Friday, March 21, 2014

York Barbell

Russ Knipp in the corner of the York Gym about the time we first visited. All of us "Bob Hoffman Boys" wore the York Barbell Club T-shirts which cost $1.25 at the time.

As I am rapidly approaching my anniversary of close to six decades of life on this earth, it's hard  not to reflect back a little and realize how blessed I have been to have been able to meet and associate with many iron game greats over the years. Over the next few weeks I am going to indulge this urge to reminisce a little and hopefully some of you will find it interesting, possibly entertaining, and like Bill Cosby used to say, "If you are not careful, you may even learn something."
 Like so many young Americans of my generation, my first real exposure to the iron game was through Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company.  I was always fascinated by strength and the ability that we have to mold and change our bodies. I was raised in a rural farming community and my father was a construction worker so I grew up around physical men who made a living by lifting and carrying things, and who took their shirts off to stay cooler when it was hot. Being strong was essential and looking strong was important. The work was hard, but we often entertained ourselves during breaks and lunch time by challenging each other to various feats of strength such as who could push the most bags of cement up a ramp with a wheelbarrow, hold concrete blocks out at arms length for the longest time, or throw a bale of high the highest or farthest.
It was August of 1967 when I was walking through the local IGA grocery store and saw a magazine with a picture of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover along with a shot of Steve Reeves. I was a amazed and broke out the 50 cents that it took to purchase it. It was Muscular Development magazine which was published by Bob Hoffman. (the reason I am so certain of the date is because I still have that magazine in a trunk in my bed room) It focused mainly on bodybuilding and the fairly new sport of powerlifting. Soon I learned that they put out another magazine called Strength and Health that featured more stories about weightlifting and training for athletics and health. These magazines expounded on the virtues and advantages of superior health and how to attain it. I began to pay more attention to what I ate ate and began to scrounge and gather all sorts of weights from wherever I could find them. Squatting, Pressing, and Pulling became a pretty much daily routine. The articles soon convinced  me that I needed to add such things as Hoffman's Super Hi-Proteen to my diet if I ever wanted to be great. I began to save my money to buy Hoffman's products as often as I could.
The next step was to get to York in person and actually see how these guys really trained and what kinds of stuff they did. My first trip to the York Barbell Club was when I was around 12 or 13 years old or so and my brother was 10 or 11. My Dad drove us the 5 hours or so that is took to get there from our home in Northwestern Pennsylvania. My father was very strong and fit from all the physical labor he did, but didn't really know much about weights. He succumbed to our constant pestering to take us there. We walked into the building and there was a small museum display, a small health food bar, and a small (by today's standards, but large then) gym with a platform, some racks and a few benches. I was awestruck that Bob Hoffman, himself, was sitting at the counter of the health bar when we walked in. He approached us and began to expound all the benefits of his products. He complimented my dad on his healthy looking boys and invited us to come back to the gym. My dad didn't really know who he was, but they hit off as my dad likes to talk and Bob, as we found out, really liked to talk as well. Bob introduced us to John Grimek who was in the gym doing some training and he invited us to came back the next morning when the lifters were going to train. John was in amazing shape and must have been in his 60's at the time. He also was very friendly and asked my brother and I if we were more interested in bodybuilding or weight lifting.
We told him that we were interested in everything and he just smiled.
We went to the gym the next day and saw some of the top American lifters of the day, Bob Bednarski, Rick Holbrook, Gary Glenney, Roman Meliek, and others. I remember being a little shocked and even disappointed that some of the lifters were talking about their night on the town the night before and about fighting through a hangover. I had assumed that they all lived on Hoffman's products and went to bed before 10:00 o'clock each night. So much for the healthy, clean living. It would be a few years later before I learned about the real breakfast of champions, Dianabol, but that is a story for another day.
 Still, lifestyle aside, they were doing some amazing lifting, among the best in the world at the time. They were also friendly and encouraging to visitors for the most part.
John Grimek around the time we first met him. Amazing guy.

Later, as I got to the age where I could drive, my friends and I would go to York fairly often to hang out watch the lifters of the day. John Grimek was a constant presence and I remember him telling us once that the current Mr. America of the day (who will go unnamed) was just a "pinhead" and not nearly as big as he looked. John said he just had a small head that made his body look bigger than it was. lol  He also said he couldn't understand why anyone would avoid squats. He said that squats wouldn't give anyone a fat @$$ unless they were a fat @$$ to begin with. Once when I was lamenting about not being able to afford enough Hoffman's Hi-Proteen, he told me that he knew lots of great lifters who weren't able to eat all that much protein either. Just eat the best food you can is what he told me.
 Bob Hoffman was always ready to talk to anyone who would listen. Once he lectured us on the dangers of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He told us he ate there once and got a piece of chicken that had a tumor on it. Better to stick to home made food and Hoffman products he said. I still have a June 1970 issue of Strength and Health with the editorial page signed, "To my friend Ollie Whaley, Bob Hoffman". In fact I have almost every issue of Strength and Health from 1967 to the final issue in May 1986, plus a lot of the older issues that I picked up in bookstores...etc. over the years.
One of the issues of I bought as a teenager and still have in trunk at the end of my bed.
The last time I visited York was with my wife in the Summer of 1982 while on a trip back east to visit family. By then they had  moved to a new bigger and more modern site outside of town. As we entered the new building, we again encountered Bob Hoffman who was in the museum area. He still loved to talk to visitors, but it was obvious then that he suffered from dementia. His conversation was rambling and at times incoherent. There were no lifters working out and John Grimek wasn't there either. It wasn't the same York Barbell I had known as a teenager.
In my adult years I have read many books and conversed with many people about their experiences at York. I now know that it was not really all that it was painted to be in the magazines. I now understand the politics and behind the scenes intrigue that I was innocently oblivious of as a teenager. I also understand that the Bob Hoffman mystique was a marketing image, but I have to admit that it was an inspiration to me and many others.as we grew up reading, believing, and practicing the healthy lifestyle espoused in those magazines. I still have some of the old-style York bars and plates at home and in my weight room. They remind me of the days when York was known as Muscletown USA and it was the center of the weightlifting world. York now is just another company trying to sell fitness equipment in a very competitive market and they no longer have any special mystique or distinguishing features. For those who are too young to have experienced it, there is nothing today that really compares to the influence that the York Barbell Company had on earlier generations of men and boys. Ironmind and Milo Magazine are the closest in quality, but don't have the market domination that existed in those earlier days when York was really the only show in town.
Bob Hoffman, John Grimek, Bob Bednarski, Russ Knipp, and so many of the others are passed on. Those who remember are getting old as well, but York is part of a heritage that we all owe a debt of gratitude for. I am grateful that I was able to experience some of that atmosphere and pass it along.
Bob Bednarski's world record Clean and Jerk in 1968

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