The timbre of the voice is authoritative. The drape of the jacket is just right. He is barbered and manicured to perfection. He looks like a road-show Robert Young. His name is Robert Kendler, he is a 72-year-old multimillionaire home builder in the Chicago area and he is known as the Wizard of Skokie, because of his inventiveness in the realm of handball and racquetball, and as Emperor Bob because of his domination of those sports. A bronzed handball glove has pride of place in his office.
Kendler standardized handball, invented the glass court and brought the game up from the dark, dank basements of YMCAs to the bright lights of posh athletic clubs. In the process, he has fought and won countless battles, first with the AAU and Avery Brundage, then with anyone else who has attempted to invade what he considers his domain. Measured against the standard of the most powerful sports authority, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Kendler is the czar of czars. "If you get anything but hearts-and-flower quotes on Kendler, I'll be surprised," says a man who has been his adversary over the years. "He's one tough hombre, and who needs the hassle? But I'll say this, he's a genius."
Kendler controls the United States Handball Association and owns its professional counterpart, the National Handball Club, which sponsors a pro tour. And what Kendler has done for handball he is doing for the fast-growing game of racquetball. The doing includes the usual treatment: standardizing the game and the ball, as well as owning and controlling the pro and amateur organizations. In 1968, when Kendler was asked to take over racquetball, it was several games, most notably something called paddle ball, and house rules prevailed. In the eight years since he changed the name of the game to racquetball and married the rules and court to handball, the number of players has doubled and redoubled until there are now a reported eight million devotees. Last year an estimated 10 million balls were sold at 80¢ each, and all those players and balls are careening around 15,000 new courts. Nonetheless, Kendler regards racquetball as strictly a business proposition. "I wouldn't be caught dead playing racquetball," he says. Recently, while on the way to the handball court, he passed his college-age grandson hurrying to a racquetball game. "Give up that sissy's game and play a man's sport," Kendler said, slapping a palm with his handball gloves.
Kendler was a disadvantaged kid, forced to go to work at 12 to help support his mother and five brothers and sisters after his father left home. He was never involved with sports until he discovered handball as a grown man. That discovery took place around the time Hoover was moving into the White House, and by then Kendler was a wealthy young man about to become poorer. However, rich or poor, through the Depression and three wars Bob Kendler has played handball. "I love it," he says with passion. "It's the only game I've ever played."
May 1, 1977
Kendler has won a national doubles title five times with three different partners. Not coincidentally, he always played with exceptional partners. Nothing has ever interfered with his handball game. Recently Kendler had a laminectomy, vertebral surgery that left him with a stiff spine—and still he plays. The game is part of his formula for health and happiness. This begins with reading a daily lesson from the Christian Science text, followed by application of the old work ethic (a minimum of 12 hours a day). The formula includes extraordinary devotion to his second wife Evie, to whom he still writes poetry, and handball.
Kendler, who owns $30 million in North Shore property and almost that much in commercial buildings closer to downtown Chicago, spends a good part of his day playing handball. Time and trouble have always been the price he has paid for his passion.
Almost from the first time Kendler picked up a handball he was at loggerheads with the AAU, which ruled the sport for most of his early years in the game. Everything about the AAU's administration of the sport disturbed him. "They gave nothing to handball," he says vehemently. "Nothing. All the AAU cared about were those 15 or 16 Olympic sports. Handball was the stepchild." In the 1930s the handball clan would gather on the West Coast, where the game was warmed briefly by the attention of movie stars and personalities. Doug Fairbanks Sr. played it, and Harold Lloyd had his own four-wall court. Those moments in the sun were all too brief for the ambitious Kendler, who railed as the game returned to firehouse lofts and YMCA basements.
In 1943 Kendler was bounced from Chicago's exclusive Lake Shore Club because of an erroneous rumor that he was Jewish. That event proved to be the beginning of the great upheaval in this hitherto quiet game. Shortly after he got the boot, Kendler leased five floors in a Chicago hotel and built the Town Club, a handsome athletic facility. Naturally, the centerpiece was five handball courts, two of them exhibition courts with a glass wall, the first ever built. "I did it for Evie," Kendler says. "I made a spanking clean gallery and a place where for the first time wives could come and watch. Until then, it was a game men played in their dirty underwear with cigar stubs in their mouths and an aroma that was as tough as their language."
