Just as "to hell with Babe Ruth" whipped up the Japanese army 25 years ago and 200 years before that "the Redcoats are coming" served to get the colonials out of bed to take on the British Empire, the people of Brooklyn respond to their own battle cry: "Hey, Irving, action!" The variations on this particular call to colors are few. "Hey, Maurice" or "Hey, Sammy" may be substituted, but mention "action" and only a foreigner would fail to make straight for Avenue P and Fourth Street—and bring money, Irving. It is there that Brooklyn males meet to play handball, the one-wall variety, and when the local hotshots are at it Las Vegas is your local parish and Jimmy the Greek is a choirboy. Brooklyn is a place where if something is happening you bet on it; the air-pollution index gets a big play every night just before the 11 o'clock news. And handball is a major happening. The games are tough, fast and precise, and the feeling is nurtured that nobody plays the game any better anywhere else.
Last week Jimmy Jacobs, long a Los Angeles celebrity and currently the world handball champion—four-wall variety—put that theory to the ultimate test. He challenged 26-year-old Steve Sandler, the reigning one-wall champion of Avenue P and the country, offering to play Sandler's game in Sandler's ball park and with Sandler's rules. No titles were at stake, but as one Brooklyn man said, "When a foreigner hurls a salami at your feet, you cover."
Superficially it looked like the biggest mismatch in history. No less a critic than former Los Angeles Ram Quarterback Bob Waterfield, who has been known to react to incredible athletic feats with a grunt, has said the 36-year-old Jacobs "could be the best athlete in the world." Golf scores in the low 70s, skeet-shooting championships, sub-10-second 100-yard dashes, not to mention practically every handball title outside of Brooklyn, have been his.
But if the world thought of it as a mismatch. Avenue P, Sandler and Jacobs did not. Especially Jacobs. It was stipulated that Sandler would play with one hand only, his left, at that. If that seems a severe handicap when facing up to someone like Jacobs, remember, one-wall handball is an entirely different game than the more worldly four-wall version. In fact, the reactions involved are almost opposites. For example, in four-wall the player holds his ground to take the serve and drops back for the kill. In one-wall he drops back to take the serve and rushes in for the kill. And for those who have never heard of Steve Sandler, take it from those who have bet on or against him, he is unbeatable at his own game.
Until he was 16 Sandler had basketball, not handball, on his mind. Then someone pointed out that at 5 feet 7 his chances of making the New York Knicks were limited, so why not try handball. Four years later Sandler won the national one-wall championship.
The trouble with winning championships, as Sandler found out, is that nobody will play you over at the Avenue P courts unless you forgo the use of your right hand. So he learned to play with just his left. Eventually, of course, his left hand became devilishly effective, and his sense of anticipation, his quickness and his ability to play the game with guile became greater than ever. But when tournament time came he had no right hand. At age 22 Steve Sandler retired.
It is entirely possible that Sandler would have stayed retired if Howie Eisenberg, the man who took his place at the top, had not urged him to give it another try. Sandler did, beating Eisenberg in this year's National AAU Championships, 20-21, 21-5, 21-11, and taking back his title.
Some time ago, during a stay on the West Coast, Eisenberg met Jimmy Jacobs. Jacobs has a curiosity about sport, and he agreed to play Eisenberg at one-wall. Eisenberg won the first game, all right; it was a slaughter. But that was all Jacobs needed to catch on to one-wall. In the second game he beat Eisenberg, who even at that time was one of the best.
"You know what I thought then?" says Eisenberg. "I thought nobody could take Jacobs with just his left hand. Not even Sandler." Eisenberg also thought he would revive the "action" cry as it had not been heard in years if he could get the two champions to square off. Jacobs, however, was not enthralled.
"What do I stand to win?" he said. "You beat a guy who is only using his left, and what does it prove? And if he beats you, oh, brother." Eisenberg is a persistent man, however, and he brought the matter up with Teddy Brenner, the matchmaker at Madison Square Garden and a man who would pit a couple of American Beauty roses against each other if he could figure a way to get a crowd into a vase.