General History

San Diego has a remarkable history in court sports; perhaps unique in all of the US. Home to tennis champions like Bobby Riggs and Maureen Connolly, racquetball champions like Dr. Bud Muehleisen and Charlie Brumfield, badminton champions like Dave Freeman and Carl Loveday, and table tennis champions like Angie and Stellan Bengtsson. And their paths often crossed, making for some vivid stories.

"The Happy Hustler"

Bobby Riggs, the man Time magazine called "The Happy Hustler", never met a bet he didn't like. He spent most of his best years in North County. Riggs was one of the greatest tennis players of his age winning 6 Grand Slam/Pro Slam titles in the late 1930s through the 1940s, and Riggs was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967. But everyone remembers Riggs for what he did after that, a story memorialized in the 2017 feature film The Battle of the Sexes. Riggs dominating 1973  victory over Australian Margaret Court--called "The Mother's Day Massacre"--was played in Ramona. After the win, Riggs promoted himself as America's favorite "sugar daddy", and became a gleeful pitchman for the candy bar product of that name.

And with the overt Chauvinism of Riggs' persona, it's easy to forget that one of Riggs' primary objectives for "The Battle of the Sexes" was to promote the sport of tennis. Indeed, tennis grew substantially in its aftermath. Echoes of that remain today, particularly in US women's tennis. At the time of this writing (when Serena Williams is effectively on maternity leave from the women's tour) four of the top 20 women in the world hail from the US! While Riggs lost the second Battle of the Sexes to Billy Jean King, and in spite of Riggs' public needling of King before the event, Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs remained close friends until the his death due to prostate cancer in 1995. King called him shortly before he passed, offering to visit him, but he did not want her to see him in his condition. She phoned him one last time, the night before his death and, according to King, the last thing she told Riggs was "I love you". 

Riggs was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988, at which time he and Lornie Kuhle founded the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club and Museum in Leucadia to increase awareness of the disease and house his memoirs and trophies. Today, the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club and Museum is one of the leading pickleball clubs in America, with a disproportionate share of national titles, and home club to the Dawson family, a dominant force in the sport. 

"Brum's Bums"

At about the same time Bobby Riggs was cleaning up on the tennis circuit, San Diego was establishing itself as the badminton capital of America. A good place to start this story is at the All-England Badminton Championships in 1949. Until the World Badminton Championships began in 1977, the All-England was the de facto world championship. And 1949 was the first, last, and only time that the All-England was won by an American, Dave Freeman of the San Diego Badminton Club, a club that is still around and plays daily at the Balboa Park Activity Center. Freeman was America's greatest badminton player, winning an astounding 15 US national badminton titles from 1939 through 1953, and he never lost a singles match in US national competition. Each Spring, the San Diego Badminton Club celebrates his legacy with the Dave Freeman Open, a tournament that draws the best players from around the country. For a number of years, Freeman's main competition at the San Diego Badminton Club was Carl Loveday. Loveday won any number of championships on his own, and in fact made it to the semi-finals in that same All-England Championship of 1949. But while Freeman and Loveday were both famous in the 1940s and 50s for their badminton wizardry, that was far from the end of their racket expertise. Freeman was national junior tennis champ in 1938, and runner up in US national men's doubles in 1943, during the same period when he was America's leading badminton player. No doubt, he and Riggs crossed paths on Championship Court. Freeman was also an accomplished squash and table tennis player. But if it is even possible, Loveday's excursions into other racket sports were even more important.

In the early 1960's a spry young dentist and serious tennis player, Dr. Bud Muehleisen moved to town. Looking for a place to swing a racket, Dr. Bud ended up at the San Diego Badminton Club where he and Carl Loveday became fast friends. Carl overpowered Dr. Bud in badminton and so they looked for a sport where they could play on the same level. They heard about paddleball and decided to take up the sport. They both got good fast! In 1966, the two chums traveled to Ann Arbor Michigan to try their luck at the National Singles tournament, and they dominated. Muehleisen easily took the open division and Loveday easily won the seniors. Muehleisen returned two years later and cleaned up in the open division again. There was talk that he might be the greatest of all time. At a tournament at the Kona Kai Club on Shelter Island, a brash young high school student in his first ever try at public play famously asked the tournament director, Ben Press, what the champ's weakness was. Ben's answer: "Muehleisen tires after seven hours!" That sassy kid was Charlie Brumfield, a genius at racket sports and a character, if anything, even more colorful than Bobby Riggs. In that first meeting, Dr. Bud and Brum met in the final. Muehleisen eeked out a close tie breaker win. But it was the last time Muehleisen ever beat Brumfield in paddleball. They met in another tournament a couple months later and Brumfield dominated. Muehleisen turned away from paddleball after that, and, for all intents and purposes, invented racquetball, where he could still compete with Brumfield for a few more months. In the 1970s, racquetball exploded across the country, and San Diego was Racquetball's Mecca. Players from all over the country came to train with Brumfield, Muehleisen, and Loveday. The two leading manufacturers of racquetball rackets (Ektelon and Leach Industries) were both in San Diego, and so their sponsored players moved here. The level of competition was higher than anywhere else in the world, and Carl Loveday became the sport's most sought after coach. Brumfield was the "King of Racquetball", and he was surrounded by cadre of rowdy players affectionately known as "Brum's Bums". When Brumfield would play some wayward challenger at Mel Gorham's or at the Atlas Club, the Bums would beat on the glass and harass the opponents. Brumfield, ever the showman, would often come on to the court with a bleach bottle or an old shoe instead of a racket, and deliver the perfunctory beatdown even with that disadvantage. To the Bums, he was "The People's Champ", as in this cover photo from a 1970s book by Chuck Leve about Brumfield.

