The Crown & Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Twice this fall I’ve come across tiny squash scenes on television.

The Crown—season five, episode two (“The System”)—has a brief squash scene with Andrew Morton and James Colthurst. Both people in real life knew about squash: Morton went to the University of Sussex; Colthurst to Eton.

The scene opens with a delightful shot of a glass door with the two men playing on the court behind it (only a few courts have a plaster back wall but a glass door). Then it moves on court. Both players are all in white, small-headed racquets. It only lasts for a couple of seconds and ends with one player sprawled on the floor, racquet flung to the tin. Then a quick moment half a minute later, more slashing at the ball.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a squash scene dripping with sarcasm. It aired on 5 December 2015, in season three, episode nine (“The Swedes”), the one where Neil deGrasse Tyson guest stars.

Holt and Kevin have established “a squash doubles dynasty” at the Park Slope Racquet Club, winning a tournament two years in a row. Kevin can’t make it this year, so can Boyle sub in? Boyle, it turns out, was a three-time intramural champion at Sarah Lawrence. The school newspaper dubbed him “squash’s unhinged lunatic” with a record of 27-0.

Boyle is nervous about playing with his boss. “Squash brings out my competitive side, breaking racquets, cursing, excessive mooning,” Boyle tells Terry. Once to psych out an opponent, Boyle locked eyes and ate a squash ball.

At the Park Slope Racquet Club, the matches occur. They are on a glass-back, converted racquetball court, lined for both squash and racquetball. The side-walls have ads (for Sparkle Mist energy drink and a sporting goods store). The door is on the side but there is a large gallery behind the glass back wall. Holt and Boyle are in all whites.

The first point of the first match starts with Boyle serving to the right-wall side, with Holt standing right next to him. Boyle serves the ball out and then complains vigorously to his opponent.

In the next match, Boyle unleashes the beast, wearing all-black: headband, elbow pads, knee pads, socks and a black glove on his playing hand. He bursts on court and says, “you butternuts ready to get squashed?” At one point, Boyle snaps his racquet in two and then slams the two pieces onto the floor.

Later, they FaceTime with Kevin and show him a nice squash trophy. But they can’t go for No.4 next year because they’ve been banned for life: Boyle snapped the second-place trophy over his knee and threw it in a urinal.

PBI

A few weeks ago I was down in Richmond for the Price-Bullington Invitational’s golden anniversary.

The PBI is one of the great under-sung squash institutions in the U.S. Founded in 1970 by Salty Hawkins and originally named the A. Holt Bullington Invitational, the event’s name also includes Ted Price who has presided for a half century. I wrote about the PBI last year, when it celebrated its fiftieth:

But the grand party was cancelled in 2020 and, due to the pandemic, the tournament in 2021 was necessarily subdued, so this year the celebration finally occurred. A fantastic contingent from around the world came to town. On the Friday night there was a special dinner hosted on two long tables out in a gorgeous garden. There was an all-star roster in attendance: current and former college coaches including Mark Allen, Wendy Bartlett, Wendy Lawrence, Steve Pitch and Gail Ramsay and multiple winners of the PBI like John Nimick, Reeham Sedky and the Ezra brothers, Adrian and Daniel.

It is hard to overstate what a bombshell the Ezras were in the 1990s. The boys from Bombay flashed across the American scene, crushing everyone in both hardball and softball. Adrian won three national intercollegiate individual titles (losing in the finals in the fourth) and Daniel took one title, losing three other times in the finals. They presided over a tremendous team run— with them at the top, Harvard captured every men’ s national title from 1991 through 1997 except when Princeton upset them in 1993.

At the PBI, Adrian won in 1991, 1992 and 1993 (and lost in the 1994 finals) while Daniel won in 1995 and 1996. Now living in New York and London, the brothers are playing more padel than squash but it was great to see them again after a quarter of a century.

Jack Herrick

Jack Herrick passed away this week at eighty-four.

The morning he died, I wrote up three different obits—Jack was a legendary leader in three distinct squash bailiwicks (US Squash, Jesters and Dartmouth Squash). Jack was an abiding friend, collaborator and predecessor for me in those realms and beyond. I was close with his children while in college and close with Jack ever since. Year after year, we would end up in long conversations at tournaments around the U.S. (Jack always had a box at the Tournament of Champions that was always filled with squash luminaries) and around the world. I got to stay at his house in Cleveland. I got to spend time with an absolute gem of a guy.

