Since time immemorial (or, you know, since the 1980s), every holiday season has been blessed/plagued with one “must-have” toy that sends wide-eyed children and eager-to-please parents into hysterics. Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, and Hatchimals have all inspired Christmas shopping frenzies at one time or another. Still, thousands of fads and an untold number of dead Tamagotchis later, one toy remains on top of the wrapping paper-strewn heap: Cabbage Patch Kids.
Yes, during the holiday season of 1983, Cabbage Patch Kids were both insanely popular and incredibly hard to find. How popular were they? They were on the cover of Newsweek, for goodness’ sake. How hard-to-find were they? Behold!
So yeah, people were losing it, Black Friday-style, over these kinda-cute “adoptable” dolls. Opportunities to mess with parents desperate to get their hands and wallets on the things were everywhere. Enter legendary Milwaukee radio personalities Bob Reitman and Gene Mueller.
On November 29, 1983, roughly two dozen people showed up in the frigid parking lot of Milwaukee County Stadium, hoping to get their hands on some Cabbage Patch Kids. Thousands of the rare dolls, these folks believed, would be dropped from a B-29 bomber piloted by a rogue mercenary. All they had to do was stand around with a catcher’s mitt in one hand, and a credit card in the other. The pilot would somehow snap a picture of their credit cards, the Cabbage Patch Kids would fall neatly into their gloves, and their children wouldn’t hate them on Christmas morning. It was brilliant, simple, and, of course, completely absurd.
It was the brilliant, simple, and completely absurd idea of Reitman and Mueller, who, the day before, concocted the story on-air. Here’s a UPI piece from ’83:
Disc jockeys Bob Reitman and Gene Mueller told listeners that 1,500 to 2,000 of the homely, squishy dolls would be dropped over the stadium, home of the Brewers baseball team.
They said would-be doll owners should bring catcher’s mitts and their American Express cards. When the dolls came tumbling down, they said, shoppers were to hold the credit cards up in the air so an aerial photo could be taken of the card number for later billing.
The two announcers said Thursday they thought everyone would know they were just kidding. “We thought we had made it outrageous enough so that people would laugh,” Mueller said.
But two dozen people showed up at the stadium Tuesday, waiting for the drop while gusty winds brought the windchill down to 7 below zero.
“When I heard it on the radio I thought ‘far out.’ I thought some rich guy wanted to give them away,” said one man who wanted a doll for a Christmas gift for his 2-year-old daughter.
“It’s not far-fetched. It could be possible that somebody could do it for a publicity,” the man said.
Like Cabbage Patch Kids themselves, Reitman and Mueller were riding high in 1983, having recently gifted Milwaukee with their bat-shit “Brew Ha Ha” TV special. Following their Cabbage Patch stunt, their station, WKTI-FM (94.5), was flooded with calls.
Still, according to the DJs themselves, it was hardly a planned stunt. “That was lightning in a jar,” Reitman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2006. “That was something we did on the air. We made it up. We did it and we were done with it—went on and did the rest of the show and forgot about it. The phones started ringing around noon, and it ended up being on two of the network news programs, over 100 newspapers all over the world, Sports Illustrated. It was ridiculous, but it was the antidote for the poison that was going around.”
“It was just a throw-away, something stupid we said. It was in the middle of the big Cabbage Patch Kid push, and people were beating each other up to get these dolls. It was the first Friday after Thanksgiving. We just came up with this stupid scenario and that was pretty much it. We didn’t think anything more of it until later in the morning when we started getting some calls from the people at the Brewers, asking what was going on their parking lot? They started to get calls, too. It was a slow news day, and someone wrote something about it in the paper. A couple of TV stations picked up on it, also. Then we’re getting calls from Australia about this thing, and it just went huge.”
Never ones to let a good joke die, Reitman and Mueller—bless their hearts—took things even further. Per UPI:
In another joke—which apparently got no takers—Mueller and Reitman embellished Wednesday’s story with an even more far-fetched angle.
They said a rented barge containing the dolls was anchored eight miles out in Lake Michigan with Popeye aboard. Shoppers were instructed to swim out to the barge with a cans of spinach to exchange for the dolls.
To keep the dolls from getting wet on the return trip, people were told to bring along plastic bags.