Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An Inter-Sports Classic

Posted By on Wed, Sep 9, 2009 at 3:20 PM

paul_haber.jpg
Thanks to my friend and racquetball expert Randy Stafford for sending along this flier of a bit of sports trivia that deserves remembrance: the handball versus racquetball match in 1972 in Memphis between Paul Haber and Bud Muehlheisen. It was billed as "Hands vs. Racquet."

Stafford has what he believes is possibly the only flier left from the event that matched two highly skilled athletes with very different personalities and, according to Sports Illustrated, drew more than $30,000 in on-site wagers.

Haber, the handball player, is the subject of a documentary in the works that calls him the greatest Jewish athlete of all time. Muehleisen, a California doctor, was the racquetball player. Stafford knew them both. He recalls Haber as phenomenally quick but also a smoker and beer drinker, even between games on the court. He was so competitive he would not pick up the ball when it wound up on his side of the court after a rally but would make his opponent expend the energy to walk over and get it. Muehleisen was a gentleman of the old school.

In their match, left-handed Muehleisen got to use a racquet but the ball was a handball, which is smaller, harder, and easier to spin than a racquetball. Remember, that racquets then were considerably smaller and less powerful than they are today, but it still seems amazing that Haber won the match. Muehleisen took a rematch seven months later.

It's the kind of half-goofy thing sports needs more of. There was period of a few years in the Seventies and early Eighties when a program called "The Super Stars" matched athletes in sports other than their specialties. We learned, among other things, that Memphis soccer pro Kyle Rote was good enough to win the thing twice, that Joe Frazier could barely swim a stroke, and that Bjorn Borg was not good at racquetball. Maybe if they'd played with a tennis ball he would have done better.

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