His death now closes a chapter on one enduring, if entirely unimportant mystery: who was he in college? Jack was a class of 1960 at Dartmouth, a member of the tennis and squash team. He was also a member of Alpha Delta Phi. When he was a senior, a freshman named Chris Miller joined the fraternity. A decade and a half later, Miller wrote articles in National Lampoon and then co-wrote the screenplay for Animal House. The articles and the film were based on Miller’s days at Dartmouth and his AD brothers. There was a real Otter, a real Flounder, a real Bluto (but he was in another fraternity); Miller’s nickname was Pinto. An AD named Turnip was the one who originally showed up at a women’s college pretending to be the fiancé of a recently deceased student. There was also guys nicknamed Doberman, Seal, Rat, Hardbar, Dumptruck, Hydrant, Giraffe, Magpie, Coyote, Abby, Rhesus Monkey, Froggie, Poz, Hardbar, Huck Doody, Moses, Doberman, Gazork and Mouse.

Who was Jack? He never bragged about being portrayed in Animal House but he admitted that he—or something he had done—had made it directly into the film. Chris Miller surely mentions Jack in his 2006 memoir of AD, The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie. But now we’ll never know which one he was. It is a good mystery to have as we say farewell to our old friend.

Sam Howe

Our good friend Sam Howe died earlier this month at the age of eighty-four.https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/inquirer/name/samuel-howe-obituary?id=36539373

I grew up with Sam and long ago got used to long, fruitful, historically rich conversations with him. “At any rate,” was his stock conversation filler.

He was always well turned out. I loved his stripey socks, jaunty hats and his many needlepointed belts and cummerbunds (courtesy of Dodi Fordham, his wife). He loved talking history. I recently went through a photo album of his from the 1964 National Doubles which were held in Minneapolis. The names were sometimes legendary and, to me, sometimes obscure, but Sam had a funny story about each one.

He had fun. Years ago he gave me a framed newspaper, the Montclair Monitor. Dated April 1st, 1961, it was an April Fools paper with the tagline: “All the Dirt That’s Fit to Sweep.” (“Cost: Only Your Self-Respect”). Some squash guys had gotten together to produce it. There was a lot of insidery ribbing and joking. One article declared that Howe was getting demoted to the third division of the Philadelphia district because of poor play (highlighted by losing to his college-age brother Ralph).

At any rate, we will miss him.

What Nathan Saw

This summer I got a copy of Nathan Clarke’s second book of photograph: Behind the Glass II: Inside the PSA World Tour 2020/21. It was published in 2021 by the PSA Foundation.

There are hundreds of incredible photographs in the book, well beyond the standard action photo from behind the front wall. Close-ups of tattoos, scars, a drop of sweat just leaving Hania El Hammamy’s chin; shots of family members; aerial shots; multiple-exposure and slow-shutter speed shots. The cover features Lisa Aitken at the Black Ball Open with a stunning double shadow.

The book highlights how strange that season was, with the pandemic at full-throttle, and how perceptive and captivating Clarke’s eye is.

Copies are available:https://www.ebay.com/itm/384736121694?hash=item59940f535e:g:XEAAAOSw-U5iC369&amdata=enc%3AAQAHAAAAsOebT6Xf%2BvxkJdMIMqBm%2F8hKXhqMel5cFZU50p4hsGIT%2F2squaVRuF2dyhQnNVwQi7AwnSNIHqKqhsD%2FIBF%2Fx6SyIbxzx0yFkstuMzxUWzdQAv0WkyK1OWAd%2BLA14XbxAkzu4PR8bulwiNvvozIVXpldjECIMPA67uNcPlMWQ8X72Njk%2FYDyx3pHJDX59U9sTVc17j9B6gNEuu32c5v7sBBBgqNPFK9bPrSgz%2FyHbkwG%7Ctkp%3ABk9SR8jE-YTwYA

Pete Bostwick

Earlier this month, George H. Bostwick, Jr. died at the age of eighty-seven.

Arguably, Pete was, along with his younger brother Jimmy, the greatest American male amateur athlete of the twentieth century. He was an outstanding golfer and tennis player. He remains one of just three men to play in both sports’ U.S. national championship: in the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot he missed the cut by just three strokes; in 1952 he lost in the first round at the U.S. tennis nationals at Forest Hills. He twice won the U.S. Open in racquets. In court tennis he twice captured the world championship and won six U.S. Open titles. In ice hockey he tried out for the 1960 Olympic team and from 1958 to 1983 captained the St. Nicholas squad.

