Hyder, Doug McLaggan, the SWPHI

The Hyder was just played in New York again. It is the oldest continuously-held softball tournament in the country. Last September in San Francisco I saw the finalists from the first men’s draw in 1969, Graham Sharman and Dave O’Loughlin, and both men are surprised as I am about how the Hyder has grown to be a major pro event. 

Sharman and O’Loughlin were doing quite well, almost forty years after their match, and the worst physical ailment seemed to be a blister on Dave’s foot that attacked him as we left a Giants baseball game.

This year both Hyder finalists, Wael El Hindi and Shahier Razik are ranked in the top twenty-five in the world. El Hindi won 11-9 in the fifth; Razik won last year’s final in five games. When you add in past winners like U.S. Squash Hall of Famers Mo Khan and Ned Edwards and guys like Jonathon Power and Martin Heath, and you realize what quality the Hyder has attracted.

A few weeks ago I got a letter from the Met SRA , which runs the Hyder (I was on the Met SRA board for about fifteen minutes a few years ago before I moved to Washington). They listed all the annual awards that the association, one of the oldest and certainly the largest, gives out. They have nine of them, which is about a half dozen more than most district associations. One, the Ned Bigelow, even hails back to 1928, only four years after the Met SRA was founded. It has got to be the oldest squash award in the country?

McLaggan Bows Out

Doug McLaggan died at the end of April. The hard-nosed Scot bounced around as a pro at some of the top clubs in North America for thirty-odd years before retiring to Vermont. He also was a very good player and reached two Tournament of Champions finals and three Canadian Open semis. He was most known for appearing in the first live-action photographs ever published taken from the front of a court, when Life magazine did an article on Hashim Khan and the first U.S. Open in 1954 and Ralph Morris stuck his camera up by the tin.

We had a couple of fascinating telephone conversations while I was writing my history of squash.  McLaggan was interested in the history of the game and how to teach it. He co-wrote, with Laura Torbet, one of the most underrated and under-exposed books on the game,Squash: How to Play, How to Win. Sorbet by the way, is still going strong in California and has written books on everything from macrame to mopeds.

Published by Doubleday in 1978, Squash: How to Play, How to Win is a poorly-designed but magnificently-conceived book. Torbet and McLaggan interviewed two dozen of the top players and then reprinted the interviews, verbatim, as they progressed through the various aspects of the game.

A bucket load of revealing gems appear throughout the book. Charlie Ufford talked about not sleeping, because of nerves, the night before the finals of the 1951 intercollegiates (he lost). Peter Briggs hinted he might write a novel about squash, especially about the 1975 North American Open tournament held in Mexico. Diehl Mateer gave a wonderful anecdote about trick shots and Neil Sullivan from the old Atlantic Coast Championships in the 1940s. It is especially interesting because Sullivan told Mateer to not hit trick shots, to only hit rails and cross-courts, and yet a decade before Sullivan was the master of bizarre shots and was credited as the first person to perfect what is now called the Philadelphia shot.

Beyond that, there is a big appendix of champions; a long glossary (”length: used to describe a ball hit down the line or cross court that makes its second bounce and dies near the bottom of the backwall”); and a quirky scoring technique developed by Ned Bigelow. Also, the photography is excellent and probably unmatched for breadth and depth of any American book published before the portable glass court: Barbara Maltby wiping her hand on the wall, Stu Goldstein volleying, the Manhattan Squash Club being built. Though I am not sure I needed that shot of Vic Niederhoffer’s knee.

Stan Pearson Invitational

The second annual Stanley W. Pearson Hardball Invitational came off last month in Philadelphia. Run by the brothers Pearson, Eric & Duncan, it again featured a couple of dozen twenty and thirty-somethings reliving their hardball childhoods on the narrow courts at Philadelphia Cricket Club (amazing how strong hardball was just twenty years ago). The matches are serious but so is the socializing in bad plaid. Above all, the amount of nostalgic referencing is enormous—guys pulling their SX7 racquets and Merco balls out of their closets.

The tournament honors great-great uncle Stan, Sr. who won six national singles titles, a record still unbroken seventy-five years later; and great-uncle Stan, Jr., who won the 1948 singles, thus making them remarkably the only father-son duo to both win the national singles.

The SWPHI has a nice ring to it and is a fantastic idea. I just wish the Pearsons put the tournament on wide courts. Hardball on a softball court is a glorious game. With the extra two and a half feet, the crosscourt is a knife to the gut, serving is fun again and oh la la, here is my old mistress, the sweet but dangerous double boast. The hardball tour guys knew this, which is why they designed their portable glass court in the 1980s to be twenty-feet wide, rather than the traditional eighteen and a half. On wide courts, you can still wield your wooden racquet and Hunter Lott circa 1983 tournament tee-shirt, but you don’t have to worry about Philly Cricket tiring of their remaining hardball courts and tearing them down.

5 Responses to “Hyder; Doug McLaggan; SWPHI”

  1. Jim Domenick Says:
    Jim,

    Good stuff. I’m sure you probably know this, but for the first 5 years after the USSRA was organized, all the national singles champions played out of the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. And of the first 15 champions, 12 were Germantown members, including Stanley W. Pearson.

