Tom Seaver

On the last day of last month, Tom Seaver died. The Hall of Fame pitcher was one of the greatest baseball players in history: 311 wins, 2.86 ERA, three Cy Youngs, a World Series ring and still sixth on the all-time strikeout list even though he retired thirty-four years ago.

Tom Terrific was also an avid squash player. From 1970 to 1995 he lived in Greenwich, CT. For a while he and his wife Nancy lived on the grounds of the Greenwich Country Club, and he became an avid squash player at GCC.

Seaver first played a lot of singles. In January 1977, the New York papers ran headlines about a squash incident: “Seaver’s Nose Broken.” Seaver had taken an opponent’s elbow to the face playing squash in Greenwich. He went to the hospital, got an X-ray and went home.

Four days later he informed his team, the New York Mets, of the accident. James Parkes, the Mets’ team doctor, went out to Greenwich to have at the star pitcher. Parkes was unexpectedly an expert on on the un-baseball-like injury of broken noses, having endured four of them while playing football at Dartmouth. He reported that Seaver’s injury was a midline break and no surgery was needed.

“I have a broken nose and a black eye,” Seaver told the press when the story broke. “Doesn’t everyone expect to have a broken nose once in a while. I expect to be perfectly fine in about ten days.”

(The postscript to the broken nose was that it could have been .001% of the reason behind one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. In June the Mets traded Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds in the so-called Midnight Massacre; Seaver went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA that season and the Mets didn’t recover for a decade.)

Seaver’s most public bow on the singles court came in April 1993 at the Lehman Brothers Tournament of Champions at the Winter Garden in downtown Manhattan. Seaver and John McEnroe gave a charity exhibition before the finals. Seaver, the New York Times’ Robin Finn reported, played five times a week; McEnroe once every five years. Mark Talbott and Ned Edwards served as coaches.

Seaver beat McEnroe 2-1. After the match, McEnroe analyzed where he went wrong: “‘Return of serve, same thing that killed me in tennis,’ said McEnroe, who had the same problems with the harsh angles of Seaver’s squash pitch that he has faced in handling today’s power servers in a game that has outgrown finesse.”

Singles wasn’t Seaver’s only game. He picked up doubles and played regularly at GCC and Apawamis. In the late 1980s Seaver & Peer Pedersen, Jr. won the GCC member-guest and the Morris, Apawamis’ member-guest. They also successfully partnered in many New York City tournaments.

“Tom was a very crafty left-wall player,” said Pedersen, “seemingly at odds with his ferocity as a Hall of Fame right-handed fastball pitcher. He could hit the forehand as hard as Gary Waite but needed too much time to turn, coil, load up and let it go. But he moved people out with his huge lower body and took all the loose balls up the middle with that big bear claw forehand. He loved the left wall: short stroke, good eye and always played within himself, never missed an open reverse and rarely made a racquet error. Most of all, no one enjoyed playing hardball squash doubles with pals more than Tom.”

Looking back on a half century of play, Seaver was simply someone who loved squash . “He was a superior athlete,” said Pedersen, “one of the greatest competitors I ever played with and the truest gentleman. And he loved squash—just couldn’t get enough of squash doubles. His loss was a gut shot.”

Ultimate Squash Showdown

As the tennis U.S. Open returns to New York next week, we’ve been following the flood of new thinking about pro tennis. Much like the preliminary moves we’ve seen in the squash world (see: best of three scoring; see: Ramy Ashour’s RAM scoring system), tennis has long pondered ways making the pro game more exciting.

The idea is to make everything faster, more climatic. Cricket serves as a model. T20 cricket was invented less than two decades ago but now it is the most popular way to play world-class cricket. I still love five-day cricket—it is a novel, while T20 is a short story—but there’s no doubt that T20 has revolutionized the game.

