SEATTLE —The summer of 1965 was warmer than most, and one ferry away from the Emerald City, on the lush and idyllic island of Bainbridge, happy families like the Pritchards headed back to their old homes for a vacation on the water and to enjoy the good life.
Joel Pritchard was a congressman from the state of Washington. A man of ideas, a little clueless, with a sense of fun.
Their eldest son, Frank Pritchard, turned 13 this summer. Frank now lives in Yakima, and when he looks back on his years on the island, he's almost ashamed to admit that he didn't even want to be there.
"I didn't want to go there," he says, "all my friends were in Seattle and we moved there all summer."
Good friends of the Pritchard family were the Bell family. Bill Bell was a thin man with glasses. He was smart and larger than life. One of his sons, Joel Bell, was a toddler in 1965. From his home in Ballard, he fondly remembers that island vacation.
"There would be Olympic Games for children," he recalls. "You know, there would be a lot of driftwood forts on the beach."
Listening to stories and looking at black and white photos now feels like a golden moment. there were card games and boats on the water. There were cocktails and walks on the beach. There were also a lot of bored kids looking for something to do.
Frank Pritchard thinks of a day that is forever etched in his memory, a day that must have seemed ordinary in retrospect, but turned out to be something else.
"It was a beautiful day," she says, recounting the story for the umpteenth time, "and I was standing on the steps. I turn around and say, 'I hate it here, there's nothing to do here.'
He is sitting on the terrace in front of his house on a sunny day, and old photos are scattered in front of him. He remembers his father's response to him, word for word. “He says, 'When we were kids here, we made up games.' And I was like, "Oh, really? Why don't you make a game then?" You know, in my most polite way.
It was a loose comment. Any parent of teenage children can imagine the tone.
But Joel Pritchard took it as a challenge.
There was an asphalt patch on the property, pushed up against a small building that served as a tool shed. It was surrounded by pine trees and was mainly used as a badminton court.
There was a plastic ball somewhere.
And somewhere in Joel Pritchard's mind was a sweet, pure form of inspired genius.
Frank says, "The dance was a Wiffle Ball. I was laying on the grass and my dad said 'OK' and he picked up that ball and walked around it and my grandpa had some kind of tool store in the back and he went there and he didn't I knew what I was doing. "
Joel Pritchard called up Bill Bell and a game took shape from the top of their heads. The rules were conjured up out of thin air.
They lowered the badminton net. Congressman Pritchard rigged crude 3/4-inch plywood oars.
"A while later," Frank recalls, "I went to the badminton court and here was Bill Bell and my dad hitting the ball and talking."
Old black and white photos give an idea of what that moment must have been like on the asphalt, squeezed between tall trees. Two men in shorts and T-shirts try out this mix of tennis, table tennis and badminton for the first time. There must have been laughter. And that thud of plastic hitting plywood.
Says Joel Bell: “My dad and Joel liked to intrigue, I guess you could say, invite people over and make the rules. Then it gradually evolved."
Frank says he's been watching them for a while. "And then I remember my dad saying, 'You know what we need? We need Barney.'
Barney McCallum lived in a nearby house. He was funny and smart, with a good way of talking. And he was also good with tools.
Barney came over and the three of them discussed the rules and continued to hit the ball back and forth. At some point, Barney went home and cut much better oars out of thinner plywood.
Years later, in an interview with the Washington State Senior Games, he said, "I just walked in and they cut me a piece of 3/8" plywood and paddles. I did it with my band saw."
He kept one of the originals and, holding it up, said, "This is probably an example of the ugliest oar ever built."
The game fired Barney's imagination. He was to become his first evangelist.
That day, three men, Pritchard, Bell, and McCallum, created the game. They also created a legend.
There, on the island, it was a great success. It turns out not so much for the children, because they rarely entered the court. "They started hitting it and they liked it," says Joel Bell. "And the kids were kicked off the court because the adults were having fun."
Three families perfected the game. And Barney kept improving his oars.
At one point, according to Joel Bell, they invited some tall, strong athletes to play, probably football players from the University of Washington. And the greats stood by the net and crushed every shot that went through the net. "These guys stormed the net and ate the ball," says Joel, "so dad said, 'Hey, you can't go there.'" He just made it up. "You can't go there, it's a no-volley zone."
Bill Bell at this point created what is now called the "kitchen".
It was a lot of fun and Barney McCallum loved the game so much that he built a court on his property. It's still there.
Photos were taken that summer and the following.
The best photo is of Frank Pritchard paired with his dad in a doubles match. And the amazing thing is that Joel Pritchard, a congressman, wears shoes that don't fit over socks that don't fit.
Joel Bell says the photo shows the innocence of it all.
Frank smiles and says, "This is Dad."
Joann Pritchard, Frank's mother, also loved the game. Turns out, she loved crew racing, too. And in the crew of the University of Washington there was something called a "brine ship."
There was an "A" boat and a "B" boat, and everyone else, the leftovers, rowed the brine boat. Frank recalls, "Her thought of him was, 'This (his game of him) is part of this game, part of that game, and we just put it all together... so that's 'pickle'."
