Excerpt from Brothers and Champions


The 1963-64 season that followed would turn out to be the third in a row in which each Howe brother won a USSRA national championship. Ralph Howe --- who moved to Long Island after his college graduation to take a job with the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation as a control system Aerospace Engineer working on the Lunar Excursion Module for the moon landing of the Apollo Project --- won his only U. S. National Singles title, which ironically was held at a site, the U. S. Naval Academy, whose team Coach Skillman had banished from the Yale schedule after the lineup stacking five years earlier. Unseeded (just as Sam Howe had been when he had won his first U. S. Nationals in Buffalo two years earlier) in spite of his victorious run through the Atlantic City draw a few weeks earlier, Ralph Howe, who had lost 3-0 to David Pemberton-Smith in the quarterfinal round of the Canadian Nationals just one week earlier, was forced to --- and did --- survive a murderous draw that required him, after an opening-round win over Buffalo’s Steve Gurney (later, as noted in the Musto quote, the Yale squash coach throughout the eight-year period from 1975-83), to post sequential wins over Steve Vehslage (whom Ralph Howe had only previously beaten once, in the 1961 Yale-Princeton dual meet, before then losing to Vehslage in that year’s Individuals final); Ben Heckscher, the top-seeded defending champion; Charlie Ufford, a finalist in this event one year earlier, who had survived a five-game quarterfinal with Sam Howe; and Henri Salaun, the second seed and four-time U. S. Nationals winner. John Smith Chapman, the No. 1 foreign seed and recently-crowned (for the third straight time) Canadian National champion (with wins over Sam Howe in that event’s final round in both 1962 and 1963), was a surprising first-round casualty, courtesy of Claude Beer.

   Ralph Howe’s wins over both Vehslage and Heckscher were in straight games, but his 17-14, 15-6, 11-15, 15-11 semi with Ufford was much closer than those scores would indicate, since Ufford led 14-10 in the first game (before yielding the next seven straight points) and 9-3 in the fourth, preceding a nine-point Howe spurt that gave him a 12-9 lead and control of that close-out game. Salaun similarly advanced to the semifinal round without dropping a game, but his back-and-forth route-going semifinal with Niederhoffer (who a few weeks later would close out his college career by winning the Individuals title) was tortuous and marred by what one write-up termed “a black mark on the shining shield of squash. Starting with the unfortunate necessity to assign a substitute referee, and with one of the judges inexperienced and indecisive, a horrible mess resulted in a situation which constantly demanded strict control and firm decisions.” Drained by his contentious eventual 15-12 fifth-game win over Niederhoffer, and by then less than two months shy of his 38th birthday, Salaun faded in the last two games of his next-day four-game final with the 22-year-old Ralph Howe, who determinedly followed his pre-match strategy to keep Salaun (the craftiest of shot-makers when given an opportunity up front) deep in the court, pounce on any loose balls that Salaun coughed up and utilize his superior youth and athleticism to force the pace. The telltale final score was 15-8, 10-15, 15-9, 15-10, and on the final exchange, Howe lashed a backhand drive which Salaun tried to return by hitting the ball into the back wall, but it died in midflight and never made it to the front.

  The USSRA Yearbook’s write-up of the tournament admiringly concluded, “Ralph on this weekend was truly the National Singles Squash Racquets Champion, not alone because he won it, but because he won it so well,” while Bob Lehman struck a similar theme in his MSRA Yearbook report when, citing the poise with which Howe had successfully handled every challenge that his five-match march threw at him, Lehman approvingly noted that, “Even when given less than an even break on calls, he was completely undisturbed --- in fact, he rose superior under adversity of stress…He richly deserved every rung on the ladder to his enviable goal.” Ralph Howe’s game was qualitatively different from Sam’s, though both of them had all the shots and hit the ball beautifully off either flank. Sam, whose classic, flowing strokes on both flanks were right out of a squash textbook, never appeared flustered and played with a calm demeanor no matter what was happening on court, whereas Ralph by contrast exuded a more visible (though controlled) level of intensity, both in his facial expression and in the way he attacked the ball, and he possessed a greater level of speed and athleticism --- “like a panther” was the description of one of his contemporaries --- that he tried, usually successfully, to impose on the competitive terrain. His 1964 U. S. Nationals match with Salaun marked the latter’s ninth and last appearance in the U S. Nationals final --- all of them occurring within the compressed 14-year period from 1951-64 --- although he did get to the semis two years later before barely (in a fourth-game overtime) losing at that stage to Sam Howe.


