Back one summer day in 1965 three dads on Bainbridge Island, Washington heard their kids complaining that they were bored with nothing to do. The men decided to take things into their own hands and invented a new game. Little did they know that their backyard game would develop into the popular sport of pickleball that is now played by almost 3 million players in the US.
Joel Pritchard (a representative of the Washington State Legislature at the time) along with neighbors Barney McCallum
and William Bell used a hodgepodge of random sports equipment to come up with the game.
Using the badminton court that Pritchard had on his property along with cheap wooden paddles and a wiffle ball that they borrowed from a neighbor, the men came up with an early version of the current game. As the summer went on the game evolved, through trial and error they modified the rules and equipment and came up with a more polished version of the game.
Realizing that the paddles needed to be stronger, Barney McCallum took on the task of coming up with a better solution.
McCallum drew up a few different ideas for paddle shapes and using a band saw in his basement he fashioned the new paddles out of plywood.
Although paddle technology has come a long way with graphite and composite paddles, many players still use simple wooden paddles that are very similar in size and shape to that original paddle.
The inventors also decided to lower the height of the original badminton net to waist height. This decision was probably the biggest of all since it completely changed the dynamic of the game – instead of softly volleying the ball over the raised badminton net, the ball could now be hit hard with a tennis style stroke and the plastic ball bounced well off the court surface
The game grew in popularity on the island with several neighbors joining in. Interestingly, although the game was original invented to entertain the kids, it seems the game really took off more among the adults.
In 1967 a neighbor on the island paved the first ever pickleball court. According to most records, the game first spread off the island that same year when Pritchard introduced pickleball to Governor Dan Evans and future U.S. Senator Slade Gorton who lived in Olympia. Gorton ended up building a pickleball court at his home which help transplant the game to the city.
Pickleball History Timeline:
- 1965: Pickleball is invented.
- 1967: Bob O’Brian builds first known court specifically for playing pickleball.
- 1968: Pritchard and several friends form Pickle Ball Inc. (later called Pickle-Ball Inc.).
- 1976: Tennis magazine publishes an article calling pickleball “America’s newest racquet sport”.
- 1976: First known pickleball tournament held in Tukwila, Washington.
- 1984: The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) was founded.
- 1990: Pickleball reaches the milestone of being actively played in all 50 states.
- 1997: At the age of 72, Joel Pritchard passes away.
- 2008: USA Pickleball Association publishes the Official Tournament Rulebook.
- 2009: First USAPA National Tournament for players of all ages was held in Arizona.
- 2016: USAPA creates a Juniors program to promote the sport for players ages 7 thru 19.
- 2018: Pickleball is currently being played in the US by over 2.5 million people, there are over 4,000 locations to play in the country as well as international competitions taking place in other parts of the world.
Luckily we have recorded history of the early beginnings of pickleball much in part because of Pritchard’s political life (he went on to be U.S. Representative from Seattle for six terms and a two-term lieutenant governor of Washington).
Apart from some written interviews there is a detailed oral history of his life where he talks about his personal and professional career as well as details about the early days of pickleball.
Since its humble beginnings in 1965 as an invented game among a few families in the same neighborhood on Bainbridge Island, pickleball has grown to a sport with a few million players in the US. There are Pro players with major brand sponsors and televised national tournaments with prize money.
The sport has also has grown internationally with a well established pickleball following in the UK, Spain, India and other countries. Pickleball is now played everywhere from Minnesota to Madrid (where in 2017 the first ever Spanish Open Pickleball Championship was played).
If you are interested in knowing more about the origins Pickleball, check out this very interesting interview below (made for the 50th anniversary of the sport in 2015) with one of the founders of pickleball: Barney McCallum.
The video shoes how the game was originally thought up and how it evolved over the years, and how it became a popular sport nationwide (and internationally). The video also gives us a glimpse at the simplicity of the first paddle and how the sport quickly gained popularity in the pacific northwest before moving across the country…and eventually around the globe.
Enjoy the video. If you are new to pickleball it’s a great introduction and even if you already play pickleball and know the history there are some great nuggets of information in the video. If you are interested in hearing the full story on why it is called pickleball – click here.
Sources: Washington State Secretary of State Oral History Project: Joel M. Pritchard An Oral History
Pickleball Channel: The Origins of Pickleball: How It All Began
USA Pickleball Association (USAPA)