Why Is It Called Pickleball? The Game’s Greatest Mystery Revealed!

For anyone new to the sport, one of the most common questions they ask themselves is "why is it called pickleball?"  Anyone who is being shown the game from a friend will undoubtedly ask their friend this question.  How pickleball got it's name is actually quite a controversy, and it's a fascinating tale.

Why is it called pickleball? It's called "pickleball" not because of a family dog. This is a misnomer. It's called pickleball because the creator's wife, a fan of rowing said that because it borrows ideas from a smattering of other racket sports, it reminded her of the leftover rowers in crew who would man the "pickleboat".

The leftovers of a badminton court, ping pong paddles and tennis like rules were all mashed together to create pickleball.  This reminded Joan Pritchard, a diehard fan of crew and rowing, of the boat uniquely named the "pickleboat" because it was manned by a smattering of other crew athletes not featured in the more prime time races.

Pickleball is a "hodge podge" sport, taking bits and pieces of tennis, ping pong, wiffle ball and badminton.

So where did the common story that the game was named after a family dog come from?  And why are there two so different but equally conflicting stories behind the game's name?

Keep reading and I'll give you insight into the two stories and give you clues as to which story is indeed the real one. 

Two Completely Different Theories Behind How The Game Got Its Name

If you do a common google search around how pickleball got its name and why it's called pickleball, you'll undoubtedly find results pointing to two insanely different stories.  

The first one you'll come across is a story about a family dog.  This is by far the most common tale.  It's a cute story and it makes perfect sense that this would be how the game's name was created.  But is it too perfect?  More on that in a minute.

The second story you'll come across (you may need to do a little more digging) is one that has to do with a completely different sport and a slang term almost nobody knows about.  This origin story is NOT cute and is to be blunt, not easy to explain.  Which may be a reason for its validity.  

Let's delve into each tale and dissect why one of these stories, despite being muddy and awkward is probably the real story and why the other one, despite bringing a smile to your face, is potentially a made-up tale.

Put your detective hat on because here we go.

Theory #1 - Pickleball Got It's Name From The Family Dog

The "dog story" goes like this.  In the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, four families created the game of pickleball in an effort to occupy their kids and get them playing outside.  These four families were the Pritchards, the Bells, the McCallums, and the Browns.

Some claim that two of the youngest Pritchard and Brown kids, Jeannie Pritchard and Paul Brown randomly walked down a road near their family's summer homes on Bainbridge Island and found some free puppies in a box.

They each took a puppy and brought them back to the Pritchard's house where the original pickleball court and the game was created.  Evidentially, the two puppies were cockapoos and were in fact siblings.

So the Brown family named their cockapoo Lulu and the Pritchard family named their puppy "Pickles".

why is it called pickleball

Image by Sally Wynn from Pixabay

It is said that from that point on, the Pritchard's puppy "Pickles" would follow the kids and adults out onto the court and disrupt the game that would eventually become pickleball.  

The tale points to the idea that since Pickles the dog would chase the ball all over the court, as if it were "Pickle's ball"...the game was named pickleball. Sounds perfect right?  Too perfect perhaps.

But despite the Pickleball Channel doing a 5 min documentary on this story, complete with family interviews...it has some massive holes in it.

How Pickleball Did NOT Get It's Name From The Family Dog

Lets poke some friendly holes in this story and flush out some theories as to why this story, despite being the cutest, is in fact, not true.

The first major flaw that even PickleballMagazine has pointed out is the fact that the dogs were actually not acquired by the Pritchard and Brown families until 1968. 

Thats three whole years after the game was created.  By 1968, Joel Pritchard, the game's founding father, began showing it to his neighbors not on the island but back on the mainland of Washington state.  

Barney McCallum was even manufacturing his own wooden paddles from his bandsaw in his garage at this point.

So by 1968, the game was established and things were in full swing.  Surely the name of the game had been decided upon by then.

Secondly, finding a box of puppies by the road does seem a little random but then again, it was the 1960s...so I suppose it's possible.  

Don't get me wrong, the story is great!  It feels like it "should" be the game's name origin story.  And I think everyone that helped bring the game to the forefront had an easy, almost enjoyable time telling the tale.

They wanted this to be the story.  You can tell by how easy it is for them to recall it.  And yet we've never heard from the two kids that found the puppies. 

To this day, the Pritchard family that remains alive maintains that the dog came later, after the game was invented which matches with the timeline of the game being created in 1965 and Pickles the dog arriving later in 1968.

Did the Pritchard's have a cockapoo they named Pickles?  Yes, but this was a coincidence and the dog was found well after the game had been created.

This is further proof that the "dog story" was indeed a little fabricated.  But why would a story on the game's name need to be fabricated.  Keep reading. 

why is it called pickleball

Image by Sally Wynn from Pixabay

Theory #2 - Pickleball's Name Came From A Slang Term Used In Rowing 

What does crew have to do with pickleball?  Well, very little. But the part that does relate to pickleball is very meaningful.

If Joan Pritchard were alive today, and you were to ask her "why is it called pickleball?" she would undoubtedly tell you that it was her idea to name the game pickleball because of how it reminded her of the "picklebal boat" - a common slang term used in college crew regattas.

What is a "pickleball boat"? 

