Book Review: Charlie Brumfield: King of Racquetball 2013

Best-of-breed chronicle of the ‘People’s Champion’
and the electrifying sport he dominated
by Steve bo Keeley
Reviewed by Brian Wright

BrumfieldWhen I was a boy I read sports’ biographies incessantly, predominantly about idols of mine in baseball… because that is the game I dreamt of one day of playing as an adult and becoming famous for. It was a totally positive approach, wanting to take part in the ecstasy of simply ‘being there’ in a big league world… I can still remember the glorious smells and feels of baseball, in which I did manage to get a letter in high school. It was a conscious decision, roughly at the age of 16, not to pursue the baseball dream… instead to participate in and lead ’causes;’ quite possibly even likely I didn’t possess the natural ability to make it to the show anyway. My point is the motivation was all positive: I looked at the goal as an ideal, a way of life to embrace as who I wanted to be, fully accepting of the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. A life worth aspiring to, win or lose. — bw

Charlie Brumfield also came into paddle ball then racquetball thru a childhood dream, but his was more along the lines of being driven to win. Like a Tiger Woods, a Jerry Rice, or any hall of fame athlete. From the first chapter:

His father put young Charles on a raft in the middle of a lake and told him to swim for shore. On jumping in, Charlie decided he couldn’t make shore until dad stepped on his fingers to prevent him from clawing onto the raft. At high school recess, he remembers, ‘I was the last picked for every sports team, and it hurt. I was determined to be the best at some given game.’

Hence, the Holder of All Titles was born to racquetball in 1962 on a Mar Vista Junior High School outdoor court….

It is precisely these sorts of anecdotes, most assuredly authentic—the book was reviewed by its subject prior to publication—, that add spice and personality to elevate Charlie Brumfield: King of Racquetball into the stratosphere of sports’ biographies. Further, the author is one of Charlie’s fiercest on-the-court adversaries:

[Steve (Bo) Keeley] was Charlie Brumfield’s primary nemesis throughout the Golden Era of the sport in the 70s, and lived with Brumfield as the game began to grow in Michigan and California. He has won five National paddleball singles titles, one US National Racquetball runner-up, Canadian National Champ, three Pro titles, and was ranked 2nd or 3rd behind Brumfield throughout the sport heyday.

And what a heyday it was!

American men, in particular, coming into athletic primetime during the 1970s and 1980s—we are basically talking about the early Baby Boomer generation here—, seized on the sport of racquetball as the perfect blend of exercise, strategy, and aggression… it replaced tennis and even golf as the preferred fitness activity on the social calendar. And probably delivered the death blow to the three-martini lunch and other more sedentary customs of previous generations of aspiring men of business. [Candidly, that’s one reason I personally never seriously took up the sport: I couldn’t do both racquetball and world-class drinking equal justice. :)]

But what the author shows us in Brumfield is the heyday as it came to pass in that rarefied atmosphere of competitive professional racquetball from its inception—in which the author participated. This book is gonzo journalism at its finest: Bo Keeley is both an extraordinary practitioner of the art of racquet sports, as well as a fine writer whose free spirit and desire to fully and fairly cover the bases shine through on every page. He sheds a discerning light into the heart and soul of the ‘Holder of All Titles’ and describes the waxing and waning of ‘the people’s game’ of racquetball thru all its wonderful people and phases—a chapter entitled Glitz goes into the craze aspect that came along; you’ll even get an insider’s view of the fun and games of another King: Elvis, who loved to play, and built a $250,000 state-of-the-art facility in Memphis to indulge his wishes.

Brumfield is a labor of love inhabiting a fast-paced action thriller.

My Own Individualized Perspective

In the late 1960s, my father had started playing handball, which he played occasionally with my brother and me. Racquetball came along at the turn of the decade, and Dad stayed with it through an otherwise sad turn of life for him. My inventive brother Forrest went off to the Air Force, but started playing racquetball I’m sure to alleviate the boredom of regimented military life in Nevada. Forrest was good enough to beat some officers—pissing them off royally—but never truly spent the time to develop the strategic element. His idea of a game was running vigorously around the court and slamming the ball with maximum force at all times… hence slaying deep demons.

Dad was more cerebral, partly of necessity since his weight had been climbing. The few times I played my father I’d get a few points, but mostly he’d just stand in the middle of the court and have me running back and forth into walls and in circles until he steadily reached 21. With Forrest, Dad had a tougher time; Forrest was more intense and went after everything with a vengeance. I think they wound up with an even record between them. But as I said, Dad loved the game and followed its early champions: Especially, Charlie Brumfield. And from Dad I got the impression that Charlie was someone like my dad, a professorial-looking dude who didn’t move that much and who dinked his opponents to death by being clever.

Au contraire. Bo’s book demolishes that decades-old image I’ve carried about Charlie Brumfield. For one thing, Charlie was a consummate gamesman:

The fans in general loved an embroiled battle of the wits with a little pushing and shoving on the court, and during the 70s as the sport spread so did the level of gamesmanship. A newbie entering the pro ranks faced two choices that sooner or later everyone in business, love, and life must decide: Do I want war, or do I want to be a square shooter? Of the two philosophies, war was more prevalent. — page 16

A few pages later:

Gamesmanship is bending the rules, manipulating the ref, and hypnotizing the crowd to gain an edge on the court. The best gamesman in racquetball history was my nemesis Charlie Brumfield, a genius attorney who applies his techniques in the court of law and routinely gets thrown out by judges with stiffer spines than racquetball referees. — page 21

The portrait that emerges is one of a complex man, and an intimidating one… certainly not one who would overlook a single advantage, whatever it might take to win, that a weak referee would ignore. Some of the antics and the play of Brumfield and others ‘within the rules’ border on the crudely comical such as his patented donkey kick: ‘a jump and thrust backward into the foe’s midsection to propel himself to front court to cover shots.’

The bio comes to rest with a chapter on the Lion in Winter. Here is where Keeley exhibits the refined touch of a literary Jedi Master… objective enough to convey real information on Brumfield’s lifelong psychological struggles yet sensitive enough to paint the picture in broad-brush strokes that leave the essence of the man intact. Few of us will ever know personally what it’s like to contend in any field at the level Brumfield (and his biographer) managed. Brumfield as the absolute top banana in a sport adored and toiled at by millions is fascinating copy excitingly rendered as living, breathing history. As much as possible the book puts you on the court of his time.

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