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Handball’s Sagebrush Champs: Growth of Handball in Montana

By Marcia Melton
Copied from Montana The Magazine of Western History
Volume 36, published in 1986, spring issue (2), pages 62-71

 Handball is a game that requires individuals to develop physical agility, foresight, quick reaction time, and eye-to-hand coordination. No team sport does this. No waiting on the bench. No reassuring huddling for group decision and planning. No time out for reinforcements. The game requires only a small hard rubber ball, a good pair of sneakers, and a concrete-walled court where the ball can ricochet at high speed as the players attempt to control its direction.

Historians of the sport trace it from the early Egyptians who played the game four thousand years ago. It is “the oldest of all games played with a ball”: the Princess of Corcepa, described by Homer, played handball with her maidens for amusement; Roman soldiers introduced the game as they conquered their way across Europe; Celts played the game on lonely, windswept islands; courtiers in Italy, France, and Spain played the fashionable game of “palm play”; at Eton, a fine handball player was “a person of distinction”; and nineteenth century Irishmen who had traveled to County Galway for tournaments later searched for cement sidewall in Brooklyn so they could play “fives” (five fingers to the hand). By the twentieth century, handball had become so popular in America that “doctors, lawyers, salesmen, engineers, college professors-people of all ranks and vocations-flocked to the courts,” and “there wasn’t a fireman in the land who didn’t devote some of his leisure to playing handball against the side of the firehouse.” To these enthusiasts can be added the colorful group of players who first established handball in Montana.

Montanans first became interested in handball in the early 1900s. Father John O’Kennedy, a priest from Bawn Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland, first introduced the sport to his Butte parishioners. Father O’Kennedy came to Montana in August 1907 to serve the Catholic Diocese of Montana, first in Butte and then in Helena and Missoula. George Melton later remembered: “We all really learned to play under the eye of Father O’Kennedy, formerly of Helena, who came from Ireland with a fine knowledge of the fundamentals. He taught Lester Loble, Kirby Hoon and Bud Hartwig, and they taught us.”

Father O’Kennedy encouraged an interest in handball in each place he lived. His interest in the game extended to his lobbying efforts for inclusion of a handball court in the original plans for St. Anthony’s Church in Missoula. Father O’Kennedy was not only teacher and sponsor, but as the sport developed he was also a frequent contender for singles and doubles titles. At the 1920 tournament, the champion’s cup was named the Father O’Kennedy Cup, which was valued at an impressive $125.

Handball had had a curious history in the United States, beginning as a professional sport and evolving to amateur status. Phil Casey, an Irishman who immigrated to Brooklyn in 1882, was amazed to find that there were no four-wall courts in America and that the game was being played against one wall. He raised enough money to build a four-wall court, where he stage exhibition games, and then used his profits to build more courts. In 1887 or 1888, Bernard McQuade, a native of Ireland, challenged Casey to a contest to determine the handball champion of America. Casey quickly defeated him and then challenged the Irish National Champion, John Lawlor. The first ten games would be played in Ireland and the last eleven in New York; the winner would be world champion and would win a purse of $1,000. It was the prize money in this competition that established handball as a professional sport in America. Casey won the contest and became known as the father of American handball. By the early 1900s, the expression “Casey the ball” had become part of the game’s jargon in areas as far from Casey’s Brooklyn as Butte, Montana, where it was reported that J.H. Gilbert of Dillon, “while only 14 years old, can “Casey the ball with either hand like a veteran.”

Phil Casey retired in 1900, and handball as a professional sport fell into obscurity. It was at about this time that amateur handball was getting its start under the sponsorship of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which had been founded in 1888. By 1900, amateur handball was played “in almost every important center in this country.” Among those centers soon to be counted were Helena, Butte, Great Falls, and Dillon. The smack of the ball was beginning to heard in the West.