Well in college crew, the varsity rowing team would compete against the other school's varsity team.  Each school's varsity team represented the best rowers in the regatta and they would go head to head.

But there are lots of rowers in crew, so what do the non-varisty rowers do to compete?  After the featured varsity event was over, all the left over rowers from each schools would get haphazardly thrown together in what is known as the "pickle boat" and compete in a more casual rowing competition.  

The assortment of rowers in the pickle boat was a hodge-podge of athletes with an eclectic skill level.  So, the pickle boat was in fact thrown together using a mismatched skill set of non-varsity rowers.

Pickleball is very similar in that it borrows an eclectic set of rules from various sports like tennis, badminton and ping pong.   

This hodge-podge of game attributes that inspired pickleball reminded Joan Pritachard, a huge fan of crew, of the pickle boat that she used to cheer for back in her hometown of Marietta Ohio. 

So, one night in 1968 when the Pritchards and their good friends the Bells were hanging out, the subject of what to call the game that Joel and Bill had just inadvertently created came up.

So, Joan spoke up and gave the group her crew analogy and it stuck.  It's been called pickleball ever since. Joan and Joel's son Frank, has gone on record that he was in the room when he heard his mom come up with idea. 

Why A Rowing Slang Term Is Actually The Truth Behind How Pickleball Got It's Name

So why do we have two completely different stories for why it's called pickleball?  Two stories that couldn't be more different.  But how and why?  It's odd right?

The video I included above is pretty convincing isn't it?  It's well done with good production value, it's a legit mini-documentary on how pickleball got its name.  

So why is the story about Pickles the dog so prominent in the video with absolutely no mention of the pickle boat story?  The answer can be found when analyzing who was interviewed and by combing through the timeline of the game first five years a little deeper.

The video above does a great job of getting the perspectives of two families. The McCallum family and the Brown family.  The McCallums and Browns are without a doubt an integral part of the game's history.  I mean hell, Dick Brown's height is why the non-volley zone or "kitchen area" was created. 

pickleball

But the McCallums and Browns were not the original two families involved in spawning the game.  That privilege belongs to the Pritchards first, and the Bells second.  

It was the Pritchards summer house where the game was born, on their old badminton court.  And at the time, in 1965, they had invited their good friends Bill and Tina Bell and their their kids over to stay with them for some fun on Bainbridge Island. 

This is when the idea of the game was created.  And, technically, the McCallums and the Browns were not there.  And yet the video features them prominently as if they were there from the very beginning. 

Don't get me wrong, the McCallums and Browns were a part of the game's creation.  In fact, Barney McCallum was called upon very quickly to put his "handy" skills to the test and manufacture the first wooden pickleball paddles using his bandsaw. 

But it was on that quiet night with the Bells and only Bells where Joan Pritchard mentioned her idea for the name and how it reminded her of the pickle boat in crew.  

It wasn't until 1968 when Dick Brown's son Paul and Joel Pritchard's daughter Jeannie found the dogs and brought them back to their respective families.  To this day Paul Brown remembers that day well in 1968 when he and Jeannie found the puppies.  

But, oddly the video doesn't feature Paul Brown, only his brother Jim and father Dick.

But the real fact pointing to the pickle boat story being the true reason for why it's called pickleball comes in 1970.  Five years after the game had been invented, and two years after the dogs were found, Joel Pritchard, a local politician in Seattle Washington, was being interviewed like he often was. 

Because Joel would often bring a pickleball net, a few paddles and a ball to his rallies - Joel started getting asked about the sport by local reporters covering his political events. 

Needless to say, on this particular day in 1970, Joel got asked about the game's peculiar name. Joel stayed true to his wife's analogy and explained how the game reminded her of the crew term "pickle boat."  

Joel then went on tell the reporter that they did in fact, have a dog named Pickles, that loves to chase the ball as if it were his.  

The reporter gave Joel some advice and told him to scrap the rowing analogy and just go with the much more heart warming tale of the dog and say that that's how pickleball got its name. 

It is said that Joel didn't think the "dog story" would really take hold so he gave it a shot and began using the story about Pickles the dog.  Well, as you can probably guess, we love our pets in the US, so people gravitated towards that version of the story!

So, Joel began telling that tale and it stuck.  And it made perfect sense to the McCallums and the Browns who were there when the dogs were found and named. So, like you saw in the video, they began retelling the more popular tale too. 

But, Frank Pritchard, Joel and Joan's son has gone on record that his mom Joan, got a raw deal and should receive more credit and more notoriety for the game history - especially its name. 

My Final Thoughts

Even though the true reason why it is called pickleball has less to do with a dog and more to do with a crew analogy, that doesn't mean we can't believe in both stories.   

Maybe both stories deserve to play a little part in pickleball history.  Especially the origin story behind its name.  Maybe it's meant to be a little mysterious, a little ambiguous.  

Maybe this ambiguous nature of the game's name has actually played a role in the game growth?  It's been the fastest growing sport for decades here in the US and perhaps the mystery behind its name has helped the cause. 

Either way, I'm thankful for Joan Pritchard's crew analogy and I'm thankful for Pickles the dog.  They both had a hand in bringing this wonderful game to all of us!

Last Updated on December 22, 2021 by Keith

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