Pickleball is the addictive sport sweeping our nation! According to NBC News, it is the “fastest growing-sport in America.” The obsession seems to have taken over in just the last few years, but Pickleball was actually invented over 50 years ago!
Pickleball only exists today because a man and his friends put their heads together and got creative when they didn't have the necessary materials to play badminton. It’s like the old proverb says, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
History of Pickleball
On a summer afternoon in 1965, Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell were trying to find an activity that their families could enjoy together. Their families were on vacation together on Bainbridge Island. They had an eclectic stockpile of sports equipment hanging about. They ended up using ping pong paddles, a badminton net and asphalt court, and a wiffle ball. They initially tried playing the game like badminton with the net higher off the ground. However, they quickly discovered that the game was more fun when they bounced the ball over a lower net. They soon had their friend Barney McCallum at their house to help create rules for their newly developed game. They had no intention of the game actually taking off outside of their own families and friends.
For a relatively long time, the game was played without a name. There are two different theories as to how the name eventually came about. Joan Pritchard said that when discussing the game she once mentioned how Pickleball reminded her of the ‘pickle boat’ in oaring, which she says was manned by oarsmen who were the leftovers of all of the teams in an event. This was a tribute to Pickleball’s seemingly random conglomerate of the “leftovers” of various sports.
Dick Brown and Barney McCallum say that the Pritchard and Brown families each had a dog. The Pritchards named their dog Pickles, and the Browns named their dog Lulu. Pickles was supposedly notorious for running off with the Pickleball whenever it was hit into the trees, so everyone called the balls “Pickles’ balls”. One night the Pritchards and Browns were discussing possible names for the sport when they finally decided on Pickleball.
History of Pickleball Equipment
As the game was finely tuned, and the players improved, so did the equipment. Early on Barney McCallum developed a wooden plywood paddle in his basement. The basic shape of which is most common in today’s paddles. These paddles were much heavier than today’s paddles weighing around thirteen ounces. It took almost twenty years for new technology to replace the wooden paddles.
Arlen Paranto was the original designer and builder of composite Pickleball paddles. Arlen wanted to help out his son Steve who had recently become one of the top Pickleball players and didn’t like the heavier paddles. Being a Boeing Industrial Engineer, he had the knowledge and materials necessary to create the lightweight paddle. This paddle had a honeycomb core, very similar to most of the paddles in circulation today. He and Steve worked together to build paddles in their garage, eventually launching Pro-Lite Sports. These paddles quickly took over the market since players found it difficult to win using their old wooden paddles.
Arlen Paranto's son Steve with the first composite Pickleball paddle.
For the first 45 years of Pickleball, the principal ball for indoor play was the Cosom ball. As time has gone on, there have been numerous developments in the manufacturing of and regulations regarding pickleballs. Indoor balls usually contain 26 larger holes and can be lighter since there is no wind inside of a building to affect the trajectory of a ball. Outdoor balls have 40 smaller holes and are designed to be heavier to counteract the wind.
Pickleball nets have not really changed over the years. When Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell initially set up their game, they used the standard badminton net height of 60 inches. Once they realized everyone preferred to bounce the ball over the net, they lowered it. Being a casual game at this point and not wanting to make a fuss over measuring the net, before play, Joel Pritchard would measure the height of the net with his waist which was approximately 36 inches.
The last piece of equipment needed to play Pickleball is a place to play. The surfaces used to play Pickleball vary greatly. After the Pritchards and Bells returned home from their summer vacation, they needed a place to play their new game. Typical neighborhood streets were approximately 20 feet wide. This was perfect for their courts; it made sideline calling a bit easier as well.
So some people played on asphalt streets, while others built cement courts in their backyards. During the winter months in the cold Northwest, players were forced to move indoors. Gymnasiums either had hardwood floors, like we play on today, or carpeted floors. This is not your typical shaggy home carpet. This was a thin carpet pulled taught across the floor. It was not a pleasant surface to fall on! With more and more tennis players converting to the beautiful sport of Pickleball, many tennis complexes are repurposing several of their courts to provide Pickleballers a place to play. And with the growth of the sport across the United States, there are now companies who specialize in building Pickleball courts.
History of Pickleball Rule Changes
There have been some very interesting rule changes over the years in Pickleball. Originally, the non-volley zone, now called the kitchen, was 6 feet 6 inches from the net, like in Badminton. However, thanks to a very tall and aggressive friend of the McCallums, they moved the kitchen line back another 6 inches. So now our kitchen is 7 feet wide.
In the very early years of Pickleball, players were under the impression that the line that separates the non-volley zone from the rest of the play area had an invisible extension beyond the sides of the court. In play this meant that players did not step in front of this line to volley the ball even if they were outside of the sidelines of the court. At one point, players started to challenge this idea and began running up to the net outside of the normal play area to volley the ball. There was quite a bit of debate as to whether this should be legal, but it was ultimately determined that this was a fair play. It is now known as “jumping the kitchen”.
Many Pickleballers do not realize that servers used to be allowed to serve the ball with one foot inside of the court. This service rule was initially put in place due to a tree that was positioned directly behind the court back on Bainbridge Island. This tree did not allow players to comfortably serve from fully behind the line, so they allowed players to always have one foot in the court.
Pickleball has adapted over the years in its rules, equipment, and styles of play. However, people continue to love the sport because of its addicting uniqueness, friendly people, and ease of learning. As the number of pickleballers continues to grow exponentially each year, we can rest assured that the core elements that make Pickleball what it is will never change!
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