I think I am one of the most modest men around," says Bob Hoffman, the millionaire president of the York (Pa.) Barbell Co., undoubtedly the best-known organization of its kind in the world. "I don't really feel so important, but I do have a reputation as the man who knows more about physical fitness than anyone else. I was born with a desire to be strong. I have even permitted men to place a 150-pound anvil on my stomach and hammer on it with a 15-pound sledge. But I am most renowned as the world's greatest chain-breaker. I have a large chest with little meat on it, and because of this I don't have to worry about the chain cutting me too much. With my amazing chest muscles I have broken chains that lift over 5,000 pounds.
"My first memory in life is of me trying to stand up in bed after I had typhoid," Hoffman continues. "I fell down. I had scarlet fever when I was 3, but at age 4 I ran 100 times around a double tennis court. On my 10th birthday I won a modified marathon. I've always had tremendous endurance, and some of the kids I used to play against would just give up because they knew I would always win. I've been a champion at every sport I've tried, including swimming, weight lifting, golf, handball, football and canoeing. I've won over 600 sports awards."
("When I think back on my childhood," he said a few years ago, "it does not seem possible that today the whole world looks up to me as the most ideal specimen of the human body. It is a great responsibility.")
"Remember, you are talking to the world's healthiest man. I have not been ill in 42 years. The last time I was sick was back in 1919.1 had ptomaine poisoning. I had just got out of the Army and was on my way home. On the train I ate a ham sandwich and that's how I became ill. Before going home I stopped in Pittsburgh to compete in the national canoe championships.
"Even though I was sick I still had such terrific endurance that I was able to win the quarter-mile championship, as well as several other events. One of the others was the canoe-tilting. That's where one man in each canoe tries to knock the other into the water by use of a long pole. I was always pretty smart, and I became champion at this by out-thinking the others. One thing I did was lift dumbbells with my feet so I could stand in the canoe and actually get a better grip with my toes. Another thing I did was chin myself from a bridge and lift a 70-pound canoe with my toes. The paddle and stroke I used were much the same as the Germans used to win with in the last Olympics. I used a scoop paddle and I made a lot of short, fast strokes rather than a few long, slow ones. That helped me win the quarter-mile championship in 1919. I had also won it in 1915, '16 and '17. I was busy in 1918."
Hoffman was busy with World War I. "For 11 days in a row I led the advance patrols in the Argonne Forest. Three times I was the only man to return from patrol. One day I led 17 other men, and one by one they were picked off. I was the only one to make it back. That's why I tell people I am supernaturally lucky. Once I had marks from 12 bullets on my body and uniform and a grenade went off near my face. Another time I captured 38 prisoners singlehanded. I got a lot of medals, including the Belgian Order of Leopold. In some of my early ads I used to have a little write-up about my accomplishments during the war. Joe Weider [Hoffman's archenemy in the muscle field] didn't believe I had won all the medals I mentioned and he demanded an investigation. All it proved was that I had more medals than I even knew about. By the time it was all over I found I had been awarded 11 medals."
The DSC and the Golden Rule
Hoffman does not like to be reminded that a Federal Trade Commission investigation showed that he had never won the Distinguished Service Cross, a claim he also had been making in his advertisements for barbells. Nearly all his life Hoffman has been getting into trouble and making enemies because of things he has said. (Hoffman's defense usually consists of a statement that he lives by the Golden Rule, to which he adds, "Let them take potshots at me. They shot McKinley and Lincoln, and they were both nice guys.")
"It's true that Bob has an awful lot of muscles," says one of his York neighbors, "but it's too bad so many of them are attached to his jaws." On the other hand, it also is true that Bob Hoffman has been largely responsible for U.S. success in weight lifting in the past few decades; indeed, without him this country might never have entered teams in international competition. Hoffman has coached nearly every team we have fielded, including the last four Olympic squads, which won 27 medals. Certainly it is because of his constant lobbying and numerous trips abroad (at his own expense) to promote competition that the world championships were scheduled to be held this summer in Hershey, Pa., just a short drive from York. Hoffman was planning to help pay for the feeding and housing of all participating athletes. A few weeks ago, apparently for political reasons, the championships were shifted to Budapest. Hoffman will pay much of the expense of sending a U.S. team. No recent squad of American weight lifters has competed internationally without substantial support from him.
