More on Plates!
With the York Olympic Barbell as the “gold standard” among all others available in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was an often overlooked fact that others, like the fine set manufactured by Andy Jackson in Springfield, N.J. could equal or exceed the York bar. As important as it was for York to maintain its reputation for having the best Olympic bar one could use, it was just as important that York’s reputation for quality Olympic plates be recognized and propagated. At one time, I had the unique experience of going into the York foundry in Pennsylvania. I had been in foundries previously. My father was an ironworker and in the mid-1950’s his small shop secured a contract with the United States Navy to provide experimental magnesium ladders. Aluminum had proven to be an excellent material for many applications, especially where strength was needed in conjunction with minimal weight. For those who don’t know, aluminum ladders were the brainchild of Sam Carbis, an engineer with the Aluminum Company Of America (ALCOA). Unfortunately, ALCOA didn’t see a future for this product but Mr. Carbis did and when the fire department of Oslo, Norway requested something equally strong but much lighter than the fifty-foot wooden ladders that had been in use for as long as anyone’s memory could recall, Carbis severed his ties with ALCOA and began the Aluminum Ladder Company with the Oslo Fire Department as his only customer. Carbis’ death passed the company on to his daughter despite the fact that most business people of the 1930’s and ‘40’s era were men and did not believe any woman should direct a major company. After World War II, Ms. Carbis had a going enterprise on her hands, eventually relocated from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, and remained the leader in providing aluminum ladders to industry throughout the entire United States. In the mid-1950’s, the military was examining the use of other materials to find lightweight but super strong items that would be used during the daily activities of the typical sailor or soldier.
Through circumstances that remain unexplained to this day, my father hooked up with some individuals from Massachusetts and took on the task of trying to use magnesium for extension ladders. Certainly as strong as aluminum, and very lightweight, the problem with magnesium was two-fold. Cost was a stumbling block as small time manufacturing was much too expensive in the mid-1950’s to allow for retail sale to any typical customer. It was also discovered that magnesium is much more flexible than aluminum and most other materials which made working at the top of a fifty foot or taller ladder a bit hazardous and in the least, distracting and unsettling. Even as a young boy, scampering up one of the old man’s magnesium ladders made for an interesting and sometimes frightening afternoon as the ladder would bend and sway. The experiment proved fruitless for my father although in time, a few very large manufacturers would find a way to make magnesium ladders at a reasonable cost. The answer to the question, “Are they still so flexible that it might scare the living bejeezus out of most people to work high off of the ground on them?” is “Absolutely!” This was but one lesson that made me aware of the quality of certain items and a visit to both an aluminum and magnesium foundry made it clear that working in that environment would not be on my list of things to do. As noted in the last installment in the Eleikousa series, my visit to the Bell Foundry in Los Angeles where the men were subject to temperatures in the 120-140 degree range as standard, reminded me of the brutality of that type of labor. At the York foundry, one of the long-time workers had the task of “milling plates to exact weight” as the York ads stated. Using what appeared to be a large hand-operated polisher or buffer, he would place a casted plate upon a flat table that registered the plate’s weight, and with the deft hand borne from decades of experience, pass the hand controlled machine over the plate, skimming off grams or ounces until “exact weight” was achieved. It seemed as if he had done this hundreds of thousands of times and I am sure he had! Others, like former NFL strength coach Dan Riley who witnessed the same gentleman performing the same job, made a similar remark to me though we visited the foundry years apart. If any of our readers looked at the old York Olympic plates, the “fine lines” on the back of the plate are the milling marks made when weight was shaved off the casting and York was famous for this procedure.
While I learned about quality in manufacturing trailing behind my father in his work, most youngsters don’t ever consider quality. Many adults don’t look past price and quantity to determine the efficacy of their purchases but I “got it” and had the point re-emphasized almost weekly when working on my father’s truck or in the shop. I was bombarded with admonitions to clean the entire drill press and return the bits to their proper storage site when I was finished with a specific task. Every welding rod, obviously long before the day of MIG or TIG welding, had to be returned to the box at the end of the day if not used. Every paint brush had to be cleaned and properly stored at the conclusion of any use. “You’re only as good as your tools” probably played through my head during every dream I had, as he had told me the same thing so many times. He of course was correct and these proved to be lifetime lessons.
