Duel in a Telephone Booth

Remember what it was like the first time you played squash?

Earlier this month US Squash received a kind and large donation of squash magazines from the 1970s. Included in the shipment were a half dozen issues of Squash Racquets USA. The quarterly, the first-ever national squash magazine in the country, was published for a few years in the mid-1970s by Lowell Durham in Salt Lake City. It featured regular columns by Roland Oddy and Doug McLaggan, reports from various governing bodies and tournaments, wonderful artwork, and articles by Hall of Fame luminaries like Hashim Khan and Fred Weymuller.

The Winter 1974 issue of Squash Racquets USA caught my eye. On the cover was a bronze Joe Brown sculpture. The Princeton professor was a legend when I was growing up; most Philadelphians known Brown as the man who created the four giant statues originally outside Veterans Stadium and now outside Citizens Bank Park. He made one famous sculpture of a squash player—I believe a couple of casts exist today.

Inside the issue was a humorous and insightful piece by a regular contributor, Mel Leavitt: “An Open Letter to Future Squash Players.” It is written to players brand new to the game. He describes what happened the first time he played squash. Squash, Leavitt learned, delicately balanced on a cliff between sportsmanship and competition.

“Squash is designed to commemorate a duel that took place in a telephone booth in the late 1800s in Heidelberg between antagonists armed with badminton racquets and golf balls….A more apt analogy would feature two British gentlemen impeccably attired in evening clothes, each with a cup of weak tea in his left hand and a spiked cudgel in his right, swinging at each other’s skulls with animal ferocity, but never spilling a drop of tea, or losing their placid ambiguity of countenance. The game of squash racquets may well be homo sapien’s most magnificent contribution to the fine art of hypocrisy.”

Leavitt hated it. He lost four straight games without winning a point. In the fifth he finally hit a winner, and his opponent asked for a let. But he was addicted. Leavitt concluded, describing might be the essence of the game: “In short, squash is dangerous; squash is maddening; squash is humiliating; squash is pointless; squash is impossible. Heaven help me, I want to play it again.”