Pickleball is a fun paddle/racquet sport played indoors or outdoors. It combines elements of tennis, badminton, and table tennis and is the fastest-growing sport in the United States today.
Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with a 36-inch high net, paddles that are slightly larger than table tennis paddles, and a perforated plastic ball.
With a funny name like “Pickleball,” one question that often comes up among players and fans of the sport is, how did Pickleball get its name? It is a strange-sounding name for a legitimate sport!
This is a topic that is subject to much debate because the origin of the name “Pickleball” has several different stories and explanations. Before we get to the two main stories of how the sport got its name let’s take a short journey through the history of pickleball and how it came to be invented.
Who Invented Pickleball?
A sunny day in Bainbridge Island, Washington State in 1965 saw two dads, Joel Pritchard and William Bell, arrive back at Pritchard’s home after playing golf. Their families were bored and lacking something to do, so Joel and Bill decided to come up with a game the whole family could play.
There was an old badminton court on the Pritchard’s property, and although they didn’t have the equipment to play badminton, they found some ping-pong paddles and a wiffle ball. With improvisation, and combining their knowledge of badminton, tennis, and table tennis, a game of Pickleball was played for the first time.
The following week, they introduced the game to another family friend and neighbor, Barney McCallum. Together, the three men came up with rules for their brand-new game as well as designing better quality equipment.
They borrowed rules from ping pong, tennis, and badminton, created new rules such as underhand serving, and added the non-volley zone to make the game more competitive. Using plywood, Barney created different wooden paddle sizes and shapes which were tested until they found the best shape that is still in use today.
After they realized the wiffle ball bounced well on the asphalt, they decided to lower the badminton net from regulation badminton height to 36 inches off the ground.
Their original purpose was that this would be a game that the entire family could play, and this is still true of the game today.
How Did Pickleball get its name?
There are two main stories about the origin of the name Pickleball. One involves a family dog, and the other involves pickle boats.
The Dog Story
The most popular origin story suggests that the game was named after the Pritchard family’s dog. The Pritchards had a cockapoo puppy (a cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle) named Pickles. As the story goes, their dog used to chase the ball when they played the game.
This led to them referring to the ball as “Pickle’s ball” and the name stuck. Hence, the game became known as Pickle ball, which later became known as Pickleball.
This is a cute story that is always good for publicity, but is it true? The Pritchard family says that the dog Pickles wasn’t acquired until 1967, two years after the game was invented. That would make it likely that the dog was named after the game, rather than the game named after the dog!
Barney McCallum maintained that this was the true story up until his death in 2019. The Brown family (including Dick Brown and his son Jim Brown) who played Pickleball with the McCallum family and the Pritchards also back up the dog story.
The Boat Story
Joel’s wife Joan Pritchard brought us the second account of the naming of the game. She stated that the game’s name was about the local pickle boat races.
Rowing is a popular sport in the Pacific Northwest. In competitive rowing, the pickle boat is the last boat to finish in a race. The game with its combination of different sports reminded her of when crew members were chosen at random from the leftover oarsmen of other boats to compete in races.
Having attended Marietta College and being a fan of the Marietta crew team and rowing all her life, this is also a convincing story. Many believe it to be true, including her children who say the “dog story” was made up because it sounded good.
The Evolution of Pickleball – A Timeline
After that first summer in 1965 when the creators and a few local families got together to play, the game evolved quickly.
In 1967 the first permanent Pickleball court was built on the property of Joel Pritchard’s neighbor Bob O’Brien.
In 1972, a Pickleball corporation called Pickleball Inc. was formed as a governing body to promote and protect the sport and fuel its growth.
In 1975 media started taking notice of the game. Pickleball was featured in the National Observer and in 1976 Tennis Magazine wrote an article on “America’s Newest Racquet Sport”.
The first known Pickleball tournament was played in 1976 in Washington, at the South Center Athletic Club. Most of the participants were not Pickleball players at all, but college athletes.
In 1984 USAPA (the United States Amateur Pickleball Association) was created to help advance the sport at the national level. The first rulebook was published the same year and the first honorary member of the association was President Ronald Reagan. Sid Williams became the President and first Executive Director of the organization in 1998. He was succeeded by Frank Candelario who served until 2004.
In 1984 engineer Arlen Paratoo invented the first composite Pickleball paddle using materials normally used for flooring and structural systems in commercial airplanes.
By 1990 the game was played in every state in America.
In 1997 one of the original founders of Pickleball, Joel Pritchard passed away. Despite having been a well-known politician and businessman, he was best known for his association with the game.
In 2009 the first USAPA National Tournament was held. 400 players from the US and Canada took part in the tournament. There were 8 dedicated Pickleball courts, with 12 more created using tennis courts with free-standing nets.
In 2019 another of the founding members who helped to formulate the game and its rules, Barney McCallum passed away.
In 2020, the last surviving member of the three Pickleball creators, William Bell, was inducted into the Pickleball Hall of Fame.
Today the USA Pickleball Association (USAP – previously USAPA) has over 53,000 members as of 2021.
Over the years, Pickleball has evolved from being a casual, backyard game to a highly recognized sport with local, regional, and national tournaments taking place worldwide.
According to the Association of Pickleball Professionals during August 2021-August 2022 36.5 million people played Pickleball, making it one of the fastest-growing sports in America today. There are over 10,000 pickleball courts in the US alone.
Funny Name for a Great Retirement Sport
With different accounts of how Pickleball got its name, we may never know which one is true. Pickleball history is a rich and interesting story of how 3 fathers designed a simple and fun game that would bring families together.
The sport has come a long way since its humble beginnings on Bainbridge Island in 1965. It is enjoyed by players of all ages and skill levels and will continue to grow and expand its fan base throughout the world.
And if you’re looking for a great low impact sport you can play for years, add this to your list of hobbies. It’s perfect since it combines movement and social time! Why not do some brisk walking on over to your nearest pickleball court and give it a try?