I began playing one-wall and three-wall handball at a Southern California apartment complex because a friend said it was good exercise and fun. He was right. Of course from the time we are young boys, anything having to do with chasing a ball is fun. For instance, water polo is a lot more enjoyable than swimming laps. It’s in our DNA.
Originally one-wall started in New York City in the early 1900s by beachgoers who hit bald tennis balls against the sides of wooden jetties that lined the beaches. Since then thousands of one-wall courts have been built throughout the city. Because the boundaries are lines, we spent a lot of time retrieving the ball. Even on a three-wall court, time retrieving the ball after either a point was scored or a side-out was mildly annoying. Then one day while running the track of a nearby junior college on lunch break, I heard the familiar thwack of a ball rebounding from a wall, but the sound was a bit different. It had a slight echo. Upon following the direction of the reverberation I climbed an outside staircase to a second floor mezzanine. It looked out upon six four-wall handball courts all fully occupied. Aha, I thought, the ball is trapped; it has nowhere to go. That was the beginning of a 30-year love affair with the game.
Handball is rumored to have started in Ireland during the Tenth Century, but the earliest recorded history is five centuries later. In 1427 Scotland King James I wanted a basement window blocked up because it interfered with his game. One-hundred years later Galway (Ireland) statutes prohibited use of a city wall for one of the handball game surfaces. The earliest depiction of Irish or Gaelic handball is 1785. Irish immigrants brought the game to the US, and the first two four-wall courts were built in San Francisco in 1873.
My early years of learning the four-wall game at that junior college were brutal. The courts were concrete and cold, and were constructed to the dimensions of a double squash court; 25 feet wide x 45 feet long x 20 feet high. A standard four-wall handball court is 20 x 40 x 20. Painful bone bruises, from hitting a cold, hard ball greater distances, were a constant companion. After that apprenticeship I played on regulation courts at YMCAs, firehouses, colleges, armed service bases, and various athletic clubs. Courts were few and far between and tough to get on until 1970. To explain I need to digress a bit-
Every once in a while a group of guys would show up at the junior college with wooden paddles and a pink ball they called a spaldeen or pinkie. Pinkies were larger and softer than the black handball -ACE-, and being struck by a paddle, saved a lot of wear-and-tear on one’s hands. Plus one didn’t have to learn to be ambidextrous. They said they brought the hybrid game, which they called paddleball from Michigan, specifically the University of Michigan. Then one day others arrived with miniature wooden tennis racquets and played against those with paddles. It was an obvious mismatch, and it wasn’t long before the wooden paddles completely disappeared in favor of racquets.
Back to 1970. At the time a tennis craze was sweeping the country, and the game that replaced paddleball and came to be known as racquetball latched onto the coattails of tennis and became immensely popular. Clubs and courts sprang up like weeds nationwide. Racquetball was a tremendous boon for handball players, providing many places to play. Because of the Spartan nature of handball it is not the kind of sport that will ever be popular with the masses, certainly not popular enough to cause a construction boom. Most of the handball players I knew came out of the military services, YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers, and firehouses-places where four-wall courts were common.
After a 25-year run the racquetball fad died. Many clubs closed their doors. Courts have either disappeared or, for those clubs remaining open, been refurbished for squash. Handball is back in the shadows again also with dwindling interest. I was never involved in anything that equaled the camaraderie of handball. Back-in-the-day as a frequent traveler I always carried my gear-basically shoes, gloves, and eye guards. Small town or city, I’d contact the local handball hotspot to find a game. Some complete stranger would drop what he was doing and join me for handball, beers, and dinner. Once at a Cubs game at Wrigley (where everyone is always playing hooky), I arranged a match for the next morning with some rowdy guys several boxes away. Other times it would be with a pilot of my incoming plane.
The first great American players were Jewish, and varied from firefighter Vic Herskowitz to Jimmy Jacobs to Paul Haber to Freddy Lewis. All are in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame each dominating the decades in which they played, which was one after another.
