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.

Arrangements for a memorial service were incomplete last night.

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.

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."

Much the same story 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 explained. "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.

He sold the racket company to Chesebrough-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.

The younger Mr. Head earned a bachelor's degree in engineering sciences at Harvard University in 1936, dabbled in journalism and motion picture editing for a while and joined the Martin company's engineering department in 1939 as the United States was grooming itself to become the "arsenal of democracy" in the approaching conflict with the Axis powers.

After the war, he left the aircraft company and set up shop in the 1200 block of Morton Street, a byway on the western edge of downtown Baltimore, to use these new materials in the manufacture of light, more maneuverable skies.

His financial resources at the time included $6,000 in poker winnings and some money borrowed from friends.

Thereupon, he and three part-time associates, Frank Kaminski, Pete Myer and Joe Waldych, began the tedious task of making a better ski.

By 1966, the Head Ski Co.'s plant in Timonium was grossing $25 million a year on sales of 300,000 skies in 17 countries.

His successes, he once said, were due in part to surviving failure with composure.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Head is survived by a daughter, Nancy Thode of Greenwich, Conn.; a sister, Jean Cooper of Boerne, Texas; three stepdaughters, Lynn Fritzlen of Vail, Colo., Guerin Olsen of Darien, Conn., and Marla Croke of Telluride, Colo.; and five grandchildren.

The family suggested memorial contributions to Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21202.

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