A meeting with Joel Pritchard, the founder of Pickleball

Andrea Molberg

In 1986, SaddleBrooke resident Shelley Seidenverg and her two young daughters met pickleball founder Joel Pritchard on a Puget Sound ferry ride. Her encounter sheds light on both the history and naming of this popular sport.

What’s the history of pickleball? The story goes that one Saturday in the summer of 1965, Washington state congressman Pritchard and his businessman friend Bill Bell found their families sitting around on Pritchard’s Bainbridge Island property needing something to do. Since there was an old badminton court there, they hunted for equipment, improvising with ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball. Eventually they lowered the badminton net.

The following weekend they introduced Barney McCallum to the game, and together the three men developed the rules for the new family activity. In 1972 a corporation was formed to protect their pickleball invention. Articles appeared about “America’s newest racquet sport” in The National Observer in 1975 and in Tennis magazine in 1976. In 1984 the USA Pickleball Association was started and the first rulebook was published.

What about the name? According to McCallum, the sport was officially named for the Pritchards’ dog Pickles, who loved stealing the ball during their games. (The Pritchards got their cocker spaniel shortly after inventing the game.) When interviewed, Pritchard’s wife Joan said she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports [badminton, ping-pong, and tennis] reminded me of the ‘pickle boat’ in [the sport of] crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” Both explanations probably have validity.

What did Shelley learn first-hand on the ferry? “There weren’t many seats left on the crowded ferry boat, and a group of well-dressed men in suits offered us a seat next to them. One was Washington State Congressman Joel Pritchard, who lived on Bainbridge Island. He was very friendly and told me all about the new game he played with his active family. He explained how they made a short tennis court with a low net and used wooden paddles. When friends came over, he said everyone liked to participate, even the family dog Pickles.

“Joel told me how they had just gotten the game put into some local sports stores. When we got off the ferry, we went straight to the store and bought our first pickleball set. It came with four wooden paddles, a net, and water filled stands to hold up the net. We didn’t have a space to play on our property, so we painted a court in the middle of our cul-de-sac. All the neighbors were interested in playing, and we had a great time playing together!

“My husband Mark and I continued to bring pickleball to every house we owned. We have played in our cul-de-sac, on our driveway, and eventually had an asphalt pad poured. We spend summers in Bend, OR, and still play. Sometimes we play ‘hit and giggle!’ This means you have a cocktail in one hand and the pickleball paddle in the other hand! Have fun with pickleball!”