Joseph G. Sobek (1918 – 1998) was the inventor of racquetball, although he is not credited with coining the name (he called it “paddle rackets”). He developed the sport while working in a rubber manufacturing plant in Bridgeport, CT. A resident of Greenwich, CT, Sobek was also a tennis pro and squash and handball player.
In the 1940’s Sobek was dissatisfied with the indoor court sports available, and it is said that Sobek sought a way to make handball less hard on his hands. He and a partner began playing the sport with paddles, and in 1949, Sobek “invented” a game called “paddle racquets.” This game combined the rules of squash and handball.
Using a platform tennis racket as a pattern, Sobek drew up plans for a new, short, strung racket and had 25 prototypes made in 1950. He began promoting the new sport by selling these prototypes to his fellow members of the Greenwich, CT YMCA.
The game was catching on, but players found fault with the ball, so Sobek set out to find a better ball for his new sport. He found what he was looking for in an inexpensive Spalding rubber ball for children, and bought as many as he could to keep his new sport going. Sobek eventually founded his own company to manufacture balls to his exact specifications.
In 1952, Sobek founded the Paddle Rackets Association. He codified a set of rules and printed them up, sent out promotional kits to YMCAs and other sporting organizations to promote the sport, and provided clinics to teach new players the new sport of racquetball.
The fledgling International Racquetball Association established an organized tournament structure and set of rules for the game. Meanwhile, sporting goods manufacturers developed new equipment that was specifically designed for racquetball.
In 1968, Sobek connected with Robert Kendler, head of the US Handball Association (USHA). Kendler was intrigued by the new sport, and the next year, Kendler founded the International Racquetball Association. The sport of racquetball had it’s official new name, as coined by San Diego tennis pro Bob McInerny.
That same year, Sobek’s National Paddle Rackets Association held the first national championship tournament in Milwaukee in 1968. It was call the Gut-Strung Paddle Rackets National Championship.
Kendler utilized the USHA and its publication, ACE, to promote the new sport, while Sobek continued in his clinics and other efforts at bringing athletes to the game. In 1969, the IRA took over the National Championship, holding their first tournament in St. Louis.
In the late 1970’s, racquetball history saw a huge surge in the popularity of the game. Sales of racquetball equipment skyrocketed, and players demanded new racquetball clubs and courts across the country. Meanwhile, sporting goods manufacturers developed new equipment that was specifically designed for racquetball. By 1974, there were about 3 million racquetball players in the US. That year also marks the first professional tournament held by the IRA.
In 1973, Kendler parted ways with the IRA due to an internal dispute with the board, and founded two new, short-lived associations (both went bankrupt in 1982): the US Racquetball Association and the National Racquetball Club.
Meanwhile, the IRA grew despite Kendler’s departure. In 1979, it changed its name to the Amateur Racquetball Association. In 1997, it took the name that it has today: The United States Racquetball Association (USRA).
In 1979, the International Amateur Racquetball Federation, now known as the International Racquetball Federation (IRF), was founded with 13 countries as members. Since 1981, worldwide championships have been held biennially.
In the 1980’s, racquetball was one of the fasted growing sports in the US. The Ladies Professional Racquetball Association (LPRA) was founded in 1980. Other recent landmarks in racquetball history include:
- 1981: The first Racquetball World Championships were held
- 1982: The US Olympic Committee recognized racquetball as a developing Olympic sport
- 1995: Racquetball achieved full medal status in the Pan-American games
By 1998, there were an estimated 10 million US players, and about 14 million players in over 90 countries around the world.