The Merger of Hardball and Softball

by James Zug

A quarter century ago, the men’s hardball and softball tours merged. On January 1, 1993 the World Professional Squash Association and the International Squash Players Association ceased to exist, replaced by the new Professional Squash Association.

The PSA became the sole global association for men’s pro squash. Without the merger, the incredible growth of the pro tour might not have happened. Today, the U.S. leads the PSA: annually, nearly a third of the prize money and number of events worldwide are in America. The world’s oldest and biggest pro squash spectator event, the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, is in the U.S., as are the world’s largest prize money event, the Windy City Open and the world’s first major to have prize money parity, the U.S. Open. A fourth of the PSA board comes from the U.S. Only a handful of nations have more players on the tour. And many active and retired players are based in the States.

It was also the decisive moment for American squash, the date that hardball crossed the Rubicon. There was no going back. The fact of softball as the leading version of squash in the U.S. was confirmed that New Year’s Day.

Professional squash dates back to earliest days of twentieth century. The first bonafide tournament was in 1904 in Philadelphia (it had just six players). The usual method of choosing a champion was not in a tournament but by having a home-and-away, two-leg challenge match between a pair of hand-picked pros. In 1916 US Squash began to recognize the winner of such a match as the champion of the U.S., and four years later the British professional champion was determined a similar way.

In 1925 the National Singles were in Buffalo. The directors organized a small pro tournament as an adjunct to the main event. Sidney Dufton beat Jack Summers in the final 3-2. Some pros who played there went back home to Boston—Dufton was the pro at the Boston Athletic Association, Summers at the Union Boat Club—and decided to form a group to put on more events. They called it the New England Professional Association and hosted a tournament that spring: Summers won it.

Thus begat organized pro squash, a direct line from there to the PSA today.

For a long while, though, there was separate development. In 1973 a group of men lead by Jonah Barrington, formed the International Squash Players Association to create a men’s softball tour. For a while it was a still small operation. Many players went on long exhibition tours to supplement income because there were so few events. Local countries ran their pro tournaments almost independently of the ISPA, many of them converting their open championships to ISPA-sanctioned events, thus giving the tour a global imprimatur. Based in Cardiff, the ISPA was so administratively unburdensome that for much of the 1980s its executive director, Roger Eady, doubled as the executive director of the World Squash Federation (then called the International Squash Rackets Federation).

In the 1980s, riding the coattails of technological innovations like the portable court and the global celebrity of Jahangir Khan, the ISPA skyrocketed. In 1984 it had nineteen sanctioned events worth $379,000; three years later it was forty events worth over $1million.

The hardball tour also was booming. Now called the World Professional Squash Association, it had gone through numerous name changes as it expanded into Canada and Mexico. The WPSA, unlike the ISPA, was run by active players—Clive Caldwell, Dave Johnson, John Nimick and Rob Hill—and it energetically helped with many tournaments, even directing a few on its own (notably the Tournament of Champions).

The two tours could perhaps have continued to coexist indefinitely, if the world hadn’t gotten smaller. Two factors—the Olympics and a recession—combined to doom the parallel, separate-but-equal paths. In 1986 the International Olympic Committee recognized squash as a sport. Around the world, national Olympic bodies incorporated squash into their administration—squash, for example, joined the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1990. The ISRF started a campaign to join the program for the 1992 Barcelona Games (the Games that badminton successfully joined), an effort that has continued for more than thirty years now.

In the early 1990s, squash did better with other major international multi-sport games: squash got into the Pan-American Games in 1990 (for the 1995 Games) and two years later into the Commonwealth Games (for 1998). In addition, squash first appeared at the Gay Games (1990), the World University Games (1997), World Games (1997) Arab Games (1999) and World Masters Games (2002).

Because hardball was only in North America, it was unquestioned that in all these events it would be softball. “We grew to realize that for the sake of international growth, we could not have the confusion of two separate player associations,” said Roger Eady. “Squash is a small sport in global terms and a splintered player organization was counter-productive. Throughout these years the possibility of squash as an Olympic sport had and has loomed large and to make a successful case for inclusion the sport needed to be unified and clearly focused on the task at hand. Separate organizations purporting to represent the sport at international level are doomed to fail.”

At the same time, the two pro tours were struggling financially. The ISPA had connections around the world and tournaments in two dozen countries, but very little money. It eagerly eyed the U.S. market and felt shut out. The U.S., as far as pro events, was still majority hardball, and most of the corporate sponsorship and squash patron money went to hardball. The ISPA couldn’t significantly crack the American market with the WPSA in place. “We were really looking to grow the sport in North America,” said Ross Norman, the former world champion who at the time was on the ISPA board.

