In the 1800s, when people would run up debt and couldn’t pay, there was no such thing as a charge-off or protective bankruptcy. People who owed money would go to debtors’ prisons. Men would move into the prisons with their families and all of their possessions. A lot of the men were prosperous in their past lives (often beyond their means, which put them in a debtors’ prison in the first place), and they had tennis racquets (racket is also an acceptable spelling) with them. They started playing ball with their racquets against the prison walls. The courts began appearing outside a lot of prisons. They would either just use one wall, or there would be three walls. There was never a fourth, back wall. This was the game called “Rackets.” Soon the game began being played at schools and was no longer a prison game.
The game was brought to Canada from the British Army, and it eventually spread to the United States – it was even a sport in the Olympics at one point - but it never really caught on. There are still a few courts in existence to this day. The most important thing about the game is that it is thought to be the origin of a game called “Squash Rackets.” It also, therefore, played an important part in the history of racquetball.
There weren’t enough rackets courts, so instead of waiting for long periods of time for an available court, people played in smaller courts designed for handball. The rackets ball was too hard to play with on the smaller court, so someone thought of poking holes in the ball. It worked well, and when you hit the ball with a racquet, it deflated. The racquets squashed the ball. Hence, the game was called squash rackets. There was also a squash tennis sport where people simply used tennis balls and racquets to play the same game.
Early forms of racquetball were played in America in the 1920s. The form that we play today can be credited to a tennis pro named Joe Sobek. He was from Greenwich, Connecticut. This man played the biggest role in the history of racquetball.
Sobek was apparently so good at squash that he had a hard time finding partners. He started playing handball at a local YMCA, but the sport hurt his hands. Sobek combined the rules of squash and handball to come up with his new game. He designed racquetball racquets that were smaller and more like paddles. He had 25 prototypes made in late 1950, which he sold to other members of his YMCA. He called his new game “Paddle Rackets.”
He had great timing. It just so happened that there were about 40,000 handball courts built in YMCAs (Young Men’s Christian Association – a place where guys - and now men, women, and children of all ages - could work out) and JCCs (Jewish Community Centers). Because these courts influenced the derivation of his new game, they were, of course, the perfect size to play the sport.
The balls, though, were a different story. When they were hit with the racquets, they became too lively. Sobek’s search for a better ball led him to a dime store, where he found an ordinary rubber ball made for children. He bought a large quantity of the balls, and later he found a company to make hollow balls as he designed them.
The men he sold his prototype racquets to were successful businessmen. They traveled a lot to different countries, where they shared the sport with others. In 1952, Sobek made a set of rules and printed a number of copies for distribution. He created the National Paddle Rackets Foundation at this point.
Sobek began to market his sport to other YMCAs and JCCs across the country. He would send packets to them including equipment and rules. The sport became popular with everyone except the die-hard handball fans who resented the paddle people taking over their courts.
The sport continued to build in popularity. The first national championship (open only to men) was held in 1968 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the 1960s, Joe Sobek was invited to a Memphis YMCA to give a demonstration and commentary on his paddle rackets game. The YMCA had also invited the founder and president of the U.S. Handball Association, Robert Kendler. They apparently had wanted a Crossfire-type debate about the game.
Kendler wasn’t a fan at first, but the sport grew on him and he, too, became an important part of the history of racquetball. In 1969, he founded the International Racquetball Association (IRA). Another tennis pro in San Diego came up with the name, and Kendler ran with it. He used the handball publications to publicize the sport and build on its popularity.
There were millions of people playing racquetball by the 1970s. Courts were now being built just for racquetball all over the country. In 1974, the first professional championship was held. Meanwhile, Kendler (the handball turned IRA founder) had a few disputes with the International Racquetball Association, and he left to form a couple of other organizations – the U.S. Racquetball Association and the professional National Racquetball Club. In 1979, the IRA became the American Amateur Racquetball Association.
In 1979, the International Amateur Racquetball Federation (now just called the International Racquetball Federation) was formed, and it included 14 countries. In 1980, the men’s pro tour was established along with the Ladies Professional Racquetball Association (LPRA). In 1981, the first Racquetball World Championship was held. The country, however, was heading into a recession at this time, and both of the new organizations founded by Kendler (The USRA and the NRC) went bankrupt in 1982. The International Olympic Committee recognized racquetball as a developing Olympic sport, but times were tough.
In fact, the recession hit racquetball pretty hard. A lot of the courts had to close or be used for different purposes. Racquet sales hit an all-time low, and people put their love for racquetball on the back burner. Jane Fonda’s workout, aerobics, stationary bikes, and other new, advanced fitness machines became wildly popular. People could now get exercise at home with instructional videos played on new VCRs or an exercise bike of their very own.
In the 1990s, fitness clubs became very trendy. Most of these fitness clubs included racquetball courts. Racquetball again became popular. It started being featured in the US Olympic Festival, and there is a lot of talk about racquetball becoming an Olympic competition in the future.
In 1990, the International Racquetball Tour was created with competitions throughout the year for professional players. In 1997, the American Amateur Racquetball Association became the United States Racquetball Association (USRA). The organization is still going strong, with a national team, a junior national team, and intercollegiate competitions. There is still a Racquetball World Championship held every year by the International Racquetball Federation.
Since Sobek’s prototype, racquetball racquets (bigger than squash racquets) have become a lot more advanced. New materials have allowed them to become lighter than ever, you can get custom grips, and vibration dampeners allow for better performance. For beginners, racquets can cost as little as under $20. Advanced and customized racquets can run as much as $300.
You don’t need a lot of other equipment to play racquetball. You have to wear eye protection in most courts, and you have to play with balls specially designed for racquetball. You can play in ordinary t-shirts and shorts, or you can invest in specialized material that will pull sweat away from the skin to keep you drier and cooler while you play.
There are also court shoes available that will help you keep your footing on the court floor. Racquetball gloves are designed to help you keep your grip on the racquet. It’s definitely a great way to keep in shape. The only activity that burns more calories is running. It also keeps your interest – most of the time, the time goes by very quickly, and it’s definitely an all over body workout.
Racquetball is still growing in popularity, and the history is still being shaped. Because the game is still relatively new, there may be more changes ahead. Look forward to seeing this game in the Olympics of the future, and more televised events on sports television.
If you are interested in playing racquetball, there are great equipment deals online. You can also buy an instructional book and video to help you learn the fundamentals and tips on how to get better. The game was designed with pretty simple rules to keep it easy to learn. There are, however, some strategies that you can use to better your game. The best part of the game is that so many people play. It’s never difficult to find a partner or join a league. Head over to your local YMCA, gym, or country club to get involved.
Shannon Schwartz is a successful freelance writer offering guidance and suggestions for consumers. Her many articles give information and tips to help people save money and make smarter decisions.