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Charlie Garfinkel: Handball still a popular activity locally

Many who play racquetball, squash or paddle ball do not realize how heavily these sports were influenced by handball.

The earliest record of two-wall handball being played actually occurred in San Francisco in 1873. By the early 1900s, four-wall handball was well established and one-wall handball was huge in New York City, where the game is still played outdoors. Four Wall National Handball Championships have been held annually in the United States since 1919.

Four-wall paddleball was invented in 1930 by Earl Riskey, who taught physical education at the University of Michigan, where he devised the idea of using paddles to play on the school’s handball courts. In 1949, racquetball was invented by Joe Sobek in Greenwich, Conn., when he started playing handball with a strung racquet.

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching handball being played, and talked to various players at the Knights of Columbus on Delaware Avenue. The game is still popular in Buffalo and other areas in the country. Unfortunately, like racquetball, the number of players in both sports has greatly diminished.

Robin Block is one of the coordinators of handball at the club. He said: “All of our members feel like handball is the sport that provides the best overall workout, both physically and mentally. We have players who play at all levels. We get our inspiration from players like Joe Heiney and Mike Caliguiri, who are both in their early 90s and are in amazing physical shape. Both players still play three times a week for an hour and a half and work hard physically when they are not playing handball.”

Among other players who play handball are the legendary Tommy Ryan, who starred at Timon High School and Holy Cross University in sports and is in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Now 82, except for a few gray hairs, he still looks in phenomenal shape.

“When I was 50 years old, I knew I couldn’t continue to play the sports that I was playing,” Ryan said. “I’ve been playing handball for over 30 years and I feel that it is the sport that gives me the best workout. Everyone I play handball with are perfect gentlemen. Unfortunately, like racquetball, the number of players playing today are down from years ago. There are very few facilities to play and there is virtually very little teaching of youngsters who might be interested in the sport.”

Former Sheriff Tom Higgins said, “We have a great time playing handball. However, it takes most of us longer to get ready to play than it does to play a match.”

Ralph Penali, 70, is another physical marvel. He stretches for 40 minutes before and after playing. He said, “My warmup lasts longer than my first marriage.”

Sal Lupima is one of the area’s finest handball players. When asked what the strategy of handball is, he said, “Most players are fairly adept with both their right and left hand. However, like in other sports like tennis, squash or racquetball, most players have a weaker side. Playing handball is like a chess match. Whether or not you’re playing singles or doubles you should hit the handball low to win a point or hit a ceiling ball to keep your opponent or opponents pinned in the back of the court.”

As for why numbers are down in handball in many places in the United States, he said, “Even though we wear gloves when we play handball, the game is very rough on your hands. It is hard for many players to become proficient with both hands, there are fewer facilities than ever before, and racquetball greatly contributes to the lack of handball players because it is so much easier to play for both men and women alike.”

Vern Roberts, based in New York City, is the executive director of the National Handball Association. He said, “Today, young people have more choices of sports and activities than ever before. Racquetball helped for awhile. The game was easier to play than handball. Handball was primarily a downtown sport and it really needed the community to thrive. Outdoor handball is more than holding its own in New York, California and Florida. Collegiate handball is doing well.

The recent National Collegiate Racquetball Championships had over 350 participants.

“We are also pushing handball in schools. The handballs we’re using are much softer and easier on your hands; making the game easier to play and enjoy. We feel these features will lead to more people playing handball.”
For further information about playing handball at the Knights of Columbus, call Robin Block at 512-2883.

Buffalo Pro-Am Doubles Squash set
The Buffalo Club Pro-Am Doubles Squash Tournament is in its first year and it is hoped it will be a regular stop on the Squash Doubles Association North American tour.

The tournament is being run by the Buffalo Squash Doubles Association. It is the 17th and last one on the tour this year.
Total prize money is $25,000. There are players competing in the tournament from all over the world. These include players from Australia, England, Colombia, Canada, Zimbabwe and South America.

Tournament play starts May 11. The final match will be May 14. All pro matches will be at the Buffalo Club. Call Buffalo Club Pro Tom Hayes at 573-9516 for further information.

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