Under Father O’Kennedy’s tutelage, Helena players took an early lead in Montana handball. Because the four-wall variety of handball required courts of specific dimensions, the YMCA played a major part in advancing the game in Montana by including handball courts in their facility planning. The Helena YMCA, which opened in 1914, was the site of many of the early games. The Great Falls YMCA, built in 1916, housed handball courts and provided a place for Great Falls players to pursue the game.

Butte, with its long-standing record of tough competitiveness, was no exception in handball. The Butte YMCA, built in 1917 with handball courts finished the next year, soon began to encourage handball play, and director, Mel Clevett, was a frequent competitor. In 1922, in a promotional article, the Butte YMCA boasted the 7,132 men played 10,698 games of handball during the 1921 season.

Handball got its start in Montana in three of the state’s largest cities-Helena, Butte, and Great Falls-and in one of the smallest ones-Dillon. In Helena, Butte, and Great Falls, there were plenty of eager players to teach the game to others; handball courts were available; and enthusiastic competitors furthered the game. In Dillon, there were only two players, but they made up for their lack of numbers in their dedication to pursuing the sport. There, W.B. “Bud” Hartwig, a theater owner and one of Father O’Kennedy’s original pupils, encouraged his friend George Melton to learn to play handball. In 1919, the two men built a handball court in Melton’s barn, and it was this two-man handball club that so intrigued the eastern sportswriters years later when Melton competed in the national championships. Even in Montana the newspapers noted this unusual setting: “The broadside of a barn proved a good practice court over in Dillon. It was there that he (Melton) learned the ABC’s of the game under the direction of his old partner “Bud” Hartwig. (Not meaning that “Bud” is old, but they have been partners for a long time.)”

It was also in 1919 that the first National Handball Championship in the United States was held. That same year, the Helena YMCA hosted a tournament for all comers in the state of Montana. The deciding game matched Lester Loble, a young Helena attorney, against Jack Byrnes, a former champion of Ireland from Great Falls. In a startling upset reminiscent of Phil Casey’s earlier triumph, young Loble defeated Byrnes and was declared Champion Handball Player of Montana. With his victory, Loble established Helena as the place where the state’s most formidable contenders could be found. Helena’s Lester Loble, “past potentate of the diamond-studded championship belt,” was joined by Kirby Hoon, Father O’Kennedy, John Walsh, and Ed Phelan in capturing and swapping state singles and doubles titles for the next six years. This group was supported by other competitors from Helena: Jack Barker, Walter Schuerke, and Gil Holshue.

Although Helena players won the first titles as the Montana State Handball Association was formed and as handball gained popularity in the state, during the early 1920s players in several other cities began to present a challenge. Groups of players from YMCAs in Great Falls and Butte and the determined Dillon contingent ensured that the victories of the Helena men were hard-won. In Great Falls, Dr. J.M. Hardin was considered the father of handball in the city and was an early member of the Montana State Handball Association Executive Board. Other Great Falls contenders for the titles were Bob Gordon, Abe Goodman, Art and Ray Jardine, G.C. and Oscar Thoren, James Kremer, J.F. “Blackie” McNamara, Harold Moe, Harry Wallace, Al Reichel, and Al MacIntosh.

The Great Falls YMCA hosted the 1920 tournament, which included contests in both handball and volleyball. The two tournaments were held as one annual event until 1925, when there were not enough volleyball teams entered to provide a competition. The handball tournaments began to stand on their own as state-wide events.

In 1920, the Butte Miner reported that Butte would go to Great Falls “with an additional aim to bring the 1921 tourney to this city.” The first two tournaments had been held in Helena and Great Fall, and Butte wanted to make its own contribution to handball history. The Butte players accomplished their goal, and in 1921 tournament play was held at the Butte YMCA. Dr. R.C. Mohahan, the “grand old man of handball in Montana,” was from Butte, and the list of Butte contenders soon grew long and respectable. Butte began to capture many state titles with such quality players as Fred Emmett, Fred Ackerman, and Ray Gallant. Their efforts were supported by P.F. “Doc” Doherty, Tim Connolly, Tom Crawley, Quong Huie (“the little Chinese flash”), “Pidgey” Noonen, Frank Sullivan (“an expert from the Quartz street fire station”), Joe McCarthy, Joe Harrington, and Gerald Willard.

