The 68-year-old Greenwich (Conn.) YMCA, a magnificent structure of colonial red brick with Ionic columns and a copper dome, resembles a historical monument. Perhaps rightly so, because racquetball was invented at the Greenwich Y in 1950. Recently, the creator himself, Joe Sobek, 65, returned to the scene of his prime and was delighted that the old handball court where he unveiled the new game was unchanged in shape and freshly painted. "By golly, they've cleaned it up and made it look nice," he said, beaming. Indeed, so pleased was Sobek that he didn't notice one glaring oversight. Nowhere in the building he made famous is there a plaque honoring Joe Sobek.
Sobek's life is filled with irony. The inventor of racquetball made no money from playing the game—"Not a sou," he says. The founding father has never played in a major tournament. Under the archaic rules of his youth, a professional in one sport (Sobek was teaching tennis and squash) was ineligible for amateur events in another, and racquetball didn't go pro until Sobek was well into middle age. Unlike most inventors, Sobek has lived to see his creation prosper and grow, yet he's not well known for it. A few years ago he appeared on the television program To Tell the Truth, and none of the panelists correctly identified him—not even Gene Rayburn, one of his former tennis students.
Sobek lives in Greenwich with his buoyant, charming wife, Nancy, in a split-level house he designed. It is at the end of a secluded, dead-end drive, with a mile of woods for backyard. Awash in warm colors, the living room of the house is packed with all manner of plants, from African violet to cactus, numerous still lifes and family pictures (Sobek has five children and six grandchildren). Reclining on an easy chair, Sobek looks like a cross between Archie Bunker and a beardless Santa Claus. And befitting his retired status, he's casually dressed in sneakers, white tennis shirt, button-down sweater and faded jeans hoisted around his considerable girth by multicolored suspenders.
Sobek is not bitter about his lack of fame. "Sure, I wish I'd made more money off the game," he says. "They could put the inventor's name on a racket and sell it forever; champions change all the time. But I've turned down some companies who asked me to be a consultant because I didn't want to go out in the business world and fight the battles. I'm satisfied that I'm recognized as the inventor of the game."
February 13, 1984
That he is. In the archives at the University of Connecticut is a sealed envelope, dated March 13, 1950, registration number 7579; it contains Sobek's blueprint for the first racquetball racket. No one has ever asked him to break the seal and prove his claim. His picture once graced the cover of Racquetball magazine, over the headline IN THE BEGINNING.... To make sure he's fully recognized, Sobek has inscribed on the license-plate frame of his Jeep, RACQUETBALL BY SOBEK. As Nancy says, "He's not afraid to take credit."
One Sunday, Sobek attended the finals of a pro tour event at the Downtown Racquet Club in New Haven. He was introduced before the match by Dick Squires, the club director at the time and the author of The Other Racquet Sports, the last word on non-tennis racket games. "None of us would be here today if it weren't for a gentleman who created a game called paddle rackets, which has now become racquetball," Squires said. "I'd like to ask Joe Sobek to stand up." Sobek rose, waved shyly to respectful applause, presided over a raffle and lavishly complimented Squires. A traditional fellow amid the trendy crowd of a modern racquetball-cum-disco club, Sobek oohed and aahed at the speed-and-power final. Afterward Squires interviewed both Sobek and tournament champion Marty Hogan on cable TV. "If there hadn't been a Joe Sobek, there wouldn't be a Marty Hogan," said Squires. Sobek was pleased. Let others reap ephemeral wealth; Joe Sobek has his eye on a far loftier target—immortality.
Sobek has always made the best of less-than-ideal situations. He dropped out of Yale after half a semester during the Depression—and promptly landed a job as a tennis pro. "My salary was $100 a month and $3 per lesson," says Sobek, who had been Connecticut interscholastic champion. "People forget how far money could go. I bought a Ford, brand-new, for $600, and completely furnished an apartment before I was married. It wasn't a bad life, either. People can be bastards in the business world, but at the club they were always nice to me because I was doing them a favor."
After a decade of teaching tennis and squash at clubs in the Greenwich area, Sobek became customer-relations director for an industrial rubber products manufacturer in Bridgeport, Conn. The sedentary life bored him—and gave him the incentive he needed to invent racquetball. "I'd go over to the Greenwich YMCA to exercise," he says. "There were very few indoor tennis courts then; I was too good for most of the squash players, and handball hurts. I started playing paddleball with a wooden platform tennis bat. Paddleball's a good game, but I thought that if we had a resilient, strung racket, we could dig 'em out of the corners and use finesse and speed."
