SI Vault
Dan Levin
February 07, 1972
In Memphis the $30,000 question was, when a handball champion and a racquetball champion do their things, whose thing wins?
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February 07, 1972

The Great Mano A Raqueta

In Memphis the $30,000 question was, when a handball champion and a racquetball champion do their things, whose thing wins?

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It was a sporting first, the match they played last week in Memphis; as one excited Memphian observed the day before, "This is like Joe Frazier fighting Terry Daniels—except this time Daniels has a 17-inch nightstick." The stick he spoke of was a racquet, the kind used in racquetball, and its owner was the game's best player, a 40-year-old San Diego dentist named E.F. (Bud) Muehleisen, who kept saying—he really did—things like, "My big vice is ice cream. My friends call me Straight Arrow." The Frazier figure was Chicago's Paul Haber, a man who takes a drink or eight, has been known to wink at a girl and is the world's best handball player.

Thus the Muehleisen-Haber match was important on several levels; symbolically, for instance, it was Mr. Clean meets the Devil. "Hands Against the Racquet," it was more tamely billed, but it was indeed a first. There hadn't been anything remotely comparable in, say, a millennium or two, at least not since Spartacus and the slaves made it nets and tridents against swords and shields. Games got a little specialized after that, what with franchises and baskets and goalies, so that was about it for intrasports rivalry, except for an occasional boxer-wrestler freak show. Haber-Muehleisen was another story, a roughly equal test of different skills in two similar sports. Mr. Clean and the Devil represented games as much alike as any two could be, both played in the same little rectangular room by virtually the same rules, but one man was going to have a racquet and the other two gloved hands.

As the week progressed, bets began to come into Memphis from San Diego and Chicago, and it soon became evident that each set of backers knew the obvious: There was no way its man could lose. The big technical imponderable was the question of the ball. Muehleisen had the racquet's reach, it had been reasoned, so Haber was allowed his higher-bouncing handball. Otherwise, with the softer, larger racquetball, he would be as helpless as an empty-handed tennis player. No one argued the point, and this left each man with one seemingly overwhelming advantage: the 35-year-old Haber's 28 years' experience with the handball and the crazy spinning bounces he could impart to it against the dentist's added leverage, reach and extra power.

Muehleisen said, "My strongest point is the ball speed I can attain with the racquet, and Haber doesn't understand my ability to control the handball." He had played a few times recently with some fair handball men. "But they weren't Haber," the handball people kept saying. There was another thing: Haber's very real aura of invincibility. He had lost to a lot of handball players, having come drunk to the court or playing halfheartedly, but he had never lost a really big match. Jimmy Jacobs, six times national four-wall champion, said, " Haber doesn't have a racquet, but the ball determines the game, and you never try to beat a man at his own game. Muehleisen may hit that ball 200 miles an hour, but Paul will just step aside and pick it off the back wall."

The man who brought the match to Tennessee was DeWitt Shy, the wealthy 49-year-old president of the Memphis Racquetball Association.

"Hi. I'm DeWitt Shy," he would say, all pinstripes and big bills, and then he would proceed to drawl on about why Muehleisen couldn't lose. " Haber's experience with the handball would be a factor if Doctor Bud had never played with it, but he has. And he can move it twice as fast as Haber can. Why, he can knock that little ball through the wall."

Haber himself was not about to become bashful after all these years. "Muehleisen may have developed a wicked, low, bulletlike serve and volley," he said, "but they'll be straight as arrows. And if he thinks he can read my hops, well, he's just got another think coming."

"If he ever gets to hop it, that is," Muehleisen said. " Haber will be put on the defensive. The pace of play will be extremely new to him. He may be in better shape than me, and at 35 he's younger"—all the Haber people mentioned that—"but the racquet requires minimal effort to propel the ball, and I can conserve energy while he's running all over the court."

Ultimately Haber and Muehleisen began to wind up their little speeches with a prediction—first from Haber and then, with two or three days to go, from Muehleisen, too. "When I get through with him," Haber said, "he'll be happy to crawl back to San Diego and stay with his one-handed game and the soft ball."

This kind of thing embarrassed Muehleisen, and as the days passed, word of the stepped-up betting bothered him even more. He would say, "I don't care if they don't bet cent one on this thing. I just want to promote my sport." And though he knew it sounded pompous, he added, sincerely enough, "You must understand, in the world of racquetball I'm thought of as the white knight, the epitome of sportsmanship and manners." But finally he couldn't resist. He pulled out four sheets of paper he had covered in longhand, containing his analysis of the match. In 20 categories he had rated himself and his opponent with point values from 1 to 10, and the totals gave him a 154-134 edge. At the bottom of one sheet he had written this all-encompassing goal: "To defeat, destroy, annihilate and possibly even humiliate Paul Haber and thereby end the hands-over-racquet myth." Then he added, "I'm not a cocky type like Haber, but I'm gonna blow him off the court."

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