If in these troubled times there's something one can be sure of, it is that the artifacts of our various sports (pigskins, horsehides, golf balls and so forth) go along pretty much the same day in and day out without letting us down. It is unlikely that a hockey puck, say, will develop large blisters during the course of play and explode like a dropped light bulb; or that basketballs suddenly, let's say next Friday, at every bounce, rather than the crisp tank-tank-tank sound of ball against court, will give off a plaintive ma-ma-ma, like a squeezed doll; or that in football's Pro Bowl Game the center, just before the snap of the "Duke" official ball, will say "pshaw" and stand up and look back over his shoulder at the backfield judge: "Sir, the Duke's gone; damn thing just flattened out under my fingers," holding up the football, the air still sighing out of it, which the official will look at wanly and toss out for another.
And yet one popular sport—squash—has been plagued by a situation very nearly as traumatic as any of the above. Last year's crop of Cragin-Simplex squash balls (which is more than half the market, the Seamless Rubber Company providing the rest) turned out to consist of balls as fragile as Christmas tree ornaments. In courts across the country the balls have come off the front wall after a few moments of play with an odd plopping sound and have divided in half to roll at the players' feet like walnut husks. Breakage of squash balls during play is not uncommon, but there has been an epidemic. Players find that after a moment they must duck through the little entrance door of the court and shout for the club pro.
"Charlie, toss us down another ball. Just broke this one."
"Sorry, sir, we haven't any left."
January 22, 1968
"You can't be serious."
"None left at all. They've all broken."
"They've all broken?"
"The club's fresh out of them."
"The club's out?"—this last incredulously, and the player ducks back into the court to tell his playing partner the odd news.
If there is a sight of shaken humanity it is two stockbrokers standing in a court in their sweat clothes without a squash ball to hit.
This gentle horror story began early last year when Walter Montenegro, the president of the Cragin-Simplex Corporation, which is in the sports-equipment line, decided not only to replace his squash-ball-making equipment in his factory in Van Buren, Me. (the machines are essentially large molds like waffle irons) but also to refine his 1966 ball to remove the agent that leaves a scuff mark on a squash-court wall. Both clubs and players approved this latter step. After a few years of play a squash court takes on the Stygian gloom of the anteroom of a Polynesian restaurant. It is expensive to clean off the black smudge marks—a four-day job, Montenegro estimates, for a crew of 10.
The element in the squash ball that leaves a mark is carbon, and it was by fiddling with the carbon content in his secret formula that Montenegro last summer hoped to produce a ball a step or so closer to ultimate perfection, one which, with a hopeful glint in his eye, he refers to as his "utopian" ball.
Montenegro got into the squash-ball field in 1961. He was persuaded to do so because the standard ball then, made by the Seamless Rubber Company, while adequate enough, tended to heat up during play and take on "rabbit" characteristics. It would bounce so eagerly around the confines of the court that it became very difficult even for top players, particularly against quick retrievers, to put the ball away. Good players were anxious for a change. Mediocre squash players, notably the portly, stood for the Seamless ball, which they liked because it flew around the court long enough for them to get to it. The issue, which is still argued today, of what sort of ball should dominate squash has had its fine moments of drama. Many New York squash players remember Arthur Barker, the onetime head of the Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association, proclaiming solemnly at an official dinner, fighting for control as he gripped the lectern, "I do not intend as president of this association to preside over the death of the Seamless ball!"
Montenegro's answer to the Seamless ball was one he titled the "green diamond." It evolved through 133 different experimental stages into a ball that went into general use after two or three years, a ball frequently referred to in squash circles as the "rock." In 1963 Montenegro embarked on another major development—a ball he would subsequently call the "yellow diamond" which could be used during the summer and in warm courts, conditions that enliven the action of the normal ball.
"I got going on the yellow diamond," Montenegro recalls, "after the national pro tournament that winter in Cleveland when it was so unseasonably warm that the rallies went on forever. The ball was buzzing around the court like a housefly, and it got monotonous. I mean, the people sitting in the gallery began nodding because it was a question of which players' feet were going to give out first. That's not squash."
Squash players were by and large pleased with Montenegro's products—both the green and yellow diamonds—though the changes in the balls from year to year as Montenegro's refinements continued led them to speak of Cragin-Simplex balls as one might speak of vintage wines. "Walter makes the best squash balls," Ralph Howe, the open champion, said recently. "And the worst. His great year was 1966, like a 1927 Ch√¢teau Margaux, but boy 1967: something really went wrong in the vineyards."
Montenegro's headquarters is in a building on downtown New York's Varick Street. He works out of a tiny, cluttered office with one wall scuffed with squash-ball marks where he has been doing his own testing. A small, mild man, he wears a Masonic ring and invariably sports a necktie festooned with crossed squash racquets. He says squash, which he does not play, is a game that absorbs him 24 hours a day ("My subconscious works on it when I'm asleep"), and he speaks of his difficulties with his new mark-free ball as being a "monumental nightmare. I've seen people collapse under a lot less."
