Charlie Garfinkel, Western New York's 6-foot-6 goodwill ambassador to the world of racquetball, will reach the sport's highest pinnacle this evening when he is inducted into the American Amateur Racquetball Association Hall of Fame at a dinner at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Houston.
Garfinkel, along with Bill Schmidtke of Minneapolis and Luzell Wilde of Salt Lake City, will be inducted before 1,000 spectators, many of them participants in this weekend's National Singles Championships.
The three inductees will bring to 10 the number of members in the Hall of Fame in a sport that became an organized entity just 21 years ago and today numbers an estimated 8.5 million players in the United States.
"Charlie is one of the most colorful players the sport has known and is one of the pioneers of racquetball," noted Luke St. Onge, the executive director of the American Amateur Racquetball Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., near the Olympic Training Center.
"Hall of Famers are elected in two categories, as players and as contributors," said St. Onge, "and it is interesting to note that Charlie, although he is entering as a player, has almost as many credits as a contributor."
Garfinkel's player credits speak for themselves. They include:
Seventeen national racquetball championships, 14 in singles and three in doubles.
Four years on the pro tour, from 1971-74, during which he rose to a No. 5 ranking.
Eighteen regional titles, including four Eastern Opens, in a variety of categories.
Twenty-one New York State singles titles and eight state doubles crowns in various divisions.
Fourteen Buffalo City Open singles championships and nine City Open doubles titles.
In all, the 50-year-old veteran has won approximately 200 tournaments overall, sometimes going undefeated throughout an entire season and winning as many as 15 competitions.
Off-court, the loquacious Garfinkel, who also has competed -- and won -- at top levels in tennis and squash, is a reading teacher at School 11 in Buffalo and a racquetball pro at Bally Matrix Fitness Center.
His "contributor" credits to racquetball include covering the pro tour as a featured writer for Racquetball magazine; doing color work for ESPN for four years at the Ektelon Nationals in Anaheim, Calif.; hosting a local racquetball program on cable television for 10 years; writing the column "Racquet Sports," which appears Sundays in The Buffalo News; and having published two books on racquetball.
A tongue-in-cheek demeanor and a promotional bent that includes the wearing of clothing emblazoned with "The Gar" written in bold strokes have created something of a Garfinkel Mystique that may tend to keep foes a bit in awe.
But beyond that is total dedication to the game, which even today includes an hour and a half of practice six days a week.
"I enjoy instilling some humor and personality . . . being a goodwill ambassador of sorts," says the Gar, who this weekend is a favorite along with Bobby Sanders of Cleveland in the national 50-and-over singles in Houston.
"But I'm proudest of being a fair competitor and, if I happen to lose to an opponent, having him know that I'll be playing as if a national championship is at stake the next time we meet."