Hanging Tough with Mr. T
By Ed Staskus
The Saturday morning that I played a racquetball match against Dick Stager for the first time was at a tournament in Cleveland Heights. I had beaten a so-so player from Akron the night before and was in the second round. Watching Dick warm up I could see he had good direction on his shots. He was a target shooter rather than a cannon blaster.
My first impression of the stockbroker was that he wasn’t an athlete, but I had long ago learned to beware of first impressions. Even though he looked more suited to golf than the pinball of racquetball, I later learned that as a teenager growing up in Kent, he was a whiz at baseball, football, and basketball.
Once our match started, I quickly found out he was fiendishly clever, never overhitting the ball except when it suited him. He played the long game, running me back and forth. He believed racquetball wasn’t a game of power, but one of mental chess, harking back to an earlier era when Charlie Brumfield ruled the roost. He played patiently efficiently taking few chances, always looking for the next sure opportunity to close out the point.
“Crushing the ball with all your might will usually not beat someone who knows how to play the angles,” he liked to say. He smiled when he said it. It wasn’t a friendly smile.
He was infuriating, slowing down the action, wiping up every drop of sweat up from the floor, discussing the fine point of a ruling with the referee, and getting in my way. He did it slyly, so that it was a hinder but wasn’t a hinder. He was hardly ever penalized a point because of it. He always apologized effusively so that it seemed like it was my own fault for needing so much space in which to take my swing.
I barely won the match. He was several years younger than me and more talkative by a long shot. Getting a word in edgewise was like trying to squeeze past his hinders. He invited me to play at the newish 13th Street Racquet Club sometime. He worked downtown and the club was downtown. We set up a lunchtime match a few weeks from then.
The club was on the 5th floor of the Dodge Building on East 13th Street, around the corner from Euclid Ave., the city’s main thoroughfare. It bustled with lawyers and businessmen. The courts were built of panel walls instead of concrete. They sucked all the power out of power racquetball. The floors were cheap parquet and already warped. Dick knew where all the dead spots were. I was thoroughly vexed by the end of the second game, which I lost just like I lost the first one.
He treated me to lunch and a beer afterwards. We sat at the bar and watched a squash match going on in one of the two glass back-walled hardball courts. Everything about the courts was better than their country cousins, starting with the floors. They weren’t cheap and they weren’t warped. I was aware of the game but had never seen it played. Watching it I saw right away where Dick Stager got his approach from.
I was introduced to Vaughn Loudenback, the club pro, who specialized in squash but dabbled in racquetball, too. We played a friendly match, my Ektelon composite racquet against his no-name wood racquetball paddle. His shots were even slower and better placed than Dick Stager’s. He was like the Invisible Man, never hindering, somehow always right there where my shots were going and returning them. After he made mincemeat of me, I determined to never hit a lob serve or ceiling shot or anything at moderate speed when playing him again.
I asked him if he would teach me how to play squash. He gave me one free lesson, about how to hold the racquet, how to swing, and the rules. He told me to make sure to dominate the T, the intersection of the red lines near the center of the court, shaped like the letter “T”, where I would be in the best position to retrieve an opponent’s next shot. I continued to play racquetball, but less of it, and played more squash.
Squash has a long history in Cleveland with the first courts built in the early 1900s.
“I started the 13th Street Racquet Club in 1979,” said Ham Biggar. “It became one of the top squash centers. We hosted the nationals as well as the North American Open. I met my wife on a squash court.” Ham was a Cleveland, Ohio native whose great-great-grandfather Hamilton Fisk Biggar, who was a pioneering homeopath, ministered to John D. Rockefeller Sr. and golfed with him.
“I opened the Mad Hatter, Cleveland’s first disco, in 1971 and the Last Moving Picture Company in 1973,” he said. “We were ahead of the curve. We ended up with 11 discos across the country. I had 10 years of starting work at 7 PM. The Mad Hatter had a Drink and Drown Wednesday. You could come in as a woman for $2 or a man for $3 and drink all you wanted for a penny a beer. Mixed drinks were a quarter.”
Squash got its start as a game called rackets played in London’s notorious prisons in the 19th century. The first squash court in North America was at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire in 1884. The earliest national association of squash in the world, the United States Squash Racquets Association, was formed in 1904 in Philadelphia.
In 1912, the Titanic had a squash court in first class. A tournament was organized. Nobody got to the finals.
I met Kurt Otterbacher, whose Burbank-area family owned a concession business catering to fairs and festivals around Ohio. They fried funnel cakes, spun cotton candy, and popped homemade caramel corn. His father ran the show while he and his brother put on the show. We started practicing together, even though he was far better than me. I learned by trial and error. One of the trials I had was learning to not hit the tin, which meant side out and the other side got the serve.
Not being able to hit kill shots gave me the blue johnnies. Kill shots are winners in racquetball, hit so low they are either difficult or impossible to return. The shot was useless on squash courts where a 17” high tin stretched the width of the front wall up from the floor. Hitting the tin was out of bounds. Hit the tin and everybody knew it. The ball didn’t just thud, it clanged.
Kurt was a grab bag of shots. He could hit the ball with pace, and the next shot take all the pace away. He was not above trying a drop shot from anywhere on the court. He wasn’t a magician, but every time we played some of his squash magic rubbed off on me. I finally got over the kill shot shakes and learned to keep the ball at least an inch or two above the tin.
