This article was written by Guy Waterman
Frank Olin lived in Vermont’s rugged hills of towering pines and sugar maples for seven formative years before his father, a skilled millwright, found work in a sawmill across the nearby border in New York State. Young Frank went to work at an early age, quickly demonstrating a mastery of tools and a creative ingenuity that gave promise of his engineering career to come. He scraped together what education he could, partly in public schools, partly on his own at home. It was not until after his 21st birthday that he gained admittance to Cornell University.
Beginning in the fall of 1881, Olin blossomed at Cornell by concentrating on his strengths: a keen intellect and a prodigious capacity for work and vigorous physical activity. He joined no fraternity and shunned most other college diversions. Frank had little time to spare from his studies in civil engineering, what with occasional time off to earn money helping his father on mill construction or teaching school. But what time could be spared, he devoted to athletics.
In those years college teams received little financial support from the university, instead depending on students to raise and dispense funds. The combined requirements of athletic skill and business acumen perfectly suited the extraordinary talents of young Frank Olin. In his early 20s and having had to work from his earliest years, Olin doubtless was more mature than most of his classmates. He leaped with agile feet into both the sporting events and the business challenges of, as he later called it, “running an athletic program on a frayed shoestring.”
The strapping freshman won an outfield berth on the varsity nine right away. The next year he shifted to second base, his preferred position. He also took up track, winning the shotput competition at Cornell’s field day. He so excelled in marksmanship — a harbinger of his future career in the firearms business — that he was elected captain of the rifle team. In his upperclass years, he rowed with the crew, set school records in putting the shot and slinging the hammer, and emerged as the star of a strong baseball team. Led by “Frankie” Olin, Cornell won the State Intercollegiate League pennant twice and competed against professional clubs. The college newspaper noted with pride: “Olin and the other men are far above college players in general.”
Olin hit with authority. In one memorable at bat on May 1, 1886, against a professional club from Toronto, Frankie tore into a pitch and boomed a shot that would be long-celebrated in Cornell legend. More than 50 years later, when the distinguished alumnus returned to inspect an engineering building he had financed, the batboy for that 1886 team joined his old classmate in pacing off the distance from home plate to the hallowed spot where the ball had landed. It was declared to have travelled 540 feet on the fly, surely one of the prodigious clouts on record in 19th-century annals.
Besides excelling on the field, Frankie Olin provided leadership in the business management of Cornell athletics. He served as president of the Athletic Association and as a member of the Cornell Athletic Council. His creative engineering genius also came into play on at least a couple of occasions. He was instrumental in designing the college’s first batting cage, erected within a brick building — and helped raise funds to pay for both the rent and measures to “protect the windows.”
When first confronting curves that dropped, the batsman-engineer conceived and designed a unique response: a curved bat, fashioned from a wagon tongue, which, he reasoned, “allowed him to hit the ball at its exact center.” Olin was having difficulty following the ball as it dropped; swinging the bat with the crooked part downward compensated for the extra drop as compared with a straight ball. More than a century later Olin-designed bats are regarded as prized possessions in Cornell’s athletic office, even though they never caught on with other players.
It was during the summer after his junior year at Cornell that Frank Olin played major league ball. Beginning with the Washington Statesmen of the American Association, one of three major leagues operating in 1884, Olin played 21 games and batted .386 for a club that was suffering a disastrous season, dead last in a 13-team league. When Washington gave up the ghost in midseason with a 12-51 record, Olin shifted crosstown to the Washington Nationals and was hitless in his only game in the Union Association.
At that point Olin made a move that brought him, for one fleeting moment, in conjunction with a pivotal point in baseball’s social history. For the balance of 1884 he returned to the American Association and played for the Toledo Blue Stockings. Also playing for Toledo were the brothers Fleet and Welday Walker — the last two black players allowed on a major league baseball diamond before Jackie Robinson’s historic debut in 1947.
The Toledo club fared poorly, slumping to eighth in a 12-team league with a 46-58 won-lost record. Behind their one .300 hitter, rookie second baseman Sam Barkley (who also hit a league-leading 39 doubles), Fleet Walker and Frank Olin were the club’s second- and third-best hitters. Walker batted .263, while Olin managed .256, playing mostly left field and occasionally relieving Barkley at second. No one else on the team hit better than .240.
