On March 28, 2022, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs legislation establishing pickleball as the official state sport of Washington. Invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965 by three men – Joel Pritchard (1925-1997), Barney McCallum (1926-2019), and William Bell (1924-2006) – pickleball has spread throughout the world. By 2021 it is the fastest-growing sport in the United States and is being played on courts in at least 67 countries.
The Three Inventors
The story of pickleball traces to 1965 and a challenge made by a boy to his father. The Pritchard family from Seattle – Joel, Joan, and their four kids -- was summering at their cabin at Pleasant Beach on Bainbridge Island, and one day Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell came home to find Frank Pritchard, 13, moping around. "I was bitching to my dad that there was nothing to do on Bainbridge," Frank told USA Today. "He said when they were kids, they'd make games up." Frank responded, "Oh, really? Then why don't you go make up a game?" ("Pickleball Points …").
Joel Pritchard, then in his seventh year as a representative in the Washington State Legislature, was a sports fanatic. He had played football, basketball, and tennis at Queen Anne High School, and then attended Marietta College, a small school in Ohio, so he could continue his football career. He was said to relish a challenge, and so, prompted by Frank, "he and Bell took off to the backyard badminton court where the 44 x 20-foot regulation court had been paved by Pritchard's parents. They grabbed a plastic perforated ball and a pair of ping-pong paddles, set up the badminton net, grabbed the ball and improvised the first game. The paddles didn't hold up well, so they enlisted Barney McCallum, a neighbor with a knack for being handy. He fashioned more reliable and attractive paddles. Soon, he became a key player in figuring out the game's equipment and rules" ("Pickleball Points …").
The men started by lowering the net to 36 inches so they could smash shots tennis-style. "You've got to hit the ball hard," Pritchard said. "Nobody plays golf to putt" ("Oral History," 402). Because a Madrona tree crowded the court at one end, they ruled the server could have one foot inbounds, unlike tennis, and that the serve was to be delivered underhand. "The inventors said they deliberately crafted the rules so that it would be fun for all ages, with no height advantage for adults. For this reason, and because the court was small enough to fit in backyards, on driveways, or even indoors, it caught on quickly" ("Joel Pritchard and Several Friends …"). Pritchard's political pals quickly embraced the game: U.S. Senator Slade Gorton built pickleball courts at his homes in Olympia and on Whidbey Island, and U.S. Representative Norm Dicks installed what was said to be the first outdoor pickleball court in the District of Columbia. Pickleball soon became a popular pastime at community centers, retirement facilities, and in elementary school PE programs. By 1990, the sport was being played on courts in all 50 states.
The inventors settled on the name pickleball for their new sport, an idea that sprang from Joan Pritchard's imagination. According to the USA Pickleball Association, she said she started calling the game pickleball because "the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats" ("History of the Game"). The oft-told story that the game was named after the Pritchards' family dog was a fabrication; Pickles the dog came along in 1968, three years after the game was invented.
Growing the Game
By 1968, Pritchard, McCallum, Bell, and others had incorporated a business, Pickle Ball Inc., each pitching in $500 to develop, promote, and sell their newfangled game. For $29.95 they sold boxed sets with paddles, plastic game balls, and nets, everything one needed to get initiated. In 1976, Tennis magazine called pickleball "America's newest racquet sport" ("History of the Game"). That same year the first known pickleball tournament was held in Tukwila.
While Pritchard continued to play and promote pickleball for the rest of his life, it was McCallum who drove the sport's growing popularity. A U.S. Navy veteran with four children and some business acumen, he had built printing and envelope companies in Seattle and knew his way around a bandsaw – he crafted and refined the original plywood paddles in the basement of his Bainbridge home. McCallum also was responsible for the "kitchen," a 7-foot-deep non-volley zone on each side of the pickleball net, preventing taller players from having an advantage over shorter ones. "Many agree that this particular innovation … is the reason pickleball has such a wide appeal among players of all ages" ("Pickleball Began on Bainbridge …"). What's more, according to McCallum's son David, "He was a hell of a good pickleball player" ("Barney McCallum, Bainbridge's Last …"). It was no surprise, then, that McCallum was inducted into the Pickleball Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class in 2017.
