Racquetball Is Way More Complicated Than You Think

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There’s a misconception amongst athletic types that excellence at a given sport is automatically transferable to another sport. This faulty logic is most evident in horse racers believing they can drive NASCAR, swimmers thinking they can fly stunt planes, and tennis players equating their foot speed and hand-eye coordination with racquetball excellence.

Which brings up an interesting point. Why do racquetballers insist on spelling racket with a “Q?” Our undercover reporter, Nancy Fillbot (whose name we should not have mentioned given she’s on assignment for another story about corruption in our local frisbee associations, which are filled with sleazy politicians, crooked cops, and mafia types, so now that we’ve proffered her name she’s in real danger, sorry Nancy), begrudgingly joined a very prominent, local athletic club at our behest to find out. One of those fancy ones where everyone massages, saunas, showers, and brunches after each workout, even on a Wednesday. But when the facility asked for an actual membership fee to get started and Nancy frantically called us for payment, we were like, “Well wait, don’t they give you like a week free to try it out? We were betting on that.” Then Nancy was all like, “You idiots, you sent me to the Bellevue Club thinking you’d get a week free? The median member income of members here is like $850,000.00.” Then we hung up. And Nancy tried to quit again.

So instead we turned to our new intern, Michael, who kind of has this weird staccato cadence when he talks that’s really annoying. He’s one of those “Every Sentence Is Only Three Words And Starts With ‘Um’” Type-Guys. We sure hope Michael doesn’t read this – probably a safe bet – but we just had to get that out there. It’s really annoying. Anyway, Michael did some research on the etymology of “racquet,” and sort of came up with an interesting explanation. Here’s what we found in his notebook, which we stumbled upon when rifling through his bike messenger bag looking for change:

“The words are seemed to be derived from ‘racket’ from Middle English. Or possibly Middle French ‘rachette’ or ‘requette,’ or the Arabic term ‘rahat-al-yad.’”

Oh Lord Michael, we can’t print that, it’s the story version of Ambien. We’re retracting the 5 college credits we promised in exchange for your labor if you don’t figure this stuff out. And no, we aren’t here to offer you any guidance, direction, or otherwise help with your education. That’s not what internships are for.

“Racquets-with-a-Q” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary corpus in 1709 in reference to lacrosse, which was the French word for “stick” back then, and may be to this day, but we’re too tired to find out, plus we think this might be bad information given everyone knows France wasn’t invented until 1911. Also, we used the word “corpus” to sound fancy because our parents are visiting, and we wanted them to know the English Literature undergraduate degree they 100% sponsored is being put to good use.

The “racquet” spelling somehow evolved in North America to refer to the English sport of “rackets,” mostly because the Pilgrims were really homesick and kept talking about English stuff all the time, almost obsessively, which was probably also a way to distract themselves from the constant fear of death. English “rackets” involved hitting a ball against a wall instead of over a net, given the invention of the net didn’t happen until 1988, and the alternative to this mundane activity was walking into town and catching cholera. Eventually this sport evolved into squash – that favorite pastime of past and present landed gentry featuring a 27-inch long, 8-inch wide, strung racket…or…racquet…a four-walled indoor court, and a small, hollow rubber ball to bang about while complaining about wives and market volatility.

This, in turn, took a Darwinian path, transforming into a sport called paddleball thanks to the initiative of a bunch of 1920’s-era tennis players at the University of Michigan who had no social lives. Basically their Intramural Sports Building housed a bunch of squash courts, and rather than continue to practice in three feet of snow and ice in -5-degree temperatures – which proved both largely ineffective in improving performance and occasionally lethal – the fellas hitched up their tiny white shorts and practiced on these toasty warm indoor courts instead, favoring wooden paddles over their precious strung tennis rackets. Interestingly enough, their intermittent, accidental striking of each other with the paddles led to the invention of horseplay, followed quickly by fraternity hazing, and thus (ironically) every player was kicked off campus, despite having never been invited to an actual fraternity party.

Then in 1930 a quick-thinking guy by the name of Earl “Risky Business” Riskey – the university’s Director of Intramural Sports who was about to get fired due to his constant napping and penchant for telling everyone at social gatherings he was head coach of the football team – saved his bacon by realizing smacking a ball around indoors would be a good addition to the intramural sports program, and thus birthed the sport of paddleball. The courts at the Intramural Sports Building in Ann Arbor still host many national championship paddleball tournaments, which remain the only contributions the University of Michigan has made to society to this day.

20 years later here comes Joe Sobek, a professional tennis and handball* player otherwise known as “Dual Threat Joe Who Smokes” given it was 1950. Joe basically looked at paddleball and said, “This is stupid.” So he added strings to the paddles, which totally didn’t work, so he just made shrunken tennis rackets instead, devised a set of rules based on squash and paddleball, and named his game…paddle rackets. Good Lord what a terrible name, Joe obviously didn’t anything about product marketing. Which is just so weird given he was an excellent promoter and recognized the country’s 40,000 handball* courts alone were ripe for the “paddle racket” picking, and people were sick of having such chaffed palms. And he was right, as the sport took off. In 1952 he founded National Paddle Racket Association, but received many threatening letters from hand lotion companies.

*Handball was all over the place, and still is, but we didn’t want to mention it because it doesn’t involve a racket, racquet, or anything else held in the hand and we don’t reinforce bad behavior with attention, which is also why we don’t have a Facebook page. Some people call handball, “wallball,” and yes, it involves hitting a rubber ball against a wall with one’s hand in such a way the opponent cannot do the same. (Yawn.)

Luckily, a genius and former professional tennis player by the name of Bob McInerney – which just so happens to be our last name before the folks at Ellis Island changed it because our immigrating great-great grandfather couldn’t write, or possibly read, so when he said “McInerney” the old-timey immigration dudes were just like “whatever” and wrote what they thought they heard and told him to move on and stop stealing the pencils – coined the name “Racket-ball” in 1969 as a much more appealing alternative to paddle rackets and the sport took off even more because it sounded less dorky.

But duly note: Bob McInerney originally advocated for “(Racket)ball.” But other folks were involved and pushed back because they literally didn’t want to raise objections amongst reputed Mafia members nationwide, given the well-dressed criminals’ preference for using “racket” to describe their prevalent “lending” associations. And having just watched Joe Pesci’s various hyper violent freak-out scenes in Goodfellas and realizing angering the mob is a terrible idea, Bob and his group chose the alternative spelling of “racquetball” so they wouldn’t have to go into witness protection or sleep next to horse heads.

Good grief what happened? We feel like we did a pretty good job explaining why racquetballers insist on spelling racket with a “Q.” Although we just realized we didn’t touch on the whole “athletes assume excellence at a given sport is automatically transferable to another sport” thing. Which is fine, because we need a topic for next week. Overall, maybe racquetball is worth a shot, how are we supposed to know? Why doesn’t someone out there try it, and report back. We’ll offer some college credits as a reward.

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