The Dillon group continued to practice in Melton’s barn, hoping for suitable facilities to be developed at the Normal College so the state tournament could be held in the Beaverhead Valley. In both 1926 and 1931, Dillon players bid for the tournament but was unable to host it because their facilities were not in shape for state play. But this did not deter the small, vigorous, and vocal band; they attended every state tournament, bringing hearty spirit and determined strength to the contests. Melton, Hartwig, and Russell Frieberg, the first players in Dillon, were especially responsible for encouraging the sport among younger men. They brought strong groups of younger players to the meets-Monte Melton, William Boone, William Bates, Jack Gilbert, and Roy Forrester, Jr. competed-and encouraged the establishment of a Junior’s Cup in 1930.

While Helena, Great Falls, Butte, and Dillon were the dominant centers of handball in the state, during the mid 1920s players in other Montana towns traveled to where handball courts and good competition were available. They also began to establish handball in their own towns, Art Trenery of Billings, James Casteel of Lewistown, and Clyde Churchill of Havre were some of the early players who widened the circle a bit.

During the 1920s and 1930s, state tournaments were held in April, alternating between Helena, Great Falls, and Butte. The pattern was broken only a few times, such as in 1926 when the Butte Elks club challenged the arrangement by offering its new regulation-size courts and in 1935 when Helena experienced a damaging earthquake. There were also Dillon’s always hopeful-but always dashed-attempts to host the tournament.

The state’s newspapers reported the tournament in detail. By the mid 1920s, handball, which had once suffered only sketchy newspaper coverage, had begun to occupy space in the center column of the sports page, often nudging out boxing and basketball. The newspapers reported packed galleries of fans assembling to view the play. Perhaps handball was gaining popularity because it was an individual sport requiring a good deal of stamina. Perhaps interest grew because people from all walks of life competed on an equal basis, because it was a game in which both older and younger men excelled, or because the action was rapid and exciting. Or perhaps it was because many of the Montana handball players were so colorful and sportsmanlike. The sport’s drawing power was evidenced in such comments at this one made in the Great Fall Tribune on April 21, 1929:

When the time came for Loble and Melton to tangle for the singles crown the bleacher seats back of court No. 1 at the Y.M.C.A. were jammed to more than capacity. Every inch of space was occupied while a dozen or more prospective spectators stayed close to listen to the scorekeeper’s count and to pick up information on the game from friends who happened to be located where the could see what was going on.

The Montana State Handball Association also arranged exhibition games that were popular with both competitors and fans. The association invited players for Pocatello and Salt Lake City to play the best of the state’s competitors. Melton and Loble teamed with their sons to play doubles contests, and local favorites such as Doc Monahan of Butte and Bob Gordon of Great Falls played good-natured competition. The newspapers reported these exchanges in as much detail as they did the regular matches. For example, on May 16, 1931, the Great Falls Tribune alluded to the camaraderie of the handball group with a story about a contest between Monahan and Gordon:

Monahan, according to some of the handball veterans, has been playing for 45 years. Others insisted he has been at it for 60 years. At any rate, he is still one of the most enthusiastic players in the game and thinks he can defeat Gordon, who has been parting his hair with a towel for a good many years.

Younger players, such as Butte’s outstanding athlete Ray Gallant and George Melton’s protégé from Dillon, Bill Bates, played juniors exhibitions in the early years while the acquired the skills they would need to defeat the long-standing champions.

