Racquetball Among Other Racket Sports
If you’re like me, you probably thought racquetball and paddleball were the same. You may have thought squash and handball were similar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Racquetball is played with a hollow rubber ball and racquet – indoors or outdoors. Players hit the ball against a wall in the front. Paddleball can be played with one wall or four walls. Players use a paddle to direct the ball. Squash is played on a two- or four-wall court. Two or four players use racquets to hit the ball. Handball is a team sport that has two teams with seven players. No racquet is used to propel the ball – just your hands. It’s easy to see how one can confuse the sports!
Local Racquetball Inventor
I came across a very interesting fact while researching my blog. Racquetball was invented by local resident Joseph G. Sobek. He developed the game at the Greenwich YMCA since he was looking to increase his exercise. There’s a plaque at the YMCA which commemorates this event in the 1950s.
Sobek was born in Greenwich and lived here all his life. He was a professional tennis and squash player. This involved selling equipment, teaching, running tournaments, supporting racquetball associations and doing anything else he could to promote the sport.
He decided to leave this occupation and take up something more lucrative. So he went to work for the H.O. Canfield Company in Bridgeport. This was a rubber manufacturing company. Joe soon became restless since his job offered little exercise. He started going to the Greenwich YMCA to exercise, where he soon invented racquetball to challenge himself. Wooden platform tennis bats were used to hit a squash ball. Sobek started to think how he could improve equipment and the game.
Changes to Equipment
In 1950, Sobek approached the N. J. Magnam Corporation in North Attleboro MA about manufacturing a new racket. It had to have weight and strength. Strings would provide more bounce to the ball. Sobek brought a prototype back to Greenwich, and everyone liked it. The ball popped off the racquet. Today, many paddles are made of metal and fiberglass as opposed to the original wooden paddles.
Sobek found a ball that A.G. Spaulding had manufactured in the early 1900s. It seemed perfect for racquetball as it was very lively. Since Spaulding still had the mold, Sobek arranged to have Spaulding make a new ball. They made a miniumu manufacture order, which totalled 200 dozen balls. Fortunately, they weren’t that expensive. They were blue in color. Only problem was these balls were too lively, and they were hard to keep them on the court. In addition, some players hit them so hard that they would break apart.
Joe knew some rubber engineers at the Seamless Rubber Company in New Haven due to his work at H.O Canfield. He asked to have some sample rubber balls fabricated to meet his specifications. They made six or seven samples made, which were very costly. Seamless created a ball that is still used today. Today Penn Racquet Balls Inc. manufactures these.
Sobek introduced racquetball to the Greenwich YMCA, and everyone liked it! The ball was lively, the racquet had a big head, and the handle was short – which gave the player a lot of control over the ball. It provided a great workout. They used the handball court, which created some animosity between groups. Eventually they learned to co-exist.
In 1951, Joe wrote the official rules. Initially, the players followed the handball rules; but Joe wrote rules that made the game even better. The court was somewhat smaller, and the ball had to be hit against the front wall only. The court is divided differently than handball or squash. And the ball can’t hit the floor twice. Since some players suffered eye injuries early on, players began to use googles to protect their vision. The courts were also enclosed with glass to protect spectators.
Surprisingly, the Greenwich YMCA didn’t promote the sport. Members felt Joe was an opportunist, out to make money on the new pasttime. Ironically, outside Greenwich the sport became very popular. An exhibit put on in New Britain resulted in great interest in the sport. Port Chester had 16 courts at one time. News of the sport spread by word of mouth, and interest spread quickly. Colleges became interested. Racquetball became popular all across the country. There was even interest in Canada, and a YMCA in Mexico asked that equipment be sent there.
Private clubs started popping up in the 1960s. Joe opened up a private club in Elmsford, which had 10 courts. A complex was opened in Stamford. Golf courses gained interest, and Joe was teaching racquetball at Fairview Country Club, Westchester Country Club, Greenwich Country Club and Larchmont Country Club. He even lobbied to have it as a demonstration sport at the Olympics.
For his efforts, the AARA (American Racquetball Association) named an award after Joe Sobek. It was named the Joe Sobek Outstanding Contributor Award. He had single-handedly put the sport on the map. His dedication to promoting the sport was unparalleled. The YMCA also honored Joe with a plaque crediting him with inventing the sport.
There were 7-million racquetball players in the United States and 8.5-million in the world in 1998. The sport was played in 91 nations. A National Racquetball Association was established in Houston.
Joseph Sobek died on March 27, 1998. He was a humble, unpretentious man who created a sport for his friends. Joe wasn’t after money or fame. The most important thing to him was his family. Creating racquetball was just a footnote to a very successful life. Joe lived and died in Greenwich. He’s considered a “native”. Like many other Greenwich residents, he left his mark on the Town, and improved life for those around him.
Litsky, F; Joseph Sobek, Inventor of Racquetball, Dies at 79; New york Times, 1998.
Sobek, J; Invention of the Game of Racquetball; Oral History Project, Greenwich Library, 1992.