    Jim Domenick

  2. Guy Cipriano Says:
    Jimb- great articles and great insight, as always. However I think you’re dead wrong when you say that hardball on a softball court is a great game. Frankly it’s a dreadful waste of time because the ball moves too fast and you can’t retrieve even a routine cross court. Maybe Mark Talbott and Gary Waite can, but 51 year olds who are blind in one eye can’t. The rallies are too short and you can get injured trying to retrieve the unretrievable.
    Too bad hardball singles is on life support- it was a great game but unlike the Bon Jovi song, you really CAN”T go back .

    GUY CIPRIANO

  3. Eric Pearson Says:
    I appreciate the commentary on the SWPHI. Through only in its second year, it truly is becoming a fantastic event, with a loyal and almost cult-like following of players from coast to coast. Some participants have even suggested that the SWPHI is more of a lifestyle than a tournament. With regard to the notion that the tournament be played on the wide court, I cannot disagree more strongly. The game was not designed to be played on the wide court and is thus a bastardization of a once great game. There still remain today more traditional hardball courts in the US than softball courts (this was true a couple of years ago, so I might have to refresh my stats) so it is the opionion of the board of directors of the SWPHI that the tournament be played on the true court for as long as possible. We recognize the reality that some day hardball courts may cease to exist, at which point we would shift to the softball court by necessity. However, until that day comes we will play the game as it is traditionally meant to be played. We are not looking for progressive measures or compromises. We are not looking to take another step to make our beloved game more like the international game, which all but extincted the game of hardball. We are taking a bold step, that nobody else in the United States seems willing to take, to preserve what just 15 years ago was the standard. I am not knocking the merits of harball on the wide court. I have recently learned that it is a good game and I look forward to competing in my first tournament on the wide court in next month’s Woodruff Nee, but for as long as I am the director of the SWPHI it will be an invitational event contested on the narrow court. And for that matter, as long as I am on the board of the Hardball Association I will insist that the national championship continue to be played on the proper court. Lets not render our existing real estate valuless by failing to utilize it for its stated purpose.
  4. Wilford Smith Says:
    I’m almost a year late here, but hardly a day goes by without me thinking of Doug McLaggan.

    I met him at the University Club in the 70’s. He taught me to play, and for a long stretch of time back then, I would take two lessons a week from Doug. It always was the highlight of my day. The squash was wonderful to be sure, but the stories were better. In all that has been written about Doug, no one has mentioned what a great storyteller he was.

    One of the best, as I recall, was about Doug in the Royal Marines in Sicily during World War II. Doug’s platoon was ambushed and totally wiped out, except for Doug. He had been left for dead and woke up two hours later underneath three bodies. Hearing him tell the story made you shiver.

  5. Ian Douglas McLaggan Says:
    How wonderful it is to read great things about my dad. Thanks Bill for the story. I have wonderful memories of The University Club where I spent a number of years watching the master. He was a true gentleman.

Softball Doubles; Liechtenstein; Kazoo

I just got back from nearly a month of traveling. I first went to Johannesburg and Cape Town for the South African Jesters’ fiftieth anniversary celebrations. Most the squash we played was softball doubles. In Joburg we even had the coincidence of having all four of the inventors of the game (in 1986 in England) on hand. There are now about ten softball doubles courts in South Africa, including a spanking-new four courts at the Country Club Johannesburg, and the game is catching on. 

Hiddy Jahan came to one of the Jester parties. Jahan, the great Lahore-raised, London-based pro who reached a British Open final (in 1982, losing 9-2, 10-9, 9-3 to Jahangir), was in South Africa to play in Nicky Oppenheimer’s annual doubles tournament. It was a bit ironic, considering that Pakistan squash suspended Jahan for two and a half years after he went to apartheid South Africa in the mid-70s.
I was then in London and caught some of Sky TV’s late-night coverage of the quarters of the Canary Wharf tournament. It was pretty spectacular for an American: great interviews (story-lines established by guys like Peter Nicol); production (clear views); fresh (just two weeks old) and long (a full hour). So even if it started at 11pm, it still said, very clearly, that squash is television ready, that the small court is not a permanent hindrance to gripping idiot-box drama. Of course, it helped having some drama that night, with Willstrop beating his longtime stablemate Beachill for the first time in thirteen attempts, after being 2-1 down.

LIECHTENSTEIN
For all the caterwauling about the cons of the Trinity squash dynasty, one thing is for sure: college squash is growing and Trinity is partially to blame. Fifty-two men’s teams earned College Squash Association rankings (forty-one came to the men’s nationals) and thirty-two women’s teams came to the Howe Cup women’s nationals. These numbers are up nearly fifty percent from the hardball days fifteen years ago. There are a dozen good reasons for this, but certainly the higher standard of play and the attention Trinity receives has not hurt.

