue ingredient of which inadvertently caused the positive PED test. The court of public opinion passed judgement on Palmeiro regardless, and his legacy was forever tainted. It is painfully ironic, of course, that erectile dysfunction and shrunken testicles are well-known side effects of steroid abuse.

However, all joking aside – and, admittedly, it was hilarious – there was also a symbolic importance to Palmeiro’s representation of Latino men in discussions around sexual health. Though later lampooned as something of a baseball meme, Palmeiro gave voice to a chronically under-represented strata of American society, and that should not be understated. The comedy of it all helped spread a significant message, and the fact we are still talking about it now, two decades later, affirms the effectiveness of the Pfizer campaign.


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