"In the rapidly expanding pickleball universe, Barney McCallum was a rockstar," wrote the Kitsap Sun upon McCallum's death in 2019. "McCallum ... would show up to tournaments and events where he'd sign paddles, pose for pictures and chat about the game with those who'd picked it up since he helped launch it half a century ago" ("Barney McCallum, Bainbridge's Last …"). Said Frank Pritchard, the bored 13-year-old who got the ball rolling when he challenged his father to invent a game: "People call my dad the father of pickleball. Well, Barney was the parent who nurtured it and worked it and put his money where his mouth was. He deserves the lion's share of the credit for making pickleball what it is today, growing it and sticking with it" ("Barney McCallum, Bainbridge's Last …").
Bill Bell also helped to grow the sport. A World War II veteran who was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and received a Purple Heart, Bell held a high-powered job with the International Nickel Company. Traveling frequently, he was involved in promoting pickleball and building courts throughout Southeast Asia and Australia.
Rhododendrons, Apples … and Pickleball?
The idea of making pickleball the state's official sport was hatched in the summer of 2021 during a conversation between state Sen. John Lovick, a Democrat from Mill Creek, and Mukilteo Beacon columnist Chuck Wright. While many states recognized official sports – surfing in California, ice hockey in Minnesota, dog mushing in Alaska, jousting in Maryland, pack burro racing in Colorado, among others – Washington did not. Wright encouraged Lovick to consider pickleball.
"Following his conversation with Wright, Lovick began investigating, learning that pickleball was gaining in popularity worldwide. He even tried it out. 'I got my butt kicked,' Lovick said" ("Here's a Sporting Idea …"). Then came a chance meeting with pickleball enthusiast Kate Van Gent in the driveway of Van Gent's Mill Creek home. Lovick was door-belling for a city council candidate, and Van Gent had just arrived home. "They began to chat, and she explained she was exhausted from playing five hours of pickleball. Seeing an opportunity, Lovick told her he was considering the pickleball legislation and asked for her help. Kismet … Van Gent has applied to be a local ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association, to promote the sport, find places to play and educate the public about pickleball" ("Here's a Sporting Idea …").
With support growing, Lovick filed Senate Bill 5615 in Olympia on December 29, 2021. The bill had 10 sponsors – nine Democrats and one Republican -- and widespread support in the media. It read, in part: "The legislature finds that pickleball is a game that can be played by anyone, one-on-one, or as a team, and has expanded far beyond Washington to become a nationally and internationally beloved game; over four million people play pickleball in the United States and there are currently 67 member countries in the International Federation of Pickleball. Soon pickleball will even be televised by Fox Sports. The legislature intends to honor and recognize the Washingtonians who created, popularized, and continue to enjoy this sport by designating pickleball the official sport of the state of Washington" (SB 5615).
The Seattle Times was bullish on the proposal, though some of its readers panned it as trivial. "Washington has no official state sport, but lawmakers should change that by giving the honor to pickleball, as proposed by Senate Bill 5615," the Times wrote in a January 27, 2022, editorial. "Yes, pickleball: The homegrown mashup of Ping-Pong, tennis and badminton … Pickleball may not be as historic as, say, the marathon. But its quirky origins are uniquely Washington" ("Make Homegrown Pickleball …").
The measure passed through the Senate by a 46-1 vote and was approved by the House of Representatives by an 83-15 margin. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law on March 28, 2022.
In the few decades since pickleball was invented, the sport had come a long way. For Joel Pritchard, a six-term U.S. Representative and a two-term Washington Lieutenant Governor, helping invent the sport was one of his enduring achievements. "He said that out of all the things he'd done in his life, he was most proud of that game," said daughter Peggy Pritchard-Olson in 1997. "It's made such a lasting impression on so many people. It's made people healthy and happy. It's been growing for 40 years. It may last forever" ("Joel Pritchard's Real Legacy ...").