Under John Power, my alma mater, Dartmouth, came in eighth this year. For all those who bemoaned the lack of Americans on Trinity’s roster (none in the top nine), take note: all fourteen men on the Big Green varsity roster came from North America (including three from Canada and one from Bermuda). Power had a new assistant coach this year, Glen Wilson from New Zealand, who I first met at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester where he earned a gold medal in mixed softball doubles. Dartmouth said goodbye to former assistant David Heath, who had survived three bachelor winters up in Hanover. Heath moved to coach the national team of the greatest, per-square-mile squash country in the world: Liechtenstein. 

Heath reports that there are five squash courts and one hundred and fifty players among the country’s thirty-five thousand citizens. He plays in the Swiss national league and says that after soccer, squash is one of the most popular sports in Liechtenstein and so articles often appear in the two national daily newspapers. Add in the hiking and skiing and the only thing that bothers Heath about life in the tiny Alpine principality is the scary fact that women only got the right to vote there in 1984.

CAN YOU KAZOO?
Earlier this year, Barbara Stewart appeared on Martha Stewart’s television show to play the kazoo. It was on her self-proclaimed National Kazoo Day. Stewart has been on with Conan O’Brien and the Tonight Show. She is campaigning to make the kazoo the national instrument. She leads the Kazoophony band. She flogs her book that came out last fall, The Complete How To Kazoo User’s Guide & Practitioner’s Manual (“Lesson #1: Hum, don’t blow.”) and her special tee-shirts on her website. 

It is all hummingly over the top. The last time we bumped into Stewart, she was one of the founders of junior squash in the 1970s. From her home in Rochester, she helped create the USSRA’s junior committee and start the national girls’ championships in 1977. (She even claims that there were national girls championships before the first official one in 1977; anyone have something to add?) Stewart later worked on a project with Hashim Khan, trying to make a sequel to his classic 1967 tome Squash Racquets: The Khan GameStewart’s book and website are very cheeky; she mentions kazooing on a skidoo and while doing yoga, but she sadly does not refer to the true craft of kazooing while playing squash.

One Response to “Softball Doubles; Liechtenstein; Can You Kazoo?”

  1. Guy Cipriano Says:
    Jimbo- I know of the following eight doubles courts in South Africa:
    4 at CCJ
    1 at Oppenheimer’s estate
    1 at St Francis Bay
    2 at Western Provinces Cricket Club in CT

    Where are the other two? GUY CIPRIANO

2007 ToC

The tenth annual Grand Central squashslamajamarama was, as always, the biggest scene of the U.S. squash season. When the Tournament of Champions does finally depart from Grand Central, as it surely must some sad day in the hopefully far future, we will look back on our late winter sojourns in Vanderbilt Hall with great wistfulness. We’ll probably never have it so good again. 

On the surface not much was new at the 2007 Tournament of Champions. The video screens were tucked inside the patron lounge; a few oversized posters of players dotted the walls; everyone sported giveaway Dunlop baseball hats; three hundred and thirty players from the U.S. Skill Levels floated around; and, to fulfill the latest request of the Grand Central security folks, blue and white netting spiderwebbed the sides and top of the glass court, so that balls did not ricochet out into the mewling masses.

But a lot of the home-cooked excitement, unusually, bubbled up on court in the early rounds. Julian Illingworth, our national champion, finally produced the PSA breakthrough Americans have been waiting for. In the qualies he overcame his sometime coach, Chris Walker in seventy-six minutes, 4-11, 11-10 (2-0),11-8, 6-11, 11-10 (2-0), before going down in ninety-three hard-fought minutes to Stacy Ross 11-7, 11-8, 8-11, -11, 11-9.

However, LJ Anjema had to back out and as a lucky loser, Illingworth took his place in the main draw. After a rest day, he played another marathon match, this time against former world number five Dan Jenson. Down 2-0 and then down 4-1 in the fifth, he kept his composure to win the first U.S. victory in a Super Series tournament in years. The last time we have had such a historic win was twenty years ago, in the 1986 U.S. Open in Houston when both Mark Talbott and Ned Edwards won first-round matches by beating guys ranked at the time in the top ten in the world.

The twenty-three year-old by way of Yale lost in the second round to David Palmer, but his result helped propel him to his third straight national title a fortnight later in Portland and it helped push him ahead of Marty Clark’s best ranking of 59, leaving him free to assault Bill Andruss’ 34, the highest pro softball ranking ever for an American.

Illingworth’s chief competitor in that climb is Chris Gordon. Ranked a dozen spaces behind Illingworth, Gordon also made it to the main draw, courtesy of a wild card entry offered by tournament director John Nimick and nipped a game off Borja Golan in front of a large crowd. The only one missing was his one hundred and four-year-old grandfather, Al Gordon, who lives on the Upper East Side but was not healthy enough to come down.

The third American story was Natalie Grainger. The Washington-based WISPA star topped Vanessa Atkinson 9-11, 11-7, 11-5, 11-7 to win the four-woman exhibition draw. Just before the ToC began, Grainger was finally able to rightfully place “USA” next to her name. After a process that began in July 2001 and that included the intercession of two U.S. senators, the native Johannesburger took the written, one-hundred question exam and at an eight-am swearing in ceremony became a U.S. citizen. To cap it off, Mark Powden, the husband of Washington squash guru Wendy Lawrence, was able to present Grainger with an American flag that flew over the Capitol that day.

