In 2014, NBC hailed pickleball as the “fastest growing sport in America.” But our favorite pastime has been around much longer than that. In fact, pickleball can be traced back to three things: summer boredom, missing sports equipment, and a cocker spaniel.
Every parent can relate to those dog days of summer, when the novelty of an extended vacation has worn off and the kids start complaining about being bored. Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard, both U.S. Congressmen, experienced this exact problem during the summer of 1965 in Bainbridge Island, WA. The complaining was enough that the men grew desperate to find something – anything! – to entertain the children.
In a moment of desperation (or brilliance!), Pritchard took them all to the asphalt badminton court in his backyard. But that plan almost ended when there wasn’t a shuttlecock in sight.
Rather than give up and jump back on the boredom train, he did what any desperate dad would do in this situation: He improvised!
They found a wiffleball and started playing with the badminton rackets. It didn’t take long for the boredom whines to transition into cries of, “This is too hard!” Again, the dads didn’t give up. They used their quick thinking to create wooden rackets that looked a lot like Ping Pong paddles.
It seemed as if for one day, summertime boredom had been silenced. But Bell and Pritchard were determined to make this game stick and to keep their kids occupied for the rest of the summer. So they began creating some baseline rules.
Originally, the game was played with a badminton net set at a height of five feet. To change things up a bit, they lowered the net to three feet, and they found the height change made it easier to volley the ball on a bounce as well as in the air, and to keep the pace of the game exciting.
The next weekend as Bell and Pritchard invited their friend Barney McCallum to the court to give their new game a whirl. The three men ended up creating more rules so that the whole family could play together.
Now that they had a new sport, they realized it needed a name—and that’s where the family’s cocker spaniel, Pickles, comes into play. As the kids were playing the new game, Pickles acted just like any dog: He saw a ball, grabbed it and ran away. The kids had to keep yelling at Pickles to give them back their ball. As these things go, the cries of “Pickles, the ball!” became “Pickles, ball!” until finally, everyone was simply playing a friendly game of “pickleball.”
Like any good story, there’s a lot of speculation around the origin of the name. Another myth claims that Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan, started calling the game pickleball because the combination of badminton and tennis reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen are chosen from leftovers of other boats.
Regardless of the origin of its name, pickleball has withstood the test of time. What once started out as a way to silence summertime boredom more than 51 years ago is taking both the United States and Canada by storm!
“Although pickleball is the game with the funny name and peculiar scoring, it’s fun to play and easier to learn than most court sports, thus having a broader appeal to people of all ages and athletic abilities. This is why the sport continues to grow at a feverish pace,” said Chuck Vietmeier, product manager GAMMA Sports.