Pickleball's Name Has Two Origin Stories (But One is More Believable)

Pickleball's name origin has two stories, but one is more believable

You'd think the origins of a name as distinct as 'pickleball' would be easy to trace. But the history of pickleball's name is fraught with contention.

Since the sport's creation in 1965, two popular theories have emerged: the boat theory and the dog theory.

Fans of the sport are likely already familiar with both histories, but for the uninitiated, here's some context: 

  • The Boat Theory states that Joan Pritchard, one of the sport's first players and the wife of one of its co-inventors, named the game after 'leftover' rowers in crew boat competitions.
  • The Dog Theory refers to the Pritchard's dog, Pickles, who did exist and reportedly retrieved errant balls during some of the originators' games but may not have been alive at the time the sport was named.

Jennifer Lucore, co-author of "History of Pickleball: More than 50 Years of Fun," asserts that the dog-inspired story holds true.

Contrary reports suggest that Pickles entered the scene several years after pickleball received its name.

Those competing theories are the stuff of countless debates in pickleball forums and conversations between players.

But when the facts are closely examined, it's the boat theory which seems most plausible.

The Facts

No matter who you ask about the origin of pickleball's name, they'll tell you Joan Pritchard was the first to suggest it

Then-politician Joel Pritchard, Joan's husband, co-invented the game with his friends/neighbors Bill Bell and Barney McCallum on Bainbridge Island, Washington. 

But Joel's wife is consistently credited with giving the sport it's name in almost every account. 

Joel Pritchard, left, and wife Joan Pritchard, right, playing an early game of pickleball

Joan and the Pritchard family have also consistently claimed the dog was named after the game, and not the other way around, according to a USA Pickleball history.

It's demonstrably true that pickleball came about in the summer of 1965. What is not demonstrable is when Pickles the dog joined the Pritchard family.

USAP's record-searching revealed at least one account that the dog was only born in 1968, corroborating the Pritchard family's accounts that the canine was named after their sport.

Related: What Pickleball Looked Like in the 1970s

We can also confirm that Joan attended Marietta College which, at that time, had one of the strongest crew programs in the country. It was a crew tradition to place poor-performing oarsmen into particular "pickle boats."

Similarly, it's reported in multiple accounts that Joan thought pickleball "sort of threw bits of other games into the mix (badminton, table tennis)," according to her son Frank Pritchard.

That story about Joan and the boats was recounted by USAP's article years ago. But more recently, Frank himself was seen at an event, and was asked about the history of pickleball's name while being filmed:

A Family Agreement to Obscure the Name

According to USAP, Joel - a politician - was interviewed in the late '60s/early '70s by a reporter writing about the game.

Apparently, he first told the reporter the true story about the boats...

"He then proposed, as a fun story, the idea of writing that the game was named after the dog (by then a few years old). The reporter paused and said to go with the dog story since it was cuter and more memorable, and because the true story was a bit of a mouthful for the readers." - USA Pickleball/Pickleball Magazine report

Frank told Pickleball Magazine, "Barney and my dad agreed that this was the tale they would tell—and they told it for years. You can imagine how upset my mother was about that decision!"

Eventually, Joel did admit that pickleball was named after the boats, but Barney and his family stuck by the dog tale.

Joel even admits to this in an oral history given to Sec. of State Ralph Munro and filed on Washington's state legislature website:

Boat Theory or Bust

The only pieces of "evidence" - or, truly, the lack of it - keeping the Dog Theory going is that A) Barney and the McCallum family kept with the dog story and B) that there's presently no paper trail to establish when Pickles the dog came into the picture. 

Even if we could firmly place Pickles' presence in the Pritchard family in 1965 aside from Pritchard family accounts, you'd think that son Frank, 13 years old at the time, would be able to confirm that the family dog was the reason for the name.

Given the other ample evidence in favor of Boat Theory, in addition to Frank's statement above, it seems the mystery of pickleball's name is practically solved, and may never have been a mystery at all.

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