Take me out to the ... Death Star: Why baseball and 'Star Wars' are perfect combo

Of the 30 MLB teams, 26 will host "Star Wars" events this season — but the tradition began in the minors

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Young Max Greene, dressed as Luke Skywalker, was joined by Darth Vader to throw out the first pitch at the Mariners' first "Star Wars" night in 2015. (Credit: Seattle Mariners)

For one day in 2015, the Griffeys weren’t the most famous father-son duo to suit up in front of a Seattle Mariners home crowd.

Gregg Greene, the Mariners vice president of marketing, watched nervously as his 6-year-old son, Max, strutted out to the pitcher’s mound at T-Mobile Park. Only, for this moment, Max wasn’t Max. He was Luke Skywalker. And standing beside “Luke” was his other “father," Darth Vader, who watched as Luke fired a fastball to home plate.

“That was a pretty special moment,” Greene said, remembering his son's starring performance in Seattle’s first “Star Wars” day.

For Gregg — a “Star Wars” fan, but also the Mariners VP of marketing who helped create the event — the moment was a perfect encapsulation of what the classic sci-fi film represents, and a great way to kick off a new theme night tradition in Seattle. And the Mariners aren’t alone.

“Star Wars” games have transcended “nerd culture” and become firmly entrenched in sports. The film series is the most popular pop-culture theme night at both the major- and minor-league levels of baseball.

Of MLB’s 30 teams, 26 are conducting a “Star Wars”-themed game this year, with several actually hosting full “Star Wars” weekends. All 30 clubs have hosted a “Star Wars” game at some point in the last decade.

Common themes at these games include “Star Wars” music, videos of lightsaber duels, bobblehead giveaways and most importantly costumers dressed in lavish “Star Wars” garb for photo opportunities with fans and players. A spokesperson from Lucasfilm called the fan group members the "backbone" of these events, helping the galaxy’s most famous space opera come to life on a baseball diamond.

“For me and for this organization, it's really about, you know, getting to make special connections with our fans,” Greene said. “I knew it'd be successful. But it took actually kind of seeing it in person, and just seeing just how much joy it brought to the fans ... to realize we really had something here.”

But while the “Star Wars” franchise is nearly 50 years old, “Star Wars” baseball games are still young.

For nearly 20 years, "Star Wars" characters have been right at home in pro ballparks. (Credit: Getty Images)
For nearly 20 years, "Star Wars" characters have been right at home in pro ballparks. (Credit: Getty Images)

A not so long time ago in this galaxy ...

Origins of the first “Star Wars” night are moderately murky.

Two different minor-league clubs claim to have hosted the initial “Star Wars” game, and in ways, both are right.

The Lake Elsinore Storm, the Single-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, debuted “Storm Wars” on May 19, 2005, the same day “Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” hit theaters.

An eight-minute short film ran between innings, and the team distributed 1,000 figurines of its mascot, Thunder, dressed as Darth Vader. The video depicted Thunder and the team’s other mascot, Jack Pot, in a lightsaber duel against what the Storm’s 2005 press release called “an evil fun-hating villain”. The Storm did not respond to several requests for comment.

Brent Ashcroft is a television reporter in western Michigan, just over 2,000 miles away from Lake Elsinore, California. Ashcroft is also a member of the Great Lakes Garrison, a sect of the 501st Legion. The 501st is an international costuming organization dedicated to celebrating “Star Wars” and its members specifically portray the Dark Side or “morally ambiguous," as detailed on their website.

There is also a Rebel Legion, which represents the forces of good. If you’ve ever been to a “Star Wars” theme night, you’ve likely seen members from both legions, as they supply volunteers to events donned in “Star Wars” garb, such as baseball games where a fan might see Darth Vader or stormtroopers. Every region of the U.S. has a legion, and Ashcroft’s garrison represents Michigan.

In 2006, Ashcroft was the sports director at WXMI in Grand Rapids. His wife, Lori, worked for the West Michigan Whitecaps, where she still works today. Through Lori, Brent had a strong relationship with the Whitecaps’ front office.

Ashcroft suggested to Mickey Graham, the team’s director of marketing and media at the time, that the team add a “Star Wars” night to the calendar. Graham agreed, and the club's “Star Wars” night was born that same summer.

