The news wires were inundated last Sunday with the passing of Paul Newman, one of the greatest actors of all time. The star of such memorable movies as Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, what deserves more than just a passing mention is that he was personally involved--albeit for a short time--as a sporting goods clerk in his father's notable Cleveland store Newman-Stern.
When he was born 26 January 1925 as Paul Leonard Newman, his father Arthur was already co-owner of a sporting goods store in downtown Cleveland. This history of the firm is interesting and tied to many other names which will be familiar to readers of this blog. The company began life as the Electro-Set Company in 1915, and turned quickly in 1917 into the Newman-Stern Co., a mail-order supply house specializing in electrical and radio equipment, for which they are chiefly remembered today. The principals were Paul's father Arthur and his uncle Joseph S. Newman.
The move to sporting goods was necessitated by the United States' entry into World War I. Fearing a proliferation of home-grown German spies who could radio home war secrets to the Fatherland, the government banned the sale of all wireless equipment during the war, and thus in desperation the duo turned to sporting goods to salvage their economic prosperity.
Their timing could not have been better. Surviving the war years, they were one of the few firms already in place to take advantage of the massive boom in sports and leisure that came in the wake of the war. They soon moved to spacious quarters at East 12th Street and Walnut in downtown Cleveland, and prospered in the inter-war years.
This prosperity was almost derailed by the Great Depression. In Paul Newman's own words, his father likely saved the family business from bankruptcy:
On a messy winter day in 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, my father, Arthur Newman--looking as gray as the day itself--left house and family and headed for Chicago to try and negotiate with Spalding and Wilson, the two giant sporting goods manufacturers, to get sports equipment on consignment. My father and his brother owned The Newman-Stern Company of Cleveland, Ohio, purveyor of sports equipment since 1915, a surviving company in the “luxury” arena of retailing which would see 80 percent failure rate before the depression ended. Goods on consignment would be difficult to bargain for in good times, so it seemed almost impossible to expect success in bad, because the manufacturers would only be paid as the goods were sold and not upon delivery. A dicey deal to monitor. Money was scarce.
My father came home two days later with a letter of agreement from both manufacturers for $100,000 of goods on consignment, a staggering amount in those days, especially under the economic circumstances. But those manufacturers knew that if The Newman-Stern Company sold a baseball glove for nine dollars and ninety-five cents, the manufacturer would have a check in the mail from my father the next day for the five dollars owed them. Such was the reputation of the Newman-Stern Company and the gentlemen who ran it. The business survived and so did we.
I learned a great deal by my father’s example and have tried to measure up. I learned from him that honesty is the best medicine. It nourishes the soul, and at the same time, keeps meat and potatoes on the table.
It is a touching tribute to his father and a measure of the greatness of the son that despite his international success, he still idolized his man who plied the Cleveland masses with baseballs, tennis racquets, and fishing reels.
As Paul graduated from high school in 1943 and spent a stint in the U.S. Naval Air Corp as an aircraft radio operator and tailgunner, Newman-Stern survived its second world war. After the war Paul enrolled at Kenyon College and began to act. As the recent New York Times obituary declared, "Arthur Newman, a strict and distant man, thought acting an impractical occupation, but, perhaps persuaded by his wife, he agreed to support his son for a year while Paul acted in small theater companies."
Then, in May 1950, Arthur Newman passed away, and son Paul returned to run the sporting goods store. As The Times declared: "after 18 months Paul asked his brother to take over the business while he, his wife and their year-old son, Scott, headed for Yale University, where Mr. Newman intended to concentrate on directing."
The rest, they say, is history. Newman went on to become a legendary actor, and the firm his father founded thrived in the 1950s. In 1963, the famed Gateway Sporting Goods Co. of Kansas City, Missouri purchased Newman-Stern and soon after moved it to 634 Euclid Avenue. This store was shuttered when Gateway foundered in 1973. By then, the Newmans had opened the Newman-Adler Co., selling camping and outdoor equipment. They still operate a store in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Perhaps his brief foray into the sporting goods world is the major reason he was attracted to roles such as minor league hockey player Reggie Dunlop in the immortal movie Slap Shot and Fast Eddie Felson, the iconic pool hustler in The Hustler and The Color of Money. And of course, his life-long love affair with auto racing--with its connection to the sporting world--makes perfect sense for a man who understood the world of sporting goods. He was known to enjoy fishing in his spare time.
So let's remember Paul Newman today as a titan of the silver screen, and for 18 months, a sporting goods dealer who sold fishing tackle. If anyone has or has seen a marked piece of Newman-Stern fishing tackle, drop me a note!
-- Dr. Todd