Ho-hum. Another Pan American Games. More medals for American squash players. From all the desultory coverage in the mainstream American media, you probably missed it. I was in Manchester for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and Great Britain was agog—front-page, above-the-fold, top-of-the-hour, breaking-news coverage. People were lusting after my press pass. The Queen came for a squash match.
Here: nothing. Forty-two nations, five thousand athletes and nothing until C-7.
The Pan Am Games were first held in Buenos Aires in 1951. Squash became a medal sport in the 1995 Mar del Plata, Argentina Games (silver for Demer Holleran and silver for the women’s team); and subsequently in Winnipeg in ‘99 (Power’s last-minute withdrawal, Marty Clark’s infamous meltdown and silver again for Demer and for the women); and Santo Domingo, DR in 2003 (Latasha Khan getting gold, as did the women’s team and Preston Quick getting bronze).
Last month the XV Rio Games brought in the best individual haul for U.S. squash: gold for Natalie Grainger and silver for Julian Illingworth (who, by the way, is now ranked 55 in the world). But there was more disappointment in the teams (silver for the defending champion women and no medal, for the fourth straight time, for the men).
Guadalajara, Mexico will be the site of the XVI Games in 2011. Will anyone in the U.S. care? If the Pan Am Games are supposed to be, like the Commonwealth Games, a key stepping stone to getting into the Olympics, maybe we should try a different river, because this one is pretty dry.
A few months ago I got an enormous box in the mail from the great granddaughter of John F. Friel. It contained a treasure trove of material about the first great American-born squash pro.
In 1899 at age seventeen Friel joined the Racquet Club of Philadelphia and when they opened a squash court the following year, he became the pro. He worked there till he retired in February 1951. Friel coached national champions like John Miskey, William Freeland and Stan Pearson, Sr. The “lank, langorous” Friel, as the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin called him, played in the first pro squash tournament in the country, in 1905 Huntingdon Valley Country Club, where he lost to Alfred Ellis in the finals 12-15, 15-11, 15-12, 18-17. (There were five in the draw; a dozen amateurs played in an accompanying draw; Ellis got $45, Friel got $30.)
A few tidbits emerged from a tattered scrapbook. More than three hundred people came to watch the finals of a Pennsylvania state singles tournament at the RCOP (Stan Pearson outlasting Danny Hutchinson in five; Hutchinson contested a let, which scandalized the crowd: it was, one newspaper reported, “most unusual. One constantly hears between opponents in squash racquets, ‘I was in your way that time; take a let on it,’ and invariably the reply, ‘No, not at all; I could not have played the ball; good shot.’”). The Cynwyd Club won a Philadelphia league title in one division or another from 1914 into the 1940s, a remarkable run. The original trophy for the national professional championship (now called the Tournament of Champions) was the Harry Passon. (The only thing I could find on Passon was that he was a Jewish basketball player in the 1920s in Philadelphia.). Friel also moonlighted in 1917-18 at the Racquet Club of St. Louis. A ticket in the dedans for the 16 March 1914 world championship court tennis match of George Covey v. Jay Gould cost $30 (about $625 today). That winter a woman, Judith Lytton of England (Sir Neville’s wife), broke the gender barrier at the RCOP when she slipped in to play a court tennis match. (She beat her opponent, the same Danny Hutchinson, 6-0, 6-4.). Lytton was quite a woman—she also scandalized France by playing in men-only court tennis clubs there too.
Barring women was not the only rule at the RCOP. At the first national squash championships, held in October 1907 at the RCOP, reporters were, as was traditional, banned from the clubhouse. That was fine, one newspaperman wrote, but the club would not even telephone in the results. So he had to persuade one of the trainers in the athletic department to call him about the semifinals. This was most unusual, he wrote: “The members of the various cricket clubs are most considerate in their treatment of reporters, who are in quest of news, and often go to considerable trouble to make sure that the correct reports are secured.” The reporter gladly added that John Miskey won by default over F.H. Bates and C.B. Jennings beat H. Atlee 15-4, 18-14.
Speaking of Philadelphia squash, an article of mine appeared in Connections, the magazine of Episcopal Academy. It was a history of EA’s vaunted squash program. The boys’ team began in the fall of 1930; the girls got a varsity team in 1988. Just this spring the girls won the national high school championships and for the first time in history, the current national junior boys and girls champions, Todd Harrity and Logan Greer, go to the same school.
