Yesterday Squash Magazine’s September 2012 issue arrived. On the cover is a story of mine, “He Whiffed,” about the February 1990 matches between Harvard and Yale’s men’s teams. The piece was over eight thousand words, making it the longest article I’ve ever written for Squash Magazine.
The genesis of the piece was two-fold. First, I was there in 1990 at the Ringe courts at Penn for the Sunday match. But our Dartmouth team, we had finished our match, and the long six-plus hour drive back to Hanover beckoned, the end of the long season. So we left. Everyone except one senior just wanted to leave right away (he had momentarily gotten lost over on court seventeen). And at the time, the national team tournament hadn’t yet become a big deal. We still thought the regular season made the national champion. Literally no one was there.
A few days later our coach had talked with Talbott and we heard some snippets of what had happened. Then at the individuals at West Point, we heard some more, but only a couple of the guys from Harvard & Yale were there, so it was all a bit sketchy.
In my 2003 Squash: A History of the Game book, I mentioned the Wednesday match (on p.141 for those scoring at home) in the context of insanely close college squash matches. I get some things wrong, it turns out, like Yale earning an undefeated season from the Wednesday match (technically it was the Sunday match which confirmed that). In the endnote for the passage (on p.315), I mention the Sunday match. The note has a slight error (Frank beat Masland 17-16 in the fifth) and a misjudgment—Mark Baker didn’t play another intercollegiate match not because he was demoralized but because he transfered back to Nottingham due to financial concerns.
Anyway, I got the heart of the story correct. What was ironic was in Run to the Roar in 2010, I had completely forgotten about that endnote. I state (on p.212) that never since the national team tournament was founded had the finals come down to 4-all and 2-all in the last match.
In 2003 I had known about the Sunday match; seven years later I had forgotten it.
This came up in conversation that fall at a cocktail party in New York with John Musto. Run to the Roar hadn’t come out yet, but I was telling Musto about the last chapter, how it climaxes with Baset beating Maurico when it was 4-all, 2-all. He reminded me about 1990. I was aghast. It was too late to change p.212, so it came out in the hardback version in November 2010; I changed it in the paperback version which came out in February 2012 (all my careful readers noticed that).
In February 2011 I had another long chat with Musto at the Century Doubles in New York. Alex Dean walked by and joined in and after an hour of story-telling, I knew I had to rectify my mistakes. I then interviewed as many of the players as I could track down. From Yale: Musto, Dean, Garrett Frank, Chris Hunt and Jim Kingsbury; from Harvard, Baker, Jeremy Fraibeg, Jon Bernheimer, Jim Masland and Josh Horwitz. And both coaches, Talbott and Steve Piltch. Musto, Kingsbury and Talbott dug up old photographs and articles.
The conversations, many lasting for hours and spread out over eighteen months, were fascinating. For one, both teams were no longer tight. Guys didn’t know where many of their teammates were or how to get in touch with them. I tracked down Mark Baker in England and he had basically not seen anyone from Harvard squash in twenty years. Is that common among college teams? Perhaps.
Some of the guys don’t play squash anymore, especially the Harvard guys. Others are intimately involved: Chris Hunt helped start Mile High Squash; Musto just won the 6.0 nationals; Jimmy Masland is the assistant coach at George Washington. Talbott still coaches at Yale, of course; Piltch has been the head of Shipley School since 1992.
Another thing was how important experience was: Yale had five seniors, three juniors, just one sophomore and no freshman, while Harvard fielded three sophomores and three freshman (if you count Baker as a first-year player), so two-thirds of their team had never played a match at a hostile Yale before.
The Harvard guys were incredibly open and helpful about talking through one of the most harrowing and horrible two days of their athletic careers. Time heals. It also warps. The Yale guys remembered Derrick Niederman’s articles in Squash News about the 1989 and 1990 matches, how, in their memories, he seemed so cocky and pro-Harvard that of course he must have been a Harvard guy. Turns out that was wrong too: Niederman played at Yale; and the articles were just well-written, not one-sided.
When I started working on “He Whiffed,” it just seemed a great story: these two matches, back-to-back, going down to the wire. It emerged, although no one knew it at the time, that this was the last great hurrah of hardball intercollegiate squash. By the end of the decade, everyone was playing softball and Trinity had a team stocked with international players and the nationals, well, about fifteen hundred more people came than in 1990.
Just made me wish we hadn’t driven back to Hanover so soon. Then I could have witnessed the greatest match no one saw.