ONLY THE GAME REMAINS THE SAME
It all began in a pool parlor. In the 1860s billiards became so popular that $10,000 was offered for the invention of an inexpensive substitute for the ivory then used in billiard balls. A young printer, John Wesley Hyatt, won the prize when he produced celluloid, the first plastic, and started a test-tube revolution that, a century later, has changed the look, the safety and the performance potential of almost every game that Americans play. The extent of the change is demonstrated by the young athletes in the picture at right. The fiber-glass vaulting pole, breaker of records, may have caused the most controversy, but it is a minor revolutionary compared to fiberglass boats, such as Alcort's Catfish, and such lightweight protection for the playing field as plastic shoulder pads, helmets, catcher's masks and shin guards. Almost all sails made in the U.S. and almost all team uniforms are of quick-drying nylon, Dacron or a sibling synthetic. The uniforms are not only machine-washable but light in weight—Stephani Cook is wearing a nylon tank suit that weighs about four ounces. Richard Meek photographed the colorful revolutionaries on the following pages, and Liz Smith examines their influence on American sport beginning on page 37.
Sarasota Outfielder Bill Melton lay unconscious, struck on his fiber-glass batting helmet by Miami Marlin Pitcher Bill Burnette's fast ball. The next night Melton hit home runs in the seventh and ninth innings, and Marlin Manager Bill Durney said, "Last night we beat his brains out; tonight he's beating out ours. If it weren't for the helmet, that guy would be in a hospital bed."
Australia's Roy Emerson walked into the shower in his nylon and Terylene tennis clothes. He soaped them down and rinsed them off before removing them in order to wash himself.
September 26, 1965
In Kansas City, Harold Ensley, who has fished at least 2,400 days out of the past 12 years, cast a nylon monofilament line so transparent that it threw no shadow. He casually removed a plastic bait from his pocket—no minnow bucket, no hands in water.
Gary Player swung his fiber-glass clubs well enough to win the U.S. Open at St. Louis, thus opening the $210-million-a-year golf-equipment industry to a mad controversy over the merits and demerits of glass vs. steel shafts.
Off the New Jersey shore, three men in a motorboat tossed plastic fronds of seaweed overboard in an experiment to stop shore erosion and give fish sheltered feeding areas.
Outfielder Lucy asked Baseball Manager Charlie Brown in an August Peanuts comic strip, "How come we don't have plastic grass?" and Charlie did a slow burn as usual.
What these situations have in common is a role in a revolution that is changing the game. Almost any game. When contestants from 23 nations at the recent world championship archery contest in Sweden used fiber-glass, Dacron and plastic archery equipment, records went splat quicker than William Tell's apple. The famous (or infamous, depending on whether one is a revolutionary or a conservative) fiber-glass vaulting poles have marked their course with shattered world records. Swimming records tumble even faster, thanks to the four-ounce nylon suit that has replaced the old pound and a half of wet wool. The list seems endless.
It would, in fact, be easier to tell of the few sports and leisure activities left uninvaded by fiber-glass-reinforced plastics, acrylics, cellulosics, nylon, phenolics, vinyls, amino plastics and those famous poly sisters—ethylene, styrene, ester and vinyl-chloride. The crack of hickory on horsehide, the creak of good leather, the flap of canvas, the ping of taut gut, the snap of pigskin are the traditional sounds of sport, but synthetics are ringing fast changes and the traditionalists are, naturally, horrified. Snorts one reactionary at the New York Yacht Club, "I simply don't think that synthetic items age as handsomely as natural things like wood and leather." A few fishermen, up to their hip boots in the rising tide of fiber glass, will still give all for the incomparable feel of tonkin bamboo, lovingly floated down streams, tediously dried, put through an elaborate gluing process and cared for fragilely ever after. Badminton Brahmins shake their heads, recalling the good old days when a shuttlecock sometimes lasted for only one serve but was "a true bird."
These purists, however, are fighting a losing battle. In some sports, synthetics have made inroads of up to 80% or 90%. Boating experienced its boom precisely because synthetics placed easy-to-care-for, all-but-indestructible fiber-glass boats, Dacron sails and plastic water gear within the reach of a new group of Americans—those millions with approximately 4,000 free hours a year for fun and games. Sixty-five million pounds, 20% of the overall volume, of fiber glass were sold to pleasure-boat manufacturers in 1964.
The advantages of fiber glass as a boatbuilding material are almost endless. Besides being impervious to rot and the other afflictions of wood, it has opened the door to variations and refinements of design and manufacture either impossible or prohibitively expensive with other materials.
Ocean Racer Bruce Kirby says Dacron changed sailmaking "from 90% art and 10% science to 10% art and 90% science." According to Kirby, racers discovered that Dacron would stretch but would also return to its original shape. "The result has been a degree of sail control undreamed of a few years ago."
Surfing, or at least today's unprecedented popularity, was created by the new lightweight boards so easily handled by men, women and children. The urethane-foam surfboard weighs 30 pounds, 80 pounds less than the big wooden boards of Duke Kahanamoku's day.