The boys can claim to be the greatest high school squash program in the country. They’ve won twenty-four Inter-Ac league tiles (arguably the hardest interscholastic league) and six boys have won the national junior title. In addition, five alums so far have gone on to win the national singles title. Doubles-wise, it is not such a bad record, with five later national title winners. Add in pros (and pro tournament directors) like Maurice Heckscher, ‘60 and John Nimick ‘77 and Tom Page ‘77; former U.S. Squash CEO Palmer Page ‘68; and former big-name coaches: Tom Poor, Darwin Kingsley, Diehl Mateer, ‘46 and Demer Holleran.
Is there another school that can match up for sustained greatness? For comparison, Haverford School, my alma mater and Episcopal’s traditional rival, has had thirty-seven Inter-Ac titles, five national junior champions, four future national singles champions and four future national doubles champions. A half dozen prep schools in New England have solid records. But since there was no official national team championship until four years ago, all those unofficial national titles that EA and Haverford claimed (and Choate Invitational wins and victories over colleges at the national five-man) are perhaps too vague to count. So individual national junior titles might be the only barometer and EA has eight, which for now is the best: Jim Zug, Sr., ‘58, Billy Morris, ‘61 (who beat Maurice Heckscher ‘60 in the finals), Gil Mateer, ‘73, Dave McNeely, ‘96, Louisa Hall, ‘00, Trevor McGuinness, ‘06, Logan Greer, ‘07 and Todd Harrity, ‘09.
I talked to a couple of older alums, including Has Griffin, ‘39 and Charley Brinton, ‘37. The first thing Charley (note his preferred spelling) said to me when I told him I wanted to talk about EA squash was that now I finally learned where he had gone to high school (on p. 101 of the book I mistakenly said he went to Penn Charter). Brinton told me his nickname was “Pee-Wee” at EA, since he was tiny as a youngster. In one match against Penn Charter he was over a foot shooter and a hundred pounds lighter than his opponent. Brinton played number one and was captain all four years he was in high school, something unequalled in American squash history. (How many times is a freshman the captain?) It was not always a cakewalk: his sophomore year he was down 10-3 in the fifth game of the finals of the school tournament against Al Freund, ‘35, before winning twelve of the last fourteen points.
I contacted every coach of the teams I could find. Fitz Dixon, the iconic EA figure who coached the team for a decade, died the week I was planning to call him. I did track down the son of Stuyvesant Barry, who coached the team for a single season, in 1942-43. Barry had St. Paul’s and Harvard on his resume, so he knew squash, but ice hockey was his passion. He went on to become principal of Buckingham Friends School for twenty years and he too died, at age ninety-seven, just months before I called.
I also talked with a number of younger alums and coaches, whose first words on EA squash were almost always “Terror Dome.” In the past two decades, while all other league teams (EA plays not only in the Inter-Ac but a more inclusive Mid-Atlantic Squash Association, a league Tim Kent and Wendell Chestnut founded more than a dozen years ago) have built new softball courts, EA has continued to play on their four old hardball courts. The galleries are so small and the staircase so narrow, that coaching in between games is impossible if there is a sizable crowd. “I spent a ton of effort trying to get students to come to big matches and support the team,” Kent told me “but when that would happen, I had no way of getting from the front of the gallery and down the stairs to coach any player in between games.” The brutal chill in the courts ha been a problem for decades. In 1994 water flooded into two of the courts and then froze, badly damaging the floor and walls (earning the courts the nickname the “Terror Dome” from the 1995 film Welcome II the Terrordome.)
Episcopal is moving to a new campus in Newtown Square in September 2008. Ten singles courts are planned for their new squash facility there, finally giving perhaps the country’s best high school program the country’s best high school facility.
August 28th, 2007 at 4:28 pmHello Jim, I am a great grandaughter of John Friel and I really enjoyed your article. Thank you so much, my family and I sure do appreciate reading about our beloved grandfather pertaining to the sport he loved so much! Blessings, Nancy Borrell
August 31st, 2007 at 11:41 amHi Jim, I’m Anne Hall, mother of Louisa Hall and Colby Hall. Louisa was the GU19 National Champion her last three years at Episcopal (ages 15, 16, and 17…1998, 1999, and 2000). I believe Dave McNeely was the BU19 National Champion during at least one of those years, wasn’t he? 1998? [No, Dave is an old man—he was national junior champion in 1994-96) And wasn’t Dave the National Champion in 1999 or 2000 ? If so, Episcopal had two national champions in one year that year too. Loved the article in Connections! Best, Anne