Pro softball was clearly on the ascendance in America. Tom and Hazel Jones successfully relaunched the U.S. Open in 1985 as a softball event and a few years later created the Grand Prix circuit of summer tournaments. The WPSA started sanctioning softball events like the U.S. Pro Softball, a tournament run in New York in part by Frank Stella. In 1989 the Boston Open, one of the majors on the hardball tour, added a softball draw. In 1991, U.S. sales of softballs overtook hardballs and the softball National Singles, led by a men’s open draw named for S.L. Green, attracted more entrants than the hardball National Singles. In 1992 the WPSA Championships, held at the Winter Garden in downtown New York, was renamed the Tournament of Champions and switched to softball.

At the same time, the WPSA was faltering. A major recession that officially began in July 1990 hit the tour hard. Longtime partners like Xerox pulled out. Tournaments suddenly had no sponsors and were shuttered. Prize money dropped in others. The IPSA had surpassed the WPSA in terms of overall tournament prize money in 1986 and by the early 1990s the difference had deepened dramatically. Draws shrunk: not enough quality players were joining or staying on the tour, while promising young players—like Will Carlin—were trying out softball instead.

The breaking point was in 1991. The WPSA announced a 1991-92 season with just ten events, down from a peak of over thirty only a couple of years earlier. (Mark Talbott would go on to win six of the ten.) The Boston Open, one of the tour’s majors, was not on the list.

Then a deep psychological blow. For years, the WPSA had tried to leap out beyond North America. In May 1991 it publicized a $130,000 hardball tournament in Tokyo, including a women’s draw, to be held a year later. The event never happened. “The way hardball was not expanding worldwide, that it had never grown past the U.S., Canada and Mexico, a lot of us were convinced that the future of the game was in a merged tour,” said Jack Herrick, the chair of the WPSA board at the time. “It was getting to be pretty obvious.”

As the hardball tour contracted, the softball tour continued to expand. Making real inroads in North America via the work of Hazel and Tom Jones, the ISPA announced a 1992 North American tour with fifteen sanctioned men’s events and a title sponsor (Head).

For the first time, there was going to be more professional softball events than hardball events in the U.S.

Conversations between the tours had been going on for a long time. Roger Eady, the executive director of both the ISRF and the ISPA, regularly came over to North America. In 1983 he spent three months in Canada working with the chair of the ISRF board, Ian Stewart. (In the late 1980s the ISRF asked Eady to choose one of the organizations to lead rather than both; he chose the ISPA.). Thereafter Eady returned each autumn to Toronto for the Canadian Open and he also came often to the U.S. Open. Clive Caldwell, one of the longtime leaders of the WPSA, became good friends with Chris Dittmar, the ISPA president, and they talked often about a merger. Moreover, WPSA leaders met with Eady and others at the annual world team championships.

In June 1991 a formal summit was held at the Forte Crest Hotel near Heathrow airport. In attendance were two WPSA leaders—Rob Hill, the president of the board and Herrick, the chair of the board—and four ISPA leaders: Eady; Sheila Cooksley, the tour director; Paul Carter, the vice chair; and Ross Norman, the vice president. The six of them discussed the histories of both organizations and the recent development of the WPSA promoting softball events. They hashed through all sorts of complex minutiae: entry systems, sanctioning and co-sanctioning rules, seedings, ranking points, rules and regulations, dues and voting arrangements. Herrick wrote up a three-page memorandum of understanding.

Everything accelerated. Lawyers looked at documents. A London solicitor, Cerryg Jones, helped construct a new set of by-laws for a new organization It was called the Professional Squash Association. “We were looking for a three-letter name,” said Norman, “along the lines of the PGA, NBA, NHL, etc. We toiled with words like “World” and “Tour” but decided on PSA.”

The ISPA internally called it a “take-over of WPSA” while the WPSA termed it a merger. It was a matter of perspective. The ISPA had barely any money, while the WPSA had more than $100,000 in the bank. The ISPA wasn’t trying to kill hardball at all. “The subject of the hardball game didn’t really come up,” said Norman. “We thought the softball game would continue alongside the hardball game. At that point, the softball game was growing in the U.S., Asia and the Far East.”

A key linchpin of the merger was the PSA’s bylaws. They included a North American committee, with a functioning office at John Nimick’s house outside of Boston. The seven-person board of the PSA would have two slots reserved for North Americans. Hardballers could join the PSA as separate members from softballers and the PSA would sanction events and issue rankings in both hardball singles and doubles. The hardball committee would have a two-year “window of autonomy on financial and political matters” in North America. There was even an agreement that after two years “if the merger was not successful” the hardball group could “demerge.” Hardballers could not take any money but could retain the rights to various tournaments. Most symbolically, the basis of the logo of the new PSA would be the WPSA logo.

Many hardballers were wary of the merger. “Every change is a nightmare,” said Clive Caldwell. “Nobody wants change. And if you don’t change you die. And that’s the truth. You have to change and everyone hates you for doing so.”

It was clear to many that regardless of resistance, change was inevitable. “The writing was on the wall,” said Rob Hill. “We saw where things were going.” Interestingly, there was no discussion at the time with the nascent women’s softball tour, WISPA.