His project seemed to go badly from the beginning. He remembers bringing some early samples to New York's Racquet and Tennis Club for preliminary testing. The first batch did not break but, on the other hand, the balls did not bounce either. To correct that fundamental problem Montenegro worked through dozens of experiments, relying for testing mostly on a machine he calls the "torture chamber," which is a hydraulic press that punches a ball violently and consistently enough to get it so hot that it can't be handled without a short yell.
Finally, in August, Montenegro began using his new molds to manufacture squash balls for distribution, convinced that he had taken a firm step toward his Utopian ball. But the workings of his torture chamber did not emulate, apparently, the stresses that a ball in play goes through as it comes off a racquet or careens around the front-wall corners. Almost immediately Montenegro began to get sinister reports about his no-mark ball:
•A New York club pro: "It's quite true; the Cragin-Simplex doesn't mark the wall; it breaks before it gets there—best no-mark ball they could have come up with. Absolutely tops in the field."
•In New York's Racquet and Tennis Club, Joseph Fox, Truman Capote's editor at Random House, broke six balls while warming up and threw the 12 halves at the assistant pro.
•Joe Barnett, professional at Chicago's University Club: "We're trying to make a pool of the good balls we have. But the members tend to steal them and commute with them on the Chicago and North Western back and forth to their homes. You can see the bulge of them in their coat pockets as they stand around the club car."
•In some New York clubs doubles balls, which are much faster than those used for singles, were pressed into use.
•A stockbroker playing in the Harvard Club of New York threatened to give up because the breaking squash balls reminded him of the risks of the market.
•A note from Darwin Kingsley, the U.S. Squash Racquets secretary, to Norman Bramall, pro at Philadelphia's Cynwyd Club: "You sold me rocks...."
The only comfort Montenegro could possibly gain from the bad news flowing into his office was the report from some of the club professionals, all of whom are his friends and who wish him well in his search for the Utopian ball, that the older members, those up in their 60s, were getting a great kick out of breaking squash balls. It suggested that power and devastation were still a part of their game, and they would come back to the pro shop after a match, just sidling in easily, and after a while hold out the two halves of a smitten ball and say, "We really went at it today."
As soon as the reports began coming in, Montenegro set out to find what had gone wrong. "First I thought it was the binding agent that grips the two halves of the ball together," he says. "Apparently not. We thought cutting the carbon content to get our nonmarking ball might be the trouble, since carbon provides a ball's strength. Wasn't that. We worked over the formula. And the calls kept coming in. Nightmare. We kept sending out new batches to the clubs. They'd tell us, 'Walter, the balls are still breaking, but they're breaking differently—not at the seam but in the rubber itself; maybe you're on to something.'
"Well, just a little while ago, and by the most fortunate chance, we discovered that the problem almost surely lay in the new machinery we'd installed. The mushrooms of the molds weren't quite the right size, so that the thickness of the balls' skin was affected just enough to cause a flaw. We're pretty sure, with some more tinkering with the formula, that we've got the problem licked."
New batches have gone out from Montenegro's office, but skepticism keeps on in squash circles. The breakages have been less, but they continue, and the criticism is sharp. Tommy Byrne, the pro at the New York Athletic Club, has an almost apocalyptic observation: "It hasn't been only the Cragin ball, but the lot of them that have been busting—the Seamless, the doubles ball, every one, popping up in smoke...."
One of the most despairing of critics from the squash world has been Jack Barnaby, the Harvard coach who developed such great squash stars as Ben Heckscher and Victor Niederhoffer, both national champions. "It's an awful mess. The new Cragin ball doesn't bounce. You might as well pick a crushed stone off a highway project and play with that. If you pound a little life into it, the ball leaps around as if it were shaped like a trapezoid, and then quite soon, mercifully, it breaks. In 1966 Cragin had a fine ball. It bounced, which is a good start, and it wouldn't get heated up. It reminded me of the Hewitt ball we played with back in the '20s and '30s, which lay low even if you pounded it. The older players complained and got the association to speed up the ball. That is when the Seamless people came in and did what was asked of them with their lively and rabbity ball. But the 1966 Cragin ball—well, a slugger could play his game with it, laying the ball dead, and so could the touch artist, with his tweak and drop shots. So it was possible to match two vastly different games in the same court—the bludgeon and the rapier—with neither handicapped by the ball's qualities. That is squash at its best and most interesting. Nowadays one of the main despairs we coaches have is that the official balls—Cragin and Seamless—are so different, rocks and rabbits. If our team is playing away from home we have to find out well in advance what ball will be used in the match so that we can train with it for as long as possible."
As for squash officialdom, its representatives hold to a standpat attitude, hoping for the best. They prefer not to play favorites between Cragin and Seamless, though they hope Montenegro, because they find his perseverance touching and irresistible, can finally develop his Utopian ball.
"I mean, he's sticking to it," one official says in awe. "A guy who has trouble like Walter's might chuck the whole mess and go into dry cleaning." Montenegro must have greeted the old year's last stroke of midnight with a groan of relief—looking forward to 1968, perhaps, as the year of the Utopian ball. As for 1967.... Well, hardly a vintage year.