ONLY THE GAME REMAINS THE SAME
It all began in a pool parlor. In the 1860s billiards became so popular that $10,000 was offered for the invention of an inexpensive substitute for the ivory then used in billiard balls. A young printer, John Wesley Hyatt, won the prize when he produced celluloid, the first plastic, and started a test-tube revolution that, a century later, has changed the look, the safety and the performance potential of almost every game that Americans play. The extent of the change is demonstrated by the young athletes in the picture at right. The fiber-glass vaulting pole, breaker of records, may have caused the most controversy, but it is a minor revolutionary compared to fiberglass boats, such as Alcort's Catfish, and such lightweight protection for the playing field as plastic shoulder pads, helmets, catcher's masks and shin guards. Almost all sails made in the U.S. and almost all team uniforms are of quick-drying nylon, Dacron or a sibling synthetic. The uniforms are not only machine-washable but light in weight—Stephani Cook is wearing a nylon tank suit that weighs about four ounces. Richard Meek photographed the colorful revolutionaries on the following pages, and Liz Smith examines their influence on American sport beginning on page 37.
Sarasota Outfielder Bill Melton lay unconscious, struck on his fiber-glass batting helmet by Miami Marlin Pitcher Bill Burnette's fast ball. The next night Melton hit home runs in the seventh and ninth innings, and Marlin Manager Bill Durney said, "Last night we beat his brains out; tonight he's beating out ours. If it weren't for the helmet, that guy would be in a hospital bed."
Australia's Roy Emerson walked into the shower in his nylon and Terylene tennis clothes. He soaped them down and rinsed them off before removing them in order to wash himself.
In Kansas City, Harold Ensley, who has fished at least 2,400 days out of the past 12 years, cast a nylon monofilament line so transparent that it threw no shadow. He casually removed a plastic bait from his pocket—no minnow bucket, no hands in water.
Gary Player swung his fiber-glass clubs well enough to win the U.S. Open at St. Louis, thus opening the $210-million-a-year golf-equipment industry to a mad controversy over the merits and demerits of glass vs. steel shafts.
Off the New Jersey shore, three men in a motorboat tossed plastic fronds of seaweed overboard in an experiment to stop shore erosion and give fish sheltered feeding areas.
Outfielder Lucy asked Baseball Manager Charlie Brown in an August Peanuts comic strip, "How come we don't have plastic grass?" and Charlie did a slow burn as usual.
What these situations have in common is a role in a revolution that is changing the game. Almost any game. When contestants from 23 nations at the recent world championship archery contest in Sweden used fiber-glass, Dacron and plastic archery equipment, records went splat quicker than William Tell's apple. The famous (or infamous, depending on whether one is a revolutionary or a conservative) fiber-glass vaulting poles have marked their course with shattered world records. Swimming records tumble even faster, thanks to the four-ounce nylon suit that has replaced the old pound and a half of wet wool. The list seems endless.
It would, in fact, be easier to tell of the few sports and leisure activities left uninvaded by fiber-glass-reinforced plastics, acrylics, cellulosics, nylon, phenolics, vinyls, amino plastics and those famous poly sisters—ethylene, styrene, ester and vinyl-chloride. The crack of hickory on horsehide, the creak of good leather, the flap of canvas, the ping of taut gut, the snap of pigskin are the traditional sounds of sport, but synthetics are ringing fast changes and the traditionalists are, naturally, horrified. Snorts one reactionary at the New York Yacht Club, "I simply don't think that synthetic items age as handsomely as natural things like wood and leather." A few fishermen, up to their hip boots in the rising tide of fiber glass, will still give all for the incomparable feel of tonkin bamboo, lovingly floated down streams, tediously dried, put through an elaborate gluing process and cared for fragilely ever after. Badminton Brahmins shake their heads, recalling the good old days when a shuttlecock sometimes lasted for only one serve but was "a true bird."