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.

3 thoughts on “When Squash Stops”

  1. Your article about squash during WWII reminded me of what some have called “the most famous squash court in the world.” I am referring, of course, to the squash court at the University of Chicago where Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction on Dec. 2, 1942. This was a key step on the road to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. Fermi’s result demonstrated that chain reactions, til then only a theoretical prediction, actually do occur, and can be controlled.

    One article I found described the court as “abandoned,” so I am not sure if UChicago had an active squash program that was shut down for the war, or if the squash program ended independent of the war.

    Anyway, here are links to a couple articles about it. There are many others.

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/worlds-first-nuclear-reactor-was-built-squash-court-180957390/

    https://www.uchicago.edu/features/a_witness_to_atomic_history/

    1. Bill,
      The court at the University of Chicago’s football stadium was actually a racquets court, not a squash court. I talk about this in my 2003 book on the history of the game, p.135. The space was 30×60 feet, which is the size of a racquets court and, as of yet, has never been the size of a squash singles or doubles court.

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