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.

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