As for Carl Loveday, for all the notoriety, he never gave up on badminton, and the one time this author actually met the great man was on the badminton court, though I spent most of my time fishing the bird out at ankle height; not what one would call a strong attacking position. Like Bobby Riggs, Loveday was not afraid of a little wager now and then, and, according to his grandson Kirk Loveday, at one point he challenged the President of the equally prestigious San Diego Table Tennis Association to a little game of ping pong. The two clubs, then as today, shared space with one another in Balboa Park, and both were after bragging rights. Loveday famously beat the table tennis master at his own sport, after which the vanquished foe threw his paddle into the rafters of the old Federal Building where they played, and there it stayed until the building was renovated to become the San Diego Hall of Champions, where some of San Diego's greatest sports champions, including Muehleisen and Freeman, were memorialized.

The Legacy

Those were the days! But even the Hall of Champions could not last. In 2017, that space was turned into the ComiCon Museum. There is a certain irony in replacing a museum for real heroes with a museum for fictional heroes. There was also a great cost. The Hall of Champions housed many of the trophies and relics that testified to the greatness of our champions. These scattered to the wind when the Hall of Champions disappeared. Likewise, the 100 or so racquetball clubs in town are gone now. They are not ComiCon Museums, but one is a hatmaker, another is the Beemer Club, another is an urgent care center, others are office buildings, storage buildings, etc. At the peak, in the 1970s, reservations needed to be made days in advance because--even with so many clubs--the demand for court time was just too high. The last of those clubs, Sorrento Valley Racquetball, closed at the end of 2015. Charlie Brumfield and his crew played the final match there on court 6, known as "Brumfield's Cathedral", on Nov 29. This author had the privilege of participating in that match, and on the victor's side. Members of Sorrento Valley Racquetball had, collectively, more than 100 national championships; an astounding achievement that may never be bettered anywhere in any court sport. The San Diego Court Sports Association is working to continue some of those traditions. 

For better or for worse, the San Diego Badminton Club which was central to so much of San Diego court sports is somewhat diminished in stature now. In 2016, Smash! opened in the Miramar area and much of the SDBC membership shifted north. Smash! has a great coaching staff that SDBC probably hasn't been able to match since Freeman and Loveday played. And when the relics of the Hall of Champions were auctioned off, Smash! purchased all of the badminton trophies, preserving a history too valuable to lose. These are now proudly displayed in the Smash! foyer.

The San Diego Table Tennis Association has faced similar division with the establishment of the ASLT Table Tennis Club in Sorrento Valley, where Stellan and Angie Bengtsson serve as coaches. Between Angie and Stellan, they have a remarkable two dozen world and national championships, and ASLT is home to several members of the US Junior National Team. 

And pickleball has become the new local sports explosion. Where there were once a hundred places to play racquetball in San Diego, there are now a hundred places to play pickleball, and they are as crowded as the racquetball courts once were. 

In Memoriam

 Maureen Connolly

Tennis, in singles, won 3 US Opens, 3 Wimbledon Championships, 2 French Opens, 1 Australian. In doubles, won 1 US Open and 1 Australian, 1934-1969, died of ovarian cancer. 
 Dave Freeman
Badminton, including an astounding 15 US national championships; never lost a match in US national play. The only American ever to win the All England Championship. Member of the Badminton Hall of Fame, 1920-2001, died of Merkle cell carcinoma.
 Paul Haber

Handball. winning five four-wall singles championships, three three-wall doubles championships, and one three-wall singles championship from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, most of which time he lived in San Diego, and some of which he was the resident pro at Mel Gorham's, San Diego's famous handball and racquetball club during that period. Member of the Handball Association Hall of Fame and the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Haber was born in the Bronx, then lived in Chicago, but spent much of his later life in San Diego, and was buried in San Diego. He was famous not just for his handball titles, but also for a 1972 exhibition match he played with racquetball great Bud Muehleisen where Haber played with his hand and beat Muehleisen, who played with a racket. 1937-2003, died of complications from emphysema.
 John Halverson

Handball, racquetball, paddleball, and namesake of the United States Racquetball Association's "John Halverson Fair Play Award", given for athletes, coaches, officials, and organizations exhibiting noteworthy performances in acts of fair play and promotion of fair play. Halverson was a perennial champion in age group play, and coached other champions. He was a Physical Education coach at Horace Mann and John J. Pershing Junior High Schools in San Diego, 1925-1976, died of leukemia. 
 Carl Loveday

Badminton, racquetball, paddleball, and any other racket sport he tried, The most sought after coach in racquetball during the sport's glory days, 1921-2001, died of complications from diabetes.

 Ben Press

Tennis coaching legend. Coached Grand Slam champion Maureen Connolly in her youth and taught movie stars Errol Flynn and Charlton Heston at the Hotel Del Coronado. Won three National Hard Court mixed doubles titles with Jean Doyle Garrett. The heyday of Press’ career came in the 1940s and ’50s when he played exhibition tournaments throughout Southern California, often competing against legends Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura and Pancho Gonzalez. 1924-2016, died of prostate cancer.
 Bobby Riggs

Tennis. "The Battle of the Sexes", multiple Grand Slam and Pro Slam wins. Member of the Tennis Hall of Fame, known as "The Happy Hustler", 1918-1995, died of prostate cancer.
 Steve Trent

Racquetball and paddleball, member of the Paddleball Hall of Fame, fierce doubles player winning a dozen national racquetball doubles championships, 1957-2012, died of renal cancer.