While many sports have evolved into athletic performances designed to entertain millions of spectators—baseball, football, hockey, and basketball among them—others have retained their participatory recreation roots. Tennis and golf are good examples of sports enjoyed by enthusiasts as well as professionals, as are cycling, skateboarding, surfing, soccer, frisbee, croquet, and bowling.
Of these, golf is the oldest sport, dating to 15th-century Scotland. It took until 1860 before the first British Open was played at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland. In those days, the heads of Douglas McEwan golf clubs (also sold as D. McEwan & Son) were made of beech while the shafts were fashioned from hickory. Irons were often made of bronze, especially for use as “mashies” or “lofters,” which helped golfers chip a ball out of tall grass.
As for golf balls, 19th-century versions, which are highly collectible today, ranged from ones with horsehide exteriors and chicken-feather stuffing to solid balls made of a hardened sap called gutta percha. The Eclipse by William Currie & Co. of Ediburgh and the Helsby by the Telegraph Manufacturing Company are just two of the brands and makers of the day.
In the United States, Spalding, MacGregor, and B.G.I. all got their start in the late 1800s, producing clubs that competed with those imported from Scotland. William Leslie of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made “gutties,” as gutta-percha balls were known, at the beginning of the 20th century, while Coburn Haskell of Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the first companies to promote rubber-core or rubber-wound balls. People would even have these balls recovered—Haskells that have been recovered bear the letters “RCH” on their outside surfaces.
Other items collected by golf lovers include tees, which ranged from two-piece anchor tees to Bakelite molds for making tees out of sand to conical paper tees that featured advertisements on their sides for everything from soft drinks to sanitariums. Books about golf, especially those describing the golf courses of Scotland (see “The Golf Book of East Lothian,” 1896) remain popular, as do early books on golf published in the States (see “Golf in America,” 1895). Golf-inspired stamps, postcards, china, and even comic books are also available.
Cyclists who want to show their passion for their sport have perhaps less stuff to choose from, but there’s certainly no shame in a good collection of vintage bicycles. Well heeled collectors can opt for an 1817 Draisine, named for its German inventor, Karl von Drais, or the wood-and-iron velocipedes or "boneshakers," which appeared in England and France around 1863.
As bicycles evolved in the 19th century, their front wheels got enormous—gears had not been invented, so the only way for engineers to increase the speed of a bike was to enlarge...
By the end of the 19th century, high-wheelers were replaced by "safety" bikes, which resemble the bikes we ride today. The key technological advance was a chain to drive the rear wheel. In addition to steel, wood such as hickory and bamboo was used to construct the frames. Manufacturers such as Columbia produced roadsters with kerosene lamps in front of the handlebars, chain guards to protect women’s dresses from grease, and shock-absorbing, spring-mounted seats.
Some of these turn-of-the-century bike builders would go on to become prominent manufacturers of automobiles. For example, track bikes by companies like Peugeot were designed to be stiff and responsive, with deep-drop handlebars to reduce the rider’s wind resistance.
The arrival of the derailleur in 1908 changed everything. Americans were slow to accept the device, and the English thought three gears were quite enough, but the French embraced it. Consequently, a culture of cycling evolved in France, while bikes in the United States largely fell out of favor.
The vintage balloon-tire cruisers from the 1930s to 1950 brought the bicycle back into fashion in the U.S. In 1941, Colson made the Cruiser and Super Cruiser models for Firestone and the Clipper for Goodyear. Murray supplied bikes to Sears (its house brand was the Mercury) and Shelby made the gorgeous Speedline Airflow, whose sweeping and curving lines suggested movement even when the bike was standing still.
But it was Schwinn that changed the American perception of the bicycle, in particular with the 1933 Aerocycle with its awesome Buck Rogers design. The Auto Cycle followed, as did the heavily fendered and chromed Phantom and Jaguar. In the 1960s and 1970s, if you were the luckiest kid on the block, you spent Christmas morning riding your high-handlebar, banana-seat Stingray, Apple Krate, or Grey Ghost.
Like golf, the sport of surfing goes back centuries. Captain Cook’s diaries from 1777 describe Hawaiians surfing, but missionaries in the 1800s frowned on the activity—by the end of the 19th century, surfing had been all but wiped out.
One of the first people in the 20th century to revive the sport was a Hawaiian named George Freeth, who, in 1907, cut his heavy, traditional, 16-foot board in half. The resulting shorter board sparked renewed interest in surfing. The sport got an even bigger boost when in the 1910s and 1920s, Hawaiian-born Olympic gold and silver swimming medalist Duke Kahanamoku made surfing demonstrations a part of his swimming exhibitions on the mainland.