The fancy courts with their galleries were much in demand. War with the AAU was undeclared, but certainly the first shots had been fired. Meanwhile, Kendler continued his preparations. He brought in most of the rated players and put them to work for his company, Community Builders.
"Push Bob Kendler, and he is going to push back," says Jimmy Jacobs, six times national singles champion and one of handball's legendary figures. "With him it's a conditioned reflex. He is rich and powerful and loves a challenge." The AAU was to learn about those reflexes. In 1950 war finally broke out. "I just got tired of paying for nothing to have the AAU sanction tournaments," Kendler says. "That money never went back to the sport. I knew firsthand, since I had been an AAU commissioner myself."
The next year Kendler founded the United States Handball Association. The USHA and the AAU went after each other with batteries of lawyers and a million-dollar lawsuit. The same year Kendler escalated the conflict by scheduling his USHA championship at the same time as the AAU's. Nobody showed up for the AAU tourney except the defending champion, Joe Platak. Some 136 rated players competed in Kendler's tournament, which garnered all the publicity, including a spread in LIFE. Kendler took care of Platak—"That dog, that in-grate"—by having his clothes removed from his locker at the Town Club and dropped on his desk at work. It was a job, Kendler points out, that Platak owed to Kendler.
At this juncture Brundage, then head of the AAU, decided to intervene in the dispute. "I didn't know Brundage, but I had this false picture," says Kendler. "See, I figured he was a despot, a holy terror." Instead, in the best interests of handball, Brundage sided with the USHA, with Kendler. "From that day until he died, we had the warmest relationship two people could have," Kendler says. Indeed, they became so close that Kendler was best man at Brundage's 1973 wedding to Mariann Princess Reuss in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
In keeping with his Teutonic ancestry, Kendler is goal oriented. His construction and realty company headquarters in Skokie, Ill. is a monument to this drive to excel. The business began 40 years ago in a small Cape Cod-style office. Like a skinny person locked into a fat body, the "little cookie," as Kendler calls the Cape Cod, still exists. However, it has since grown into an elaborate Southern colonial with wings; the handball organizations are in the basement, racquetball occupies the attic, and the construction and realty companies are lodged in between.
Kendler's office walls are covered with plaques and pictures. The dominant theme is Evie and the seven Kendler children—five by his first wife—tributes from religious and civic groups and athletic awards such as the Helms and the Centurian Hall of Fame selections and the Frank Leahy Award for handball achievements. Kendler had three sons by his first wife. All three left the family business, and the youngest went into partnership with Kendler's biggest competitor. But he came back, and so did the others. "That's what's important," says Kendler, who never asked why they left or returned.
Kendler's success in business and sport does not stem so much from his obstinacy as from his imagination and foresight. His first real-estate coup came right in Skokie. He bought a farm in the Chicago suburb with the idea of developing the tract. In the meantime, subdividers had split adjoining property into such narrow strips that they greatly diminished its value. A new zoning regulation suddenly increased the required frontage and put the sidewinders on the run. Kendler was waiting at the border, cash in hand, to buy them out. After that he developed a 20-square-block section of Skokie, which was christened Kendale.
In 1948 he began acquiring large North Shore estates and ultimately bought over a thousand choice acres for a fraction of their potential value. "Anybody might have done the same thing," he says, "if they had the initiative and guts to tie up a million bucks for 25 years while waiting for the market to develop." The first acquisition cost him $450,000. It was the Edith Rockefeller McCormick estate, built for over $7 million. It contained such niceties as a Japanese tea house, a servants' compound with quarters for 100, and 29 rooms for visiting chauffeurs. "It wasn't a bad shack for a poor kid from Milwaukee," says Kendler, who never lived on the estate but kept it until the market was ready to develop.
Despite his knack for making money, Kendler is not primarily a speculator; he is a builder in the sense of empires, big and small. He has become an august name in the construction trade and is the author of a number of FHA regulations on home remodeling. Inevitably, he has been appointed to boards and commissions involved with land regulations.
