The San Francisco Chronicle is the latest media outlet to repeat the tall tales about the origins of pickleball, the sport that put Bainbridge Island on the map.
If you’re a true Bainbridge Islander then you already know the story. For those of you who don’t (Californians, I’m talking to you. You too, Bellevuians, cowering in the back row), pickleball was invented on Bainbridge by Congressman Joel Pritchard and a few of his buddies during the summer of 1963 (according to Joel Pritchard and co-founder Bill Bell), or 1966 (according to Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan) or 1965 (according to everyone else). That first pickleball court remains shrouded in moss and vines here on Bainbridge. It’s a magic place. When the vines are parted, a chorus of angels can be heard and the court glows with an otherworldly iridescence.
The Chronicle, in a recent article about pickleball, got many facts lined up straight.
The sport was NOT named after the family dog.
I’m sure this blog post will lead California authorities to turn over the Chronicle’s fact checkers for a good old-fashioned tar and feathering at Winslow Green. Fudging the facts on one of Bainbridge Island’s proudest moments is deserving of nothing less.
A couple years ago, I wrote a story for the Review all about the “Official Sport of Bainbridge Island.”*
I delved deep into the history, tracking down eyewitnesses to pickleball’s founding moments.
“Ok, there’s the ‘official’ history and then there’s the real story,” Pritchard’s daughter Peggy Pritchard-Olson told me in late 2005. “It was not named after the dog because we didn’t get the dog until years after the game started. The dog was named after the game. Not the other way around.”
If only the Chronicle had a subscription to the Bainbridge Review. Those fact-checkers would still be prancing freely about Frisco with flowers in their hair.
Pickleball’s name is actually derived from the Pritchard family’s maritime pursuits rather than its canine pets.
Frank Pritchard, another of Joel Pritchard’s kids, said the name may have come from his mother, Joan, who was a competitive rower on the island. She sometimes referred to the ‘pickle boat,’ the slowest vessel in a race.
“Nobody remembers how it came to be called ‘pickleball,’ but I think somebody needed a reason why it had that name and the dog story sounded good and eventually stuck,” Frank Pritchard said in 2005.
Joan herself set the record straight in a column she wrote in July for the Parkersburg, West Virginia News and Sentinel:
The name of the game became Pickle Ball, after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Somehow the idea the name came from our dog Pickles was attached to the naming of the game, but Pickles wasn’t on the scene for two more years. The dog was named for the game, but stories about the name’s origin were funnier thinking the game was named for the dog.
In an oral history published by the state in 2000, Joel Pritchard (that’s a rare pickleball-playing picture of him over to the left) said the tall tales about the sport’s name originated with an out-of-town reporter…and a few imaginative locals…and his own willingness to hush-up when a good story takes hold.
Interviewer: There are several accounts about how you named the game. Is it true you named it for your dog?
Joel Pritchard: We needed a nutty name like Pickle-Ball, but, no, the dog was named after the game. A reporter came through and was doing a national story on the game, and somebody told him that story. Everybody said, “Shut your mouth. It’s a good story. It works better, leave it alone.” It’s like a lot of stories.
And a lot of stories have included the Pickles-the-Dog Genesis Theory, including ones on National Public Radio, the Denver Post, Wikipedia and numerous small papers across the U.S. and Canada.
Even a few nearby papers (Bellingham Herald, Everett Herald, Spokane Spokesman-Review) have included stories about a scampering spaniel inspiring the Pritchards to name a sport after it.
But the myth is most powerfully perpetuated by the shadowy forces of pickleball officialdom.
The USA Pickleball Association publishes the “Official Pickleball Handbook,” holds pickleball’s official tournaments and does the official ranking of the sport’s champions. On pickleball’s name, the association has this to say on its official website:
The Pritchards had a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who became interested in this new game. Whenever a ball would come his way, he would take the ball and run off with it, because you see, it was Pickle’s ball. And that is how the game got its name.
And the USA Pickleball Association’s sticking to it. Back when I wrote that Review article, I sat in on a few matches played by a certain someone who happens to be a high-ranking USA Pickleball Association official. I mentioned that Joel Pritchard’s kids told me the dog story was bunk.
The pickleball bigwig got a queasy look.
“You’re not going to put that in your story, are you?” he asked. “We’ve already got the handbook published.”