The 68-year-old Greenwich (Conn.) YMCA, a magnificent structure of colonial red brick with Ionic columns and a copper dome, resembles a historical monument. Perhaps rightly so, because racquetball was invented at the Greenwich Y in 1950. Recently, the creator himself, Joe Sobek, 65, returned to the scene of his prime and was delighted that the old handball court where he unveiled the new game was unchanged in shape and freshly painted. "By golly, they've cleaned it up and made it look nice," he said, beaming. Indeed, so pleased was Sobek that he didn't notice one glaring oversight. Nowhere in the building he made famous is there a plaque honoring Joe Sobek.
Sobek's life is filled with irony. The inventor of racquetball made no money from playing the game—"Not a sou," he says. The founding father has never played in a major tournament. Under the archaic rules of his youth, a professional in one sport (Sobek was teaching tennis and squash) was ineligible for amateur events in another, and racquetball didn't go pro until Sobek was well into middle age. Unlike most inventors, Sobek has lived to see his creation prosper and grow, yet he's not well known for it. A few years ago he appeared on the television program To Tell the Truth, and none of the panelists correctly identified him—not even Gene Rayburn, one of his former tennis students.
Sobek lives in Greenwich with his buoyant, charming wife, Nancy, in a split-level house he designed. It is at the end of a secluded, dead-end drive, with a mile of woods for backyard. Awash in warm colors, the living room of the house is packed with all manner of plants, from African violet to cactus, numerous still lifes and family pictures (Sobek has five children and six grandchildren). Reclining on an easy chair, Sobek looks like a cross between Archie Bunker and a beardless Santa Claus. And befitting his retired status, he's casually dressed in sneakers, white tennis shirt, button-down sweater and faded jeans hoisted around his considerable girth by multicolored suspenders.
Sobek is not bitter about his lack of fame. "Sure, I wish I'd made more money off the game," he says. "They could put the inventor's name on a racket and sell it forever; champions change all the time. But I've turned down some companies who asked me to be a consultant because I didn't want to go out in the business world and fight the battles. I'm satisfied that I'm recognized as the inventor of the game."
That he is. In the archives at the University of Connecticut is a sealed envelope, dated March 13, 1950, registration number 7579; it contains Sobek's blueprint for the first racquetball racket. No one has ever asked him to break the seal and prove his claim. His picture once graced the cover of Racquetball magazine, over the headline IN THE BEGINNING.... To make sure he's fully recognized, Sobek has inscribed on the license-plate frame of his Jeep, RACQUETBALL BY SOBEK. As Nancy says, "He's not afraid to take credit."
One Sunday, Sobek attended the finals of a pro tour event at the Downtown Racquet Club in New Haven. He was introduced before the match by Dick Squires, the club director at the time and the author of The Other Racquet Sports, the last word on non-tennis racket games. "None of us would be here today if it weren't for a gentleman who created a game called paddle rackets, which has now become racquetball," Squires said. "I'd like to ask Joe Sobek to stand up." Sobek rose, waved shyly to respectful applause, presided over a raffle and lavishly complimented Squires. A traditional fellow amid the trendy crowd of a modern racquetball-cum-disco club, Sobek oohed and aahed at the speed-and-power final. Afterward Squires interviewed both Sobek and tournament champion Marty Hogan on cable TV. "If there hadn't been a Joe Sobek, there wouldn't be a Marty Hogan," said Squires. Sobek was pleased. Let others reap ephemeral wealth; Joe Sobek has his eye on a far loftier target—immortality.
Sobek has always made the best of less-than-ideal situations. He dropped out of Yale after half a semester during the Depression—and promptly landed a job as a tennis pro. "My salary was $100 a month and $3 per lesson," says Sobek, who had been Connecticut interscholastic champion. "People forget how far money could go. I bought a Ford, brand-new, for $600, and completely furnished an apartment before I was married. It wasn't a bad life, either. People can be bastards in the business world, but at the club they were always nice to me because I was doing them a favor."
After a decade of teaching tennis and squash at clubs in the Greenwich area, Sobek became customer-relations director for an industrial rubber products manufacturer in Bridgeport, Conn. The sedentary life bored him—and gave him the incentive he needed to invent racquetball. "I'd go over to the Greenwich YMCA to exercise," he says. "There were very few indoor tennis courts then; I was too good for most of the squash players, and handball hurts. I started playing paddleball with a wooden platform tennis bat. Paddleball's a good game, but I thought that if we had a resilient, strung racket, we could dig 'em out of the corners and use finesse and speed."
In 1950 Sobek sought out a friend who had been making tennis rackets for him, Charles H. Currie of the Magnan Manufacturing Company, which produced sports equipment, and showed him a design for a short, strung racket with a head about the size of a paddle-tennis racket. Because Currie didn't have a mold that size, he made 25 prototypes the size of a badminton racket. Playing with four of them and using the pink inside of a tennis ball, Sobek and three friends—he has long since forgotten their names and the date—played the first game of a sport Sobek dubbed paddle rackets. It was an instant success. Bitten by the bug, Sobek impulsively dropped his letter of resignation on the desk of the boss's secretary. As he walked out of the building, Sobek heard his boss calling after him, "Joe, Joe!" He never looked back.
Some of the happiest and busiest years of Sobek's life followed. He returned to teaching tennis and squash to support himself, but his true calling was paddle rackets. The Sobeks would stay up until all hours sending out rackets and answering letters of inquiry. Magnan manufactured the rackets and Sobek sold them. In 1963, Bancroft bought out Magnan and hired Sobek to sell rackets on a royalty basis. Though he made about $15,000 a year, his major compensation was the satisfaction that came with being a successful missionary.