Author: Steven Bo Keeley
Date: February, 2013
Few historians of any sport endure long enough to actually see in live action the legendary competitors they write about. Having started my racquetball journey well over forty years ago, when Leach and Ektelon were California backyard industries pumping out a racquet a day, when the handfuls of players at YMCA’s strewn across the USA used wood clunkers in but two national tournaments per year that we hitchhiked to and lived on hospitality room grub and couches to try to win a T-shirt and little cup… in the sport of racquetball that is just over fifty years old, I can honestly say I have seen all the greatest players play with my own four eyes.
That doesn't mean with certainty that I can pick out the greatest of them all. The problem in making this determination is an inconvenient truth that the fifty year old game has evolved so much over the last four decades that it's next to impossible to compare one era to the next.
The racquets have grown to double head size, much lighter and better made. The strings are strung with 400% more tension than when I hit the court. The doubly faster ball moves like a hummingbird instead of a sponge, the scoring system today is different with shorter games, and many rules changes have obliterated early strategies and given rise to new ones. The sport was and is called racquetball but the greatest players throughout the four eras really played different games.
What I can objectively deliver is a comparison of the very best, and the best of the rest, of each era… and maybe you can decide who was the greatest of them all.
We can divide racquetball in to four distinct eras since the first national tournament in 1968. Each with its own version of the game, personalities, strategies, equipment, rules, and one great champion. The Pioneers competed from the first National event until the mid-seventies. The players of the Golden Era vied from the mid-seventies through the eighties. The Modern Era of the sport consisted of the nineties to the mid-two thousands. The Current Era is the last five years through the present 2013.
We will examine the champion and top ten contenders of each era of racquetball. Of course, some long-lived players crossed eras, but I have listed each in the era he most identified with, and no player is listed in more than one era for this exercise. Once we journey through racquetball history and its best competitors, you will have as much information as any authority on the sport to form an opinion on who is the Greatest of All Time. It will be an informed opinion based on decades of history, and I believe your truth is your truth and you’re entitled to it.
The Pioneer Era
The pioneers of championship racquetball were more often described as Docs than Jocks! We played sweaty chess, a slow strategic contests won by the smarter player and not the best athlete. We played with an extremely slow ball with wood frame and new-fangled medal racquets strung at less than fifteen pounds tension in two out of three games to twenty-one point marathons. The ball only moved 90mph and typical rallies went six or eight shots before a point ended. How accurate was the Doc moniker? Well, five of the top ten of the era and numerous contenders just off the list had Doctoral level degrees in medicine, dentistry, law, psychology, and in my case veterinary medicine.
The hands down Champion of the Pioneer Era was Charlie Brumfield. Bill Schmidtke's forehand was slightly better than Charlie’s, my backhand was superior, Steve Serot ran circles around the bearded wonder, and in a nutshell Brum wasn't especially graceful. However, the one thing he did as much as the rest of us combined was to win. Charlie Brumfield was the most intelligent, determined competitor in the history of our sport, and would and did do anything and everything to win. He invented the Sword and Shield method of play to protect a weak backhand, the donkey kick to clear central court, the crack ace with Carl Loveday’s, ushered in the ceiling and around the wall balls, utilized referee bullying, crowd management and sending soiled doves to upcoming finalists’ rooms at the midnight hour. Charlie was known as The Holder of All Titles which was accurate. He won multiple IRA National Singles and Doubles Championships, multiple National Invitational titles in doubles and singles, and when pro tournaments rolled around in 1973 three Pro National titles on tour, and a pair of Outdoor National singles and doubles championships. He beat all of the best in the biggest competitions of our era including a twenty consecutive tournaments streak. That’s saying something among the Docs.
Just behind him, the Top Ten Contenders of the Pioneer Era in no particular order: Bud Muleheisen, Bill Schultz, Bill Schmidtke, Craig Finger, Paul Lawrence, Steve Keeley, Steve Serot, Mike Zeitman, Steve Strandemo and Ron Rubenstein.
The Golden Era
The Golden Era was aptly named at the highest point in the history of our sport. The game was evolving in the Golden State California and burgeoning across the nation with the first pure racquetball court clubs, female tournaments, the first pro tours, and Hollywood stepped into the courts. Many of the top players sported in imitation my golden afro and mismatched colorful Chuck’s tennis shoes. The game was being played by as many as fifteen million players worldwide. A couple of top professionals made as much as a million dollars in endorsements in one year, Sports Illustrated covered tournaments, and some events were nationally televised during prime viewing hours.
The Golden Era game was played with racquets the same head size as the original sticks but much lighter, strung with more tension, and hitting a much faster ball. A plethora of new manufacturers jumped into the sport, and larger racquets were introduced toward the end of the era. The Golden Era game saw shorter rallies with balls blazing at 130mph where the Docs, having little time to think, were supplanted by the pure Jocks. An accurate term was coined that sticks to this moment- Power Racquetball! You see, the new equipment, bulldog player physiotypes and erupting mentalities spawned new strategies and rules. The 21-point games switched to 15-points, the 11-point tiebreaker added, the screen serve was invented and combat by a side wall server line, ceiling shots became vague memories, and legions of thrilled fans urged ‘Serve and shoot!’ to break the front wall bottom board.