For tennis, the pandemic put the discussions into action. This spring Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, created Ultimate Tennis Showdown, an exhibition league in France. The format: no warmups; matches are divided into four ten-minute quarters, played tiebreaker style, with a sudden-death point if tied; fifteen seconds between serves; no net cord lets on the serve; players took care of their own towels; coaching timeouts (where you can listen in); and cards that shake it all up (you can make your opponent have just one; you get three points if you hit a clear winner; your opponent needs to win the point in three shots or less).

Amateur squash won’t change—and nor should it—but pro squash could take a closer look at this kind of thinking. Maybe not for our equivalents of Grand Slam events, but for most tournaments we could add some of these ideas. We could have cards for giving a second serve (a major loss when hardball gave way to softball). For speed, we could reduce the warmup before the match and especially in between games and have a serve time-clock (less hand-wiping). Maybe a match tiebreaker—first to win three points or something—instead of a fifth game. And we could get on the clock.

Duel in a Telephone Booth

Remember what it was like the first time you played squash?

Earlier this month US Squash received a kind and large donation of squash magazines from the 1970s. Included in the shipment were a half dozen issues of Squash Racquets USA. The quarterly, the first-ever national squash magazine in the country, was published for a few years in the mid-1970s by Lowell Durham in Salt Lake City. It featured regular columns by Roland Oddy and Doug McLaggan, reports from various governing bodies and tournaments, wonderful artwork, and articles by Hall of Fame luminaries like Hashim Khan and Fred Weymuller.

The Winter 1974 issue of Squash Racquets USA caught my eye. On the cover was a bronze Joe Brown sculpture. The Princeton professor was a legend when I was growing up; most Philadelphians known Brown as the man who created the four giant statues originally outside Veterans Stadium and now outside Citizens Bank Park. He made one famous sculpture of a squash player—I believe a couple of casts exist today.

Inside the issue was a humorous and insightful piece by a regular contributor, Mel Leavitt: “An Open Letter to Future Squash Players.” It is written to players brand new to the game. He describes what happened the first time he played squash. Squash, Leavitt learned, delicately balanced on a cliff between sportsmanship and competition.

“Squash is designed to commemorate a duel that took place in a telephone booth in the late 1800s in Heidelberg between antagonists armed with badminton racquets and golf balls….A more apt analogy would feature two British gentlemen impeccably attired in evening clothes, each with a cup of weak tea in his left hand and a spiked cudgel in his right, swinging at each other’s skulls with animal ferocity, but never spilling a drop of tea, or losing their placid ambiguity of countenance. The game of squash racquets may well be homo sapien’s most magnificent contribution to the fine art of hypocrisy.”

Leavitt hated it. He lost four straight games without winning a point. In the fifth he finally hit a winner, and his opponent asked for a let. But he was addicted. Leavitt concluded, describing might be the essence of the game: “In short, squash is dangerous; squash is maddening; squash is humiliating; squash is pointless; squash is impossible. Heaven help me, I want to play it again.”

Pure Heart

Thirty years ago this week—on 4 June 1990—one of the most memorable pieces on sports was published. It appeared in Sports Illustrated.

William Nack wrote it. In 1973 Nack had covered Secretariat’s glorious run to the Triple Crown and written the definitive biography of the horse. In June 1990 Nack put together a long piece after the horse died the previous autumn. I remember reading it in Baltimore, picking up my dad’s copy in one of those transitory interludes between a term at college in New Hampshire and heading to a job in California. I picked it up because Lenny Dykstra of my beloved Phillies was on the cover and discovered a magical piece.

Some images have always stuck with me. I loved the lede, about how after he died, they discovered that Secretariat’s heart was twice the average size of a thoroughbred. Nack recapitulated the highlights of Secretariat’s career (who still owns, nearly forty years later, the record time for all three Triple Crown races), but it was as much about himself and what he saw and felt back in 1973. Nack talked about near fistfights in press boxes, about how Secretariat playfully grabbed his notebook in the barn stall, about a pigeon feather caught in his whiskers one afternoon.

