Building the culture of brawn

Sun Journal

Weightlifting: Shortly after World War I, Bob Hoffman launched York Barbell and with it a 50-year run as a leading purveyor of strength and conditioning equipment.

August 06, 1999|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. -- The Colossus of Rhodes was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. More than 100 feet high, the effigy of Helios the sun god stood for decades overlooking the harbor of the Greek island. But chances are, more people have seen the colossus of York.

That's the well-muscled fellow hoisting iron and revolving on a pedestal hard by Exit 11 of Interstate 83. The minicolossus rises maybe 40 feet into the air and draws the attention of speeding motorists to York Barbell Co. Inc.

For nearly a half-century, York reigned as the U.S. capital of weightlifting, largely because of the will, business acumen and ego of Bob Hoffman. No, he's not the model for the revolving statue, but the founder of York Barbell did as much as anyone to popularize all things dealing with strength and health, becoming one of the pioneers in the marketing of barbells, strength-training products and health foods.

It's all documented in a just-published book entitled "Muscletown USA -- Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of York Barbell." Author and college professor John D. Fair presents a detailed picture of an industry that pretty much started in this Pennsylvania town.

Hoffman, who died in 1985 at age 86, was born in a small town in Georgia and grew up in Pittsburgh. He was a fine athlete -- but a beanpole. At 15, he stood 6 feet 3 inches and weighed 150 pounds.

Once he began adding some muscle, he found his vocation. He once captured the national heavyweight lifting title and laid claim to being the "world's strongest man" -- although the truth is, he was the only competitor in the weight classification that year.

That was Bob. Years later, he billed himself as the "world's champion polka dancer" -- after dancing through the night. And he claimed to have garnered more combat medals than the celebrated Sergeant York during World War I. The way Hoffman counted it, his exploits in the Argonne Forest won him a battlefield commission, plus the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, four Croix de Guerres, the Purple Heart and the top medals awarded by Italy, Belgium and France.

After the war, Hoffman settled in York and started York Oil Burner Co. The company had an athletic club, and Hoffman began producing and selling barbells as well as heating equipment. Then he dumped the burners and became York Barbell Co.

Nearby was a foundry, where men working with cast iron were naturally drawn to feats of strength. Once Hoffman began recruiting, his weightlifting team took off.

The York weightlifters were so good that one year they captured all six weight classifications at the U.S. championships. Tony Terlazzo became the first U.S. Olympic gold medal winner at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles.

Hoffman led the Yorkies as sponsor, coach and sometimes competitor. He gained national prominence promoting Olympic weightlifting, served as an official at three Olympic Games and coached the U.S. world championship team in the early '50s. He served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness under three presidents.

It was no easy job selling weight training in the early days, according to company historian Jan Dellinger. "Coaches and trainers were dead set against using weights, and the medical profession talked it down, too."

The belief was that working with weights would make a person muscle-bound. Muscles are paired on the body, pulling and pushing, raising and lowering, which means they must be balanced. If a pair is unevenly developed, flexibility and even function may be lost, leading for example to brawny biceps on a man who can't reach up to comb his hair.

"My father used to tell me that I'd end up rupturing myself," Dellinger recalls.

Once, at the insistence of the medical profession, the YMCA system in New York City, a huge customer of York Barbell, threatened to remove the weights from its facilities. Hoffman enlisted John Grimek, a two-time Mr. America, member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1936 and mainstay on the York weightlifting team, to put on a demonstration.

"Grimek, a handsome devil with a fantastic body, stood on a chair and flexed and the doctors all said he was muscle-bound," relates Dellinger. "John then bent from the waist and touched his insteps with his elbows. After that and a few other tests of flexibility, Hoffman asked, `Can any of you gentlemen do that?' and the doctors sat there dumbfounded. The weights stayed."

In the middle of the Depression, Hoffman opened a mail-order business. "One thing you had to say about him is he had guts," says Dellinger. He got into publishing in 1932 with Strength & Health magazine and ran the circulation from 4,800 in mid-1934 to 51,333 two years later. He used the magazine to promote the high-protein, soybean-derivative products that he sold in the 1950s -- well ahead of the U.S. health-food craze.

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