Social gatherings were also an important part of the annual tournaments, and they always rated at least a sentence or two in the local papers, reporting ravioli dinners at Meaderville, banquets at the Eddy Rose Room and the Park Hotel, one private party in 1927 where two women’s names found their way into a handball story when “music was furnished by a duo composed of the Misses Dorothy Hirschman and Winnifred Frogge.” But it was in 1925 that the social doings gained prominence and the extra-curricular side of handball was firmly established. That year, the Helena Daily Independent reported the tournament’s titles-a surprise in themselves when for the first time two Great Falls men, James Kremer and “Blackie” McNamara upset Hoon and Loble who had held the doubles title since its beginnings. After a quick round of sports coverage, however, it was the party that filled the sports page column:

The annual banquet which was held last night in the Eddy Rose Room was a real event. . . Pep and good fellowship radiated among the visiting and local players and speeches, splendid entertainment and a regular feed made the event one to be long remembered by the boys who were fortunate enough to be present.

The meeting reached it height with the appearance of Eddie Price and his jazz boys from Butte, who took a fast ride in order to be present and show the gang that even though Butte was practically out of the running; their old pep was still working. . . 

Abe Goodman, of Great Falls, couldn’t resist the strains of peppery jazz and got up and did a little dance for the boys that would have given the “Black and Tans” something to shoot at, had they been present.

The Winter Garden Syncopaters of Helena, opened the show with some smoke that had the boys well oiled by the time the feed came on, while the Groves did their stuff to heavy applause. Two excellent little entertainers in Miss Ethel Reinig and Miss Dorothy Langdorf were called back so many times they hardly had time to put away any of the “bountiful” which Kirby and the boys provided.

Toastmaster Ed Phelan called. . . .for  speeches, and was rewarded with a rich output of handball talk that was sufficient to make rabid handball fiends out of the coldest devotees present.

In addition to state tournaments, several Montana players also entered the Northwest Handball Association events in Spokane. Melton, Hartwig, and Loble were all winners in these events. By 1923, Montanans were ready to look beyond Montana to the national handball scene.

Lester Loble, Kirby Hoon, and John Walsh of Helena went to St. Paul for the 1923 Fifth Annual National AAU Handball Tournament. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported:

The tourney, which is to handball what the world series is to baseball, has attracted sixty-seven of the leading court players of the United States. . .cities to be represented in the big meet include San Francisco, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Helena, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Detroit, Duluth, Baltimore, and St. Louis.

Arriving early, the Helena men set out to make names for themselves; they let the other entrants and the sportswriters know that Montanans intended to participate fully in national handball. The Pioneer Press discussed the group in a feature story and issued a cautious statement that perhaps the Montana players should be watched: 

Handball players from San Francisco, Helena, Mont., Chicago and Detroit, Michigan, made up the advance guard of handball players for the National Tournament which is to held here Mar. 19 to 24. J.R. Walsh, Lester Loble, and Kirby Hoon, the trio from Helena, were the first to enter the court, and they set out to prove that they must be watched. Walsh played like an old timer on the St. Paul courts. He is rangy and has a pretty stroke with both hands.

The Helena Daily Independent jubilantly reported that on March 17, the second day of the tournament:

Helena went on the national handball map yesterday morning when John Walsh, one of the Helena Handball association’s representatives at the national tourney started yesterday in St. Paul, defeated Hanley of St. Paul in two games straight, 21-20, 21-14. . .St. Paul newspapers gave the Helena bunch the headlines on their arrival, and told all about how “rough and tough” they are in a handball court.

On March 25, the Independent reported that “the Helena men were handicapped by the fact that they were used to a 34-foot court, while the court at St. Paul was 50 feet.” The handicap proved to be serious, and Walsh, Loble, and Hoon did not win the series; but their experience provided a valuable impetus for making changes in court sizes and rules used in Montana play. The returning players encouraged the officers of the state association to consider adopting national rules and standards so that Montana would be nationally competitive. The Montana association adopted the handball rules of the AAU in 1928; the kind of handballs used in national play were ordered for state meets; and the now-standard four-wall court of 40 feet by 20 feet by 20 feet became the norm in Montana.