The hardball squash court is about as wide as a racquetball court but eight feet shorter. Racquetball rallies are short, and the better the players the shorter they are, four five six shots before somebody hits a winner. Squash rallies are long, and the better the players the longer they are, thirty and forty shots before somebody mercifully hits a winner. I ran more and sweated up a storm on the smaller court more than I ever did on the bigger court.
“The healthiest sport in the world,” is the way Forbes Magazine put it.
Jahangir “The Plumber” Khan, considered by many to be the greatest squash player of all time, was unbeaten in competitive play for 5 years, from 1981 to 1986. He recorded 555 straight wins in competitive matches. Not only is this a squash record, but it is recognized by Guinness World Records as the world record for a winning streak by any athlete in any sport. The longest rally ever officially recorded was between Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad. It lasted 7 minutes, hundreds of every kind of shot imaginable, and ended in a let. They had to replay the point. The same match at the 1983 Chichester Festival was also one of the longest ever, going to a tie breaker. Jahangir Khan was noted for his exceptional stamina. Gamal Awad was a broken man after the match, and his career never recovered.
The day came when I stopped playing racquetball and stuck to squash. I practiced by myself. I ran the club’s indoor track to build endurance. The club’s squash players were generally disdainful of racquetball, and I had some trouble scratching up games. I played Kurt and Bob McLean, a converted racquetball player like me. I played softball squash with a South African on the only international court at the far back of the club. I had seen him train by going at a speed bag and heavy bag. After he was done with me, I was done with the international game, played with a ball that had to be microwaved beforehand to warm it up so that there would be some bounce to it.
When Gul Khan became the squash pro at the Cleveland Athletic Club, he moonlighted at the 13th Street Racquet Club. He was a small man with a big smile, a free-spirited member of the Khan clan. He had been a junior champion in Pakistan before spending ten years as a pro in Boston and New York City. After he moved to Cleveland, he lived in an apartment on East 30th Street. He didn’t own a car. Whenever he was at the club late, and I happened to be there, I always volunteered to drive him home, in exchange for 5 minutes of advice. Instead of giving me any coaching, he told me stories about his brother Mo and first cousin Shariff, about giving lessons to Senator Ted Kennedy and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, and about busting it up with the artist Frank Stella.
“Control the T,” he told me, which was about all he ever told me.
He was great fun to watch at pro hardball tournaments. He had wizard-like racquet skills, speed, and power. He had a crowd-pleasing style with a flair for the dramatic. He was like Mr. T in more ways than one.
“Gul had a heart of gold,” said Sharif Khan. “He lived large. He knew politicians, lawyers, wheeler-dealers, baseball stars, famous artists, and they knew him. But he also knew the guys at the local bar, the maintenance man in his apartment building, and the people who needed a helping hand on his block in Cleveland.”
Gul got some of the guys at the club to play me, and one day one of them suggested I try out for the club’s “B” traveling team. The “A” team featured the best players. The one and only way to get on the team was to play your way onto it. I played half a dozen matches and made the team. I was bottom man, but I was on the team.
We played home and away matches with the Cleveland Skating Club, University Club, Cleveland Athletic Club, and Mayfield Racquet Club. I learned more on the road than Gul ever taught me, but I continued driving him home, especially when there was a thunderstorm. He didn’t like getting wet.
I played more guys at 13th Street and found out that even though squash is a gentleman’s game, not everyone who played squash was a gentleman. It was Jekyll and Hyde when they stepped on the court. They were more conniving and aggressive than the racquetball players I had known. Two bounces were two bounces, and a kill shot was a kill shot in racquetball, no argument. What was an honest save, whether it was a let or not, and whether getting in the way had been on purpose or not, was often open to interpretation on squash courts.
I played Mike Shaughnessy, a stocky big shot printing company executive, several times until I didn’t. The last time I played him, after giving him as good as I got, he was determined to not let me hit any passing shots whenever he left the ball doing nothing in mid-court. The rule is you must allow your opponent straight access to the ball. As the non-striker, you generally are supposed to move back to the T in a curved line. If your opponent is moving straight to the ball, and there is interference, it is your fault.
Mike was in a surly mood, and it was no good calling foul. He seemed to think interference was a judgment call, even when I was clawing my way around him. “Pity the fool who tries to take the T,” he muttered, smirking. We spent more time jockeying for position than making shots. We got into a squabble that came to nothing. It was the last time I played him. I never called him Mike again, either. From then on, I called him Mr. Trouble.
My “B” team was at the Mayfield Racquet Club the night the Gulf War broke out. Everybody knew it was coming but it was still surprising to see it happening in real time on TV. All the televisions in the lobby were tuned to the action when we walked in. For 42 consecutive days and nights starting on January 16th, the coalition forces subjected Iraq to one of the most intensive air bombardments in history, flying more than 100,000 sorties and dropping 88,500 tons of bombs.
It was run up and salute the flag. It was weapons of mass destruction, real and unreal. It was rocket’s red glare galore in the skies above Baghdad.
We stopped and glanced at the mayhem, but since we knew the Mayfield team was warming up for us, we continued to the locker room. There was no sense wasting time on something we couldn’t do anything about. The jarheads and towelheads were going to have settle their religious ideological and gasoline supply differences themselves. Besides, we were in second place in the league. We had our own business to take care of, our own gold prize to keep our eyes fixed on.
Photograph by Ham Biggar.