Neither Olin nor the Walker brothers intended to terminate their major league careers with their modest 1884 results. The Walkers were, of course, banished by the prevailing racial prejudice of the day. Olin had hoped to play in the National League with the Detroit Wolverines in the summer of 1885. While his .256 average at Toledo was less than sensational, he had done well enough for the 1884 season as a whole, winding up at .312 with four doubles, two triples and one home run among his 54 hits. But for Detroit in 1885 he managed to appear in only one game, going two-for-four and scoring a run, but committing two errors in six chances at third base.
After graduating from Cornell in 1886, Frank Olin launched his career in engineering and business, never again donning a major league baseball uniform. After one year in a New England patent attorney’s office, Olin landed his first engineering job in 1887, assisting the supervising engineer in constructing a powder mill in New Jersey. When the engineer in charge left early, the young Cornell graduate took over and completed the job. That led the following year to an assignment constructing a much bigger mill for the Phoenix Powder Manufacturing Company. The year after that, 1889, Olin set up regular business as the F.W. Olin Company, designing and building powder plants. That same year he married Mary Mott Moulton, who hailed from the Toledo area where Frank had briefly shone in baseball.
Recognizing the growth potential of America’s industrial heartland, Olin moved his business and family to the midwest, settling in Alton, Illinois, where he lived the rest of his long life. Some 25 miles north of St. Louis, Alton was easily supplied by steamboats, stood close to coal mines and of course enjoyed unlimited water power. In a succession of business moves, Olin organized companies and created facilities for producing blasting powder for mining operations, ammunition for the newly developed breech-loading shotgun, and a variety of bullets, primers, clay pigeons and accessories to the firearms and munitions business. Around the turn of the century he fought off a succession of predatory moves by larger companies, including the giant trust, E.I. duPont de Nemours.
As a businessman, the lifetime .316 hitter was a hard-driving autocrat. A 1953 article in Fortune magazine reported that he “ruled with rod of iron,” maintaining close personal control of company operations for more than 50 years as chief executive:
Franklin Olin had never spared himself or anybody else in a single-minded drive for commercial success. His serviceable charm was harnessed to this end, as were all the energies of an extremely powerful physique. … He felt he had to run everything if it were to be run right…. Everyone, presumably, was expected to work as if duPont, which he suspected to his dying day, again had the company by the throat.
Olin also had a passion for secrecy. As late as the 1950s, only five of the 13 directors of the company were allowed to know the breakdown of sales and earnings within the corporation’s ten divisions. According to Fortune, Olin “never gave a competitor ‘good morning’ unless the information was already in the public domain.” His guiding principle: “it’s impossible to put one’s foot in a closed mouth.”
What really transformed Olin’s business scope was World War I. Even before American entry, one of Olin’s operations landed a fat contract supplying France with ammunition. When the United States finally joined the Allied cause, sales skyrocketed. Wisely avoiding the temptation to overexpand, Olin adjusted to the return of peace and further strengthened his business stability by branching into the growing automotive and appliance markets.
His imaginative but conservative business approach helped him not only to expand during the prosperous 1920s, but also to survive intact the Great Depression of the 1930s. Indeed, in 1931, when one of his chief rivals, Winchester Repeating Arms, collapsed, Olin beat out duPont to take over Winchester’s accounts and operations. By 1940 the octogenarian second baseman presided over diverse business operations producing annual sales of $45 million.
Just before World War II, Frankie Olin stepped down from active management of the business, watching with deep satisfaction as his son John presided over another huge sales bonanza during war years. Shrewd postwar moves led to the eventual formation of the huge Olin-Mathieson Chemical Corporation in the 1950s. It was the predecessor of today’s Olin Corporation, which ranks well up among the “Fortune 500” top corporations of America, with more than $3 billion in annual sales.
Frank Olin’s visible monuments are the enormous industrial plants providing jobs to thousands and the engineering building, Olin Hall, at Cornell. But, as one of his classmates reminds us, “buildings are all right in their way but with advancing years it’s the memories of home runs and touchdowns that bring comfort.” And so it is, in Vermont, that the name of the mighty industrialist is remembered as much today for his .316 lifetime batting average, his special curved bat for hitting the drop and that towering home run soaring 540 feet on the fly over the Cornell campus.
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.