PROFILE: Honest pitches make Appel a major-league PR player

Marty Appel got his first PR job simply by writing a letter, though it landed him with the Yankees. He's since written 16 books, and tells Gideon Fidelzeid about baseball, being laid off, and starting his own firm.

Marty Appel got his first PR job simply by writing a letter, though it landed him with the Yankees. He's since written 16 books, and tells Gideon Fidelzeid about baseball, being laid off, and starting his own firm.

"I still feel like a young man in this business," says 55-year-old Marty Appel, founder and president of Marty Appel Public Relations in New York. Quite a remark from a 35-year PR veteran. And it all began with an innocent letter. In 1967, Appel, then a student and editor-in-chief of the school paper at SUNY-Oneonta, sought a summer job. He wrote a letter to Bob Fishel, PR director for the New York Yankees, and as luck had it, Fishel needed help. So Appel's first PR job was handling Mickey Mantle's fan mail. Dealing with superstars like the Mick and Reggie Jackson, Appel soon saw the benefits and pratfalls of handling PR for media magnets. Pro sports teams have long been among the few corporate entities to get daily press coverage. "I rarely had to make a call," explains Appel. "In fact, my best work was keeping stories out of the press. But I didn't always succeed." Case in point, spring training 1973. George Steinbrenner - "a shrewd PR mind who knows how to work the media," Appel notes - had just bought the team. The preseason wasn't the media circus it is today. As such, only five beat reporters were sent to Florida to cover the team. The ho-hum atmosphere was jolted by players Frits Peterson and Mike Kekich, who decided to swap wives - a scandal the nascent owner didn't need. Appel was instructed to keep it quiet. He got four of the five beat writers to agree, and it was hoped that the fifth, Sheila Moran from the New York Post, wouldn't discover the story. Of course, she did. All bets were off. The other writers couldn't allow themselves to be scooped. The story made the front pages of all the local papers, and Appel had learned a valuable lesson. "In sports PR, there's no such thing as a player's personal life," he admits. "My biggest problem was that I had the naivete to think there was such a thing." Appel's decade-long stint with the Bronx Bombers did more than provide the foundation for a PR career. It also provided great fodder for Now Pitching For The Yankees, one of 16 books the Brooklyn native has penned. The next chapters in Appel's career included stints in the baseball commissioner's office; WPIX-TV, where he was PR director and executive producer for Yankee telecasts (for which he won an Emmy); the Atlanta Olympic Games Committee; and the head PR job at Topps, the trading-card company. Unfortunately, after four years with Topps, the trading-card market had bottomed out, and Topps had to lay off 58 people, including the entire PR staff. "I had to announce my own layoff," Appel recalls with a chuckle. This setback prompted Appel to consider opening his own firm. Topps still respected his work, so he asked if the company would work with him on a freelance basis. Topps agreed, arming Appel with his first major client. In the five years since his emponymous shop opened, Appel has counseled numerous sports companies. In many ways, however, he's most satisfied with his work for non-sports clients such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, JPMorgan Chase, and the New York City Health & Hospitals Corporation (HHC). "The variety of going from a baseball client to a health client to a financial client - all in the course of one day - reinvigorates me." Appel's name recognition certainly hasn't hurt. "Because of the attention gained for anyone who works for the Yankees, I can often call health reporters on a matter involving the HHC, and they recognize me from the Yankees," says Appel. "Baseball is a great ice-breaker. People love to talk about it." Bill Goff, founder of Good Sports Art (GSA), a Kent, CT-based publisher and marketer of limited-edition sports lithographs and posters, marvels at Appel's relationship-building ability. "He seems to know everybody," says Goff. "And beyond his PR acumen, he is also a valued business consultant." Goff recalls how Appel, who's worked with GSA since its 1987 opening, used his networking skills to bring GSA together with the Players Association - a union that has proven both a PR and financial boon for Goff. The media equally respects Appel. "His honesty is legendary with the press," says Jerry Schmetterer, director of public information for the Brooklyn DA's office. "The media knows that with Marty you aren't getting any hyperbole about a client." Like the industry itself, Appel has seen much change over the years. "When I began with the Yankees, my job was to call every reporter to inform them of a rainout," recalls Appel. "This was the day of no e-mail, no answering machines, and rotary phones. If I got a busy signal, I had to call again. Sometimes it felt as if I were still calling while the make-up game was being played." When asked for other sports PR evolutions, Appel quickly asserts, "There's a much greater attempt to control access now." He points to the NFL and its creation of the post-game press conference. Before that, the press would enter the clubhouse after games. Now the teams take greater command of the post-game environment. As long as teams avail their players, Appel considers this a good development. In fact, Fishel, who Appel calls his mentor, laments not having come up with the press-conference idea during 1961, the year Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home-run record. As recently chronicled in the HBO film 61* (on which Appel consulted), the media hounded Maris mercilessly, and Fishel harbors deep regrets about that. In fact, the media's relationship with PR pros is still an area in which more progress is needed, opines Appel. "Most in the media now understand that PR pros bring so many unique talents to the table," Appel says. "Sadly, there are still reporters who just want to get me off the phone expediently." Thirty-five years, 16 books, an Emmy, and a slew of impressive PR jobs later, Appel, not to mention his clients, is only glad that Fishel didn't react to his initial correspondence that way. ----- Marty Appel 1998-present Marty Appel Public Relations, president 1994-1998 The Topps Company, PR director 1992-1993 Atlanta Olympic Games Committee, VP, PR 1981-1992 WPIX-TV, PR director; Executive producer, Yankee telecasts 1978-1980 Baseball Commissioner's Office, PR dept. 1977-1978 Garagiola-Appel Enterprises, Inc., 1968-1977 New York Yankees, various roles, PR dept.

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