Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are Men Getting Stronger? - Harry B. Paschall

Are Men Getting Stronger?
by Harry B. Paschall (1940)

Every once in a while I notice an item in the newspaper to the effect that the human race is getting taller, heavier and stronger. In most cases these reports emenate from college physical departments where some sort of check has been kept on students over a period of 20 to 40 years. The oldest records of this type go back to the days of Doctor Sargent of Harvard, who was probably the first person in America to become keenly interested in physical measurements. Sargent measured all the great strong men of the Nineties, including Sandow, and whenever a new strength star appeared on the horizon the newspapers of that day issued a call for Doctor Sargent’s tape measure and system of spring gauge tests.

Unquestionably the youth of today is somewhat larger and stronger than his father and grandfather. There have been too many of these records kept to allow us to dispute this fact, but I still question whether there has yet appeared a man who could compete with some of the oldtimers in a series of all-round strength feats.

The great strong man who is to replace Louis Cyr and Arthur Saxon is still around the corner, although I believe Gregory George of St. Louis might be the man. I saw quite a bit of Greg at the Chicago Nationals last July, and if he isn’t the epitome of the so-called natural strong man, then I’ve never seen one. He is built on the lines of World’s Champion Manger, only more so, being several inches taller and about 25 pounds heavier. He presses 290 pounds with about one year’s lifting experience, and if he would take up Professor Joe Hise’s system of strength building he would probably measure 60 inches around the chest and press 350 pounds. At the present time he is reported to be doing jerks from the shoulder of more than 400 pounds.

But I digress . . . and worse than that, I seem to be arguing against myself. More and better young strong men are appearing every year because there has been a distinct revival of interest in bar bell training and weight lifting as a sport. You hear comments on every side about young fellows like Steve Stanko, Louis Abele, John Davis, Schemanski, George and others. These young men have been born into a “Golden Age” at a time when there is less hard work to be done and a lot of time in which to do it and further, the sport of lifting has grown to suchan extent that these young athletes hear about it, and having heard, participate.

But I am not trying to praise the present day Caesars, but to bury them. When people talk about Joe Hise and Louis Abele squatting with 500 odd pounds, I turn politely asise and snicker up my cuff. ZLet me tell you about the one, the only, the original deep knee bender. A Montreal paper of about a dozen years ago carred an account of a Canadain named De la Marre who put a Chevrolet car on his shoulders and then did a deep knee bend! This was the same guy who did a back lift with 6,000 pounds. Page Ripley! He must have done it with mirrors.

But seriously, back in 1921 a chap named Henry Steinborn blew into New York and Philadelphia and trained at Herman’s Gym in the latter city, He not only did repetition squats with over 500 pounds, BUT he also put the bell on his shoulders unaided. He would stand the bell up on end (a job in itself), duck one shoulder under it, and then squat, rocking the bell across his shoulders with a dull thump which could be heard and felt from here to Hoboken. Everybody knows it is harder to come up from a cramped squatting position when the weight has been placed on your neck when you are down; but imagine the oomph a guy would have to have to come up after he had practically been hammered into the low squat position!

Henry was a remarkable, strong man in those days (and for that matter, still is); he would come into the gym without warming up or divesting himself of his coat, and playfully snatch 200 pounds with one hand, and clean & jerk 250 pounds with one hand. Incidentally, 250 pounds in the latter lift is the World’s Record, and he could have beaten it at any time. He also clean & jerked 350 pounds; and once was fooled into believing that the bar weighed 350 when it was 375. As you know, Stanko’s 370 on a modern revolving bar is the present record. Several years later Henry trained at Prof. Atilla’s New York Gym, which was managed by Sig Klein. Only Sig can tell you about some of the unbelievable impromptu stunts Steinborn pulled while training there. I know you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. One of his favorite tricks was to grab a training mate at the finish of the workout, lift him high overhead with one hand, and rush a couple of blocks down the street at a gallop, all the while yodeling a Vienna Waltz. The pale denizens of Upper Broadway still hark back to those blood curdling scenes with fear and trembling.

So, without further ado, I present Henry Steinborn as one of my greats of a past generation who is still unsurpassed.

It has been my good fortune to know and to see in action a great many of the old strength stars. One whom I shall never forget was Arthur Saxon. I believe it was in 1912 that I saw him with Ringling Brothers Circus (correct me if I am wrong, Bill Oliphant), when he and his two brothers last toured America. They were the star turn of the show. A special blare of music greeted their act; every other performer left the five rings; the announcer made an elaborate speech to introduce Arthur Saxon, the strongest man on earth. Looking back through the misty periscope of memory makes me heave a sigh when someone mentions the bent pressers of today. At each and every performance Arthur Saxon bent pressed a full 300 pounds, so effortlessly that it looked like he could do repetitions. He also snatched a thick 180 pound plank over two inches thick; and if you think that’s easy, I’m an Eskimo! He also performed a sort of slow one-arm swing with his younger brother, grasping him arm-to-arm (the brother must have weighed 170). He sometimes wound up his act by supporting 15 men seated on the plank, placed across his feet in the leg press position; after the men were seated he would bounce them up and down. Make no mistake about it, the great Saxon was a terrifically strong man!

