Wilson Sporting Goods was incorporated in 1913 as the Ashland Manufacturing Company. The company was originally established to find unique ways of using slaughterhouse byproducts of a nearby meat-packing firm. By 1914, the company was producing such items as tennis racket strings, violin strings, and surgical sutures, and it had expanded into baseball shoes and tennis rackets. In 1915, the company appointed Thomas E. Wilson as president, and from that moment onward nothing was the same. Wilson, a hardheaded businessman who saw the potential of a sporting-goods company, broke away from the parent firm of Sulzberger and Schwarzchild, began to focus exclusively on the manufacture of sporting and athletic equipment, and then named the company after himself in 1916.
Thomas Wilson immediately started to expand the operations of his company by acquiring the Hetzinger Knitting Mills and a small caddie bag company. Hetzinger was purchased for the purpose of producing high-quality athletic uniforms, while the caddie bag company's extensive line of luggage products was reduced to the manufacture of golf bags alone. Basketballs and footballs were also added to the company's rapidly growing list of items for sale. In 1917, the company was so confident in the quality of its product line that it announced a two-year unconditional guarantee on all of its products. During the same year, the company began manufacturing golf clubs and football helmets. Although Thomas Wilson left the company in 1918, no interruption occurred in either the manufacture of its products or the growth of its revenues. By the end of the year, sales reached the $1 million mark, an enormous amount of money for a company that had been in existence for such a short time. The company closed out the decade by acquiring Chicago Sporting Goods Company, a manufacturer of uniforms; by reaching an agreement to supply all the equipment for the Chicago Cubs baseball team; and by hiring Arch Turner, a prominent craftsman in the leather industry. Hiring Turner was prophetic as his innovative designs for the leather football had a profound influence on the development of the game.
The decade of the 1920s was one of the most successful and most innovative periods for the company. In 1922, Wilson introduced the Ray Schalk catcher's mitt, which from that time onward set the standard for design, comfort, and padding within the baseball industry. During the same year, the company established its advisory staff of athletes, with the famous golfer Gene Sarazen as its first member. The most influential member of the advisory staff, however, was the football coach of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne. Rockne worked with Wilson to develop a new double-lined leather football, and the first football that was valve inflated. These two developments were instrumental in helping Rockne to develop the modern passing game in college football. In addition, Rockne and Wilson developed the first waistline football pants with pads that could be removed, thus providing the player with the ability to move more freely. Wilson was also making a major impact in other areas of sports as well, such as the cardboard tube containers for tennis balls that soon became the standard packaging for the industry.
When Knute Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931, Wilson was able to form a close collaboration with Dana X. Bible, the football coach at the University of Nebraska, in an attempt to continue its development of innovative football products. And, although Bible was able to help Wilson develop helmets and shoulder pads, the company was unable to match the degree of influence on the game achieved with Rockne during the 1920s. As a result, company management decided to focus on the game of golf.
In 1932, the company developed the R-90, a sand wedge golf club inspired by Gene Sarazen's victory in the 1932 British Open. That year alone, Wilson sold over 50,000 of the sand wedge clubs. One year later, the company introduced a design that distributed the weight of the club in the toe of the club's head, anticipating the future design of what was to be termed "perimeter weighting." In 1937, Wilson signed the soon-to-be-famous Sam Snead as a member of the firm's advisory committee and introduced the Blue Ridge Golf Clubs, named after the region in Virginia where Snead was born. In 1939, Wilson achieved a major innovation in the design and manufacture of golf clubs with its ability to bond different layers and types of wood together to produce a criss-cross pattern that resulted in more power, better direction, and a longer period of use than previous designs. By the end of the decade, it was evident Wilson had managed its product development so well, and had marketed its items so successfully, that even through the worst years of the Great Depression the company not only survived but prospered.
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