There’s nothing like the Olympics to get me thinking about the promise and possibility of sports. In an Olympic year, heartwarming stories about athletes who overcame poverty and political oppression temporarily supplant reports of those who commit crimes or suffer debilitating effects from head trauma experienced on the playing field. We see how sports can transform men and women, how they can lift up entire countries and even cause warring nations to cease hostilities, at least for a fortnight. Yes, there are always some bad apples who use performance enhancing drugs or otherwise cheat to get an edge, but they can’t undermine the general feeling of good will that’s in the air.
Perhaps it’s the prospect of this summer’s Olympics that has got me thinking lately about the interrelationship of sports and culture. That, plus a conversation I had with my father last weekend. He was telling me about his recent communication with Denton Cooley, the celebrated heart surgeon who was a classmate of his at the University of Texas. My dad used to play basketball with Cooley, and a few weeks ago they exchanged e-mails about that. My father admitted that he loved basketball when he was younger, but what he loved to play even more was handball.
How did I never know that? I knew that my dad had played basketball as a kid, and softball and tennis later in life, but I don’t think he ever mentioned handball. Still, it makes perfect sense. Handball, played as singles or doubles, was popular when my dad was growing up in the Depression because the only equipment it required was a hard rubber ball. (Some players also wore gloves, and my dad still had his pair readily available—see below—some 70 years after he last used them.) Players took turns hitting the ball against a wall, trying to make shots that their opponents could not return. Much of the handball on the East Coast was played against one wall, but there were other varieties, including a four-wall version that was like racquetball without racquets. Sometimes called American handball, this is different than the Olympic sport of team handball, which involves two teams trying to throw a ball into their opponents’ goal.
American handball was extremely popular among urban Jewish kids like my father, and in fact many of the early champions were Jewish. Vic Hershkowitz, a New York City firefighter, dominated the sport in the 1940s and 1950s, winning 40 national and international titles. Bronx-born Paul Haber, son of handball champ Sam Haber, reached the top of the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, winning five four-wall national championships from 1966 through 1971. Never one to be accused of modesty, the hard-playing, hard-living Haber called himself “the Greatest Jewish Athlete in the World.” There also were noteworthy female players in the U.S. and abroad, including Germany’s Lilli Henoch, who led the Berlin Sports Club and twice won the Berlin Championship of Jewish Handball Players before being murdered in 1942 by Hitler’s death squads.
Having written about many a nontraditional athlete in my day, I’m not surprised that handball stars aren’t front-and-center in the sports history books. But I was surprised to find only a footnote about the game in Steven A. Riess’s book, Sports and the American Jew. Perhaps it's more a part of cultural history than sports history. At any rate, I plan to capture my dad’s handball memories in our next oral history interview.
What about you, oh cyber-readers? Is handball part of your family’s story?