But what I have always recalled was Nack’s ending. He described being in a hotel in Lexington, Kentucky when he heard the news that Secretariat had died. As someone who was twenty-one, invincible to the world, I was struck hard by Nack’s last sentence: “Now here I was, in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.”

https://vault.si.com/vault/1990/06/04/pure-heart-in-waging-the-most-glorious-triple-crown-campaign-ever-secretariat-made-racing-history-in-the-doing-he-took-the-author-on-an-unforgettably-exhilarating-ride

Return to Roots

For the past two months, squash has returned to its roots. Scanning through social media, it is as if one hundred and fifty years has collapsed and we are back in 1870.

People are playing squash wherever they can: in parking lots, hallways, alleys, bedrooms, basements, rooftop gardens—wherever they can find a wall or two. Social media feeds abound with people on makeshift courts. John Musto has run many such examples in his daily squash show (where I’ve also appeared a dozen times to talk about U.S. Squash Hall of Famers) : https://www.manhattansquash.org

The most elaborately thought-out has perhaps come from Philadelphia, where the Joyce brothers (a keen squash family) took six sheets of plywood, nailed them together, painted them and created a court about the third of the size of a real court.

It strongly reminded me of my January 2018 blog (if it is too hard to scrollL https://squashword.ussquash.com/?p=176632388). In there I discuss a Harrow School alum, Somerville Gibney, who in 1894 talked about squash in the 1860s and 1870s. Just like the Joyce brothers, he and his brother created a squash court, not in a basement but in a loft over a stable. There they played for years. This was typical of the game back then. There were no standards to follow, no regulation court. Squash players then did exactly what we are doing now, figuring it out with what we have.

Gibney wrote: “Give a Harrow boy a wall—if a blank one so much the better—and two others or even one other, at right angles to it, with a clear space between, and the probability is it won’t be long before he is busy at squash.”

Pink Leopard

The pandemic. Our squash lives are somewhat the same. We can continue to work out on our own, to talk to friends on video conference calls, watch a ton of past matches and to even hit a ball against a wall (amazingly how easy it is to find a usable wall once necessity forces you to look). But one part of the pandemic that is more or less impossible to reproduce these days is getting on court with an opponent.

That means you aren’t bumping into someone, hearing them gasping for breath, seeing their anger at a tin and smelling their sweat. And you aren’t getting hit by your opponent’s errant shot. Being drilled is an inevitable consequence of squash. It has disappeared this spring, along with everything else about live, in-person squash.

Which brings to mind my favorite story about getting hit by a squash ball. It appeared in the New Yorker eighty-seven years ago this month. “Underdog” was a Talk of the Town piece, credited today to D. King Irwin, Walter R. Brooks and Harold Ross. Brooks was the immortal creator of Freddy the Pig; Ross, the great founding editor of the New Yorker; Irwin, who only wrote this one piece for the magazine, was clearly a pseudonym for a member of the Princeton Club of New York who saw it happen.

The piece, published on 8 April 1933, was “a pretty little story of long-deferred vengeance.” It described a Mr. Smith, “a large gentleman,” who went into the Princeton Club’s lounge and announced he had a squash court booked but no one to play with. “The first to reply was a smallish fellow who came out from behind a newspaper and volunteered.” It was a Mr. Jones (both nom de plumes to protect the guilty). They changed and went on court. Turned out they were both pretty good. But within the first few minutes of play, Jones had hit Smith with the ball a half dozen times: “a dull smack and a vicious pain shot through one of his mighty hams.”

Jones “made the remark conventional when such a thing happens,” which back in 1933 was: “Oh—sorry, old man. Hurt you?” Mr. Smith responded, “also observing the etiquette of the courts,” in a similar dismissive manner: “N—no. ‘S nothing.”

As he kept on getting smacked, Smith cycled through the five stages of grief. “Under the astonishingly accurate volleys of his opponent, chagrin at his own clumsiness gave way to bewilderment, then to rage. It became gradually apparent to Smith that it was not chance but demoniac skill that time after time got him into position and then drove that hard black ball from wall to wall and then, plop, against him.”