Hoffman himself still looks and acts like an athlete. He is 6 feet 3, weighs 239 pounds and at 63 he can lift 250 pounds with his right hand; he was 43 when he set the world record of 282 pounds in the one-arm bent press.
It is as the head of seven corporations, including the Aircraft Tool and Engineering Corp., the York Precision Co. and the Swiss Automatic Division that Hoffman makes his money. Although he sold 75,000 sets of barbells last year, he says, "This business is so competitive that it's hard to make any money in it." One of his most profitable sidelines is the sale of food supplements such as Hi-Protein, Energol and Protein-from-the-Sea. He also grows vast quantities of soybeans on farmland near York; these go into the production of some of his special foods.
After World War I Hoffman came to York and joined his brother in the oil-burner business. "We had a swear box at the company," he recalls. "You had to put so much money in the box each time you cursed. When we got enough money together I went down and got a set of barbells for us."
Ads and feuds
Hoffman got the barbells in 1923 and was off on his unique career. In 1932 he began publishing the magazine Strength & Health, the leader in this highly competitive though specialized field. It has never made money (circulation now is about 115,000) but it sells his products. A recent issue contains 21 pages of advertising, 17 of them for Hoffman's own merchandise. Most important, the magazine serves Hoffman as a medium for carrying on his feuds among the weight-lifting and body-building fraternities. Two of the loudest of these have been with Joe Weider and Charles Atlas (SI, July 27, 1959).
The trademark for Atlas' training technique is Dynamic Tension; Hoffman referred to it as Dynamic Hooey. While admitting that Atlas has an imposing set of muscles, Hoffman contended that his rival got them from "a lot of hard work and exercise" and not from any special training method. He wrote in Strength & Health, "Chas. Atlas claims that a physician warned him against walking up stairs when he was 16 years of age.... After 27 years of following his own system of training he can now walk up stairs.... I believe this...." That was about all Hoffman believed.
He took exception to some of Atlas' advertisements, saying, "He cannot run ten miles in an hour and he cannot tow a boat load of hysterical women a distance of one mile against the wind, waves and tide as he claimed to do." Inevitably, the arguments landed in court. There, to disprove an Atlas claim that weight lifters were muscle-bound, Hoffman arranged for one of the most bizarre displays in legal history. He had one of his trainees. Bob Jones, do a handstand in the courtroom. It was not an ordinary handstand. Jones began by conventionally supporting himself on both hands. Then he lifted finger after finger from contact with the floor until he was held erect by only his thumbs. What this or some of the other exhibitions of health and muscle power proved is somewhat obscure, but the judge finally grew tired of the show, suggested that the parties try peaceful coexistence and dismissed the case.
Hoffman's hassle with Weider is still going on and has split most weight lifters and body-builders into two camps, with the weight lifters for Hoffman and the body-builders supporting Weider. (Weight lifters exercise to develop their strength and technique; body-builders to develop beautiful bodies.) After years of squabbling, Weider has instituted an $800,000 libel suit against Hoffman. Part of his complaint concerns a Hoffman editorial in Strength & Health. In it, speaking of Weider, Hoffman said, "A rat is everything that is opposed to goodness, purity, and gentleness; it is debased, filthy, frequently diseased, certainly evil and malicious—yet a rat has friends—at least other rats live and associate with it.... Even the most degraded types of human beings have their friends and associates.... There are humans who are counterparts in every way of the rats.... In our wonderful sport we have a small Hitler, a small Stalin who is a master in all the despicable tactics imaginable...."
Hoffman believes that Weider exploits weight lifters. "They write to us by the score," he says, "and they tell us that they never took his [Weider's] course, never ate a mouthful of his food products, that they have no contact with him, but he goes on making his claims and exploiting them just the same...."
Typical of the Weider camp's rebuttal is an article in Mr. America magazine several years ago called "The Hoffman Expose," which is included in the subject matter of a $2.3 million suit by Hoffman against Weider. In it, Leroy Colbert writes, "There is a self-styled dictator in weight-lifting who has obtained some control in our beloved sport through the slandering scandal sheet he calls a magazine.... Hoffman...has the audacity to imply that bodybuilders are freaks, criminals...[and is] concentrating on a perverted campaign to ruin bodybuilding....
"Fellows whose pictures appeared in Muscle Power and Muscle Builder [Weider publications] stood little chance of placing in the AAU sanctioned contests. Hoffman had brow-beaten the judges...."
Colbert also accused Hoffman of having rigged a Mr. Universe contest, and concluded, "Whoever told this out-of-shape dictator that he has the power to get rid of anything but himself?"
Weider's principal charge is that Hoffman dictates the conduct of weight lifting in this country. He says, "Hoffman thinks that because he spends so much money on the teams that this gives him the right to decide who is going on these trips and who is not going. He has the AAU sewed up and he uses the team as a promotion for his business. He makes the boys wear T shirts advertising his York barbells."
These are not the only charges against Hoffman. On Feb. 4, 1956 New York Daily Mirror Columnist Dan Parker wrote: "My only contact with Hoffman was in an anteroom at Madison Square Garden one night about a dozen years ago when I was...a judge of a 'Mr. America contest.' ...Mr. Hoffman called each judge aside and, in a few ill-advised words, told us we should cast our vote for [his man]." Hoffman's man won the contest, despite Parker's dissenting vote.
"They have accused me of a lot of things," Hoffman says. "I just do what I think is right, and when I think I am right I think I am terribly right. They have even called me a Communist and an anti-Semite. It's unbelievable how these things get started. Once I said that we had to give the Communists credit for their progress in sport. So right away I'm a Commie. Another time a writer slipped an uncomplimentary name for a Jewish person into the magazine. It got by without my seeing it. That's how I became an anti-Semite all of a sudden."
Speaking up about speaking up
"Then there was the Melbourne thing. I was at the Olympics and one day an A.P. reporter came up to me and wanted to know how I thought the team would make out. I told him we had an excellent team but I doubted we would do well because of the officials. Judges from nations that are Communistic or who fear the Commies have to consider that in their judging, and that hurts us. The next thing you know, the story is all over the world. I almost got kicked out of the Olympics. But someone had to talk up. If I hadn't, Paul Anderson would never have won the Olympic heavyweight championship. He fouled on one of his lifts and a lot of people noticed it. That was after I had spoken out, so the officials let it go by. After I spoke up other coaches did, too. Russia is out to enslave us; we have to speak up."
Obviously, speaking up has never been a problem for Hoffman. He seldom stops, either verbally or in writing. He wrote his first book—more than 500 pages—in less than 10 days. In all, he has written 24, including Why Grow Old?, How to Relax, How to Be Strong, Healthy and Happy and The Big Chest Book. But the spoken word is still his favorite means of communication. Since he is also so often the subject, it is hardly surprising that one of his friends has summed up their relationship thus: "I like Bob, but I can't stand him."
Several months ago Hoffman was invited to join a group of AAU officials who were presenting an award to President Kennedy in the White House. Kennedy shook hands around and had a few words to say to everyone. When he got to Hoffman, though, Kennedy was soon on the listening end. Hoffman began expounding on the virtues of isometric contraction as a means for curing the President's aching back. As he spoke, Hoffman went through the motions of some of the exercises: grasping his ankles and pulling up and later pushing with his hands against an imaginary overhead bar. Kennedy listened patiently until Hoffman was through. When Bob Hoffman starts talking, there isn't very much anyone can do.