Striking a ball with the hand has an ancient ancestry, dating at least as far back as 2000 b.c. in Egypt. Most accounts place the introduction of hardball handball to America in the early 1800s, though some records indicate a primitive form arriving around the mid-1700s. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, while awaiting word of his nomination, "remained at Springfield—joining in a game of hand ball—favorite pastime of the professional men of the town" (Yukic, 1972, p. 3). Handball today is played in a variety of ways with a small rubber, or soft, ball, on one-wall, three-wall, and four-wall courts, including singles, doubles, and threes ("cutthroat").
From Game to National Sport: Urban One-Wall to Championship Four-Wall
Handball in America arose as the product of a changing environment. As urbanization and Irish immigration increased throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, so did the popularity of handball, especially the one-wall game. This version could be improvised on most buildings, even those in congested neighborhoods. Starting around 1910, New York City beaches began building specifically designed one-wall courts for bathers. Thousands of municipal and YMCA one-wall courts in the East and Midwest soon followed the success of these courts on the East Coast. Jewish Community Centers, universities, and private athletic clubs also constructed and promoted mostly four-wall play.
Though the first four-wall courts could be found in 1856 (Milwaukee) and 1873 (San Francisco), a more formal, organized game was introduced to the United States in the late 1800s by Irish immigrants. Handball officially arrived in 1886 with the first four-wall championship court built in Brooklyn, New York. It was there in 1886 that American Phil Casey, considered by many to be the father of modern handball in America, won the first World Handball Title and $1,000. Most of the top players were Irish immigrants, like Casey, who built their own courts ("Casey's Court" in Brooklyn). Professional players and cash prizes dominated the sport at this time, featuring matches as long as the best-out-of-fifteen games to twenty-one points. Championships required the completion of a "rubber," meaning a match had to be played in both the United States and Ireland before determining a winner. With travel difficulties, a rubber could easily take a year to complete. The first widely sanctioned rules were also published in 1886.
The status of handball players, contrary to most sports, evolved from professional to amateur status. U.S.-Irish prize matches soon became too argumentative, hostile, and difficult to stage, mostly due to difficulty of travel; differences in courts, rules, and balls; and interference by backers and promoters. Such matches ceased between 1909 and the advent of the World Championships in 1964. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sponsored its first hardball handball tournament in 1897. In 1915, the Detroit Athletic Club began the first major promotion of four-wall indoor courts, widely publicizing their construction and the ensuing four national invitational tournaments. In 1919, at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the AAU began sponsorship of a four-wall softball handball championship that would last for almost six decades. This period marked the beginning of four-wall amateur handball as the dominant version of the game, capturing the attention of the nation's media and spectators.
Soon, with thousands of players and fans, top amateurs riveted attention where professionals once laid claim. In the early 2000s, four-wall handball dominated the sport, except in New York City, where racquetball usage and one-wall tournaments were widely sanctioned. Four-wall typically offered more advanced tactics and skills, requiring endurance and innovative play off the back wall, side walls, and ceiling. Matches were best of three or best of five, greatly shortened from the era of two-day contests, and the rules no longer allowed kicking the ball.
Trends Over Time: Organization, Equipment, and Women
The direction and growth of handball have been influenced by numerous organizations, which struggled at various junctures to gain administrative control of the sport. Besides the AAU and the National Jewish Welfare Board, the YMCA played a major part in the growth of the game. The national Y sanctioned its own national four-wall handball tournament in 1925 and, via their handball committee, assembled the rules that evolved into the Unified Handball Rules in 1959. In 1951, as a result of a feud between Avery Brundage, president of the AAU, and Chicago businessman Bob Kendler, the United States Handball Association (USHA) was formed under Kendler's exclusive control. With the support of the major players, the USHA was able to focus wider attention on handball by sanctioning national and regional tournaments, providing player accident insurance, promoting junior play, and establishing its own magazine, Ace. The USHA sponsored the first intercollegiate tournament in 1954. Kendler also successfully applied this model of sports promotion to racquetball.
Courts and equipment have changed considerably over time. While courts originally were much larger, around sixty feet by thirty feet, with walls thirty feet or higher, today's indoor courts measure forty feet long by twenty feet wide by twenty feet high. While pine and other woods are still the predominant choice for flooring, the walls have evolved from thick brick and mortar to lightweight composite materials. Partial glass walls began appearing around 1940 in order to increase spectatorship. Kendler is credited with building the first glass-walled court for use in televising the sport in 1950. Glass wall courts are now constructed on all four sides.
Initially, the ball was similar to a small baseball, though hardball handball is virtually extinct today. Standardization of a soft ball began in the late 1800s (about the size of a tennis ball at the time), with the rubber version used in the early twenty-first century ending up just larger than a golf ball. At advanced levels, the ball travels up to eighty miles per hour. Though the game was played for years with little protection for the hand, padded gloves became standard issue for most players.
While men have comprised most of the participants over time, women began recreational play around the turn of twentieth century. A 1904 photograph from Teachers College, Columbia University, depicts four female students playing four-wall handball as part of their physical education class. Women's professional involvement in the sport did not begin until the 1970s.
Professional handball returned in the winter of 1973 to 1974 with a five-stop tour sanctioned by the National Handball Club under Kendler. While not an Olympic sport, a Neilsen Survey estimated a stable base of about 1 million players playing in more than 2,000 private and 1,000 public facilities across the country in the early twenty-first century. Players from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have dominated the pro and open ranks, with players from Ireland challenging for the national and world championships in the early 2000s. The USHA and the World Handball Council organize and promote the World Championships of Handball every three years. The 2003 championship was held in Ireland.