Rage would have led to something unsportsmanlike, but a small crowd had gathered in the gallery and “before them, the tradition of politeness and good-fellowship must be kept up.” They played on. Jones kept plugging or “soaking” Smith, the ball leaving “each time another round, red, white-centered welt.”

“At last came a tap on the door. Time was up. The opponents shook hands” and thanked each other. Smith, as he headed to the showers, looked “like an enormous pink leopard.”

Why did Jones hit him? Because many years earlier, Smith had been an upperclassman at Princeton and at Joe’s Restaurant had said something deeply humiliating to a first-year Jones. “For years he had waited for revenge, lurking behind newspapers, and becoming one of the best squash-players in the country.”

Smith never remembered him, of course, and even when the piece was published he didn’t know the explanation. I guess that means be careful the next time you get stood up for a match and go into the lounge to recruit a person to play with and a person lowers their newspaper and volunteers.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1933/04/08/underdog

For more wisdom on revenge, see:

When Squash Stops

We are all a bit stunned this month by the sudden stop to squash around the world. Almost all clubs are closed. Those lucky few who have courts at their home might still be playing, but for most of us, we’ve put down our racquets.

It reminds me of the last time squash more or less stopped: the Second World War. In America, squash limped along. Famously, the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached the Gold Racquets tournament during the Sunday luncheon before the finals. Ray Chauncey, the tournament director, announced the news to a suddenly somber room.

Many tournaments thereafter were immediately cancelled. Some clubs temporarily shuttered; others remained open with a skeletal staff. Nearly all women’s squash in the U.S. stopped, except for inter-club matches in Philadelphia. US Squash waived dues. NY Squash hosted five tournaments in 1942-43—all entry fees and spectator tickets were donated to the Red Cross and the winners received Red Cross certificates.

The Red Cross sponsored an informal Red Cross National Singles for men in 1943, but no one considered the winner, Sherman Howes, a national champion. US Squash hosted the men’s National Singles in the spring of 1942 and then cancelled theirs until 1946; the U.S. women’s association cancelled theirs after Pearl Harbor and didn’t resume until 1947. For both the men and the women, the war halted marches towards immortality. For the men, Charley Brinton captured the last two titles before the war and the first two after. At the same time, Babe Bowes and Anne Page had taken all the titles from 1936 onwards; Page won in 1947 and Bowes in 1948. If there had been no war, these three U.S. Squash Hall of Famers would almost surely have accumulated many more national championships. You have to feel particularly for Bowes and Page—the six-year gap between National Singles, right when they were in their prime, was just unfair.

Team squash continued on, in fits and spurts. High schools didn’t stop competing. Haverford School, coached by Merion Cricket Club pro Bill White, played a full schedule, including matches against the freshman teams at Yale, Princeton and Penn, Haverford College’s varsity and, amazingly, a match in 1944 against West Point (they won 5-1).

Collegiate squash slowed down. The men’s individual tournament was held in 1942 and 1943 before it was shuttered until 1946; and the team championship was decided in 1942 and 1943 and then now played for again until 1947. Dartmouth played two matches in 1943, losing to Harvard and Yale 5-0, before closing down the team until 1946. Harvard soon stopped fielding a team: Hemingway, their home courts, was converted into a research lab. The Crimson resumed playing in 1946, but its coach, Jack Barnaby, didn’t return from his service until 1947. At Princeton, formal squash stopped in the fall of 1942 and informally in May 1944 when the university’s gym burned down, destroying all the squash courts.

Trump Squash

Donald Trump is the only squash-playing U.S. President. He played squash at Fordham for two seasons in the 1960s.

I know. It is a bit of a shock. We’ve had many presidents with a passing knowledge of squash. Both George H.W. and George W. were familiar with squash. H.W’s mother, Dorothy, was a pioneering woman in squash and his father, Prescott, was a serious doubles player in Greenwich in the 1930s and 40s—his name is in gold paint on a number of champions boards.

