The leather that you'll see strapped to George Clooney's head in "Leatherheads," the Clooney-directed football movie that opens in theaters this month, can be traced not to the mid-1920s, but to modern-day manufacturer of vintage sporting goods Marv Lubinsky. Founded in 1996, Lubinsky's Past Time Sports specializes in recreating leather football helmets, but also fills orders for throwback baseball gloves, hockey headgear, and basketballs and soccer balls complete with proprietarily "aged" laces. The company, which has appeared at coaches' association trade shows and provided props to several film and stage productions, supplied the "Leatherheads" set with 30 helmets and 60 watermelon-shaped footballs. Paul Steinbach asked the 59-year-old Lubinsky, a longtime dealer of actual antiques, about his busting-at-the-seams business.
Q: What led to your transition from collector to manufacturer? A: One of my interests has always been sports. I would travel around the country to the big outdoor antique markets, and after buying some helmets for the first time, I was excited to see that they sold quickly and for really good prices. People began to realize that I was the guy who could find leather football helmets, so I had more demand from athletic directors and other sports enthusiasts than I could supply. That's how we got the idea to do a really nice replication job. It took us about two years to research and develop, because we wanted the leather and the padding to look authentic.
Q: How do you respond to recent calls by the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that leather not be used in athletics? A: I think animals were placed here to feed us and to clothe us. Leather is an incredible substance, and it has been used in many ways since the caveman days. The NBA switched back to the leather basketball for a reason.
Q: Do you think it took greater skill to play sports with the type of equipment athletes used 80 years ago? A: I believe the Ty Cobbs and the Honus Wagners had to be better athletes to stop a baseball with those early split-fingered gloves. Those guys had to be more focused, or a 90-mile-an-hour line drive could hit them in the face. The early football, meanwhile, was a lot heavier, and the girth was much larger. Players really had to have a great grip on it to be accurate. You have to take your hat off to guys like Sammy Baugh.
Q: Will there always be a market for your handiwork? A: It's a niche, but it's important. I have been surprised in meeting with a lot of university representatives and people in the sports business who have lost some of the tradition and the knowledge of who our early athletes were. A lot of universities use our products in fundraising, and I was shocked to go to the University of Illinois and the young man I talked to didn't know who Red Grange was. It was disheartening. I'm the kind of guy who still hears the Notre Dame glee club singing in the background.
Q: People seem to either love the vintage helmet pattern still used by the University of Michigan, or they hate it. Where do you stand? A: I give Michigan all the credit in the world. I think it's terrific.