Troopers from the 501st filled the stadium. Fans of any age could pay $4 or $5 for a photo taken with a costumer, such as Darth Vader, and all the money would be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Ashcroft coordinated a plan with Lucasfilm, founded by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. And everything was a go.

The night was an overwhelming success. Ashcroft believes the team raised approximately $5,000 for Make-A-Wish, and the team itself saw a huge spike in revenue. Fans flooded the concessions stands and bought merchandise.

For the West Michigan Whitecaps, "Star Wars" nights remain a top draw. (Credit: West Michigan Whitecaps)
For the West Michigan Whitecaps, "Star Wars" nights remain a top draw. (Credit: West Michigan Whitecaps)

Ashcroft then took the idea to the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. After that, he began getting inundated with calls from all over the country.

“I’m thinking, ‘Woah, people way out west are interested in doing this’”, Lori Ashcroft said. ‘“And they’re calling Brent to talk about setting it up.’ I didn’t think it would turn into this.”

While the Storm might have been the first to implement the theme, the Whitecaps, who never knew about Lake Elsinore’s 2005 promo until speaking with cllct, were the first Lucasfilm-approved minor-league promotion to combine baseball with screen-accurate characters. They ignited the proverbial flame that continues to spread.

Several other minor-league teams cited the Whitecaps as being the ones who either inspired them to begin “Star Wars” nights, or assisted them in helping create their own nights.

One of those teams is the Buffalo Bisons, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Bisons build up their “Star Wars" nights as enthusiastically as anyone in the country, going as far as using a life-size Jabba the Hutt costume and Han Solo in carbonite.

Anthony Sprague, the Bisons general manager who has worked for the team since 2003, brought “Star Wars” night to Buffalo and credits the Whitecaps for helping him get started.

“The best ideas are shared,” Graham said. “It's not a competition. It's cooperation.”

The collaboration is a unique ingredient of minor-league baseball. And it’s one that is based in the structure of baseball from the majors down to Single-A. Many big-league clubs draw sellout crowds just on baseball alone. But that isn’t the case in the minors, where teams constantly administer new concepts in attempts to draw fans to the ballpark.

And now, for nearly 20 years, “Star Wars” has spearheaded boosting attendance.

“When I see the “Star Wars” date on the calendar," Lori Ashcroft said. “I know that that's going to be our biggest sales night of the year.”

“God, if I could have only figured out a way to monetize this thing,” Brent Ashcroft added jokingly.

A hit with fans and players alike

In 2010, the Bisons hosted their third annual “Star Wars” night. The event had seen marginal success in the previous two iterations and co-workers quipped that the promotion would never work.

On the surface, the third edition appeared doomed from the start. Fierce rain pelted the field, and the Bisons were unsure if the actual baseball game could finish, let alone a postgame duel.

It was the perfect opportunity to head home and escape what Sprague called “a miserable night." Yet, the crowd of “about 8,000” held firm. Nearly everyone stayed to watch the “Star Wars” performance.

“I saw it grow up right in front of my eyes,” Sprague said. “It went from an ‘OK’ event to everyone believing it was going to be one of our best.”

In 2011, the Bisons sold out “Star Wars” night, more than doubling their 2010 attendance. Since then, they have raised well over $100,000 for charity. And they’re not alone.

“When we have ‘Star Wars’ night,” said Ben Love, the Whitecaps’ promotions and fan entertainment manager, “we can be the best team in the country, or we could be the absolute worst team in the country. But we're still gonna have 10,000 people show up and they're gonna be jacked up for Star Wars.”

In the same way that MLB uses the minor leagues to test potential rule changes, the majors also copy successful promotion nights. By 2012, several teams across MLB began orchestrating their own “Star Wars” nights, each with their own quirky flavor.

The New York Yankees for example, who are hosting their “Star Wars” day Saturday, station stormtroopers outside the owner’s box, similar to how stormtroopers in the movies would guard Emperor Palpatine. The team also will use custom “Star Wars”-themed player photos on the scoreboard.

The league has also seen a tremendous response from individual players, which several team marketing personnel told cllct, is the ultimate win.

