Frank W. Olin, Industrialist

This article was written by Tom Hufford

This article was published in 1980 Baseball Research Journal

   Of all the former players who went into business or industry, none quite “made it” like Franklin W. Olin. This may not have been reflected in the moderate way he lived, but he was a real American industrial giant who affected the lives of many people.

    Olin was born January 9, 1860 in a primitive lumber camp near Woodford, Vermont, his father being a builder of water wheels, dams, and mills. Olin entered Cornell University in 1882 and was graduated as an engineer four years later. He paid his way through college by playing professional baseball. Although his major league career was short, he did play in three different leagues. In 1884 he was with two clubs in the American Association – Washington and Toledo – and with Washington in the Union Association. He played outfield and second base and batted .312. The next year he played one game for Detroit in the National League, going 2 for 4.

    After graduating from college, his baseball connection was essentially curtailed. However, years later he would talk about how he put his engineering mind to work to build a slightly curved bat, the better to hit a “curved ball at its exact center.”

    Olin’s first engineering job was to construct a powder mill in New Jersey. After five years as a construction engineer, he decided to get into the business of making powder for explosives. He located his first plant at Alton, Illinois, on the Mississippi River close to St. Louis, so the explosives could be used in the nearby coal fields of Southern Illinois, and for blasting railroad beds going west.

    His company made ammunition for U.S. military forces in World War I and this activity was expanded greatly in World War II. He owned the largest small arms ammunition plant in the U.S. in the St. Louis Ordnance Plant. He bought up the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, Conn., and also expanded into many other product areas such as brass, paper, batteries and cellophane.

    Olin’s large accumulated holdings were merged into Olin Industries, Inc., in 1944, after which he gave up direct control of the Corporation to his two sons. He employed some 60,000 workers at that time and had a business conservatively estimated as worth more than $60 million. By today’s inflated fiscal standards, that may not be a significant figure, but in 1944 it was substantial. And he made it essentially on his own.

    Olin lived quietly, however, and stayed out of the limelight as much as he could. He donated large sums to charity, including $700,000 to Cornell University for a new engineering building named for Franklin W. Olin, Jr., his son who died in 1921. The wealthly industrialist passed away in St. Louis on May 20, 1951 and was buried in the city’s Oak Grove Cemetery. He was 91, and had been the oldest living former major league player. The industrial empire he built up later became the Olin-Mathieson Corporation and is now the Olin Corporation.