Smart as he is in the ways of high finance, Kendler has been stung. In 1965 the Internal Revenue Service charged that he had spent in excess of a million dollars on handball and had written it off against the construction company. The IRS felt Kendler owed them a big chunk in taxes. Kendler claimed the million-odd write-off was for industrial recreation a la the Phillips 66 Company's basketball teams, corporate public relations, goodwill and all that sort of thing. The IRS persisted, and as Kendler says, "We settled on a figure of $400,000 that I owed, and I was glad to get away at that."
Kendler's willingness to spend money on handball is one reason he is the czar of czars, although he sees himself as a benevolent Big Daddy. "It is nice to have a Pop to turn to," he says, referring to himself. "Over the years I've been called on to bail handball guys out of everything from financial scrapes to the law to girl trouble, and they never got turned away empty-handed."
According to Kendler, appeals for help come at all hours of the day and night, most often early in the morning. Frequently they come from Paul Haber, the prodigal son of handball. A few years back, just before Watergate, Kendler received a 2 a.m. West Coast call. Kendler assumed the caller was Haber, who lives on the Coast. He shouted, "Gotcha Haber," and hung up. It turned out to be Maurice Stans, the former Republican Party treasurer and Nixon Cabinet member. Nevertheless, whether out of embarrassment or pique, Kendler decided Haber had had it. "I was weary of picking up his bad paper, checks and debts," Kendler says, "and I told him so. That was it. No more. But Haber had a clever reply. He told me that it was a small enough price to pay for all the pleasure he had given me on the handball court. And he was right."
Meanwhile, the constant demand for funds and the episode with the IRS convinced Kendler that one man could not support a sport as a charity. "A sport should be businesslike and carry itself," Kendler says. To that end, handball and racquetball have developed an income of more than one million dollars a year. Most of the money derives from product royalties, which, as Kendler modestly points out, spring from his ingenuity. For instance, he receives a dollar a dozen for the official U.S. racquetball, which he designed, and 16¢ for a can of two handballs, a marketing device Kendler originated. Every imaginable source is tapped, from gloves, which he helped design, on down to official court shoes. The revenues are paid to the four racquetball and handball organizations that Kendler owns or controls. Precisely how the money is divvied up remains a mystery—intentionally. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this $1 million income has been one of the best kept secrets of the last 20 years, or that the players have been in constant turmoil trying to find out how much the sports bring in and where it comes from. "This particular knowledge is going to mean big trouble for me," Kendler says. "The players will want to spend the million now, today, this year. I tell you, if you back off from these people, if these players think they have the upper hand, then you're dead. The minute they think they own the organization, you've made yourself one big headache. They'll eat you alive."
Seven years ago Kendler had to act quickly to quell a minor uprising organized by the free-spirited Haber, whom Kendler considers to be from the dark side of the moon. Haber had put together a pro schedule with the aid of a financial backer, and they had signed players to preliminary agreements. The players met clandestinely at midnight to thrash out the final plans. Sometime in the early morning, before the final pen strokes, a messenger arrived with orders from Kendler: "Don't sign. Report to the office at once. Everyone, except Haber and his backer." Dutifully the rebels arrived at headquarters about 3 a.m. Kendler warned them, "If this pro tour fails, you will not be welcomed back in the USHA. And the pro tour will fail." The rebellion was over. Three years later Kendler established his own pro tour, which Haber joined on Kendler's terms.
Jimmy Jacobs, a Kendler watcher for more than 20 years, says Kendler's reaction to Haber's rebellion was completely in character. "Bob Kendler has lots of money and enormous power and will use both without reluctance," he says. "He is one of a kind, an original." Kendler is the vanished American, the relentless, Midwestern tycoon out of a Frank Norris novel, a man of absolute certainty in the correctness of his acts. "Rectitude," one handball player calls it.
