Mid-century fitness: A baseball player, a Mr. Universe, and plastic weights

SearsWeight

The previous article was an overview of Jack LaLanne’s influence on physical fitness in the mid-century era, and the growing acceptance of exercising with weights. Today we turn our attention to a particular line of mid-century home fitness equipment.

Plastic Weights and You

The various systems of exercising with weights or displaying feats of strength with weights have collectively been called “The Iron Game,” and working out in the weight room is colloquially referred to as “pumping iron.” This is certainly fitting, as weight plates have most commonly been made from cast iron. Well-known manufacturers of iron weights in past decades included the industry-dominating York Barbell, and Weider Barbell, which offered slightly less expensive products.

In the mid-century years, a much more affordable option appeared, and it was about as far away from iron as you could get. Do you remember those plastic concrete-filled weights that came in a seemingly endless array of colors, including red, gold, white, bronze, silver-gray, purple and blue? An example is pictured up top and below. At one time, they were ubiquitous in the sporting goods sections of American department stores, and they were found in many a home garage or bedroom corner. Like certain other items that actually originated in the mid-century era (such as the Parker Jotter pen), many people seem to remember these weights most from around the late 1970s or 1980s for some reason. But they actually came on the scene in the very early 1960s.

These colorful weights of polyethylene plastic, that miraculous jet-age material, along with the slim-yet-sturdy workout benches that went with them, were the innovative work of Forrest Hood “Fob” James, Jr. of Mobile, Alabama, and his company Diversified Products, which was in business until the late 1990s. Mr. James would eventually turn his attention to politics and become governor of the state of Alabama. While today’s fitness enthusiasts may scoff at this funny-looking cheap plastic product, it had a significant role in bringing weight training to the general public.

This spiffy new line of plastic-covered, concrete-filled weights was christened “Orbatron,” and the weights were branded for and sold at various discount department stores, such as Montgomery Ward, K-Mart, and, as in the set shown here, Sears, Roebuck and Co. They were aimed at the home hobbyist exercise enthusiast, as the Orbatron weights were claimed to be more suitable for use at home than solid iron weights that could damage floors and become rusty. The fast manufacturing process and cheaper materials undoubtedly ensured that they were more affordable than iron weights.

It was very convenient for Joe Public to be able to pick up a set of usable cheaper weights at the department store downtown instead of sending away for a cumbersome shipment of iron from the other side of the country, with the long transit time and the extra shipping charges piled on top of the premium cost of the product itself. And besides, the cutesy colors and rounded shapes of Orbatron weights added a more attractive character to your home than a big heap of unsightly metal plates… or some might say.

TedWmsWeight

Widespread availability at local department stores, mass marketing, and endorsements by sports and fitness figures contributed to Orbatron’s success. Ted Williams, the famous former MLB left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, reached a marketing deal with Sears and lent his name to their sporting goods line. As a quick ebay search will show, this included just about everything from camping tents and fishing poles to footballs, shotguns and shotgun shells. And of course, Sears’ line of Orbatron weights featured the name “Ted Williams” in raised cursive letters, as shown in the photo above. His signature was also on the cover and the introductory section of the instructional booklet “Weight Training for Athletes” that came with the weight set, shown below.

BookletCover

TedWilliamsIntro

Ted Williams’ endorsement of weights was rather curious, as baseball has never really been associated with lifting weights in the public consciousness, and Mr. Williams had been active as a professional baseball player back in the years when sports coaches strongly discouraged athletes from lifting weights out of a mistaken fear that it would detract from their athletic ability by ruining their agility,  flexibility, and cardiovascular health. Nonetheless, by the 1960s, many a mid-century youth could use these weights in the bedroom corner or the garage, thinking that he was following a physical conditioning program endorsed by, or maybe even personally used by, his baseball hero Ted Williams. In the world of physical fitness today, we still see the same promotion of exercise equipment and dietary supplements by athletic or physique professionals who probably never actually use the product themselves, but are happy to get another paycheck from it. But that’s a story for another day.

Perhaps a more fitting endorser of Diversified Products’ Orbatron weights was Bruce Randall, who had most certainly been hitting the weights hard and heavy for many years in different arenas of the Iron Game, making the transition from a 401-lb powerlifter/strongman to the lean 222-lb winner of the 1959 Mr. Universe physique competition. Unlike Ted Williams, Bruce Randall’s involvement in sporting goods marketing appeared to be limited to the sport that he was directly involved in. There were no Bruce Randall hunting rifles, camping lanterns, fishing poles, basketballs or tennis racquets. He was an Iron Game champion, first and foremost.