And that's how this imaginary, imaginary, throwaway game joke got its name.
There is some confusion and even controversy over this version of the game's name. Part of this confusion concerns the grown children of the three men who invented the game.
One story is that the game is named after a cockapoo named Pickles who belonged to the Pritchard family.
Frank Pritchard smiles and rolls his eyes at the thought. He has a picture of a dog stamped with the year 1968. Three years after the game was invented.
The dog got its name from the game, not the other way around.
But the confusion is compounded by the fact that there are old interviews in which Joel Pritchard and Barney McCallum say that the game is actually named after the dog.
Frank says that the writer for the national publication that provided the game with the best initial publicity told the men that a story about a dog was better for copying. "Go on with the dog story," he said, "that's nice." So Joel and Barney immediately agreed that the official word would be "The Story of Pickles the Dog."
Barney McCallum was quoted as saying several years before his death, "Everybody involved knows the name came from a dog."
“I'm sure my mom wasn't thrilled,” Frank says now.
Scott and Carol Stover began appearing at the small enclave of Pickleball enthusiasm on Bainbridge Island in 1967. Carol was Barney McCallum's second cousin.
They went right into the game, playing mostly on Barney's court.
Scott won the first pickleball tournament in 1976. When Barney McCallum began selling the game in the 1970s, images of Scott and Carol adorned the original box, which contained a portable net, paddles, and balls. It sold for $29.50.
Looking back on the early days of the game, Scott says, "Oh, I think it was in an innocent spirit, people were just playing it, it wasn't with the intention that it was going to be the biggest, hottest thing in the world." ."
Joel Pritchard, when the years were done, continued to rule America.
Bill Bell became a traveler. He traveled to Southeast Asia, where he promoted the game as far away as India.
And Barney McCallum? Well, Barney was a true believer, the dreamer of the whole gang. He tirelessly promoted the game. He traveled to sporting events across the country and demonstrated Pickleball. He was instrumental in introducing him to the Seattle public schools. In 1972, he founded Pickle-Ball Inc. and began producing the first commercial paddles.
It was the Bainbridge game and then the Washington State game. Barney never stopped believing that it could be a world game.
It's only now that the rest of us are beginning to achieve the Barney McCallum dream.
Stovers, Scott and Carol now own this original yard behind the Pritchard family homes. It remains there to this day, hidden among the trees, with one end virtually adjacent to the same small building that stood there in 1965.
They tried to keep the manor as it was, in its original state. There are cracks in the asphalt in places, some caused by tree roots pushing up, but for the most part it looks as usual, which is part of the magic of the place.
"I love the fact that it's original," says Scott. It needs help, but then it would no longer be the original court. So we leave it as it is."
Pickle pilgrims head to Bainbridge to view court. The Stovers leave a tub full of old oars and balls for anyone who bothers to come in.
Every year when the great Founders Pickleball Tournament takes place on Bainbridge Island, the tour bus brings true believers to the court, who come down and see where it all began.
The primary court is becoming more and more important because in the last decade, and certainly in the last five years, something incredible has happened: Pickleball has exploded like a supernova. It's a hit full of hits. It seems like there are leagues everywhere, with an estimated 5 million players in the US alone, and that number is probably very low.
It is the fastest growing sport in America and possibly the world. There are pickleball magazines. There are two Pickleball Hall of Famers and a third is on the way. The governing bodies are in mourning. there are clubs and websites and how-to videos. suddenly the game is EVERYWHERE.
How big is it? This was recently answered by Jeopardy.
Frank Chiappone is president of the Seattle Metro Pickleball Association. He says Pickleball changed his life.
“I wake up in the morning,” he says, “and I think, 'Where am I going to play pickleball today? And if I'm not playing, I'm thinking about it or planning it. It has consumed my life and I am so excited about it.”
His friend James Owen is a tennis aficionado, but now that he's 60, pickleball seems to make more sense. He also added some new rules to the game that Joel, Barney, and Bill would probably agree to.
He says, “Rule 1, have fun. Second rule, if any rule conflicts with rule number one, it's not a rule."
Bainbridge enthusiast Clay Roberts has the perfect way of explaining the pickleball experience. "The way we describe it to a lot of people is like playing ping pong, but you can stand on the table."
And so, not long ago, Governor Jay Inslee showed up on Bainbridge Island in original court. He said: "London can have Wimbledon, Rome can have the Coliseum. But today we have the epicenter of the world, where pickleball began, on Bainbridge Island."
Everyone was there that day. Frank Pritchard, Scott and Carol Stover and all kinds of aristocrats, old and new.
"We're here," said Governor Inslee, "to finally get the state's sport on its feet. What a great day!"
All by happy accident.
For the boring kids, the great parents and the adventurous spirit.
"I'm very proud," says Joel Bell.
"Let me tell you," says Frank Pritchard, whose sarcastic comment started it all, "my father would be delighted that this has brought so much joy to so many people."
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This game is a testament to the monotony as a mother of invention in the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, when the Pritchards, Bell and McCallum were enjoying the good life and having fun, inventing the head game. And you know what? It can last forever.