In August 1992 the WPSA held their annual general meeting at the Loews Hotel in New York. It didn’t go especially well. Ten days before, a group of WPSA pros, led by Tomas Fortson, the Bowdoin coach who was then a teaching pro in Boston, circulated a five-page memo about the merger. “I feel we are committing a disastrous mistake in allowing professional hardball to die without putting up an honest fight,” Fortson wrote. “Do we resign ourselves and just let professional hardball die, or do we, as one of the most intelligent and educated groups of people in professional sports, make an honest attempt to keep our magnificent hardball game alive?” Fortson suggested scheduling a three-month hardball tour “around the weaker parts of the ISPA European circuit.”

The members asked the board to go back to the ISPA and ask for two additions to the agreement: that all membership and sanctioning fees coming out of North America to stay in North America, outside of an annual fee of $35,000-40,000 that would get sent to Cardiff; and that “hardball” be added to the objectives of the PSA. In addition, they asked that any final vote would be in writing, not by a show of hands.

The next month the ISPA held their annual general meeting in Johannesburg. The ISPA, upon a proposed motion by Ross Norman and seconded by Chris Dittmar, agreed to sell itself to the new PSA for £1 and dissolve itself on December 31, 1992. The meeting, which included three other discussions about  prize money and ranking points, lasted only an hour. The PSA, officially incorporated on September 11, 1992, held its first board meeting at Forte Crest Hotel in late October 1992.

Everything was set, except the WPSA agreement. At ten minutes after three o’clock in the afternoon on Friday December 4, 1992 at the Conning Cup in Hartford, the WPSA held an extraordinary general meeting. Twenty-five players of the PSA attended. Rob Hill convened the meeting. John Nimick and Jack Herrick spoke at length about agreement, explaining the new PSA constitution. Nimick reported that both suggestions from the August meeting had failed: the PSA constitution was already filed and that it was not a sound business practice to have two accounting centers. “Nimick also gave his assurance to the members,” read the minutes, “that he was confident that ISPA and Roger Eady had no hidden agenda to drain the WPSA assets and curtail North American operations.” Fortson asked about the future, when the PSA might remove all hardball members; Herrick answered that a change to the constitution would require a three-quarters approval of the PSA membership, which wouldn’t happen with all the North American members. Others raised questions about whether a hardball event would be included in the World Series circuit (the answer was no, mostly because the hardball tour couldn’t raise enough prize money for such a tournament); and about hardball events in Canada (which would be invitationals rather than sanctioned by the PSA).

After noting that two-thirds of the members present had to approve the agreement for it to become binding, Nimick opened the voting: members handed in a blue slip with their vote on it and then signed their name on a single piece of lined paper.

While the votes were being counted, Nimick said that the head pro job at the Heights Casino was open and that there might be new doubles events in Toronto and San Francisco. In other words, life would go on.

Nimick then announced the vote: twenty-one in favor, four against, with four abstaining.

On New Year’s Day 1993, the Professional Squash Association officially came into power. In February there was a second summit, this time at the ISPA’s head offices on Cathedral Road in Cardiff attended by Nimick, as the head of the North American office, and Clive Caldwell and Rick Bourke as the North American representatives on the new PSA board. “The meetings went very well and contained almost no WSPA/ISPA conflicts or anti-hardball sentiment in any way,” Nimick wrote afterwards. “All of us felt surprised and excited that the first Board Meeting was so focused and harmonious.”

The North American committee was duly launched. The lease on the Toronto office, on Sheppard Street, expired in June 1993 and Nimick’s Boston home became the North American headquarters.

Things didn’t go that well in the beginning. The 1992-93 season had eight hardball singles events; 1993-94, the first season under full PSA leadership, saw just five events, for a total prize money purse of $80,000. Softball now was dominant in the U.S. In the fall of 1993 the softball National Singles in San Francisco had 628 players, the bigger than the previous record (the 1987 National Singles with 576 people). Meanwhile, the hardball National Singles in Boston a few months later had just 268 entrants. High schools, colleges and junior squash all switched to softball.

The PSA, meanwhile, hemorrhaged money: it was budgeted to lose $55,000 in 1993. By the summer of 1994, the account had dwindled to $30,000. All that WPSA money was leaking away.

In September 1994 at the World Open in Barcelona, the PSA hosted its first annual general meeting. Jack Herrick was asked to rejoin the board and was appointed as chair. The board then asked him to fire Roger Eady. “It was a nice basket of flowers to welcome me back,” Herrick said.

Eady said it was not a shock: “The new chairman, Jack Herrick, was tasked with the responsibility of firing me and it was rather amicable because I was convinced that the new direction—developing a stronger, more autonomous commercial perspective rather than maintaining close links with WSF member nations—would be even more difficult.”

In the short-term, Eady was correct but over the quarter century he was proved wrong. Today, the PSA has more than 800 registered players from three dozen countries; 200 events annually around the world, including six new countries last season; a vibrant broadcast system showing 400 matches a year; and total prize money of nearly $6 million.