John Kennedy spent time near a squash court while at Harvard (Winthrop House surely had courts like almost all houses in those days). In 1963 Kennedy welcomed a squash champion—Mohibullah Khan (and Roshan Khan, his distant relative)—at the White House and helped secure a job for Mo at the Harvard Club of Boston. It is one of the more famous images of the game. When I was doing my history of U.S. squash book twenty years ago, I searched high and low for a copy of it and, failing, inserted instead a stern portrait of Mo into the book. A few weeks ago Clive Caldwell kindly scanned the photo—Mo had given him a copy in the 1970s—which hangs on the wall at the Cambridge Club in Toronto.

Curiously, squash has been having a presidential moment, as many White House aspirants in this election cycle have been squash players. John Hickenlooper is an avid doubles player. Bill Weld played regularly while governor of Massachusetts. Deval Patrick ditto. And Kirsten Gillibrand played varsity squash at Dartmouth: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2009/02/senatorial-squash

The man blocking them, however, is the only President to have actually played in college. He played one year on the Fordham freshman team and one year on the Fordham varsity, the 1964-65 season. Here is a photo from the 1965 Fordham yearbook, taken apparently in the locker room:

The official Fordham squash records from the 1960s are gone. I emailed and spoke with a dozen Fordham squash alums from the 1960s, but, unluckily, no one who was on the team that year.

I knew Bob Hawthorn, the Fordham coach who was a legend (coached squash at Fordham from 1956 to 2010) but didn’t discover Trump’s squash career until after Hawthorn died in 2011. I emailed with Bob’s son, Bob, Jr. who told me that once he and his father were playing golf at Winged Foot and Trump, driving past, shook hands with the Hawthorns and said hello. Bob, Jr. also said that his father always told people that Trump was a good athlete and low-key off the court.

Gwenda Blair, the author of the 2000 biography, The Trumps, interviewed a couple of Fordham teammates and Trump himself about his squash career. One teammate commented on how well-behaved Trump was: never late, never unsporting. Only one real anecdote from the era survived: on a trip to Washington (to play Georgetown?), Trump parked his car near the Potomac. He pulled out some new golf clubs from his trunk and smacked a half dozen new balls into the river.

Here I am this winter on a freezing, single-digit day talking about presidential squash in front of the U.S. Capitol:

As the WSF Men's World Team Squash Championship came to an end this week, squash historian James Zug talked us through the sport's long-standing affiliation with Washington D.C. 🇺🇸

Posted by Squash – PSA World Tour on Monday, December 23, 2019

Little America

Earlier this month, the squash world, it seemed, gathered in New York for a celebratory weekend. It was the end of the Tournament of Champions, national Century Doubles tournament, a JCT nearby in Connecticut, college matches in the city and the Squash + Education Alliance’s 25th Jubilee.

At that moment, Apple TV+ released an eight-episode show, Little America. Episode Two, “The Jaguar,” is a fictionalized, compressed version of Reyna Pacheco’s experience with Access Youth Academy in San Diego. The timing was amazing: five years earlier at SEA’s 20th Jubilee, Pacheco had been the keynote speaker. For more on Pacheco, listen to her own story in her own words in an Outside The Glass podcast https://soundcloud.com/outsidetheglass/ep23-reyna-pacheco

“The Jaguar” has received glowing reviews around the world:

The Rocky of Squash: Little America

The half-hour episode features quite a lot of on-court action. “We’re here for the squash… thing?” says the Pacheco character, Marisol, played by Jearnest Corchado, as she walks into the squash club. There are some quirky, if expected inexactitudes. The urban squash movement, particularly Access Youth Academy, is distilled into something called the “Urban Squash League.” (In the epilogue, it says that Reyna is “now on the board of the Urban Squash League” which is true—she’s on the Professionals Board for SEA.) Marisol plays in the “2009 Ivy Squash Classic” (with its $25 entry fee). In the climatic match, the referee has no iPad or clipboard.

Marisol’s coach, the fictionalized Renato Paiva, is played by John Ortiz. He issues brilliant aphorisms. “Hitting hard will not make you win,” he says. “Winning is a series of good decisions….The ball always comes back and when it does, just make a different decision.”

Perhaps the best is his wonderful ode to ball scuff. “No matter where you play, ” Ortiz says, as he shows Marisol the right side wall, “you must know everything about the court, every angle, every wall. Every one of these marks is a different decision. If you listen, you can hear their stories.”

It has been eleven years since I got to blog about ball scuff, so I am thrilled to return to that font of literary genius: 

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2009/02/updike-sex-and-ball-scuff

At the same time, the squash in “The Jaguar” is realistic. Corchado might not have smooth strokes but she makes up for it with grit and determination, much as you’d expect from a hungary, novice player. Her main squash rival in the episode, Charlotte, is played by Jamie Pawlik Gore.

Wonder why Gore’s strokes are so good, how she can smack backhands and figure eight with such ease? She grew up in Baltimore, playing squash at Bryn Mawr School and was ranked in the top thirty nationally; then she played varsity squash at Columbia. Gore knows about urban squash: she volunteers at StreetSquash, and her teammate for three years at Columbia was Reyna Pacheco.


The Tens

The 2010s are wrapping up and a new decade is about to begin. Almost everything changed. My list of ten changes:

  1. Parity in prize money. Historic, long-overdue and just the beginning. Made everyone in the game rethink and reprioritize.
  2. SquashTV. Ten years ago, people still said squash couldn’t be properly broadcast. Now it is the norm: we love the replays, the player reviews, the incredible points, the commentary, the nicknames. And it’s not just at major professional events, but at junior tournaments, the National Singles, the SDA. Streaming is now the norm. Transformative.
  3. US Squash. Staff quadrupled. Tournaments tripled. Club Locker changed how squash players connect to the game. Elite Athlete Program changed how America develops and sustains champions. Squash Magazine became the global leader in squash print.
  4. The merger of the women’s and men’s pro tours. It has meant growth, equity and strength.
  5. Intercollegiate squash. Finally the game, at the core of American squash, got organized with a full-time executive director and an independent board. The level increased to where the best players in the world are playing college squash. Poised for massive growth.
  6. Urban squash. It doubled in size; it went all over the country and all over the world. New facilities. One giant gala in 2015; another next month.
  7. The survival of European squash. Ten years ago it looked very bleak, courts closing, national associations shrinking, tournaments disappearing. But stabilization has occurred. Six of the eight teams in the quarters at the men’s world teams were from Europe. The world’s largest facility is in Europe. Some of the best-run and attended events are in Europe. The associations are recovering. Two dozen nations come to the European Teams and upsets abound. It ain’t over.
  8. Community squash. The idea of a non-profit, public, accessible, mixed-use facility (juniors, middle and high schools, urban and adults) is transforming the way grassroots squash works. Pioneered in Portland, now in Atlanta and in Manhattan and coming soon elsewhere.
  9. The way we communicate and spread squash news: podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. Unfathomable a decade ago. Can’t wait for December 2029 to see what time has wrought.
  10. Pro squash and Egypt. Ten year’s ago, in December 2009, according to SquashInfo.com, there were two Egyptian women in the top twenty (Omneya Abdel Kawy at No.7 and Engy Kheirallah at No.14).) Now we have eight of the top twenty, including the top four. (And from that top twenty from a decade ago, only three—Allison Waters, Camille Serme and Annie Au—are still on tour.) The men are the same. There were five Egyptians in the top twenty a decade ago; today there are eleven, including, like the women, the entire top four. (But retirement has been staved off more with the men. Half a dozen of the top twenty from December 2009 are still on tour: Greg Gaultier, James Willstrop, Daryl Selby, Cameron Pilley, Borja Golan and Mohamed ElShorbagy.) (Well, since the last few days, we are down to five, with Cam Pilley stepping down.)

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash