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