In 1929, a fellow swimmer living in Santa Monica named Tom Blake made the first hollow-body wood surfboard, based on templates he had created in 1926 after restoring a number of ancient boards for the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Blake’s surfboard, which was constructed like an airplane wing and nicknamed the "cigar box," weighed half as much as a solid-wood board, thus opening the sport to many more people, especially when these new boards were mass-produced.
Blake was also the first person to put a fin on a surfboard. In the 1940s, Los Angeles native Bob Simmons experimented with a board’s rocker, which is the amount of curve a board has from nose to tail, to devise the Simmons Spoon. Simmons was not the first to use balsa wood in surfboards, but he was the first to combine it with other lightweight materials such as styrofoam and fiberglass.
By 1949, Simmons had produced a board with a styrofoam core, balsa rails (the edges of a surfboard), and a plywood top and bottom, all encased in fiberglass. The boards were light and fast, and the era of modern surfboards and surfing was born. Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin created the Malibu, a surfboard that was popular throughout the 1950s. Dave Sweet built his first board in 1946 and opened Dave Sweet Surfboards in Santa Monica in 1956.
The 1950s were also the decade that Gordie Duane launched Gordie Surfboards. His vintage surfboards from the 1960s include the Mark V, Lizard, and Assassin. Hermosa Beach got Bing Surfboards in 1959, and by 1961, San Diego became the home of Gordon & Smith, whose team members included Skip Frye and Mike Hynson, one of the surfers in the seminal 1966 surf film “The Endless Summer.”
Of course, no mention of surfing in the 1950s would be complete without paying homage to surfer and shaper Hobart Alter, who opened Hobie Surfboards in Dana Point in 1954. Like his contemporaries, Alter began making boards out of balsa, but by 1958, he was firmly in the thrall of foam and fiberglass. Surfboards had never been lighter, more responsive, or more a part of the popular culture.
The 1960s were an incredible decade for surfboards and, consequently, for vintage surfboard collectors. Weber Surfboards of Venice Beach opened in 1960. Its Performer model from the mid-1960s is perhaps the best selling surfboard of all time. Surfer Greg Noll, who opened his Hermosa Beach shop in the late 1950s and was famous for surfing impossible locations like Oahu’s feared Banzai Pipeline, made big boards called guns—his Da Bull and Da Cat boards from the 1960s are highly prized today.
The related sport of skateboarding was not initially associated with surfing. The prototype for the first skateboard was a bright red, metal toy from the 1930s called the Scooter Skate. When its handle was removed, a child could ride the three-wheeled contraption like a skateboard, except it had steel wheels and lacked the ability to turn. A four-wheeled Skeeter Skate appeared in the 1940s.
The first true skateboards were made in the 1950s. Initially, these were handmade affairs, constructed by kids out of cannibalized roller skates that were nailed to the bottoms of wooden boards. One company offered a Scoot Kit, which saved customers the trouble of destroying a perfectly good pair of roller skates.
In the 1960s, skate maker Roller Derby got into the act with its own Skate Board Kit, which came with clay wheels mounted on trucks that could be screwed through metal plates and mounted to a board—the fully assembled #10 Skate Board, which had a bright red deck and bone-rattling steel wheels, quickly followed.
By the mid-1960s, Makaha of Santa Monica had hired surfer Phil Edwards to pitch its skateboards. Even more significant was the arrival of fiberglass and composite decks. Super Surfer’s fiberglass board, with its textured deck to ensure a good grip, was the hit of the 1965 World Skateboarding Championships in Anaheim, California.
The next major breakthrough came in 1972, when Frank Nasworthy invented urethane skateboard wheels. He called his company Cadillac Wheels, and his invention fostered a ton of new interest in the sport. Even Hobie diversified from surfboards to offer the Weaver Woody, which had Power Paw wheels and precision bearings to improve performance.
Skateboards became increasingly sophisticated by the mid-1970s. Logan Earth Ski specialized in high-quality wooden decks, some with diamond tails, bulbous mid-sections, and delicately tapered rails. Bruce Logan, Torger Johnson, and Brad Logan all had signature models. Even Tony Alva of the famous Zephyr team from Dogtown (the area between Venice Beach and Santa Monica) rode a Logan.
In recent years, yet another hybrid of outdoor sports has soared in popularity—NASCAR races. Though squarely a spectator sport, it’s one that anybody with a driver’s license has participated in, at least a minor level. Collectors look for programs and mugs from Talladega, Daytona, and other legendary tracks. They also like model cars, of course, as well as bobbleheads and autographs of their favorite drivers, from Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt to Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon.