Joe Sobek may someday take his place alongside such founding fathers of American sport as Abner Doubleday and Dr. James Naismith. Currently, however, the inventor of racquetball maintains a low profile in his capacity as a tennis and squash pro in Greenwich, Conn.
He surfaces occasionally as a ribbon-cutting guest at a new racquetball complex, and last year his face appeared on the cover of the International Racquetball Association's bi- monthly magazine. Still, to the majority of the sport's millions of new adherents, and certainly to the general public, he remains a face in the crowd.
This doesn't bother Sobek, whose greatest satisfaction has come from watching the sport which he hand-fed for so many years catch on with the masses.
Following on the heels of the tennis boom, racquetball has gone into an orbit of its own. The 700 racquetball clubs built since 1972 are perhaps the best measure of the sport's rapid growth, which has seen its playing ranks jump from 50,000 to between 6 and 8 million in the last decade.
And to think that Sobek concocted the game mostly with his friends' and his own personal enjoyment in mind.
As a tennis player looking for winter exercise in 1950 he wasn't finding what he wanted in other wall games. "I couldn't find enough competition in squash and I didn't like handball, because the ball was too hard and the game too strenuous," he explains. "Paddleball was almost ideal, except I thought it would be more fun using a racket than a dead paddle."
Inventing equipment suited to this new hybrid game was a major challenge. In designing a mock-up racket, Sobek strung a reinforced platform tennis paddle. A local manufacturer refined this model before starting production on the first 25 rackets, which were purchased by Sobek's friends at the Greenwich YMCA.
Next came a laborious search for the ideal ball, one just the right size, weight, and compression to be compatible with the new racket. When Sobek eventually found it in a 5- &-10-cent store, he bought out the store's stock. When this supply was exhausted, however, it was learned that Spalding's production of these balls had been discontinued before World War II.
At Sobek's request, the mold used in the manufacture of these balls was dusted off and a large order filled. This new batch proved much too lively, though, leading to the conclusion that the original 5-&-10 balls had mellowed with age. A New Haven, Conn., rubber company ultimately came up with the solution to this problem and began stamping out racquet balls.
Once the sole distributor of the game's rackets and balls, Sobek ran a mail-order equipment business for more than a decade. For several years after turning over distribution to a sporting goods firm, he collected a small royalty on sales.
For years, the entire weight of the sport, which originally was called paddlerackets, fell squarely on Sobek's shoulders. He was not only the sport's inventor and promoter, but its ultimate authority.
"I compiled all the rules and tried them out on my friends," he says of the trial-and- error period that led to a set of rules most similar to those in handball.
Interestingly, racquetball's growth was initially inhibited by handball players, who were reluctant to share their courts. Eventually a marriage of sorts occurred between the two sports when Robert Kendler, the wealthy president of the US Handball Association, took a liking to the new four-wall game and created a powerful powerfulgoverning body during the late-60s. This latter organization had the wherewithal to push racquetball to a position of newfound prominence, a development Sobek finds gratifying even though he's no longer at center stage.
The ease with which racquetball can be played and learned, Sobek believes, is perhaps most responsible for its current popularity. "The average racket player can pick up the game without any instruction at all," he explains, "and most everyone can have a good time right away."
This feature made the sport especially attractive to gym directors in the game's formative days. "They liked the idea of a sport that didn't require them to spend a lot of time teaching," Sobek says. But because squash was well entrenched in Eastern Ys and recreation centers, racquetball grew first in the Midwest and on the West Coast, and only now is catching on in New England.
Sobek is quick to point out that racquetball does not become boring for the advanced player, who must learn to return 100 m.p.h. serves. Yet the sport can appeal to virtual novices by utilizing a short-handled racket with a large striking surface. "It makes contact easy even if your hand-eye coordination isn't the best," he indicates.