   Four weeks after the 1964 U. S. National Singles ended, Sam Howe and Danforth traveled to Minnesota in an attempt to justify their top-seeded status and retain the U. S. National Doubles title that they had annexed one year earlier. This they successfully accomplished, albeit by literally the barest of margins, i.e. 15-14 in the fifth. Both this pairing and the Kit Spahr/Claude Beer duo, seeded second by virtue of having captured the prestigious David C. Johnson Memorial Doubles a few weeks earlier, won their trio of pre-final matches in straight games, including in the top-half semi, where Howe/Danforth met the Vehslage brothers in a rematch of the five-game 1963 final that, however, in this case was resolved with a downhill 15-13, 12 and 3 tally. Spahr and Beer similarly dispatched 1960 U. S. National Doubles champs James Whitmoyer and Howard Davis in straight games in their semi, then split the first two games of the final and seemed to be in great position when they won the third game 18-15, running off the last four points of the tiebreaker session.

  But in the fourth game, Sam Howe scored a number of winners on the same kind of shallow backhand cross-court nick that he had hit on the final point of his U. S. Nationals singles final two years earlier against Heckscher.  He and Danforth were able to force a fifth game, which seesawed throughout, with neither team able to amass more than a two-point advantage. Leading 14-12, Howe and Danforth surrendered the next two points, then, to the surprise of almost everyone in the packed gallery, called no-set, partly in the hope that its “surprise effect” would unnerve their opponents and partly as well because Sam Howe’s legs had been increasingly cramping up as that game moved along. The choice created a simultaneous-championship-point, which landed in their column when Danforth blasted a forehand cross-court on which Spahr retreated, hoping to play the ball off the back wall, only to have it instead find the nick in back and roll out at his feet.

   Sam Howe would win his second simultaneous-championship-point title in just nine months when he edged his brother Ralph in the final of the Gold Racquets Invitational at the Rockaway Hunting Club early the following December, when Ralph tinned a forehand reverse-corner at 17-all in the fifth. That early-December weekend, during which Ralph had weathered a five-game semi with Ufford and Sam’s pre-final wins had come against Zug and his former nemesis Steve Vehslage,  jumpstarted a fine 1964-65 season for both Howe brothers. Ralph won the Atlantic Coast event for the second straight year (in a 3-2 final over Diehl Mateer), Sam triumphed in both the William White Invitational at Merion and (with Danforth) the Canadian National Doubles for the first of three-straight years (in this case with a straight-game final-round win over their American compatriots Whitmoyer and Davis) and the two siblings faced off against each other in the U. S. National Doubles final in Baltimore, where both the sultry and unseasonably warm weather conditions and the scheduling of the matches played a role in the outcome. Ralph Howe and Mateer, who had partnered up for the first time when they won the Baltimore Invitational Doubles on the same University Club of Baltimore court just a few weeks earlier, had advanced to the final without dropping a game, including in their concise Sunday-morning semifinal against Spahr and Beer, who were pardonably still tired after a lengthy route-going quarterfinal (in which they had trailed, two games to love) the previous afternoon against Victor Elmaleh and Maurice Heckscher, Ben’s younger brother.

