The San Francisco Chronicle is the latest media outlet to repeat the tall tales about the origins of pickleball, the sport that put Bainbridge Island on the map.
If you’re a true Bainbridge Islander then you already know the story. For those of you who don’t (Californians, I’m talking to you. You too, Bellevuians, cowering in the back row), pickleball was invented on Bainbridge by Congressman Joel Pritchard and a few of his buddies during the summer of 1963 (according to Joel Pritchard and co-founder Bill Bell), or 1966 (according to Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan) or 1965 (according to everyone else). That first pickleball court remains shrouded in moss and vines here on Bainbridge. It’s a magic place. When the vines are parted, a chorus of angels can be heard and the court glows with an otherworldly iridescence.
The Chronicle, in a recent article about pickleball, got many facts lined up straight.
The sport was NOT named after the family dog.
I’m sure this blog post will lead California authorities to turn over the Chronicle’s fact checkers for a good old-fashioned tar and feathering at Winslow Green. Fudging the facts on one of Bainbridge Island’s proudest moments is deserving of nothing less.
A couple years ago, I wrote a story for the Review all about the “Official Sport of Bainbridge Island.”*
I delved deep into the history, tracking down eyewitnesses to pickleball’s founding moments.
“Ok, there’s the ‘official’ history and then there’s the real story,” Pritchard’s daughter Peggy Pritchard-Olson told me in late 2005. “It was not named after the dog because we didn’t get the dog until years after the game started. The dog was named after the game. Not the other way around.”
If only the Chronicle had a subscription to the Bainbridge Review. Those fact-checkers would still be prancing freely about Frisco with flowers in their hair.
Pickleball’s name is actually derived from the Pritchard family’s maritime pursuits rather than its canine pets.
Frank Pritchard, another of Joel Pritchard’s kids, said the name may have come from his mother, Joan, who was a competitive rower on the island. She sometimes referred to the ‘pickle boat,’ the slowest vessel in a race.
“Nobody remembers how it came to be called ‘pickleball,’ but I think somebody needed a reason why it had that name and the dog story sounded good and eventually stuck,” Frank Pritchard said in 2005.
Joan herself set the record straight in a column she wrote in July for the Parkersburg, West Virginia News and Sentinel:
The name of the game became Pickle Ball, after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Somehow the idea the name came from our dog Pickles was attached to the naming of the game, but Pickles wasn’t on the scene for two more years. The dog was named for the game, but stories about the name’s origin were funnier thinking the game was named for the dog.
In an oral history published by the state in 2000, Joel Pritchard (that’s a rare pickleball-playing picture of him over to the left) said the tall tales about the sport’s name originated with an out-of-town reporter…and a few imaginative locals…and his own willingness to hush-up when a good story takes hold.
Interviewer: There are several accounts about how you named the game. Is it true you named it for your dog?
Joel Pritchard: We needed a nutty name like Pickle-Ball, but, no, the dog was named after the game. A reporter came through and was doing a national story on the game, and somebody told him that story. Everybody said, “Shut your mouth. It’s a good story. It works better, leave it alone.” It’s like a lot of stories.
And a lot of stories have included the Pickles-the-Dog Genesis Theory, including ones on National Public Radio, the Denver Post, Wikipedia and numerous small papers across the U.S. and Canada.
Even a few nearby papers (Bellingham Herald, Everett Herald, Spokane Spokesman-Review) have included stories about a scampering spaniel inspiring the Pritchards to name a sport after it.
But the myth is most powerfully perpetuated by the shadowy forces of pickleball officialdom.
The USA Pickleball Association, the organization that publishes of the “Official Pickleball Handbook,” holds pickleball’s official tournaments and does the official ranking of the sport’s champions, has this to say on its official website:
The Pritchards had a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who became interested in this new game. Whenever a ball would come his way, he would take the ball and run off with it, because you see, it was Pickle’s ball. And that is how the game got its name.
And the USA Pickleball Association’s sticking to it. Back when I wrote that Review article, I sat in on a few matches played by a certain someone who happens to be a high-ranking USA Pickleball Association official. I mentioned that Joel Pritchard’s kids told me the dog story was bunk.
The pickleball bigwig got a queasy look.
“You’re not going to put that in your story, are you?” he asked. “We’ve already got the handbook published.”
Now Joans Account
July 27, 2008 - By JOAN PRITCHARD, Local Columnist
During the summer of 1966 my husband, Joel, and his best friend, Bill Bell, were too long on the golf course, having promised both our children and Bill's they would return early to our summer home on Bainbridge Island and find some things to do that would be interesting to them. When they arrived and found the children upset with them, Joel stated when he was young, kids made up their own games. As a result he promised he could make something that was not yet made that they would enjoy.
There was a badminton court on the property at the time, and Joel and Bill went there, where Joel lowered the badminton net to his hip height (26 inches, I believe). Next they headed for a nearby shed, retrieved some plywood, and Joel drew the pictures of two paddles. They then cut out the paddles and headed for a store to buy the perfect ball for the game. They tried everything, not finding an answer. Along came a young neighbor, Dick Greene, who was carrying a plastic bat and a whiffle ball. The inventors asked to borrow the whiffle ball and found it was perfect for a knock over the net. I doubt Dick ever got his ball back. The name of the game became Pickle Ball, after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Somehow the idea the name came from our dog Pickles was attached to the naming of the game, but Pickles wasn't on the scene for two more years. The dog was named for the game, but stories about the name's origin were funnier thinking the game was named for the dog.
Changes have been made in the rules over the years, with guys like Dick Brown and Barney McCallum suggesting new ideas. For instance the original game score was 21 points, but this was changed to 21 for doubles and 15 for singles. Serving is made with a side swipe, not an overhead batting, and when a serve is being made, no one can be closer to the net than the long yellow line that cuts the court in half.
It has been amazing to find Pickle Ball is being taught in schools on the West Coast and is a large hit among retirees in Arizona where as many as 12 courts in a row can be found. It is now played all over the world, even in foreign countries, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages because play is made only according to one's capabilities. You definitely improve with the amount of time you play.
Strangely, the game became of great interest to all adults who watched and played. It expanded and neighbors on the island began to build their own courts. Eventually it has become a fun favorite around America.
The paddles are now bearing rounded handles, and the equipment is much more sophisticated. I have two of the original paddles, and honestly, I like them best.
The game introduced last week on "Good Morning America." There was a picture of Joel and Pickles.
Joel, served in Congress for 12 years and as lieutenant governor of the state of Washington for eight years, when he became ill with cancer. He attended Marietta College during 1947/48.
Joan Pritchard is a longtime columnist for The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.
Now you decide what the history is I for one will believe the founder and his wife. After all they were there it was their home and of course the dog that came some years later named Pickle.