There were so many great matches involving non-Americans, of course, most notably Amr Shabana v. Hisham Ashour, the oft-overlooked older brother of world junior champion Ramy. Down 2-0, Hisham surprised his stablemate and forced it to go five. And Ramy v. James Willstrop was the pipecracker to what could be the rivalry to succeed Power v. Nicol. With a black sweatband oddly on his non-playing wrist, Ramy won and went on to lose, perhaps for the last time in a while, to Shabana.

Speaking of Nicol, Jay Prince at Squash Magazine had asked me to do a write up of the Scot’s career upon his retirement last autumn, but in the editorial flow of the new season, it never happened. The only thing to say now is this: sixty months at #1. How many years will pass before we, in this age of incredible competition, travel and distraction, see that mark reached again?

Nicol always had a great mind for things non-squash-related (re: hiking in the Himalayas three years ago) and so it was a surprise to see him manning a booth in the merchandise midway in Vanderbilt Hall. He was avidly hawking the Power-Plate, a vibrating machine that a company was setting up in new health clubs around London and New York. Nicol credited it with his remarkable final year on the tour.

We talked about staying in touch and he gave me a 917 cell phone number. Turns out, he is living in Brooklyn with his new girlfriend, Jessica Winstanley, the lovely daughter of the lovely Melissa Winstanley. Melissa, operations director at the ToC, has always been the gracious power behind the throne at major PSA events in the U.S. and now with Nicol in the house, you’ve got to think that something synergistic could happen.

Baset; Heart Attacks; Quakers

As many of you know, I have been working for a few years on a book project with Paul Assasiante on the story of Trinity squash, and this season has been the most improbable yet. The arrival of Baset Ashfaq seemed to spell instant doom for the rest of the nation’s top programs  Ashfaq was the best softball player ever to arrive at an American college: he was coached by Rahmat Khan (can anyone say, Jahangir?); he was ranked sixty-one on the PSA tour the summer before he matriculated; and he had won the British Open juniors, thus becoming the first Drysdale Cup winner to come to play collegiate squash since Anil Nayer popped up at Harvard in 1965.

As an incoming freshman, Ashfaq (sometimes you see his last name as Chaudhry) was going to shove everyone down one on the Trinity ladder. But a funny thing happened. Midseason he lost two challenge matches in a row, to Shaun Johnstone, the bullet-biting Zimbabwean, and to Gustave Detter, the Atlas-shrugging Swede who saved three match balls against Princeton’s Yasser El Halaby in the Bantam’s epic 5-4 escape last year. So the greatest recruit ever was playing three.

Why? For one, Killer B, as the Trinity guys have nicknamed him, was having a hard adjustment to the life away from the tour. He grew up in Lahore and he turned twenty-one in January, so it was not a lack of maturity or exposure to Western life or even academics (he earned a 3.8 average first semester), but rather a lack of confidence. He was too good for the provincial American college squash scene, friends on the tour told him; his game would deteriorate. The 2006 U.S. Open in November then fulfilled that prophecy. In the qualies up in Boston, he struggled to beat Preston Quick 3-1, and then went down cheaply to Tom Richards in three quick games. Richards was ranked fifteen spaces below Ashfaq when he came to Trinity and three months later he was losing to him.

At  the 2007 team nationals, sespite a strained tendon in his right ankle, he hammered a previously untouchable Mauricio Sanchez of Princeton in the finals. No one had ever won the finals of the Potter Trophy tournament 9-0, but Ashfaq’s surprising win made that possible. And so Trinity got their ninth straight title and extended their NCAA-record unbeaten streak to 165 matches. His teammates carried him on their shoulders from the court.

Ashfaq, like most of the other Bantams, are rock stars in an individual sport, yet from the moment they put on their yellow jerseys, complete with their names on the back, they buy into the team mentality, the streak, the dynasty. The first thing Ashfaq did when he walked into Assaiante’s office the morning he arrived from Pakistan was ask about the championship rings Assaiante kept in an eyeglass case. Assaiante said there were eight of them, one for each national title. Ashfaq instantly replied, “order four more.”

BALTIMORE HEART ATTACK
Last month I went up to Baltimore for the BIDS, their long-running doubles tournament. As usual, it was a great weekend. Patrick Miller was inducted into the Maryland State SRA Hall of Fame  (what district association has a better list of Hall of Famers than MD?) and Margaret Riehl, the pioneer of women’s squash in Baltimore, received the MSSRA’s Achievement Award.

I heard the report on the FitzGerald Cup, the annual DC v. Baltimore match which through attrition has become the oldest continuous inter-city in the country (and world?). Washington leads the series 40-19. This year’s match had a long-overdue innovation, in which a woman played on Baltimore’s 13-person side. And the woman, Lisa Tutrone, bested Hunt Richardson, the veteran DC pro, 10-9 in the fifth.

But another Balty story was the return of Sandy Martin. Last August he collapsed on the upstairs doubles court at the Maryland Club. Andrew Cordova, the MD Club pro, rushed onto the court with a defibillator and restarted Martin’s heart. He was taken to the hospital, came out of unconsciousness after four days and now, six months later has made a full recovery and is back on court. Believe is the motto of Baltimore, and how.

It made me think of the many people who have had heart attacks on the squash court and not made it out alive. The most famous, ironically, is the one who died in a court tennis rather than squash court, Stan Pearson, Sr., winner of six national titles.

QUAKER SQUASH
Speaking of passing on, I bumped into David Claghorn in the gallery at the Princeton v. Trinity dual match last month. His mother, Marge Claghorn, was one of the unsung heroes of women’s squash in the 1950s and 60s. She helped run the New Jersey States at Pretty Brook, one of the major tournaments of the women’s circuit. She was a delightful person with a lively laugh. And she was a member of Princeton Friends Meeting, where her memorial service was held in January after her death.

Over the holidays, my wife’s cousin, Tom Elkinton, was telling me about Will, a former colleague of his at the American Friends Service Committee . It was Willing Patterson, the 1940 national champion.

There are other members of the Religious Society of Friends, like me, who also play squash. Probably more than anyone would guess. Charlie Ufford comes to mind. Who else? On the surface it might seem strange, but not really, for in true Quaker spirt, you usually say “I am playing with” rather than “I am playing against” when someone asks where you are going with your squash racquet. For squash, more than most other one-on-one sports, has a communal aspect, a give-and-take, a clearing, a subtle search for consensus.

3 Responses to “Baset Ashfaq; Baltimore Heart Attack; Quaker Squash”

  1. guy cipriano Says:
    Jimbo- well written articles. You are always entertaining and very informative. I think that Charlie Ufford would be a good source of information re other Quakers who play squash. To my knowledge, our two Quaker Presidents, Hoover and Nixon, did not play.

    I believe you are correct when you stated that no team has even won the Potter Trophy 9-0 before this year. I checked the yearbooks to verify that statistic and it’s correct.

    Guy Cipriano

  2. Thomas Says:
    Didn’t Jahanghir Khan’s brother die of a heart attack while playing a squash match ?
  3. Rick Kagan Says:
    James –
    Your heart attack query reminded me of why (in my fifties, depite a variety orthopedic and circulatory insults) I am a lifelong squash player. BTW, after half an adult lifetime of dreaming about nationals I finally made it to New York so I could be one of those 330 amateurs roaming around at the TOC this past winter.
    As a young displaced New Yorker working as an investment professional in downtown Chicago almost thirty years ago, I started taking lessons again. Although my freshman roommate and I learned this unfamiliar, yet oddly addictive game from the great, and by then potbellied, John Skillman himself at Yale – we clearly in retrospect had no idea who he was and hadn’t availed ourselves of many training opportunities despite the endless hours we committed to play – for fun, exercise and intramurals at best, I need not make clear. The pro at the University Club there, who was not a young man himself would tell the story of his immediate predecessor who died on the court playing in his eighties (I don’t believe there were portable defibrillators back in the stone age). I don’t remember either’s name now, but the image always stuck with me.
    As an immortal twenty something this immediately went on my list of top three ways to die – most importantly having lasted into my eighties still able to play squash and such! The other two included riding a motorcycle into the Grand Canyon – soon to be dubbed doing a “Thelma and Louise” -and the last, not so unique according to these types of discussions, but probably not for publication in this forum.
    I still have the notion that this lifelong obsession with squash will keep me alive long enough for it to kill me. What a way to go! However, I did wonder how it might make your partner feel….

Gold Racquet Revival; Sears Trophy; Media Watch

I just got a copy of the program for the December 2006 Gold Racquets from tournament director Mark Hinckley. He and co-director Peter MacGuire are stepping into the famous shoes of Treddy Ketcham. They had a fantastic weekend: There was the Whiffenpoofs at the Sunday brunch, players from a dozen countries and still the old standbys like Mike Pierce who is trying to win the doubles in a fifth decade.

A few days ago I got a nice, informative email from Kerry Martin up in Canada who complimented me on my squash book and then said that there is an error on p. 269, that his brother Peter was nineteen when they won the Gold Racquets doubles in 1966. (The Martin brothers had a remarkable weekend: they beat Treddy & Jimmy Ethridge 15-13 in the fifth; then Pete Day & Bill Morris 17-15 in the fifth; then Claude Beer & Howard Davis 15-7 in the fifth—it was a Sunday morning, not the best time for that bibulous tandem; and then an easier four-game win in the finals over Gerry Emmit & John Davis.)

Mike Pierce, whom I claimed was the youngest to ever win the Gold Racquets, turned twenty on the day he won the tournament in 1969 (7 December). Peter Martin, on the other hand, turned twenty on 28 December in 1966, twenty-four days after he won the coveted trophy.

