Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pitcher Spalding built sporting goods career

A.G. Spalding
Albert G. Spalding was already a star baseball pitcher for the Boston Red Stockings when baseball pioneer William Hulbert quietly approached him to switch to the Chicago White Stockings and to help form the organization that would become the National League.

Spalding signed to play with Chicago in 1876, and led his team to the NL’s first championship. He also started a sporting goods store with his brother and the following year started wearing a glove on his catching hand. It was just like the ones he and his brother happened to have for sale in their store.

That was the beginning of a sporting goods empire that continues today, for A.G. Spalding turned out to be a star entrepreneur as well as baseball champ. He promoted baseball and sporting goods on a trip with Major League players around the world. Under contract with the NL, he published the first official rules and regulations for baseball, which included a statement that only Spalding balls could be used for official games. Then he started publishing Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide, which wasn’t official at all but quickly became the most widely read baseball periodical.

Spalding’s success in sporting goods continued throughout his life. In 1911, long after his baseball career had ended, Spalding published America’s National Game, a history of the game that contributed to that success. Naturally, he offered the book for sale in his annual sport goods catalog. A copy of the 1914 catalog is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

The catalog is a testament to the sprawling Spalding sport goods enterprise, featuring pages devoted to football, basketball, ice skating, sledding, weightlifting, Indian clubs, boxing, and, of course, baseball.

Here you’ll find footballs that seem oddly round by today’s standards, those black leather helmets you might remember seeing on Ronald Reagan and Pat O’Brien in Knute Rockne, All American, the megaphones that were required equipment for cheerleaders of the era, and much more.

Spalding didn’t miss the opportunity for ancillary products for sports fans. There is an array of sporting caps and pennants to choose from as well.

Spalding knew Americans weren’t going to confine themselves to the major sports of the day. He offered toboggans, dumb bells and exercise equipment for a country just beginning to become concerned with fitness.

Spalding was once so well known throughout the country that the Boston Herald was moved to write in 1900:

“Next to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the name of A.G. Spalding is the most famous in American literature. It has been blazing forth on the cover of guides to all sorts of sports, upon bats and gloves. . . for many years. Young America gets its knowledge of the past in the world of athletics from something that has "Al Spalding" on it in big black letters, and for that reason, as much as any other, he is one of the national figures of our times.”

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