Former Yankees All-Star pitcher CC Sabathia was one of the league’s biggest “Star Wars” fans, telling starwars.com in 2018 that he watches the entire saga every offseason. When New York immortalized Sabathia during his final season in 2019 with a “Star Wars” bobblehead giveaway, the 6-foot-6 lefty pitcher dressed up as his favorite character, the 2-foot-2 Yoda, to hand out his bobbleheads to fans.

When Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle received his own bobblehead in 2019 that read “Obi-Sean Kenobi”, he called it one of the “highlights of his career”.

Sabathia and Doolittle are notable examples of “Star Wars” fans capable of capturing all the recognition on these themed event days. Oftentimes though, especially at the minor-league level, the attention drifts to the costumers.

“One of the massive thrills of being able to dress up as these characters is you do become the center of attention,” said Justin Sonfield, the Legion Commanding Officer of the 501st. “You get a cool rock-star sense of self.”

Lucasfilm reportedly doesn't charge any of the baseball teams to use its characters or properties. (Credit: Getty Images)
Lucasfilm reportedly doesn't charge any of the baseball teams to use its characters or properties. (Credit: Getty Images)

Feel-good nostalgia for a great price tag

After “Star Wars'” 26 feature nights across MLB this season, the next closest pop culture theme night is “Harry Potter” with 14 appearances. No other night has more than 10. Why? Why does “Star Wars” tower so high over any other franchise?

There are a few answers to that question.

The first is the passion across multiple generations.

“It's the one promotion,” Love said, “where you can see grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, and little kids dressed up all three across the board, and everybody is happy and excited about it.”

When Greene thinks back to the moment of his son, Max, throwing out the first pitch as Luke Skywalker, nostalgia and family come to the forefront.

“I remember going and seeing ("Star Wars") for the first time with my dad, and I remember going into a ballgame with my parents for the first time,” Greene said. "Getting to do that now with my kids and share my love of the game and share my love of "Star Wars" with them and see them become fans of both, has really been rewarding."

Unlike some more recent phenomena, “Star Wars” is nearing 50 years old, and the franchise is still making new content. The parent showing their child the original “Star Wars” from 1977 can also watch new episodes of “Star Wars” programming from 2024 with their child.

“There's this nostalgia, this memory of what it was like to watch these movies, and to see the characters kind of come to life in real life,” Sonfield said. “You wield a power to help make people happy, to help them connect to their youth. That’s the best part.”

And while nostalgia and sentiment are prominent factors, another, and perhaps more important, is cost.

According to several minor-league and major-league clubs, Lucasfilm does not charge a licensing fee for teams to use “Star Wars” name, image and likeness for their promotions. This is especially important for minor-league teams.

“We don't have the same budget that a Major League Baseball team does,” Love said. “So, when we're weighing our options on what we can do ... Cost is a huge, huge factor for us.”

“They were ultimately the reason why it was successful,” Graham added. “They embraced it and understood it right away.”

The symbiotic partnership between Major League Baseball and Lucasfilm has been more than fruitful. Baseball clubs can perform top-notch cost-effective theme nights while also providing free promotion for Lucasfilm, all in an effort to create a unique fan experience.

“The teams and the league have been great to collaborate with," a Lucasfilm spokesperson told cllct. “There's a mutual respect in that we trust them in understanding what their fans want, and they trust us to guide them around what would make it a fun, authentic experience for ours.”

Calling all stormtroopers

When Brent Ashcroft pitched the “Star Wars” game to the Whitecaps in 2006, no one around the organization knew what it would become. When he first learned the Tigers were implementing it over a decade ago, he almost didn’t believe it was true.

“Are you freaking kidding me,” he said at the time. “I went to Tigers games my whole life in Detroit. There was never a theme game."

But what was once a cause for celebration, is now cause for concern. The stress is mounting this spring for Ashcroft.

“Star Wars” games have become so popular that three different baseball teams in Michigan — the Detroit Tigers, Great Lakes Loons and West Michigan Whitecaps — are all hosting their “Star Wars” games on the same night. All three games will be in search of volunteers from the Great Lakes Garrison, the troop from the 501st Legion, and Ashcroft doesn’t know if the unit will have enough support for the demand.

“It's a crisis situation, my friend,” Ashcroft said only half-joking. “We need help from Ohio and Indiana immediately.”

Matt Liberman is a reporter and video producer for cllct.