Squash was a sidelight amidst all this competition (and scheduling—Pete was famous for driving or flying all over the East Coast to be able to squeeze in a St. Nick’s game during a tournament weekend). But he naturally was very good and worked hard at it. He first played at St. Paul’s, but it wasn’t until his late thirties that he picked up a racquet in the winters. Still he won the men’s national 40+in 1975, 45+ in 1980 and 70+ in 2005.

I’ve received dozens of emails about Pete in the days since he died. He was not just an outstanding player but a gentleman, gracious, thoughtful, a perceptive mentor to me and dozens of other younger players.

One correspondent mentioned an incident in the finals of the 40+ in 1976 at Penn’s Ringe courts in Philadelphia. As defending champion, Pete had just beaten Hall of Fame Diehl Mateer in a close, five-game semifinal and now was locked in a tough battle against Dick Radloff in the finals. Midway through, Bostwick got hit in the forehead from a Radloff swing. Blood everywhere. A doctor came down to the court and stitched up his forehead. Ever the tough hockey player, Bostwick resumed playing.

He lost 15-13 in the fifth, but he gained the admiration of the gallery, as he did throughout his unprecedented career.

Balls That Go Poof

Earlier this year Andrew Shelley asked me to contribute to a history of the squash ball for the World Squash Library. Typical of Andrew, he collected a mass of amazing advertisements to illustrate the history, producing a twenty-one page tour de force. It is well worth a visit:

https://www.squashlibrary.info/post/squash-balls-from-then-to-now

One section we didn’t put in was an absolute gem of journalism from an absolute gem of a guy.

In January 1968 George Plimpton examined the fraught American squash-ball situation in an article in Sports Illustrated, “The Strange Case of the Balls That Go Poof!” The Seamless, Plimpton wrote: “the standard ball then, made by the Seamless Rubber Company, while adequate enough, tended to heat up during play and take on ‘rabbit’ characteristics. It would bounce so eagerly around the confines of the court that it became very difficult even for top players, particularly against quick retrievers, to put the ball away. Good players were anxious for a change.”

 In 1961 the change came from the most unlikely location, the Craig-Simplex company. Craig was based in Van Buren, a village so deep in northern Maine that it was a five-hour drive to the nearest squash court in the U.S. but just a minute walk from the factory across the St. John River and into Canada. Cragin produced a green diamond ball, quite hard and fast, and then a yellow diamond for summertime play. Cragin’s CEO was Walter Montenegro, who worked out of a tiny office on Varick Street in New York’s Tribeca district.

Soon sanctioned by US Squash, the Cragin balls suffered from inconsistency just like the Seamless—many in a box would break too soon or go mushy after a couple of hard games. And the Cragin green diamond were a touch slower than the Seamless.

A tremendous row ensued, as Plimpton explained: “Mediocre squash players, notably the portly, stood for the Seamless ball, which they liked because it flew around the court long enough for them to get to it. The issue, which is still argued today, of what sort of ball should dominate squash has had its fine moments of drama. Many New York squash players remember Arthur Barker, the onetime head of the Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association, proclaiming solemnly at an official dinner, fighting for control as he gripped the lectern, ‘I do not intend as president of this association to preside over the death of the Seamless ball!’”

Both Cragin and Seamless balls, due to heavy carbon content, left a lot of ball scuff on the walls, the trademark marks of a mid-century squash court. Ball scuff was very much the thing sixty years ago. To learn more about its literary antecedents, I offer this tiny bagatelle from 2009:

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

Anyway, in 1967 Montenegro bravely tinkered with the composition of the ball to reduce the scuff (and slow down John Updike). But his no-mark balls broke almost on the first hit, as Plimpton related in 1968: “Last year’s crop of Cragin-Simplex squash balls (which is more than half the market, the Seamless Rubber Company providing the rest) turned out to consist of balls as fragile as Christmas tree ornaments. In courts across the country the balls have come off the front wall after a few moments of play with an odd plopping sound and have divided in half to roll at the players’ feet like walnut husks. Breakage of squash balls during play is not uncommon, but there has been an epidemic.” 

The only people who liked the new Cragin ball were aging players, wrote Plimpton: “the older members, those up in their 60s, were getting a great kick out of breaking squash balls. It suggested that power and devastation were still a part of their game, and they would come back to the pro shop after a match, just sidling in easily, and after a while hold out the two halves of a smitten ball and say, ‘We really went at it today.’”

Plimpton concluded his article with a long quote from Jack Barnaby, the Hall of Fame coach at Harvard, that laid bare the fundamental issue about inconsistent balls: “It’s an awful mess. The new Cragin ball doesn’t bounce. You might as well pick a crushed stone off a highway project and play with that. If you pound a little life into it, the ball leaps around as if it were shaped like a trapezoid, and then quite soon, mercifully, it breaks. In 1966 Cragin had a fine ball. It bounced, which is a good start, and it wouldn’t get heated up. It reminded me of the Hewitt ball we played with back in the ’20s and ’30s, which lay low even if you pounded it. The older players complained and got the association to speed up the ball. That is when the Seamless people came in and did what was asked of them with their lively and rabbity ball. But the 1966 Cragin ball—well, a slugger could play his game with it, laying the ball dead, and so could the touch artist, with his tweak and drop shots. So it was possible to match two vastly different games in the same court—the bludgeon and the rapier—with neither handicapped by the ball’s qualities. That is squash at its best and most interesting. Nowadays one of the main despairs we coaches have is that the official balls—Cragin and Seamless—are so different, rocks and rabbits. If our team is playing away from home we have to find out well in advance what ball will be used in the match so that we can train with it for as long as possible.”

ToC22

Well, that was something. How great was it to be back in Grand Central watching squash? I counted up about eight hundred and thirty days between the end of the 2020 Tournament of Champions and the start of the 2022 edition.

Some much has changed in the meantime. More than once someone said, yes, well the last time we did this we had dinner with thirteen hundred people to celebrate SEA. That was about eight weeks before the pandemic hit the U.S. It could have been the ultimate squash super-spreader.

It was a different ToC for sure. The flood of matches early on (ten one day). The utter joy on Timmy Brownell’s face as he kept winning matches. The masking in the stands. The absence behind the front wall of Steve Line, who missed his first ToC since 1995, I think. The food hall across the way in Vanderbilt standing empty, a casualty of the pandemic (a new vendor is moving in before the next ToC in January), so no hanging out there. And the lack of coaches, especially in between games. A couple of players told me they miss that traditional part of the game, but a few others said that going without a coach had forced them to think critically and cogently, to figure out what was going on in the match on their own and that newfound self-reliance was helpful.

Still, the same hugs and conversations, the catching-up on how we’ve survived the past 2.5 years, divorces, deaths, births, marriages. The same referees: Sheldon Anderson telling bad fishing jokes.

And the same players: James Willstrop was back for his eighteenth ToC—he’s been at it in Grand Central for so long that in his first appearance in late February 2003 the matches weren’t even streamed online. That year Jimbo had to qualify (remember those?) by beating Ali Walker and then Shahier Razik (in five). Then he beat Karim Darwish in the opening round in five before lasting forty minutes on court with Peter Nicol, then world No.1 and the eventual champion that year. It goes without saying that not a single other player in the draw that year is still on the PSA World Tour.

Including qualies, James Willstrops’s career record at the ToC is a remarkable 40-17, three finals, one title. We all hope he’ll come back in January 2023. The all-time ToC win record is forty-one career victories: Nick Matthew went 41-14 and Greg Gaultier went 41-13.

Hall of Fame Opening

Earlier this month, we had the long-awaited opening of the new U.S. Squash Hall of Fame at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center. I’ve attended (and helped run) every induction ceremony we’ve had since we started in April 2000 and this was absolutely spectacular: four hundred people, incredibly touching and thoughtful speeches and videos and a palpable sense of the absolute relevance of history in this community today.

A dozen members of the Hall of Fame attended:

Sam Howe (class of 2002); Ned Edwards (2003); John Nimick (2006); Kenton Jernigan (2008); Hazel White Jones (2010); Tom Jones (2010); Joyce Davenport (2011); Lenny Bernheimer (2012); Tom Poor (2012); Michael Pierce (2015); Ben Hechscher (2017); Maurice Heckscher (2017); Anil Nayar (2018); and Ginny Akabane (2019).

In addition, more than a dozen other Hall of Famers were represented by their children and grandchildren, cousins, friends, pupils and teammates. And one canine attended too: Welker, Tom Poor’s spirited Shih Tzu.

Ukraine

I went to Ukraine in 2018. It was an extraordinary journey. Here is what I wrote about it:

Last Thursday 3 March 2022, I went to the Arlen Specter US Squash Center and interviewed Alina Bushma. The Drexel junior is from Kyiv. During the first days of the war, she traveled to Boston for the National Intercollegiate Team Championships, where she had a most remarkable match.

There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.

That is the quotation—falsely attributed to Lenin—that I keep thinking about, as the news from Ukraine comes spiraling across my screens. The invasion is not even two weeks old and already a decade has happened. A lot has changed for Alina’s family and friends in the past few weeks , as you can hear in this special edition of Outside The Glass.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash