Balls That Go Poof

Earlier this year Andrew Shelley asked me to contribute to a history of the squash ball for the World Squash Library. Typical of Andrew, he collected a mass of amazing advertisements to illustrate the history, producing a twenty-one page tour de force. It is well worth a visit:

One section we didn’t put in was an absolute gem of journalism from an absolute gem of a guy.

In January 1968 George Plimpton examined the fraught American squash-ball situation in an article in Sports Illustrated, “The Strange Case of the Balls That Go Poof!” The Seamless, Plimpton wrote: “the standard ball then, made by the Seamless Rubber Company, while adequate enough, tended to heat up during play and take on ‘rabbit’ characteristics. It would bounce so eagerly around the confines of the court that it became very difficult even for top players, particularly against quick retrievers, to put the ball away. Good players were anxious for a change.”

 In 1961 the change came from the most unlikely location, the Craig-Simplex company. Craig was based in Van Buren, a village so deep in northern Maine that it was a five-hour drive to the nearest squash court in the U.S. but just a minute walk from the factory across the St. John River and into Canada. Cragin produced a green diamond ball, quite hard and fast, and then a yellow diamond for summertime play. Cragin’s CEO was Walter Montenegro, who worked out of a tiny office on Varick Street in New York’s Tribeca district.

Soon sanctioned by US Squash, the Cragin balls suffered from inconsistency just like the Seamless—many in a box would break too soon or go mushy after a couple of hard games. And the Cragin green diamond were a touch slower than the Seamless.

A tremendous row ensued, as Plimpton explained: “Mediocre squash players, notably the portly, stood for the Seamless ball, which they liked because it flew around the court long enough for them to get to it. The issue, which is still argued today, of what sort of ball should dominate squash has had its fine moments of drama. Many New York squash players remember Arthur Barker, the onetime head of the Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association, proclaiming solemnly at an official dinner, fighting for control as he gripped the lectern, ‘I do not intend as president of this association to preside over the death of the Seamless ball!’”

Both Cragin and Seamless balls, due to heavy carbon content, left a lot of ball scuff on the walls, the trademark marks of a mid-century squash court. Ball scuff was very much the thing sixty years ago. To learn more about its literary antecedents, I offer this tiny bagatelle from 2009:

Anyway, in 1967 Montenegro bravely tinkered with the composition of the ball to reduce the scuff (and slow down John Updike). But his no-mark balls broke almost on the first hit, as Plimpton related in 1968: “Last year’s crop of Cragin-Simplex squash balls (which is more than half the market, the Seamless Rubber Company providing the rest) turned out to consist of balls as fragile as Christmas tree ornaments. In courts across the country the balls have come off the front wall after a few moments of play with an odd plopping sound and have divided in half to roll at the players’ feet like walnut husks. Breakage of squash balls during play is not uncommon, but there has been an epidemic.” 

The only people who liked the new Cragin ball were aging players, wrote Plimpton: “the older members, those up in their 60s, were getting a great kick out of breaking squash balls. It suggested that power and devastation were still a part of their game, and they would come back to the pro shop after a match, just sidling in easily, and after a while hold out the two halves of a smitten ball and say, ‘We really went at it today.’”

Plimpton concluded his article with a long quote from Jack Barnaby, the Hall of Fame coach at Harvard, that laid bare the fundamental issue about inconsistent balls: “It’s an awful mess. The new Cragin ball doesn’t bounce. You might as well pick a crushed stone off a highway project and play with that. If you pound a little life into it, the ball leaps around as if it were shaped like a trapezoid, and then quite soon, mercifully, it breaks. In 1966 Cragin had a fine ball. It bounced, which is a good start, and it wouldn’t get heated up. It reminded me of the Hewitt ball we played with back in the ’20s and ’30s, which lay low even if you pounded it. The older players complained and got the association to speed up the ball. That is when the Seamless people came in and did what was asked of them with their lively and rabbity ball. But the 1966 Cragin ball—well, a slugger could play his game with it, laying the ball dead, and so could the touch artist, with his tweak and drop shots. So it was possible to match two vastly different games in the same court—the bludgeon and the rapier—with neither handicapped by the ball’s qualities. That is squash at its best and most interesting. Nowadays one of the main despairs we coaches have is that the official balls—Cragin and Seamless—are so different, rocks and rabbits. If our team is playing away from home we have to find out well in advance what ball will be used in the match so that we can train with it for as long as possible.”