In 1950 Sobek sought out a friend who had been making tennis rackets for him, Charles H. Currie of the Magnan Manufacturing Company, which produced sports equipment, and showed him a design for a short, strung racket with a head about the size of a paddle-tennis racket. Because Currie didn't have a mold that size, he made 25 prototypes the size of a badminton racket. Playing with four of them and using the pink inside of a tennis ball, Sobek and three friends—he has long since forgotten their names and the date—played the first game of a sport Sobek dubbed paddle rackets. It was an instant success. Bitten by the bug, Sobek impulsively dropped his letter of resignation on the desk of the boss's secretary. As he walked out of the building, Sobek heard his boss calling after him, "Joe, Joe!" He never looked back.
Some of the happiest and busiest years of Sobek's life followed. He returned to teaching tennis and squash to support himself, but his true calling was paddle rackets. The Sobeks would stay up until all hours sending out rackets and answering letters of inquiry. Magnan manufactured the rackets and Sobek sold them. In 1963, Bancroft bought out Magnan and hired Sobek to sell rackets on a royalty basis. Though he made about $15,000 a year, his major compensation was the satisfaction that came with being a successful missionary.
"The physical education directors of the Ys got the game going," he says. "It was strange how the damn thing began to jump. It would go from Greenwich to New Britain, Conn. and from there to Chihuahua, Mexico because the directors happened to be friends." The game's growth was neither constant nor continuous, though. It languished for several years while a ball with the proper compression and strength was being developed.
By 1968, however, the game had two official organizations—Sobek's National Paddle Rackets Association and the late Bob Kendler's International Racquetball Association (a tennis pro named Bob McInerny had coined the term "racquetball" in 1967). At this point Sobek made a decision that has affected the game to this day. Mindful that a sport called squash tennis, once more popular than squash racquets, had declined because of arguments over the proper ball, Sobek disbanded his organization, dropped the name paddle rackets and left Kendler in charge of racquetball. "The last thing you want is factions," says Sobek, "and Kendler had done a great job of promoting handball."
Kendler then did a great job of promoting racquetball. In 1968 there were no clubs (the game was played on handball courts) and only 10,000 players; today there are about 2,000 clubs and an estimated 11 million players. Unfortunately, Kendler also may have hurt the game by insisting on handball-oriented rules rather than the sensible amalgamation of squash and paddleball rules that Sobek had favored.
Under Sobek's rules, games were played to 21, with a point awarded after each rally; a slow ball was used; and players served diagonally, into either one of two quadrants in the backcourt. Under Kendler's rules, games were also played to 21, but points went only to the server; the ball was speeded up; and players could serve to anyplace in the back half of the court.
Sobek isn't entirely happy with the way the game has evolved. "Games to 21 can take forever if you only allow the server to score," he says. "He's got a tremendous advantage by serving. You're giving him a double advantage with the scoring. And the wide receiving area makes the serve too powerful. They should either allow one serve instead of two, or have players serve to a smaller box or put a line on the front wall to create a looped serve, as in squash.
"If you earn a point when you're receiving, you should get credit for it," he says. "Furthermore, the ball's gotten so lively it's a slam-bang game with no finesse. I don't feel the differences between my rules and Kendler's are that important, though. The important thing is that everybody plays by the same rules." (In the past few seasons, however, a slightly slower ball has been adopted and the two pro tours have experimented with 11- and 15-point games, two gestures of acquiescence to critics.)
Sobek still plays racquetball several times a week. Indeed, people are almost as surprised that the game's inventor is still playing as they are that he's still alive. Driving to New York's State University College at Purchase campus the other day, Sobek laughed about some of his matches with students. "They see this old, fat guy asking them for a game and they wonder why they should," he said. "They say, 'All right, one game.' Oh, are they surprised!"
Not content to thrill his guest with his mere presence—imagine going one-on-one with James Naismith—Sobek ran him from side to side while dominating center court himself, barely breathing hard. Every few minutes he blended in some advice. On the final four points Sobek used hard serves and scored three aces. "That's what happens with the big serve," he said. "If you don't put it away, you win on the next shot."
"You sure know how to give a lesson," said his guest.
"Well," said Joe Sobek, "I've played a little."