Inventions That Changed the History of Sports

Bob Trebilcock
Golf Ball and Tee

Ever wondered wear we got the football helmet? See how the history of sports has changed due to these five simple sports inventions.

The inventor's genius is the ability to look at the everyday and see something new. Players, coaches, and fans with unorthodox views have changed the standard for many sports.

The Penalty Flag:

Football referees used to blow a horn to signify a penalty and blow a whistle to stop the play. From the sidelines of Youngstown, Ohio, Dike Beede couldn't distinguish one from another. On October 15, 1941, the night before the Youngstown College Penguins were to play Oklahoma City, his wife, Irma made four flags. She sewed triangles of red cloth from a Halloween costume to triangles of white cloth from a bed sheet and sewed curtain weights into the corner of each flag. Dike told the officials the next night, “If you drop one of these whenever there's a penalty, I think we'll have a better game.” The Penguins won, and three of the officials threw away their flags. Jack McPhee, the head linesman, kept his. McPhee made history a few years later when he tossed Irma Beede's flag in a game between Ohio State and Iowa in Columbus, Ohio. The Big Ten commissioner was in the stands. The next week the flag was adopted throughout the conference. In 1948 the NFL approved the penalty flag.

The Helmet:

In 1939 Gerry E. Morgan and the John T. Riddell Company of Chicago patented a molded plastic helmet with a web suspension that could be adjusted to fit the player. An experimental use in the 1939 College All-Star Game in Chicago was a hit. But Riddell couldn't get plastic during the  war. Instead, the company sold the patent rights to the Army. Soldiers at Corregidor, Anzio, and Omaha Beach went into battle wearing football helmets under their steel helmets. When the Army won the national collegiate championship wearing the helmets in 1944, other colleges took note.

The Catcher's Mitt:

In the barehanded days of early baseball, the catcher required the nerves of a test pilot. While a team might carry only one or two pitchers, it took a platoon of catchers to finish a game. In an 1875 game against Harvard, William “Gunner” McGunnigle of Fall River, Massachusetts, wore a pair of bricklayer's gloves and spawned the modern catcher's mitt. Heavily padded gloves made specifically for catcher's were soon on the market. An 1890 advertisement for Spalding gloves listed four different models priced from $2 to $5. “No player subject to sore hands should be without a pair,” the ad urged.

The Golf Ball:

In 1898 Coburn Haskell from Cleveland, Ohio, set out to make a better golf ball. Armed with a supply of elastic yarn, he worked at winding the stretched rubber into a tight ball. When the ball reached the size of a small marble, it shot from his fingers and bounced around the room. Haskell finally came up with a round ball under tension and wrapped it in gutta-percha. When a local golf pro tested the Haskell prototype, he watched in amazement as it landed yards beyond a bunker no one had ever reached on one drive. A patent was granted on April 11, 1899; the Haskell-Work golf balls, manufactured by B.F. Goodrich, were so prized that a game was usually stopped until a lost bal was found.

The Golf Tee:

In 1921, at the age of 60, Dr. William Lowell from South Orange, New Jersey, took up golf. He was appalled by the practice of teeing the ball on a pyramid of wet sand, leaving a player with gritty hands. Instead, Lowell used his dental tools to whittle a golf tee. Although Dr. Lowell's partners referred to his tees as “suppositories for wildcats,” Lowell's sons saw commercial potential in the tee, and in 1924 Lowell received a patent. His Reddy Tee was packed in boxes of 18 that sold for a quarter. Lowell imagined golfers would leave them behind and use a box per round. He even planned a biodegradable version until he realized golfers were hanging on to the little wooden spikes. The tee got a professional boost when Walter Hagen, the U.S. Open champion, pulled up to Dr. Lowell's dental office and asked where he could get more tees. Advertised as “The Tee of Champions,” 70 million Reddy Tees sold worldwide in 1929. By then competition was catching up to Dr. Lowell, and his company office was closed in 1933.

Do you know of any sport inventions that have changed history?




The 1988 Old Farmer's Almanac

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