Some of Saxon’s best feats were also impromptu, and sad to relate, performed in the back room of saloons. I even understand that he once broke my personal record of 87 beers in one day. It was a fact that his contract called for 100 bottles of German beer per day as an allowance for the trio. Warren Lincoln Travis, the great back lifter, once told a group of us in New York that he manufactured a bar bell for Saxon which weighed well over 400 pounds. When Arthur arrived to take delivery of the bell, Travis rolled it out in the middle of the floor fully loaded and said, “Let’s see you fool with that.” Saxon squatted in front of the weight, lifted it up the back of his legs, bent over and let the bell roll up his back to the neck (the Bendover), then straightened up and jerked the weight to arms’ length overhead. Try that one, you puny boys of today!

Speaking of Warren Lincoln Travis reminds me of the playful habit he had of leaning forward from his platform and picking up visiting strong men by the ears and lifting them up beside him. After that they didn’t care much about entering into competition.

And speaking of bent pressers, how about our old pal Joe Nordquest, who daily, and in the dead of winter, in a cold room, lifted with the left arm 301 pounds? Of John Y. Smith, who had the gol-darndest hands I have ever seen, who bent pressed 275 at 160 pounds bodyweight. Or Roy L. Smith, who was the smoothest bent presser I have ever seen. He did something over 240, which he couldn’t clean with two hands.

They rave now about a 148-pound man jerking 320 or 330 on a modern revolving bell, yet “way back when” there was a little guy of this poundage named Max Sick who jerked 330 without benefit of modern methods or modern equipment. How about Kark Swoboda of Vienna who pressed with two hands 359 pounds back in 1912? Why shucks, boys, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

This stuff of talking about the present day athlete as the King of all time irks an old man something terrible. It’s like the modern boy who never saw Jack Dempsey saying that Joe Louis is the greatest fighter the world has ever seen. Or for that matter, maybe John L. Sullivan could have made them both jump out of the ring. No one can tell me that Jim Thorpe wasn’t the greatest track and field man of the past 100 years. I went hunting along with him and several others a good many years ago when he was past his prime, and no one could keep up with him. He jumped all the fences as lightly as a gazelle.

But back to strong men. A number of years ago I was visiting a relative on a farm and he took me back to see an old neighbor who lived on the sode of a hill in a tumbledown shack similar to Snuffy Smith’s.

“Like Granny but without her hot temper, Jedd Clampett also epitomizes a traditional rural value system based on an unswerving commitment to family and kin, a deep moral integrity in his dealing with others, and a rock-solid horse sense. These traits allow him to either defeat or win over the steady stream of corporate and petty scam artists who weekly threaten his fortune. Like Sut Lovingood and Snuffy Smith before him, Jed also symbolizes egalitarian democracy, treating everyone he encounters with decency and kindness and acknowledging no legitimate distinctions of class or status.

Such values stem from a humble mountain background symbolized by his rustic log cabin home, to Jed as much a spiritual as a physical place.”

from: Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon
by Anthony Harkins

This tough old hombre was past 70 and had drunk more corn than he had eaten. Near his house was a well which had a huge stone for a cover. I should judge it weighed around 300 pounds. Attached to the top was a rusty iron ring which the old coot had to grab and lift whenever he wanted a bucket of water (which was darned infrequent, judging from appearances). He asked me to try to lift it, and I straddled the well, managed to squeeze my whole hand into the ring and pulled, but nothing happened. Then grandpa inserted one finger in the ring and gently set the cover to one side.

Talking of strength feats by non-lifters reminds me of another. Att this same farm where I was visiting there was a 96-lb. anvil with a top about four inches across. While there I pressed this several times with one hand and lifted it by the pinch grip with two hands. A young nephew with good big hands duplicated the latter feat and after some mistrials mangaged to press it. However, when I went back several years later he had me on the hip. Every day when he went past the anvil he would stoop and try the pinch grip on it, and he finally got so he could actually pick it up with one hand, the greatest grip feat that I have ever seen or heard of. Remember that the surface was about four inches across!

I could ramble on for page after page about the strong men I have seen and the feats they have done; feats that haven’t been duplicated to this day; but all that is water over the dam. I started out to prove my contention that there were good men years ago, and these examples should suffice.

I will admit, however, that the general run of young men are bigger and stronger than they were when I was a youth, but I think that they grew just as good a special crop of supermen then as now. I have been waiting and watching and hoping that one of these days the real Bosco would show up, and perhaps he is even now on the way. Certainly we have several very special editions in Abele and Gregory George.

But until they prove it I’ll take Saxon and Cyr.

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