See also: Racquetball
McElligott, Tom. The Story of Handball: The Game, the Players, the History. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1984.
O'Connor, Tom. "History of Handball." Available from http://ushandball.org.
Phillips, B. E. Handball: Its Play and Management. New York: Ronald Press Company, 1957.
Yukic, Thomas S. Handball. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1972.
James A. Therrell
Handball is a ubiquitous term used to describe two distinct sports whose evolution occurred without any reference to one another. Each sport is played throughout the world; the only true similarities that exist between these sports is the use of a ball as the scoring object, and the fact that each form of handball is played by both men and women.
Team handball, which is also known as European handball and Olympic handball, is a sport contested by teams comprised of six players plus a goal keeper. The sport is governed by the International Handball Federation, which oversees both Olympic competition as well as annual world and regional championships.
The offensive and defensive strategies of handball are similar to soccer in many respects. The object of team handball is to advance the ball through either individual attacking movements or by coordinated passing between teammates. The ultimate intention of the offensive team is to throw the ball into the opposing team's goal for a score. The primary means by which players touch or direct the ball is by their hands, but all other parts of the body may be employed for the control of the ball, with the exception of the feet. In this fashion handball is an alter ego to soccer, where the emphasis in the control of the ball is with the feet of the players, and the rest of the body with the exception of the hands is available to a player for ball control.
Team handball is played on a large rectangular indoor surface that has dimensions of approximately 130 ft by 65 ft (40 m by 20 m). The goals are positioned at each end of the playing surface, 6.5 ft high and 10 ft wide (2 m by 3 m). A semi-circular arc defining the goal area is marked on the playing surface 20 ft (6 m) in front of each goal. The only player permitted within the goal area is the goal keeper, except where an opponent enters the space by incidental means in the course of play. The players do not wear any significant protective equipment.
A free throw line is fixed 30 ft (9 m) from each goal. As the name suggests, a free throw is a possession awarded to a team by the referee as a result of an infraction committed by an opponent. The ball is capable of being handled with relative ease in one hand by any player: at the elite men's level, the ball has a circumference of 24 in (58 cm to 60 cm), with a weight of approximately 1 lb (450 g). Players will commonly deliver a shot on goal by way of an overhand throw, a sidearm throw, or variations of each that produce a bounce shot at the goal.
The rules by which a player and team may advance the ball on the floor in handball are somewhat complicated. A player is permitted to take up to three steps with the ball in any sequence, and the player may hold the ball for a maximum of 3 seconds. The ball may be dribbled, in the manner of a basketball, and it may be passed to a teammate by any means so long as it is not kicked. Team handball does not permit the holding or physically striking of an opponent. The fast-paced nature of handball commonly produces team scores of 20 goals or more, which leads to numerous game situations where the permitted obstruction of a player's path leads to significant physical contact.
All shots on an opposing goal must be taken from beyond the arc that defines the goal area. Where a ball is directed out of bounds, it is returned to play by way of a throw in. Balls that are sent past the goal and the end line out of play by the opposing team are returned to play with a goalkeeper's throw. Both of these devices are similar to their soccer counterparts, the throw in and the goal kick.
The referee has the power to impose temporary suspensions, where players are sent off from the playing surface for a two-minute period. More serious fouls may result in the award of a penalty shot taken from a designated spot 23 ft (7 m) from the goal.
Success in team handball is built upon team play and precise passing schemes. The athletes tend to possess significant aerobic fitness, lateral quickness, and excellent balance. The ability of a player to deliver an effective shot while off balance, either as a result of contact or as a part of an effort to avoid an opponent, is an important handball skill.
The second form of sport that takes the name of handball is descended from an ancient sport native to Ireland, where a game originated that required the players to throw a ball a ball against a wall in ways that the shot on its rebound could not be returned by the opponent. This handball game became popular at various English private schools by the mid-1800s, and it was subsequently exported to the United States through immigration from England, where the growth of handball was driven by its popularity in both the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) facilities and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). One wall games ultimately became the four wall court game played today through out the world, where individual competitors or doubles teams pursue the same object as that first created in the old Irish game.
Four wall handball is similar in its playing principles to those of racquetball or squash, with a more simplified rules set. A four wall court is 20 ft wide, 40 ft long and 20 ft high (6 m by 12 m by 6 m), with a small rubber ball delivered by each player against the walls through a hard slapping motion to direct the ball; each player wears gloves to protect their hands. A player drives the ball against the front wall from behind a service line. If the ball is not returned by the opponent, or if the ball bounces more than once after rebounding from the front wall, a point is scored. A player may only score on their own serve. A player may not impede, or hinder an opponent from returning a shot.
Four wall handball is a game which also requires significant aerobic and anaerobic fitness, as each contested point has no limit as to time or the number of shots that may be taken. Competitive players will often dive for well hit balls; lateral quickness, core strength, and the ability to move explosively within a small space, while maintaining one's balance and concentration on the next shot are the components to handball success. Tactics, especially in ball placement and anticipating the direction of the next shot taken by an opponent, are of critical importance. A part of the tactical considerations is an understanding by the player as to how the ball is likely to rebound from the walls of the court on a shot. The relationship between the angles at which the ball strikes the walls, and the effect of any spin imparted to the ball when struck by the opponent, form an important part of handball tactics.
hand·ball / ˈhan(d)ˌbôl/ • n. 1. a game similar to squash in which a ball is hit with the hand in a walled court. ∎ (also team handball) a team game similar to soccer in which the ball is thrown or hit with the hands rather than kicked. ∎ the ball used in these games. 2. Soccer touching of the ball with the hand or arm, constituting a foul.