The first edition of Sports Illustrated was dated Aug. 16, 1954, and the editors immediately proved that they cared about us in the Midwest hinterlands by putting Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves on the cover.
I was a 9-year-old kid and Sports Illustrated quickly had me hooked. The magazine did big events with magical words and photos, but its greatness was taking those of us on the prairie inside worlds that we could only imagine:
Track meets in Helsinki and Oslo, a grueling bicycle race in France, the Hambletonian harness race in Du Quion, Ill., and believe or not, the handball articles from the U.S. championships.
The terrific Pat Putnam from SI covered the 1969 U.S. four-wall championship in Austin, Texas, where Paul Haber beat St. Paul’s Billy Yambrick two sets to one in the finals. Haber was a notorious carouser and Putnam’s lengthy article came with “A Win for Booze and Nicotine” as a headline.
“I didn’t know Haber; he was in a way different class than me,” Lew Buckingham said. “We did have some characters, though. There was one fellow, a real good player, who would finish his match, grab his stuff, grab a beer, gulp it down, light a cigarette, and then drink a second beer for as long it took to finish the cigarette.
“There was also a player who was a paratrooper in the military. He would arrive for the match by vaulting over the back wall.”
Lew’s wife, Nancy, smiled slightly, having heard of the paratrooper a couple of times previously. Lew is 86, Nancy is near that, and she has been watching her husband play handball for over 50 years.
They are in Minneapolis at the moment, as handball players from 10 countries are competing in the triennial World Championships as well as the U.S. Four-Wall Nationals on the courts of the University of Minnesota recreation center and also the Life Time Fitness Center below Target Center.
The host is the Minnesota State Handball Association, and Steve Johnson accepted the monumental task of being the tournament chairman. There are 710 players in 109 divisions, based on age, gender, four-wall or one-wall.
Buckingham is in the 85-and-over classification for singles. “You have a big advantage over the vast majority of 85-plus players, Lew,” I said. “You’re alive.”
Lew smiled slightly and said: “There are three of us fighting it out here. I’m playing doubles with the young guys — 80 and over.”
Buckingham is part of what looks to be an aging nucleus of U.S. handballers. The Twin Cities had a tremendous collection of players in the 1960s and 1970s:
Yambrick, Terry Muck, Gary Rohrer, Danny O’Connor and Paul Schulz, to name a distinguished handful. Muck was a national champion in singles; Yambrick, a quiet Christian gentleman, lost three times in the finals to the raconteur, Haber.
“I think the stories about Haber are grossly exaggerated,” Rohrer said. “I had a couple of beers with him at the bar a few times. I didn’t stay all night. I don’t think he did, either.”
The country with the true young guns in handball is Ireland. Four-wall started there and was brought to the U.S. by the wave of Irish immigrants in the late 1800s. Among the 710 players here, Johnson said 250 were from Ireland.
Killian Carroll, 25, comes from County Cork, now lives in Boston and is the No. 1-rated player in the world. Paul Brady, 38, from Cavan, Ireland, is a five-time world champion in singles — an all-time Irish legend for both handball and Gaelic football.
Those five singles championships are more impressive when you consider the worlds are held every three years, rotating among Ireland, Canada and the United States.
Minnesota’s No. 1 player in open singles is Andy Nett — of the Winona Netts. Andy was introduced to handball as a youngster by his father, John Jr., a national player. Andy was better known as a Winona State quarterback and basketball player.
Nett plays the national pro circuit. He won the world doubles championship with Tucson’s Luis Moreno in Dublin in 2012 by beating Brady and his partner.
“I’m turning 38 and can feel it in my hips and lower back,” Nett said. “You see a younger guy like Killian, trained from childhood, and he never gets tired. My wife, Bailey, and I have two young kids now, so it’s harder to travel for as many weekend events.
“One advantage is being married to a handball player. Bailey played at Missouri State, which takes handball seriously, [and] was the singles runner-up for the national champs.”
You need an understanding partner to spend numerous weekends traveling to handball events. Nancy Buckingham still is proving that 50-some years later.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.