Most newcomers to pickleball are interested in knowing: Why is it called pickleball and Where does the name pickleball come from?
I admit it- it’s fairly odd-sounding for a sport. A lot of people laugh when I mention that I play “pickleball” and think I’m kidding.
Pickleball has grown to be played by over 2.5 million Americans with tournaments and leagues all over the country.
We still get asked almost daily about the name, even though many people, even if they have not tried it yet, have heard of it and it’s becoming a more serious sport, so we thought we’d clarify.
Why is it called pickleball?
Pickleball was invented in Washington state following a game of badminton following a round of golf on a summer Saturday. In search of badminton equipment to occupy their children, Joel Pritchard, then a state representative and later a congressman, and his neighbors Bill Bell and Barney McCallum went out of their way to find such items.
Let’s find out where the name originated.
As for the confusion, the founders of pickleball have repeated two (very different) official stories over the years. This is the story of the boat and the dog. In interviews and written records, both sides documented their versions, claiming theirs was the most accurate.
In 1965, Joel Prichard, Barney McCallum, and a few neighbors invented pickleball with the help of Barney McCallum and Joel Prichard. Both the Prichard and McCallum families have contradictory origin stories for the name.
Story #1: Pickles the dog:
Cockapoo puppies were being given away for free to Joel Prichard’s daughter and neighbor (Jim Brown). Pickles was the name given to the dog by the Prichards.
Once they started playing the new racquet sport (now called pickleball) Pickles the dog became accustomed to carrying the plastic Wiffle ball off the court in its mouth.
McCallum family members (and the Browns – who played pickleball at the beginning as well) believe that the new sport is named after a dog. While sitting in the living room of the Prichard cabin on the night they named it after Pickles the dog, they even recall cheering in excitement when they heard this funny name.
In this video, you will hear and see interviews with people who were involved in the early days of the game, including Barney McCullum, his son David, Dick Brown, and his son Jim Brown. Several people from this era have been interviewed and still stand by this tale today:
Story #2: The Pickle Boat
The “pickle boat” story is the second origin story for the name pickleball. It was Joel Prichard’s wife Joan, who was a competitive rower in the past, who named the game Pickleball after a pickle boat.
In a newspaper article published in Parkersburg, West Virginia News and Sentinel, she wrote:
When I was rowing crew in college, I was unfamiliar with the term, but after a little research found that weaker, mismatched crewboat teams are often referred to as a “pickle boat ”.
Next, there is the fact that both Joan Prichard and her daughter Peggy Pritchard-Olson have stated that “Pickles” didn’t appear until a few years after the game was developed, which doesn’t seem to fit the timeline of the McCallum family in the video.
Again, Joan Prichard was quoted by the News and Sentinel as saying:
“Somehow our dog Pickles’ name was attached to the naming of the game, though Pickles wouldn’t appear for two more years.”. Although Pickles wasn’t part of the game, stories about its origin were funnier.
In 2005, Prichard’s daughter confirmed this to journalist Tristan Baurick:
Getting the dog was years after the game started, so it wasn’t named after it. Dogs are named after video games. That’s not how it works.”
In fact, the Washington State Secretary of State Oral History Project recorded Joel Pritchard’s life because of his well-known role as a U.S. Representative from Seattle and as a lieutenant governor for two terms in Washington.
Besides the early days of pickleball, the project also includes his political life! Also debunking the “Pickles the dog” story, he is quoted in the oral history.
It was widely believed that Pickles, the family dog, was the inspiration for the game, but Pritchard debunked the theory by claiming the dog came later and “was named after the game” — even though many people told him he should stick to the other story because it “worked better” (Oral History, 402).).
Three different members of the Prichard family have rejected the “Pickles” story in interviews, but the “dog story” persists. Several national newspapers have reported it, and pickleball circles and the internet seem to be abuzz with it.
It is thought that the “pickle boat” story doesn’t sell like the cute puppy story and that the dog is the central character in the history of the sport instead of an obscure rowing term that few people are familiar with.
At the very least, the contradictory stories make for interesting conversations concerning the sport’s early history. In the end, many people say they don’t care whether the dog or boat was used, but they just love the sport and are fine with its somewhat goofy name. I understand that other pickleball players do not like the name. Playing in a pickleball tournament can sometimes be hard to take seriously.
Some pickleballers feel that the name itself is a handicap preventing the sport from gaining wider acceptance as a serious competitive sport that requires skill rather than a childish-sounding game, even though the sport continues to grow at a fast clip (by some accounts it has become the fastest growing sport in the US).
There are no jokes or questions about the validity of other racket sports, such as tennis, badminton, or table tennis, whereas pickleball is sometimes ridiculed as an inferior sport in spite of borrowing elements from each.
Joel Prichard told a reporter in an oral history that the name “Tenny Pong” was also considered as a potential name. While I am not certain if he was joking or seriously saying that…I actually quite like it since it refers to the sport’s roots. It’s unlikely the name will ever change, either way.
In either case, the Prichards are responsible for the name, whether you believe (or simply prefer) the story of Pickles the dog, or appreciate the jumble of rowers in the crew boat Joan Prichard imagined. As a result of their efforts and those of the other Bainbridge Island families, we have come up with a new sport that we still enjoy more than ever – pickleball – and we are thankful for that.
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