In 1928, another Montanan headed east to Cleveland to challenge players in the national tournament; George Melton, the flamboyant Dillon player who was the 1927 Montana State Champion. Melton had been in the winning circle at regional meets, had fared well against nationally known players in Minneapolis and Chicago, and had recently defeated National Champion Maynard Laswell in a California series. Montanans thought they had an excellent chance to gain the championship. The Butte Daily Post sent Melton off bearing the titles “Montana’s Most Colorful Champion” and “The Ambidextrous Handball King.”

The Dillon Examiner asked Byron E. Toan, a former principal of Beaverhead County High School who lived in Cleveland, to be its on-the-spot reporter. Toan wired suspenseful reports of the opening games and described how the skepticism in the stands changed to amazement:

Believe me, when I saw one of the old-time boys of the Beaverhead county high school winning those three games from one of Detroit’s best, I could hardly keep from giving a few of old Beaverhead’s yells. . .Did they play? They DID! and WOW! It was handball through about half of the game, and then became nothing but-well, nothing but intestinal stamina. And our George was the boy who was there with the digestive apparatus. When those two boys came out of the court they were absolutely all in. The unanimous verdict of the crowd-many of them players in the tournament-was that these three games were the class of the day.

Melton’s telegram to Bud Hartwig read: “Old Pal-Won from Siegel [sic] of Detroit in three hard games, 18-21, 21-5, 21-15. Meet Cleveland’s top player in Joe Goudreau next. Going awfully tough. They sure play the ball and kill every setup. The old left hand shot down the side wall saved me-George.

Montana reporters and friends waited for the reports. Toan wired that Melton’s next opponent would be Joe Goudreau, the Ohio State Champion; “If he (Melton) can get by this man, he will and mighty close to the national championship.” But Melton’s next telegram to Hartwig brought the sad message: “No alibis-he was just too good.” Joe Griffin of Detroit won the tournament and Melton was a runner-up.

Melton, Loble, and the other early Montana handball players continued to dominate the sport into the 1930s. In 1932, however, the forty-three-year-old Melton predicted an entire change in the personnel of the leaders in handball circles of the state this year. “We have been lucky to stay in there as long as we have. . .the main reason being no one came along to oust us, but with such players as Ray Gallant and Joe McCarthy of Butte “knocking at the door,” the old boys will have to bow graceful to Father Time and give way to youth.”

During the following decades, Montanans continued to play handball, and in 1953 the state finally had a national handball champion when Bob Brady of Butte won the U.S. Handball Association National Championship. Currently, handball is receiving competition from racquetball, a popular variation of the game played on the same court with a short-handled racquet. But the Montana State Handball Association still exists; its current president is Emmett Boland of Great Falls. Handball and racquetball clubs provide private courts to supplement those at the YMCAs, the Butte Elks Lodge, and schools, colleges, and universities. Tournaments are held each year, with the various city clubs rotating the sponsorship of separate singles and doubles tournaments held in Butte, Missoula, Kalispell, Helena, and Billings.

Boland reports the Montana handball players still represent a cross-section of the state’s residents and that the social activities and stories surrounding the games and tournaments continue to give the players a good deal of extra enjoyment. The courts at Great Falls and Butte still see action from some of the early players, such as Nick Kalafat and Jim Ritter, who won both the northwest doubles and singles titles in the 1950s. Bill Peoples, a National Collegiate Handball Champion in 1973, and the University of Montana handball team, composed of Bill Peoples, Bob Peoples, Tim Boland, and Tom Zedrick, winners of the 1973 NCAA Championship, are the latest Montanans to win national competitions.

Montanans first began playing handball in the early 1900s, setting up courts in backyard barns, churches, and YMCAs. One local competition led to another and by the 1920s the original Montana players sought to test their skills in regional and national competitions. The state’s players first began to gain national championships in the 1950s, and Montana players continue to compete on state, regional, and national levels. The western birds have indeed learned how to play the game.