Jacobs was touted by Sports Illustrated in 1966 as the best athlete in the world. He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds, won skeet shooting championships, was a scratch golfer, turned down an offer to play on the US Olympic basketball team, and spurned football and baseball offers as well. Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton said Jacobs could have been a .400 hitter. He became equally famous for his collection of boxing films and for being the father surrogate of Mike Tyson. When Jacobs died from leukemia at 58, Tyson struggled and lost direction. Tyson collected Jimmy Jacobs memorabilia, which he displays.
As much of a gentleman that Jacobs was reputed to be, Paul Haber was his complete opposite. After winning a handball tournament Haber would be found sometime later either in jail or a hospital from a week long bender with various females. He worked as a golf pro for 12 years and left the PGA in 1965. He earned a living giving golf and handball lessons, gambling on cards (mostly bridge), pool, board games; and betting on himself in handball. Sports Illustration covered one of his wagers in a story called -The Great Mano a Racqueta- where Haber won $30,000 defeating racquetballer, Dr. Bud Muelheisen, using his hands against Muelheisen’s racquet, which was like bringing a knife to a gun fight. If a handball can be propelled 100 MPH with hands, what do you supposed the speed would be coming off racquet strings? I know I wouldn’t want to be in the way. Haber frequently showed up for matches hung over and was reputed to have his Gatorade spiked with vodka.
As an aside, my thinking is if you want to compare the athletes give the racquetballer the gloves and the handballer the racquet. See the deal is handball players can easily and expertly play racquetball, but one who has only played racquetball doesn’t have a chance in handball. Some of the early top-ranked racquetball pros were expert handball players as well. Steve Serot and Steve Keeley to name two. Keeley was a California -B- Division handball champ and a multiple National champion in both paddleball and racquetball. In true handball fashion, in racquetball tournaments Keeley entered the Pro Open bracket right-handed, and the “A” bracket left-handed.
I once played against Paul Haber at the Manhattan Beach (California) Athletic Club and was thoroughly trounced as he toyed with me. An attractive female accompanied him who was very articulate and intelligent. She was not the kind of lady I expected to be attracted to such a carouser. Haber was in the area to compete in the USHA National Championships at the L.A. Athletic Club, which he won. He always referred to himself as the greatest Jewish athlete of all time, which he repeated over KABC-TV challenging anyone to say differently. When the sports reporter suggested Sandy Koufax, Haber replied that Koufax was no good because he could only use one hand. Jim Murray reported the same story in his L.A. Times column. Before I played him, I suggested Sampson was the greatest Jewish athlete. Haber looked at me, smiled and uttered a few expletives. He was also known for presenting his opponents two doughnuts before a match saying those would be the foe’s scores and could be eaten for lunch. Note: We played three games, and I got four points total.
As the game moved mainly to Southern California, the next wave of top players were Latin-Americans led by Naty Alvarado and Poncho Monreal. Twenty years after I played Haber, I got on the court with Naty at the University Athletic Club in Newport Beach. The two were totally different. Haber was incredibly precise, and Naty was the best athlete I’ve ever seen in any sport. Today, the Irish have made a comeback and are at the top of the game with the Latinos on their heels led by Naty Alvarado Jr.
I haven’t played the game in 17 years having moved from Southern California, and undergone rotator cuff surgery probably brought on by all the years of chasing around in that 20 by 40 room. But tell you what; if Sherwin, Pohlmann, Liberman, Bryson, Kirkorn, Lowell, Matza, and the boys ever resurrect another University AC handball evening with drinks and dinner afterwards; wrecked body and all, I’m on the next plane. I’ll even offer my vintage, but pristine, pair of Naty Alvarado -El Gato- gloves as a door prize.
Copyright by Gene Myers, author of AFTER HOURS: ADVENTURES OF AN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESSMAN (2009), Strategic Publishing Group, New York, NY – a hilarious account of the author’s overseas travels; and SONGS FROM LATTYS GROVE (2010), PublishAmerica, Fredericksburg, MD – a mildly sinister, but amusing work of fiction. Both are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and available in Amazon Kindle and Nook formats. Watch for SALT HIS TAIL, a catch-me-if-you can crime thriller.