Howard Head, sports equipment inventor

March 04, 1991

Howard Head, a Baltimore philanthropist who made millions developing a revolutionary, lightweight ski and an oversized tennis racket to improve his performance in both sports, died last night at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 76.

Mr. Head had complications after quadruple bypass surgery last month, and his condition deteriorated rapidly.

He left his body to Hopkins for medical research.

A memorial service will be held in Baltimore later this week.

A design engineer at the Glenn L. Martin Co.'s Middle River aircraft plant during World War II, Mr. Head later turned his engineering skills to sports equipment because of a frustration with his own shortcomings on the ski slopes and the tennis courts.

He also became known for his support of cultural and medical institutions.

He financed entirely the Howard Head Sports Medical Center in Vail, Colo., served as a trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art and was a generous contributor to Center Stage.

Last month, Center Stage dedicated the Head Theater -- three floors above the Pearlstone Theater in its building on North Calvert Street.

Mr. Head and his wife, Martha Becker Fritzlen Head, had recently pledged $1 million to the $13 million campaign for Center Stage.

"There was always a side of him that was artistically sensitive," said Joseph M. Langmead, president emeritus of the Center Stage board of trustees. "He was a catalyst in challenging his fellow board members to rise to the occasion when Center Stage was in dire financial shape."

Mr. Langmead said Mr. Head was the major force behind creation of an endowment for Center Stage in the early 1980s, a unique venture at that time for a regional theater.

"I have been a great admirer, not only of his impact, but of his creative energy," Mr. Langmead said.

"He was very, very interested in anything that concerns people, mentally as well as physically," said Gordon Brittan, president of the Vail Valley Medical Center Foundation, which specializes in orthopedic sports medicine. Head contributed more than $1 million to make the orthopedic wing possible, Mr. Brittan said.

Mr. Head's success and fame in the world of sports were the result, according to his own analysis, of a personal conclusion that his poor athletic performance was the result of inferior equipment rather than meager ability.

"I was humiliated and disgusted by how poorly I skied," he once said, referring to a time in the 1940s when he attempted to navigate the snow-covered hills of Vermont.

Rather than trying to correct his own mistakes, Mr. Head blamed the "clumsy, heavy" wooden skis, as he put it, that "twisted underfoot and were hard to turn."

"Not knowing any better, I assumed I could make a better ski out of aircraft materials than wood. It turned out to be harder than I thought. It took 40 versions before I came up with the ski that would work, and that was three years later."

Head was a tough but inspirational manager, who frequently would bring his staff to the office on weekends, said former employee Ian Ferguson, now Rocky Mountain manager for Ski Magazine.

"The guy was a workaholic, no question about it, brilliant," said Mr. Ferguson. "He had a way of taking the comments of all the good skiers and translating them into what needed to be done."

Head had a love for the sport and maintained close touch with many top skiers, said Mr. Ferguson.

Head's frustration with existing equipment also preceded his development of the oversized Prince tennis racket, which some purists of the sport compared to a snowshoe or spaghetti strainer when it first hit the market.

Mr. Head, a gangling 6 feet 4 inches tall, had taken up tennis at the age of 60.

"I had trouble with the equipment in that I found the racket twisted in my hand on an off-center hit," he said. "And since I couldn't improve my own athletic skills, I set out to design a racket that would be more stable to an off-center hit. After various experiments, the Prince racket emerged."

His racket, while only 20 percent wider than the standard model, had four times the effective hitting space.

John P. Murray, who was president and chief executive officer of Prince when Head was chairman, recalls Head as a demanding personality, who once had six advertising agencies for the company in two years.

"You never knew which way his mind was going to go," Mr. Murray said. "He was always seeking in his mind perfection, which he seldom found in other people."

Head sold the racket company to Cheesebrough-Ponds Inc., maker of beauty aids and deodorants, for $62 million in 1982. In 1971, he had sold his ski company, then the largest in the United States, to AMF Inc., manufacturer of bicycles and a diverse line of other products, for $16 million.

Mr. Head was born in Philadelphia July 31, 1914, the son of Dr. Joseph Head, who held degrees in both medicine and dentistry.

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