The standard-holed plates I collected from the many seventh, eighth, and ninth grade classmates that were fired up about lifting weights for perhaps two to three weeks before seeking someone to haul off what had become a pile of doorstops, allowed me to build an arsenal of small plates. I had what seemed like a ton of 10, 5, and 2-1/2 pounders from perhaps thirty of the “all-in-one” 110 pound barbell-dumbbell sets that were sold in many department and sporting goods stores. Guys wanted to lift weights, quickly realized that a bit of hard work was going to be involved before they reached brute status, and they quickly decided to bail out on what had seemed like a nifty project. I was the kid who started and fifty years later, had forgotten to stop, still banging away at the task of building strength and muscle two to three days per week, every week of every year. Thus I had a great collection of plates even prior to purchasing my York Hercules 555 Set and certainly long before owning a real Olympic barbell. Even the small-holed plates varied greatly in their quality. Some had defects that were obvious to the naked eye, even at a distance. Some had holes that needed to be filed if they were to fit onto any bar and I had to use the hand grinder on a few to take off burrs that would literally cut one’s hand as they tried to push the plate onto the bar. Some seemed to be perfectly smooth, beautiful in fact if there was any appreciation of craftsmanship. Some like the Billard Barbell Company, had what appeared to be a fluted-type of edge on each plate, making it different in appearance and texture to most other brands. On the East Coast, Billard had some traction trying to buck the York and Weider stranglehold on the sale of plates to the home trainee primarily because like York Barbell, they were located in Pennsylvania and their Reading factory made shipping to East Coast locations relatively inexpensive. Their national spokesman, one who seemed to show up frequently at store and gym openings in the New York City area, was former Mr. Universe Bruce Randall, giving them what was for the day, a very big-time representative.
The famous photo of Randall weighing in at perhaps 400 pounds and doing good mornings with what appeared to be 600 or more pounds was made more startling to any young man seeking to become bigger and stronger, when juxtaposed with an even more impressive photo of Randall winning the Mr. Universe title weighing approximately 200 pounds and rippling in every part of his body. A lesser-known fact about Randall was his role as “strength consultant” for George Allen’s Washington Redskins teams of the early 1970’s. Always seeking an edge, Allen brought Randall in to the Redskins camp to teach lifting technique to his players and oversee training throughout the year.
I have known Dan Lurie since walking into his shop and retail outlet on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn as a young teenager. He was always willing to give advice and encouragement and to this day, into his mid-80’s, remains as enthusiastic as ever about all aspects of the Iron Game. Dan’s new book, Heart Of Steel, available from his website www.danlurie.com gives a very interesting perspective on his former business partner and friend Joe Weider and all of the big names from the sport’s Golden Era.
As much as I liked Dan when I met him and through many years of camaraderie and friendship later, to the present day in fact, my criticism of his plates that I collected from those who had purchased their sets from his factory outlet, remains. These plates, as a general comment, were as my father said, “real junk.” As an aside, at the age of nineteen I drove the shop pickup truck into Brooklyn to complete a small welding job. On the return trip to Manhattan, I swung by Dan’s factory and asked to purchase a pair of 100 pound plates but I was very clear that I was going to use my father’s extraordinarily expensive two-inch bit to drill the plates so that they would fit onto an Olympic bar. Dan assured me that I would have no problem doing this and I literally threw the plates into the bed of the truck in my haste to get to the shop so that after work, I could prepare my newly acquired treasure and use the big plates that very weekend. By 1 AM the next morning, I was still slaving over the drill press machine and knew I would be a victim of extreme violence once my father arrived for work at 5 AM. I had completely burned out the three two-inch bits we owned and circa 1966 these were extremely expensive. More frustrating for me, I had, after six or more hours of drilling, done little more than scraped the paint from the surface of each plate. I returned the plates to Dan and explained my problem. He sort of shrugged his shoulders and sighed before explaining that he was one of the first in the barbell business to import plates from India and “maybe the material they’re using for the cast has some impurities in it” which made it difficult to drill? “Difficult to drill? I destroyed three bits and its gonna cost me half a week’s pay to replace them! Impurities? There must be more junk thrown into the cast iron mold than actual iron!” It was another lesson but long before that, I had looked at my piles of York, Weider, Billard, Reading (that also made Billard products, but that was an unknown fact to me at the time), HI (Hoffman Industries, also out of Reading, PA and not owned by Bob Hoffman), and Lurie plates and knew that all of these plates were not made in the same manner.