Pierce might not be the youngest, but he is the most consistent. He has won the tournament in four different decades. He told me this fall in San Francisco how he has only missed one tournament since 1969 and that was when a blizzard grounded his car on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Hinckley and MacGuire issued a program, the first in the history of the Gold Racquets. It was stuffed with photographs, lists and articles. They reproduced the well-known and affecting shot of a group in the front of the court. It was taken at the Gold Racquets in 1941, that awful Sunday, 7 December and everyone’s face—especially a scowling Germain Glidden—revealed the news from Hawaii. I loved the pic of Ray Chauncey, cigarette in hand, on the court (!) and Treddy, a Marine-straight back and his ever-present drawsheet stuffed in his blazer pocket. My only quibble is how this could be the 75th? The tournament was played (either singles or doubles or both) every year from 1928 to now, except for 1943 and 1944. So wasn’t 2005 the 75th time everyone gathered in Cedarhurst to partake of that unique Rackaway hospitality? I wasn’t a math major, though.

SEARS TROPHY                                                                                                                 A year ago an antique dealer named Jonathan Askins contacted me about a trophy he had obtained in New Hampshire. In 1928 Eleo Sears won the second annual Massachusetts SRA’s women’s singles tournament. It was hosted by the Harvard Club of Boston, which had just swung open its squash doors to women in off-peak hours.

They might have been grudging about court-time bu they did make a rather splendid trophy. It is solid sterling silver, eight inches high, with the Harvard Club crest and “Eleonora R. Sears” below the year 1928. I am guessing that this might be the oldest extant women’s squash trophy in the country.

MEDIA WATCH II
At the U.S. Open in Boston last November, I sat next to Clayton Collins, a Christian Science Monitor staff writer. He had played squash at Pomfret thirty-odd years ago and racquetball more recently. He now was interested in a piece for the CSM’s Friday lifestyles section, which  came out on 15 December 2006. It had two Steve Line photos and a shot of play at the Tennis & Racquet Club. Collins peppered the piece with some nice quotations from the author of the “authoratative”  Squash: A History of the Game and Jeanne Blasberg (nicely optimistic, she says USSRA membership “will jump an estimated 20% this year” and that she hopes the game will be in the Olympics by 2012, which has we know is impossible; 2016 maybe). It also showed the CSM’s continental reach (or ambition) by listing upcoming tournaments in Oregon, Virginia, Ohio and New York.

The January-February issue of Harvard Magazine had three pieces on Harvard squash. Carlin Wing, ’02, was profiled about her photography. The former pro reached sixty-five in the world three years ago. She is now in grad school in L.A. and has a project on portable squash courts. Then there was Tal Ben-Shahar who won the 1995 national intercollegiates. He is a psychologist who teaches a popular course at Harvard on positive psychology (“Happiness 101”). And then there was an article, by Craig Lambert, on the two top current Crimson, Siddharth Suchde and Kyla Grigg. The article was a good joint profile and came with a very determined sidebar on “How to Slice a Squash Ball.” It might not be the clearest lesson ever, but Lambert did salt it with a memorable (if untraceable?) line from Jack Barnaby: “Always try to hit the ball before it hits the wall or right after it comes off the wall, because hitting it while it is on the wall is impossible.”

Jeffrey Toobin discussed Arlen Specter’s squash game at the end of his New Yorker piece of 4 December 2006. He said the senior senator from Pennsylvania plays seven days a week (obviously hardball; Specter is seventy-six and no one half his age plays a match every day of the week without money involved) and that they played together recently at the Federal Reserve. There was no whites-only clothing rule (which is all-but-impossible to find in Washington away from the Metropolitan Club), as Snarlin’ Arlin sported a “ratty sweatshirt” from the 1984 Olympics. Specter dropped the first game 16-14 and then snagged three straight with “a deadly drop shot.” What kind?

Toobin mentioned that Bob Packwood, another gladatorial senator, once smacked Specter with his racquet, causing a wound that needed six stiches to close, but failed to add that the “swat” also broke Specter’s cheekbone. Mmmm. Makes you want to be a Democrat.

  1. Mark Hinckley Says:
    Jim,Thanks for the Gold Racquet plug. The 75th running was a great weekend, marred only by the absence of Treddy Ketcham. FYI…here’s the “new math”. From the records we have at the club, the singles portion of the event began in 1928 and has been run continuously since then, with the exception of the 4 war years (1942-45). The doubles began 2 years later, in 1930. Again, according to the records we have at the club, it has been run continuously since then, with the exception of 2 war years (1943-44). I’ve never heard an explanation of why there was a doubles, but no singles, draw in 1942 and 1945. Technically, 2006 marked the 77th running of either a singles or doubles tournament at the RHC on the first weekend in December, and therefore we might have celebrated the 75th edition of this squash weekend in 2004 (so your reasoning was correct, but your math was still a bit off). However, the “Gold Racquet Invitational” is the name of the singles tournament, and the 2006 edition was the 75th running of it. When Ray Chauncey put together the weekend in 1928, he donated the Cartier gold racquet that remains on display at the RHC clubhouse. The plaque on it’s base lists only the winners of the singles tournaments. For as long as I’ve belonged to the club, a tie clip-sized gold racquet has been given to the winner of the singles draw. According to Treddy’s recollection, the doubles portion of the weekend began 2 years later in 1930, when 1st round singles losers were paired with the best club member doubles players. I am not certain as to when the doubles expanded to the larger, stand alone draw, but, in 1960, club member, Wm. C. MacMillen, Jr., donated a cup in Ray Chauncey’s honor, and the doubles portion of the event has been called the Ray Chauncey Invitational ever since. To further complicate this entire issue, the club, in 1977, celebrated the 50th “anniversary” of the Gold Racquet Invitational, 49 years after the inaugural weekend in 1928. Go figure. As a sidebar to all of the above, I offer the following tidbit…this year we invited a number of past champions to return to the RHC for our celebration. In his letter back to me, accepting the invitation, Sam Howe (1964 Gold Racquet winner) noted that he’d played in the 50th, that he would be delighted to attend the 75th, but that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it to the 100th! Best to you, and good luck with “The Direct”.