It was this sense of rectitude, as well as a strong dose of outrage, that led to the big schism in racquetball. In 1971, three years after Kendler had taken on racquetball, shaped it and put it on the road to success, the directors of the International Racquetball Association demanded an accounting. In essence, the IRA was dissatisfied with Kendler's close-to-the-vest, one-man rule. "We weren't questioning Kendler's honesty," says an IRA officer. "It was just a matter of the democratic process." The democratic process collided with the autocratic Kendler. He refused to play by the dissident directors' regulations and left. Stormed out. Before leaving, Kendler warned the parliamentarians that he would found his own racquetball organization and bury the IRA.
Kendler claims both events have come to pass. The United States Racquetball Association has outdistanced the IRA. "In fact, the IRA doesn't know where it's at," says Kendler smugly. "They could use my high-handedness. Indeed, they would dearly like to merge with my USRA, but I'm not interested." It goes beyond pique. Kendler simply cannot stomach ingrates. "Gratitude is found only in the dictionary," he says without bitterness. Time has not healed this particular wound.
Meanwhile, the sport has exceeded even Kendler's expectations. Swank court facilities are being built at a rate of more than 500 a year, and that means not only racquetball courts, but handball courts as well. Racquetball has the more dynamic growth because it is a game women also play, although it has failed to attract the 35- to 50-year-old matrons who did so much to make indoor tennis the rage.
One of Kendler's creations is a bilious green racquetball. He recognized the need for a distinctive piece of equipment and sold the idea to Seamco Division of Dart Industries. Seamco wanted to get a foothold in racquetball, and only for this reason was it persuaded to take on the strange ball whose color was difficult to mix. "I told them Father Bob knows best, to do it my way," says Kendler. He took it a step further and went to the Seamco plant in La Grange, Ga., where he talked with the engineers and chemists and showed them how to make the ball green. Last year more than six million green balls were sold. The color black, Kendler believes, is all that stands in the way of using portable glass competition courts in handball; you can't follow the black ball coming off the glass. He feels that total glass would make the game attractive to television and mass audiences. A red ball would do the trick, but the manufacturer has not been able to cast the required color.
Recently, Paul Haber considered Bob Kendler through glass, the bottom of a glass of whiskey. He was sitting with his wife Mary at the bar of the World Famous in Pacific Beach, Calif., the site of infamous celebrations of the equally infamous Over The Line championships (SI, Aug. 4, 1975). It is a place Kendler would never frequent.
"Much of what Kendler did was brilliant, like taking on racquetball," says Haber. "Personally, he has helped me beyond the call of duty, gone the distance, when to go that far cost him $25,000 in lawyers, court fees and bail. He never complained and wouldn't quit. Fine.
"A few years before, he tried to keep me out of the Nationals at Salt Lake City because I had just gotten out of jail, and handball's image would be defiled by a jailbird. It took lawyers, courts and the threat of an injunction to get Kendler to back off. What does it all mean? Whatever he does, it is for purely selfish reasons, for the benefit and glory of Bob Kendler."
Mary Haber was clearly angered by her husband's harsh judgment. "Why can't you leave Kendler alone?" she demanded. "Why can't you accept all the good he's done you? He's getting old, and he deserves better." Haber was unmoved.
Kendler pays little attention to criticism. But old is another matter. Bob Kendler is relatively unmarked by time, while his enemies grow older. "The best handball players in the world ask me for a game," he said the other day in his office, "and it's not because I sign their checks, either."
Instead of slowing down, Kendler is speeding up. He has grand plans for a national Hall of Fame for handball and racquetball and is working on a glass exhibition court for the televising of the championships of both sports. "A Wimbledon," Kendler describes it.
In addition, Kendler has launched campaigns to introduce his sports to Europe and Asia. Further down the line is the transformation of handball from an exclusively male activity to a family sport. "The ball's a killer," said Kendler. "It hurts the hand. Any place it hits, it leaves a bruise. A killer for girls or small kids, and we've got to change it. Right now, we are working on the ball."
Kendler paused to watch a jay and a grackle fight for possession of the bird feeder outside his office window. It was the sort of squabble with which he had long been familiar. "After I'm gone," he said, "I want them to say Kendler made a contribution to kids, a great contribution to the game he loved, to handball. Now that's the epitaph I want."