… but not for long, if the university gets what it wants.
While we never know for sure, it’s entirely possible that the condemned handball field on the grounds of former St. Vincent’s College is the oldest handball field in all of the United States – is Where west of the Mississippi River.
A variety of sources, including Northern California Handball Association, claim that the oldest documented handball court was located at 543 Market Street in San Francisco. City directories from 1851 list “Thomas Cullen’s Saloon and Shamrock Ball and Racket Court” at this address, which was apparently an Irish pub with one wall used for handball. Irish immigrants during the California Gold Rush brought the sport from their home country.
However, these Californians were not the first handball players in the New World. Cape Girardeau already had a handball court in 1843. According to Vincentian parish registers, it was built by Joseph Lansman at the same time as the first building of Saint-Vincent College. In their book Our dear brother Joseph, Sharon Sanders and Diana Bryant write:
Around this time, in 1843, Lansman also erected the Lower Handball Court, then called the River Ball Alley. This structure appears on Cape Girardeau’s 1880 Bird’s Eye View map and in other lithographs and college advertisements. This alley was a large, thick brick wall with buttresses. Oral tradition indicates that the lane was bombarded by a Confederate gunboat traveling north on the Mississippi during the Civil War. Apparently, the commander mistakenly thought it was Fort D, one of the four Union forts guarding the town of Cap Girardeau. It’s also possible that he thought it was the city itself. At a later date, the Vincentians brought an action for damages suffered during the Civil War and, after receiving minimal compensation, had the driveway repaired. This yard appeared whole on the 1880 map and payment records for Saint-Vincent Lansman’s note as builder.
After the main college building was badly damaged by a tornado in 1850, Lansman set to work on repairs, as well as building a new addition. He was also, according to the Vincentian archives, invited to erect a second ball alley “under the same conditions” as the addition. This was probably completed in 1853.
Of course, only one of these two handball lanes is still standing. The big question is therefore whether the current structure was the first (1843) or the second (1853). the nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, “secondary sources, including church histories prepared by the Vincentians, date the handball fields to 1843 and claim that these are the first such structures in the west of the Mississippi River. “
That’s right – except church records probably describe the first lane, closer to the river, which is no longer standing. Even with the later date, 1853 versus 1843, the Cape Girardeau ball alley is still probably the oldest remaining handball court in the country. San Francisco’s handball alley, dating from 1851, has long been buried under the city’s skyscrapers.
An article on the American Handball Association The website also mentions San Francisco as having the oldest known American handball courts (although it gives a date of 1873). The article then explains:
As early as 1850, players such as Martin Butler of Kilkenny and William Baggs of Tipperary, apparently without a fixed occupation, were traveling all over Ireland to play against the local champions. Another feature was the promotion of handball and other Gaelic sports by the Christian brethren and other Catholic education levels. Many of these men then brought the game to South Africa, America and Australia, to schools such as Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and High Schools in Butte, Mt.
The two places mentioned were not created until after 1870, which excludes any chance that they have older handball fields. Another candidate is Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln played a version of handball in 1859 and 1860, just before receiving the nomination for president. Playing in a makeshift alley on Sixth Street, Lincoln was said to be “as vigorously involved in sport as if life depended on it”.
Lincoln’s personal handball survived and was exhibited at the Smithsonian. The handball court where he played, however, no longer exists – the site has been replaced by part of the Lincoln Presidential Library complex. So we can cross this one off the list.
It seems increasingly likely that Cape Girardeau has the oldest existing handball field in the country, making it a landmark of national significance. But that leaves a puzzling question: why was handball so popular early in Cape Girardeau’s history? There must have been a huge demand: why else would the Vincentians have asked Lansman to build a second courtyard even though he was already overwhelmed trying to rebuild St. Vincent’s College and Church after the tornado?
The history of the US Handball Association explains that the game spread from Ireland to America via “Catholic educational levels.” The Vincentians fit this description, but they were based in France, not Ireland. So how did an Irish sport come to Cape Girardeau? The nomination to the National Register attempts to answer this question:
Hand-played ball games originated in ancient Egypt in 2000 BC. Alexander the Great introduced the game to the Greek colonies of Italy in 450 BC, from where it spread to Spain and France. Variants of the game appeared across Europe in the 16th century and often appeared near church buildings to encourage play away from church walls with their glass windows. In France, home of the Vincentian order, a version of the game invented by the monks evolved into tennis. Modern American handball evolved from the game brought in by Irish immigrants in the mid to late 19th century. Due to its date of construction and its associations with the Vincentians, it is possible that the design of the structure has associations with the French background.
A site dedicated to Irish handball alleys (Isn’t the internet wonderful?) Provides photos of hundreds of structures across Ireland. Browsing through the photos, however, I didn’t find any that quite matched the Cape Girardeau version. Our structure is double-sided so that two games can be played simultaneously on both sides of the wall, while the Irish versions are one-sided and tend to have longer side walls.
The same site States, “Purpose-built lanes first appeared in the late 1700s, but seem to have been the exception for at least 100 years.” Many Irish courts have apparently been built of concrete which means they are not as old as our brick structure from 1853.
In Ireland, the alleys were more than just a place of play; they were places of social gathering. Judging by all the names carved on the sides of our handball court, this was also to be a popular hangout. The National Register nomination took note of the engravings, saying, “Historic graffiti remains on the brick walls and includes readable dates as early as 1871.”
As I walked around and studied the brick inscriptions, the earliest date I could find was 1919, although I’m sure there are many older examples.
Some of the names are fairly straightforward, and some have strong local connections. A brick marked “Buchheit” sticks out like a sore thumb.
The Irish site deplores that an increasing number of handball fields are abandoned or demolished. The situation is no better on this side of the pond. In Los Angeles, for example, a concrete handball court in a city park is threatened with demolition; city fathers say the wall encourages people to “drink” and “swear” while hiding out of sight.
On the other hand, another handball court in the Los Angeles area was spared from demolition. Built in 1928, the Maravilla handball court is considered the oldest in the LA area. Thanks to a community effort, it was listed in the State Historic Register. It has a “rich and layered history and continues to serve as an important community space for youth and families.”
If Californians can campaign to save something from 1928, then our own 1853 monument must be worthy of some effort to keep it from becoming rubble. Time is running out, however: I have seen construction workers bustling around the area before.
It could be like bowing to windmills – as some would say, “You can’t fight the academic hall” – but doing nothing will only ensure that the university will continue to demolish historic sites until then. that there is nothing left to destroy.