The Champion of the Golden Era, Marty Hogan, was the best athlete of the day and in my opinion the best natural athlete to ever hold reins on the sport. A physical dynamo sporting a golden afro and using the same and sometimes inferior old equipment, he regularly smacked the ball 20mph faster than the next biggest hitter. He hit shots at such speeds as never before that two new ones evolved- the jam serve and splat kill. Marty's unprecedented pendulum power swing smashed with equal power backhands and forehands. His drive serve was the most potent and copied weapon of the day. Hogan was number one of fifteen million players and a dominant personality with the most endorsement contracts in history. He won the Leach NRC Nationals five consecutive times when it was the biggest event in racquetball, plus more total events per annum than any other player for ten consecutive years. At his peak, Hogan went over a year without losing a single match in singles, doubles and outdoors. He even took the paddleball Nationals from me, the reputed legend of wood, to prove he was the second Holder of All Titles and the best of the era.
Just short of him, the Top Ten Contenders of the Golden Era in no specific order were: Mike Yellen, Dave Peck, Jerry Hilecher, Davey Bledsoe, Bret Harnett, Rich Wagner, Craig McCoy, Gregg Peck, Ruben Gonzales and Ed Andrews.
The Modern Era
The Modern Era was played with big racquets that were both light and powerful, almost identical to the ones used today. The Tarzan players with driving type A personalities vied in three out of five games to eleven with the fast Pro Penn Green ball and a new one serve rule to elongate the serve and shoot rallies. Most of the top players of the Modern Era started in junior competitions during the Golden Era, and many were the offspring of noteworthy racquetball players. The second generation players with their super-sized racquets took the game to a new level with 170mph shots the norm in a pro contest. The swing of the era became less pendulum and flatter with extreme body torque and explosive contact. The fast furious pace demanded early swing preparation using fast twitch fibers and mesmeric alertness. The US Open replaced the Leach Pro Nationals as the gala event of the year.
The Champion of the Modern Era was Cliff Swain who to me resembled a praying mantis stalking and blowing the ball to kingdom come. Swain was a jock like Hogan with less bulk and a half-step quicker, with a fierce will like pioneer Brumfield. In addition to sharing these sports traits of the earlier champions, he was a lefty with a serve that was eclipsed by an eyeblink. Television cameras couldn’t follow the ball, much less the service returner. Cliff introduced the flat back-swing, and early swing preparation that is popular today. He won more professional titles than any other player in history, and was the number one ranked player for six years in a testy competitive era. Swain never went a single year without losing a match as Hogan had, and never won twenty in a row like Brumfield, but he was equally impressive in reigning for nearly twenty years from 1985 to 2005 at or near the top of the sport.
The Top Ten Contenders of the Modern Era again not listed in any particular order were: Sudsy Monchik, Jason Mannino, John Ellis, Mike Ray, Drew Kachtik, Andy Roberts, Jack Huczek, Mike Guidry, Tim Doyle and Tim Sweeney.
The Current Era
The Current Era is played almost exactly like the Modern with a couple of improvements. The racquets are still big and getting better every year. The ball frequently travels over 175mph, matches are still the best three of five game. The new Purple Pro ball is a tad slower than the Green of the Modern Era, and the two serves allowed in the original game have replaced the one serve rule. In addition, line judges in big matches watch the serve line and the overall officiating is improved. Jason Mannino, a champion of his own right from the Modern Era, now heads the IRT, and the pro stops have gone international including Canada, Mexico and all over South America.
The Champion of the Current Era is Kane Waselenchuck. Kane is a lefty with a power serve, flat back-swing and early swing prep, and a crushing competitiveness. At the same time he pleases the juniors with trick shots on his knees and behind the back. He seems capable of doing anything on a racquetball court except loosing. Kane has lost only once in the last five years, before recently retiring after a match injury. He is by far the most dominant champion within one era in history, and the gap between him and everyone else is vast.
The Current Top Ten Contenders in order after Kane are: Rocky Carson, Alavaro Beltran, Jose Rojas, Chris Crowther, Shane Vanderson, Ben Croft, Tony Carson, Javier Moreno and Charlie Pratt.
Four Eras and Four Champions
So, among the four eras and champs who is the best? Ask yourself: Who holds the mythical Crown of the Greatest of All Time? A simple query may give you the answer to the mystery of the GOAT. Would Kane be just as dominant and rack up undefeated seasons with a prime Cliff Swain, Marty Hogan and Charlie Brumfield? If you believe the answer is yes, then you've answered the question and Kane is clearly the greatest. If you believe the answer is no, the debate is open and your opinion is probably stronger and more informed than ever.