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Mr. Randall undoubtedly made use of heavier-duty professional equipment in his own workouts, but he was very active in promoting the Orbatron product line for use in home exercise, making personal appearances at department stores to do meet-and-greet sessions with wide-eyed young customers and espouse the benefits of home weight training, as well as depicting himself making use of Diversified Products equipment in his 1970 book The Barbell Way to Physical Fitness, as pictured above and below.

RandallOrbatron

If you can get a hold of a used copy of Bruce Randall’s out-of-print book The Barbell Way to Physical Fitness, it’s definitely worth a read. While not necessarily cutting-edge by today’s standards, it contains very solid advice for getting into weight training, as well as useful reminders for those with more intermediate and advanced experience with the Iron Game. Like Jack LaLanne, Mr. Randall promoted the benefits of weight training for everybody, and this book includes chapters catered toward women, youth, and the busy modern executive lifting weights in his office while wearing a dress shirt and necktie.

Imagine being an impressionable youth in the 1960s and meeting this friendly and bulky Mr. Universe at your local Montgomery Ward department store, shaking his hand, and listening to his enthusiastic endorsement of weight training for strength, fitness, and sports conditioning. Perhaps if your parents bought you an inexpensive 110-lb Orbatron weight set, then you could be well on your way to becoming the next Mr. Universe someday… or at least getting stronger for the upcoming season of school football. You could then fill out a product questionnaire and send it to Mr. Randall himself, c/o the Diversified Products Marketing Department, as shown below on the insert card in the Sears “Weight Training for Athletes” booklet.

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There were a few downsides to Orbatron. For one, the discs were pretty thick and bulky compared to the equivalent amount of weight in iron. That would definitely get cumbersome when you worked your way up to heavier poundages. If you were lifting hundreds of pounds like Bruce Randall and other seasoned Iron Game professionals, you would definitely need to use iron plates, just so you could reasonably fit the weight on the barbell and still have room for a proper grip posture. Nevertheless, Orbatron was a good start for the home fitness enthusiast.

Also, the trade-off for the cheaper price was that the plastic/concrete discs were not as durable as iron plates. If treated too roughly, the plastic would crack, and concrete powder would seep out over time, so then they weighed less than what they said. Furthermore, the amounts of weight may have looked odd to American customers who were used to dealing with increments of whole pounds. The plates came in measurements of 10 kg, 6.5 kg, 6 kg, 4 kg, 2 kg, and 1 kg, which translated respectively to 22 lbs, 14.3 lbs, 13.2 lbs, 8.8 lbs, 4.4 lbs, and 2.2 lbs. That would have given your mental math skills a run for their money as you tried to add those together at a glance.

Despite these quirks, Orbatron was a hit for many years. Diversified Products finally went out of business in 1998, and these days you typically only see their products at thrift stores or yard sales. The next time you come across some bright red plastic weights, take a moment to think back on the intriguing history of “Fob” James, Ted Williams, Bruce Randall, and the mid-century home fitness industry. Now excuse me while I go out to the garage and use my vintage Orbatron weights and Diversified Products weight bench.

Next, we will turn our attention to some mid-century movies and music. Stay tuned…

Further reading:

A great overview of Bruce Randall’s transformation to Mr. Universe:
https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/06/01/bruce-randall-and-the-most-amazing-transformation-in-bodybuilding/

A 1962 promotional piece on Sears’ sports equipment and Ted Williams:
https://www.si.com/vault/issue/43445/42/2

“Fob” James and Diversified Products Corp.:
http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3419

http://www.eastalabama.org/diversfied_products.aspx

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3 Replies to “Mid-century fitness: A baseball player, a Mr. Universe, and plastic weights”

  1. As promised, that was absolutely fascinating reading! So many bodybuilders went in to promotion during the heyday of the careers yet few people actually examine their business efforts. Well done 🙂

    Like

  2. Also bit of an unfair question I know, but were these weights the first one their kind to be sold in discount stores such as K-Mart etc.? Or had they been dealing with the iron variety beforehand?

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    1. Sorry Conor, somehow I didn’t see your question until now. I can’t readily find information on K-mart in particular. But Sears had previously sold iron weight sets through their catalog; I’m not sure about the availability in their brick-and-mortar stores. In comparing some archived catalogs online, the plastic weights were sold at a lower price in 1964 than the iron weights had been sold at in 1958.

      Like

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