A brief history of Wilson
Jun 2, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I love this quote from Arthur Ashe – “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Tennis is a sport I’ve dabbled in here and there. It’s fun and while I’m definitely not going to conquer Wimbledon, Arthur’s words inspire me both on and off the court. And now I have a little something extra to help with my next match – a vintage Wilson tennis racquet. I found this racquet tucked away in my grandparents’ basement, perfectly preserved and ready for its day in the sun. Even though the racquet is from the 1940s, its balance and exceptional craftsmanship make it battle-ready all these decades later. This Ellsworth Vines personal model is a prime example of Wilson’s attention to detail. Let’s explore a bit more about this iconic brand. Join me in a brief history of Wilson.
Our story begins in 1868, on the outskirts of Ontario where a young Thomas E. Wilson was born to Scottish immigrants. As a young man he made his way South to the United States, settling in Chicago where he started out with the railroad. Soon he was working in the fledgling meat-packing industry and over the next 25 years he climbed the corporate ladder – proving his business savvy along the way. Thomas was laser-focused while he was creating one of the largest companies in America. But a fateful real estate transaction in the early 1900s completely changed his trajectory. During an acquisition of another company, Thomas found himself the new owner of a warehouse full of sporting goods. Like any good businessman, he sought to immediately sell this unwelcome burden. After all, he was single-handedly redefining the meat industry in one of the wealthiest countries the world had ever known. What business did he have getting into sports?
Every attempt Thomas made to turn a profit from this unwanted inventory was blocked. For the first time in decades, he had product that he couldn’t sell. I imagine for an over-achiever like Thomas this was a situation he couldn’t let lie. When the world gives you lemons, you make lemonade. In this case, Thomas launched Wilson Sporting Goods in 1914. While the company initially manufactured equipment for many different sports, their emphasis on tennis set them apart in the industry. Thomas approached his business model differently than other brands, working with champions to develop racquets built to their own specifications. Wilson then turned around and sold these “celebrity editions” to great commercial success. For example, their leather handle wrap from 1935 revolutionized tennis racquet design, giving athletes and novices alike unparalleled control.
And that’s where Ellsworth Vines and my basement discovery comes into frame. Vines’ playing style was described as Fred Astaire meets Babe Ruth and descriptions of his matches reflect this electric playing style. His 1932 Wimbledon victory was marked by a final shot that was so fast, his opponent claimed he couldn’t even see it. I can’t imagine seeing him play in person – just the transcripts alone make me want to cheer! Vines’ charisma and popularity made for a perfect match with Wilson. In fact, the racquet he developed with Wilson instantly became a top-selling model.
While this formula of pairing a champion with a racquet designer started out informally, things were solidified in the 1950s when Wilson officially partnered with Jack Kramer. Kramer was one of the biggest names in tennis and in 1949 Wilson and Kramer developed the Jack Kramer Autograph model. It went on to become one of the top-selling racquets of all-time. Everyone from Arthur Ashe to Billie Jean King relied on this racquet to take them to victory. In fact, every generation of tennis stars can credit a Wilson racquet as a key ingredient to their success. With this legacy, I feel even more confident in my own abilities. They say you have to have the right tool for the job and if tennis is your occupation, Wilson is your tool of choice. Obviously this is thanks to Thomas Wilson’s business acumen and vision, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had never come across that lone warehouse. The brief history of Wilson goes to show that Arthur Ashe’s words ring true: Thomas Wilson used what he had and did what he could. And tennis players everywhere can be very thankful that he did! So, dear reader, what has been placed in your life? Perhaps it’s something surprising, perhaps it’s expected – but the real question is: what will you do next? Tell us all about it in the comments…