The fiber-glass vaulting pole, which spread the heat and light of its controversy over other track and field events, was not track's only synthetic innovation. Padded lightweight hurdles and featherweight track shoes, regulation batons of plastic, plastic-coated shots and discuses are all a part of every school's equipment. There are also new synthetic tracks and courts of Tartan and Neo-Turf that give a faster, surer, more uniform surface, require no maintenance, resist dirt and scars and have equal resilience in all temperatures. Placed indoors under synthetic domes, these artificial floors are producing a new generation of athletes who can train in all seasons, undeterred by mud, sleet and snow. Tartan tracks are also being used for horse racing and trotting.
Warm in their neoprene wet suits, hundreds of otherwise nonheroic citizens are taking up scuba and skin diving. "The wet suit has turned sissies into tigers," says Diver Lamar Boren.
Thanks to synthetics, today's football players are wearing five pounds less armor. Synthetics do not absorb moisture and are used in hip and thigh pads, shoulder pads, cleats and uniforms. As University of Pittsburgh Trainer Howard Waite avows, "Football players love all this new equipment, and it gives them great confidence."
Only the protective football helmet, which takes a continuous pounding and is hard to fit, has turned out to be the Frankenstein's monster of synthetics. Many professionals argue that, more than any other factor, it has changed the nature of the game. While some say it reduces injuries, others argue that it causes them. Boston Sporting Goods Dealer John (Bucky) Warren points out: "Many of the plastic innovations in equipment have led to the use of other pieces of equipment. Football went for the plastic helmet because it was light. But what happened? Suddenly there was a rash of facial injuries. To guard against this, the face mask was devised." Now some equipment managers, such as Stanford's Jake Irwin, advocate letting football be more like Rugby. "Those guys wear no protective equipment," says Irwin. "Know why? Because the other team wears none either."
When the equipment-makers of a sport turn to synthetics, you can be fairly sure one reason is that they have discovered enough potential for sales to warrant expensive testing and manufacture. This explains why many "prestige" sports have held out against synthetics. The horse world, for instance, is still associated with a moneyed upper class and does not have enough consumers to attract synthetics manufacturers to any great degree.
If you walk into a conservative but well-known horse supplier, such as M.J. Knoud on New York's Madison Avenue, the delicious smell of good expensive leather definitely produces an ambience of one-upmanship to shopping. Owner David Wright claims, "People like the flexibility and adjustability of leather and canvas. There is a certain feel to leather you can't get in any other substance. You know that a saddle will shape to your own knee pocket if you use it often. There is nothing like leather on leather." However, some members of the horse world are testing plastic products right now, unbeknown to themselves. Numbers of saddles made of Du Pont's Corfam are being used by riders who think they are sitting on real leather. Corfam is also gaining popular acceptance in golf shoes. The synthetic leather is apparently unaffected by moisture, weighs up to a third less than leather, keeps its luster or nap with a wipe of a damp cloth, retains its flexible shape throughout the life of the shoe and does not have to be broken in. Bowling, track and ski footwear is also being made up in Corfam.
The U.S. Volleyball Association teams still prefer leather for tournaments because, according to a USVBA official, "the synthetic rubber ball, O.K. for playgrounds, stings your hand." Many football teams use synthetic rubber for practice but hang onto the pigskin for actual play ("Our backs are used to leather and that's the way it's going to stay," says a coach in the Philadelphia area). In Australia former Davis Cup Tennis Star Adrian Quist considers man-made materials an intrusion. "Synthetics do not give the feel of timber to hands. Ash frames of tennis rackets, the persimmon-headed golf clubs and the willow of cricket bats respond better in an artist's grip than materials from a bottle."
Just as the Oath of the Tennis Court signaled the start of the French Revolution, it may have been an oath over inferior sporting equipment heard on some tennis court or other playing field that began the synthetics race after World War II. The scarcity of traditional materials encouraged the accelerated release of the new man-made syntheses from their laboratory test tubes. Basically, a synthetic is any material that is either partially or completely made from chemicals. Lawrence Lessing summed it up in a Fortune article: "Nylon was the first wholly synthetic fiber, hit upon when Du Pont discovered that certain novel chemicals could be linked together in long-chain molecules that simulated the structure of natural fibers without exactly duplicating them—a basic discovery from which has flowed all the variety of synthetic fibers to date."
The companies in the U.S. manufacturing the bulk of synthetics that go into sporting goods spend a lot of time in never-ending patent protests and invention squabbles with one another. As a result, they usually give their synthetic brainchildren a variety of unpronounceable, pseudoscientific or elided names. Dow makes Ethafoam, which is expanded polyethylene and goes into everything from water-ski belts to kickboards. There are 16 to 18 inches of Ethafoam around the top of the right-field wall at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field to protect accident-prone Roberto Clemente when the Pirate outfielder leaps for a fly. Owens-Corning Fiberglas dominates the glass-fiber field almost to the point of owning it, and fiber glass has spun out its filaments everywhere into the world of sports. Entire boat docks and marinas are being made from it. Guns, plastic shells, synthetic ski slopes, neoprene skin-diving suits and waterproof ground covers originate in Du Pont's test tubes. (The ground covers are so light that two men can uncover a playing field by winding the cloth onto an aluminum drum instead of calling out the volunteer fire department for help.) Allied Chemical is busy with colorful nylon golf-club heads, and myriad other companies create plastic snow, steam cabinets, aerial gondolas and all kinds of balls. Baseballs remain inviolate. They are still made of horsehide, hand-sewn.
If that last fact fills you with secret joy, you are merely one of the many who long for the good old days. There are those who, yearning for the wooden tranquillity of the Booth Tarkington era, still distrust synthetics, and plastic in particular. Parents have been furious since World War II because plastic toys break so easily. But, as one manufacturer says, "in the good applications the consumer doesn't even recognize the synthetic. It's only when it breaks that he says, 'Sure, plastic, whadya expect?' " The tidal wave of synthetics is not to be rolled back. For one thing, nature's own supplies are exhaustible. By 1983 the demand for leather will have outstripped supply by 30%. At that time we will be thankful for synthetic leathers.
Nowhere is the synthetic revolution apt to have a more lasting or telling impact on the shape of things to come and the economic future than in current efforts to break automotive manufacture out of the hard, fast clutch of the steel furnace and into the synthetic mold. The only really well-known fiber-glass car bodies to date are Corvette's Sting Ray, Studebaker's Avanti, and the classic Thunderbird tonneau. But now the newly recreated Cord is coming on the market with a synthetic body made of Royalex plastic from the U.S. Rubber Co. Borg-Warner's Marbon Chemical Division is making both car buffs and economists sit up and take notice with a breakthrough in auto fabrication by its handsome ABS thermoplastic racing car. It is cast in about half an hour in two complete pieces of Cycolac—the same material used in telephones—at a much lower cost than steel. Since Borg-Warner is not interested in going into the car-manufacturing business, it may safely be assumed that it has discovered, like Du Pont and Dow and Owens-Corning and all the rest of the titans of the test tube, that sport is the most favorable showcase for its product and that acceptance on the playing field will one day change "synthetic" from a word meaning "substitute" to one meaning "superior." Hand me my Corfams and my No. 1 nylon. That day is already here.
WHAT'S WHAT IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS
The fiber-glass vaulting pole held by Buzz Congram is made by Browning Silafiex. Joseph O'Donnell wears a chest pad made by Rawlings. It is filled with resilient padding—Dow Chemical's Ethafoam. His polyethylene leg guards are by Spalding; his mask of Mobay Chemical's Merlon polycarbonate is made by MacGregor.
The Jayfro tennis net is of nylon with vinyl tapes. The court is of Neo-Turf, a vinyl grass made by American Biltrite Rubber Co. The all-weather, slip-resistant runway is made of Three M's Tartan, a compound of synthetic resins. Quarterback George Furey's shoulder pads are of plastic, backed by vinyl foam. His shoes have cleats of Merlon. Both the shoes and the pads are made by John T. Riddell, Inc. The helmet is of Cycolac by MacGregor. Stephani Cook wears a tank suit of nylon, made by White Stag Speedo. The hull of the Alcort catamaran is fiber glass; the sail is Dacron.
On the second color page the fishing line of Du Pont's nylon monofilament is fluorescent yellow. Gudebrod makes the nylon fly line. The reel, made by the L & S Bait Co., will not corrode—it is made of Lexan, G.E.'s polycarbonate. The fishing rods are all of fiber glass. The trolling rod is made by Browning Silaflex, the white fly rod by Shakespeare and the yellow spinning rod by Spinmaster. The lures from Atom, Creek Chub, Heddon, Helin, L & S Bait, and Phillips are plastic.
The golf ball by Lander Products is of a Phillips Petroleum synthetic elastomer and is cut-proof. The practice mat is of polyethylene grass by the O'Sullivan Rubber Corp. The heads of the putters and the "woods" are made of nylon. Nyloncraft, the maker, gives each club head a lifetime guarantee. The golfer's shoes by Johnston & Murphy and bag are made of Du Pont Corfam.
The bowling balls are made of Du Pont Lucite. Wondercraft makes them in seven colors. The AMF pins are of maple sealed with a shell of woven nylon.
In the photograph facing page 37, plastic bristles form a practice ski slope. It is made by S. A. Felton. The boots worn by Sunny Bippus are molded of Scotchply, Three M's epoxy fiber glass, by Rosemount. Unlike leather versions, the boots will not stretch. Northland's new ski, like the boot, is made of Scotchply, but it is molded around a core of hickory and ash. The bottoms are soled with P-Tex, a plastic wax that lasts as long as the ski. The Cortina ski poles have fiber-glass shafts.
The sports car on page 38 is designed by Dann Deaver and made of Cycolac. The fiber-glass helmet and plastic shield worn by Driver Forbes Howard are made by Bell-Toptex. His coveralls are woven of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Beta fabric.