  By contrast, the top-seeded two-time defending champions Sam Howe and Danforth had played their semifinal with Steve Vehslage (the newly crowned U. S. National Singles champion  by virtue of his four-game final-round win over the favored Niederhoffer) and his brother Ramsay after the bottom-half semi, a breach of the established protocol of allowing the No. 1 seeds to play first that drew some protest from the normally imperturbable Sam Howe, whose prescience would be borne out before the day was over. That match had turned into a murderous marathon in which Howe/Danforth, after failing to reach double figures in either of the first two games, surged back to push the match to a fifth game that inched evenly along all the way to 14-all, no-set, before ending on a Danforth three-wall that nicked on the left wall in front of Steve Vehslage.

   This marked the second straight year in which Sam Howe and Danforth had won a simultaneous-match-point on the final day of this national championship. But in this case (unlike a year earlier) they still had one more match to play, with very little turnaround time, and when the ensuing final began barely over an hour later, Danforth and Sam Howe found themselves facing an even more daunting task when they dropped both of the first two games in tiebreakers to Ralph Howe and Mateer, the first when at 17-all Sam Howe’s attempted overhead volley drop-shot caught the top of the tin, and the second when they were swept in a best-of-five overtime session. Sam Howe and Danforth resiliently fought their way into a fifth game, their 10th game of the day, and one more than they could handle, with cumulative fatigue playing a visible and defining role as the anticlimactic game moved swiftly along to a clear-cut 15-6 conclusion. This turned out to be the first of a stretch of seven editions of the U. S. National Doubles (from 1965-71) in all of which at least one Howe brother played in the final and in all but one of which (1968 being the lone exception) both Howe brothers played in the final, either as opponents (from 1965-67) or as partners (from 1969-71). No other pair of brothers has ever even come close to matching either of those figures.


   The whole 1965 tournament experience had a profound and lasting impact on Ralph Howe, who was playing in the U. S. National Doubles for only the second time in his young career (he and Sam had entered the 1961 event in Cedarhurst, pretty much on a lark, and pushed defending champs Whitmoyer and Davis to a fifth game) after graduating from Yale less than two years earlier. The benefits he would accrue from teaming up with the extremely wise and vastly more experienced Mateer would play a crucial role in the six U. S. National Doubles (that year and the next with Mateer, then three-straight from 1969-71 with Sam Howe, plus the 1976 event with Peter Briggs) and two Canadian Doubles titles (with Sam in 1969 and Briggs in 1976) that he would collect during his career.

  Even more than four decades after that 1965 tournament, Ralph Howe (whose attempted defense of his National Singles title had been stymied by his former Yale teammate Hetherington in a four-game quarterfinal a few weeks earlier) vividly recalled how well organized and focused Mateer had been throughout the tournament weekend, how meticulously he scouted upcoming opponents, how he would arrange formal pre-match meetings to discuss strategy for their upcoming match and how he would always hold his racquet on the same side for his forehand. Prior to the Baltimore Invitational final, Mateer and Howe had sat next to each other in the gallery watching Ian McAvity and David Pemberton-Smith win their semifinal, and whenever (as happened quite a few times) McAvity would rocket one of his scorching forehands down the middle and nick it out at the back wall, Mateer would lean over to his much-younger partner and whisper into his ear, “Those balls are yours when he hits them against us!” Their U. S. National Doubles win marked the tenth time that Mateer had won this title with his fifth different partner (having previously done so with Hunter Lott in 1949, 1950 and 1953, Calvin MacCracken in 1951, Dick Squires in 1954 and John Hentz in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962), with a successful defense to follow one year later, leaving Mateer with an all-time record career total of 11. MacCracken, a former Princeton star who in later years would win a total of nine national age-group singles titles (the 40’s from 1960-63, the 50’s from 1970-72 and the 60’s in 1980 and 1981), had, however, played very little doubles and was an emergency replacement when Lott became ill shortly before the 1951 event was scheduled to begin. Yet, remarkably, a few practice games with Mateer at Merion during the week were enough for the two of them to rise superior to the field in Pittsburgh that weekend, a result that would be often cited as a testament to Mateer’s mastery of the sport.