Racquetball: The Origins

The Game of Racquetball

Originating as far back as the 19th century, Racquetball is a culmination of the best elements from Squash, Handball and Paddleball. Still played by professional athletes today, the game is also enjoyed by millions of gym-goers as a premium form of fun meets exercise. 

The Roots

Racquetball’s roots date back to the 1800’s in England debtor’s prisons. If sentenced to debtor’s prison, often the prisoner’s family members and possessions followed. Many were once prosperous and owned tennis racquets. No tennis courts existed in prison so the men made good use of their racquets with an improvised game of hitting a ball against prison walls. Taking the prison game as a model, official one and three-walled courts (there was never a fourth or back wall) began appearing within schools, was named “Rackets” and eventually migrated into the mainstream. The British Army introduced the game to Canada where it found its way to the United States.  

Giving birth to Squash

Rackets was also the basis for the Squash. There weren’t enough Rackets courts built for all interested, so players began utilizing smaller courts designed for Handball. It was discovered during play the Rackets ball was too fast to play with on the smaller court, so a hole was punched to slow it down. Now when one hit the revised ball with a racket, it slightly deflated — the racket “squashed” the ball.

The four-wall game
Four-wall Paddleball was invented by Earl Riskey, director of intramural sports at the University of Michigan in 1930. The school’s Tennis players often practiced their strokes on Squash or Handball courts when the weather prevented outdoor play. Sometimes Paddle Tennis wooden paddles were used in the drills.
It occurred to Riskey that a game played with paddles on a Handball court might be a good addition to the school’s intramural program. He adapted the rules of Handball for the new sport which he originally called “Paddle Tennis on the Court.” Within a short time, the game became known as Paddleball. 

The Modern Game

The inventor and pioneer
The modern game of Racquetball was invented in 1949 by Greenwich, CT resident Joseph G. Sobek (1918 – 1998). In the 1940s, Sobek, a Tennis Pro, Squash and Handball player, was dissatisfied with the indoor court sports available and sought a way to make Handball easier on his hands.  He designed the first short strung paddle and with a partner, invented a game in he called “Paddle Rackets”, which combined the rules of Squash and Handball.

Paddle Rackets was faster paced game that was easy to learn and was an overnight success. The sport quickly became popular with everyone except for die-hard Handball players who resented Paddle Racket players taking over their courts. By 1952, Sobek founded the Paddle Rackets Association, codified a set of rules and sent out promotional kits to YMCAs and other sporting organizations to promote the sport.

In 1968 Sobek’s Paddle Rackets Association held its first National Championship tournament in Milwaukee, Wisconson. It was called the Gut-Strung Paddle Rackets National Championship where Bill Schultz defeated Bill Schmidtke in the finals 21-18 in the tiebreaker. In 1968, Sobek also connected with Robert Kendler, head of the US Handball Association (USHA).  Kendler was intrigued by the new sport and the next year he founded the International Racquetball Association (IRA). Kendler used Handball publications to publicize Racquetball which help build its popularity.

Under Kendler’s direction, the first truly open National Racquetball tournament was held in St. Louis, Missouri, in February of 1969. Dr.Bud Muehleisen (considered by many to be the father of modern Racquetball) sporting a Dayton “Steel” strung racquet, defeated Charlie Brumfield, using a “wooden” Sportcraft racquet, 21-20 in the tiebreaker. Both Dr. Bud and Charlie were experienced Paddleball champions and had decided to compete in this new sport only six weeks prior to the St. Louis event.
The name “Racquetball” was formally accepted at an organizational meeting held during the St. Louis tournament. Bob McInerney, a Tennis Pro from San Diego, proposed the name. There was a long debate about the spelling: “qu” or “k”? Because some organizers didn’t want the new sport associated with the negative connotation the word “racket” has, “racquetball” prevailed. At the same meeting, Dr. Bud Muehleisen was chosen to establish the official rules and approve all equipment development.
The rise of popularity
By the early 70’s, court clubs could be found nationwide, and the sport enjoyed a rapid and steady rise in popularity. As Americans sought new and challenging athletic activities, the timing was perfect for Racquetball — courts were accessible and the sport was fun and easy to learn. By 1974, there were about 3 million Racquetball players in the US. That year also marked the first professional tournament held by the IRA. The early 1980’s saw Racquetball become one of the fastest growing sports in America as thousands of new Racquetball courts were built to satisfy the demand. 
The associations
Eventually, the IRA became the American Amateur Racquetball Association (AARA), and in the late 1990s, it renamed itself the United States Racquetball Association (USRA). In 2003, the USRA was renamed USA Racquetball (USAR), to mirror other Olympic sports associations.
In 1979, the International Amateur Racquetball Federation, now known as the International Racquetball Federation (IRF), was founded with 13 countries as members. 
The Ladies Professional Racquetball Association (LPRA) was founded in 1980. Other recent landmarks in Racquetball history include: 

  • 1981: The first Racquetball World Championships
  • 1982: The US Olympic Committee recognized Racquetball as a developing Olympic sport
  • 1995: Racquetball achieved full medal status in the Pan-American games

Current Racquetball
Times are exciting for the sport. Racquetball is now played worldwide in over 90 countries on five continents with 14 million players internationally It’s now a full medal sport in the Central American Games, the Central American Caribbean Games, the South American Games, Bolivarian Games and the World Games. With this international exposure, Racquetball is sure to continue its expansion.
With the sport’s popularity and growth over the decades, formation of outstanding equipment companies was sure to follow. Gear Box, Ektelon, Head/Penn, Wilson, E-Force, and Pro Kennex are creating innovative equipment that is advancing the sport in ways Racquetball’s founders could never imagine.

You can read about these companies and review their offerings at Pacific Sports Warehouse

About the author: Aaron Embry has been a Racquetball/Paddleball instructor for over 25 years. He currently teaches at clubs throughout San Diego County and offers lessons and clinics to players of all ages and skill levels. For more information, please visit http://www.PlayRball.com. 
Personal Interviews from: Dr. Bud Muehleisen. Edited by: Matt Schultz. Sources are: USA Racquetball, International Racquetball Federation, The History of Racquetball – From Prisons to Country Clubs by Shannon Schwartz, and The Complete Book of Racquetball, by Steve Keeley.


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