    Mark Hinckley

  2. Jim Domenick Says:
    I used to play “The Senator” from time to time (in the mid 80’s) at Clark’s Uptown in the old Franklin Plaza Hotel at 16th & Arch St. in Philadelphia. I was in my 20’s at the time, and he shot almost every ball back then. The biggest problem I had with him was that his scheduling secretary would call my house at 10:30 PM and say the senator had a court scheduled for 7:00 AM the next morning. After declining those offers 2 or 3 times they stopped calling.

Donald Rumsfeld

The biggest jolt of media hoopla for the U.S. squash world this fall was certainly about Donald H. Rumsfeld’s game. David Cloud did a big piece on Rummy’s racquetwork in the New York Times on Sunday 24 September and it gave rise to a number of interesting tangents.

Cloud emailed me just after Labor Day. He said he was working on a piece about “Rumsfeld’s squash playing as a vehicle for a sort of mini-profile of him.” We talked on the phone for a half hour and emailed.

Maybe we didn’t talk enough. Cloud’s piece hammered away at the now-former Secretary of Defense’s on-court style, saying that he didn’t clear, that he trash talked. Chris Zimmerman, who works at the Pentagon, took me around the courts there in the spring and played a couple of games with me. Zimmerman was quoted as saying that Rummy “doesn’t play by the rules.” Larry Di Rita, a former sparring partner of Rummy’s, replied in a letter to the editor that Zimmerman didn’t know Rummy at all. Who knows?

But the real metaphor was not the Secretary’s on-court m.o. How many seventy-four year-olds clear especially well? Especially in hardball? CeCe Turner Haydock (who made it to the semis of the 1975 intercollegiates and, like Rummy, is a Princetonian) slapped Rummy in another letter to the editor for his bullying, his bravado and his bragging. I suspect she doesn’t like his political leadership style (nor do I); I assume she has not seen him play squash (he very rarely played outside the Pentagon, though the Pentagon does field teams in the DC squash league), and yet she still declares that “intimidation, willfulness and power plays are his methods for maintaining the upper hand. I would not get near a squash court with him.”

No, the point is what kind of court would you not get near with him and here both Cece and Cloud totally miss the story. What was fascinating about Rumsfeld was that the Pentagon built a hardball court in 2004 (not 2002 as quoted in the article)

That was the news. This is the first new hardball court built in the world since 1989 or 1990. That is huge. Fourteen years go by and then the Pentagon builds a brand-new court of a standard that no longer makes sense. Leave it to the Pentagon to build an obsolete court.

The day I went there, I did see two older guys using the hardball court, but really, it is a waste. And with just one softball court, the Pentagon league teams really struggle to play home matches, since few guys want to wait through three matches to play their own (a schedule, by the way, that is the norm in many countries; then again, in many countries league night=booze-it-up-till-two-am night).

In helping Cloud put the article together, I spent a fair amount of time with Farhana Hossain (another evocative name), who is a graphics editor at the Times. She wanted some sort of illustration that showed the difference between hardball and softball. I pointed out that the Times did a long, prescient article on just that subject, “Softball Edging Hardball Among Squash Partisans” by Liz Hecht on 12 February 1990. In it was a diagram lifted from Heather McKay’s Complete Book of Squash. I don’t own a copy of McKay’s tome, though I list it in my book’s bibliography; it has a nice blurb by Frank Satterthwaite on the cover. It was originally published, by Ballantine in 1979, making it a bit out of date when the Times needed it in 1990. Let alone in 2006.

But Hossain found it and then we tinkered with the text to make it more relevant to the article.

Hecht’s 1990 article had its own interesting antecedents. It featured a picture of Gary Waite, mullet and all, digging out a forehand drop against the tank-like Chris Dittmar. The photographer was Larry Armour/Squash News.

Hecht knew some of the big cats in the squash world. She quoted Penn’s legendary coach Al Molloy; national doubles champ Jon Foster; Darwin Kingsley, still at the moment the executive director of the USSRA (he announced “The growth of softball is inevitable but I doubt it will take over the U.S. game in our lifetime. The investment in hardball courts here is too great,” well, PK is still very much in his lifetime and yet blew this one); Frank Satterthwaite (obviously the go-to guy for quotes on squash ever since his wonderful memoir came out in 1979, The Three-Wall Nick and Other Angles); and a friend of mine, Andy Taylor, who was last seen running a progressive school in Cape Town in the mid-90s.

But she revealed her squash history ignorance with a Charles Arnold quotation at the start of her piece: “The ball is a very vexed question.” She claimed Arnold was the first squash pro in Britain (what about Charles Read?). She states that he “was quoted as saying in the 1920s.” Well, it was actually 1926 and he was writing, not speaking. The sentence comes fromThe Game of Squash Racquets, one of the early books on squash (I got my unbound copy from the ever generous Bob Drake ). She said that Arnold was referring to “the difficulty U.S. hardball players had adapting to the game of softball squash.”

Not so. The quotation appears on page two of his book and Arnold was actually discussing the various English standard balls. In the 1920s the Pommies were constantly tinkering with the standard ball, causing much commotion and discussion. Arnold says in the paragraph Hecht saw that he liked the “Holer Ball” that was commonly used at the Bath Club (where he was head pro) but that in the last amateur championship the RAC ball No.2, ,black on the outside and red on the inside, was used. Nowhere in the passage does Arnold mention U.S. squash standards or balls. The only time the U.S. comes up at all was at the very end of the book, when Arnold ran through some recent international matches and pointed out that American ball was “somewhat slower” than the British balls.

Slower not faster.

All this points out the truth about how hardball and softball diverged in the 1920s, that it was the Pommies who endlessly fiddled with the ball and slowed it down so severely that the “slow” U.S. ball eventually became much faster. See pages 40-42 in my book for how controversial this move was in London in the 1920s and 30s.

The article said that the USSRA counted 37 softball courts, 120 racquetball converted courts and 3,000 hardball courts. I wonder what the numbers are today?

Like Cloud’s article, Hecht’s inspired a cool letter to the editor. This one appeared five weeks later. It was written by Telford Taylor, who says he went to Harvard Law School in the early 1930s and had learned squash at the Law School’s famous squash facility, Hemenway, under Harry Cowles. He said that the hardball in use in 1990 was much slower and softer than the ball in the 1930s. This is a great point. Like the Brits, Americans also slowed down the ball dramatically; the 70+ was so much slower than the old Seamless and so much faster than the Dunlop/Slazenger ball we use now. This is a great argument to give whenever a hardball nut protests about playing hardball in a softball court—which is a great game and the one true way to “save” hardball. They say, “Oh, you are bastardizing the game” and you say, “what game? Where is the old Wright & Ditson ball, the real hardball before they ruined it with the pansy Seamless?”

Taylor also pointed out that in the 1930s the hardball “boast” or three-wall, which Hecht describes, was in his day what we now call the double boast. “Maybe that can still be done with today’s ball,” he wonderfully concluded, “but not by me.”

The Saints Go Marching In

Earlier this year I suddenly felt like it was 1979 and I was on Lexington and 86th Street. In Washington I had drinks not once but twice with Harry Saint and Nancy Gengler. The Saints were in town to play in a court tennis tournament (they live within fifty feet—or fifty yards, I can’t remember, it could have been fifty meters—of Queen’s Club in London) and to visit family, including Tim Saint, the former Haverford College star, who is now in the Marines at Quantico.

Nancy was a top player in the late seventies. She won the national intercollegiates in 1976 while at Princeton and worked as a pro at Uptown. In 1983 she reached the finals of the women’s nationals in Boston where she played Alicia McConnell. Gengler, described by Jean Strouse in the New Yorker as “a willowy twenty-six-year-old redhead who moves with the lithe grace of a dancer,” almost beat McConnell, who was defending champion. After splitting games, Gengler was up 14-12 in the third. McConnell won the next two points and Gengler, sensing this was her opportunity, went for a third game point by calling no-set. McConnell crushed a backhand cross-court, out of Gengler’s reach. And then won in four. It is a pretty good what if—if Gengler had won the third game and then gone on to win the match. Instead, McConnell rolled out seven straight national titles.

Harry was the brilliant entreprenuer who single-handedly changed the course of U.S. squash history by opening up three public squash clubs in Manhattan. The most famous of which—and the only one that survives, though in a drastically reduced form—was the Uptown Racquet Club on 86th & Lex.

Harry eventually sold the squash clubs and wrote a novel in 1987, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (Atheneum). It was a brilliant book that did very well. Expectations were low, with just a $5,000 advance, but as soon as people read it, there was an explosion of interest. It had a 100,000 first printing and was a huge seller. ”The prose is so elegantly knowing,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said in the New York Times.

The Dell paperback did very well, too; it cost $4.95 (those were the days). For squash fans, it was partially set in a combination of the University and the Racquet & Tennis clubs in New York, and many people enjoyed a parlor game of guessing who he had modeled characters after.

Saint sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. for $1.3 million (the same amount he paid to buy the Uptown building). In 1992 John Carpenter (Halloween, etc.) made it into a film starring Chevy Chase as Nick Hollaway. The film got panned hard. “Where’s the wit? It fades into invisibility while you’re watching it?” said the LA Times. It remains a footnote in film history mostly because Shirley Walker became the first woman to compose an entire Hollywood movie’s music.

The world has been waiting for his second novel. Saint told me that he was working on a couple of projects but nothing was finished.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash