Once a No Name, Twice a Winner

Sixty years ago, NASA was formed, the microchip was invented, Ella Fitzgerald was on the radio, and four men from RPI won the National Handball Championship in Chicago, Illinois. That’s right! Mike McQuillen, Harvey Poppell, Jerry Gonick, and Fernando Arias, under the guidance of RPI’s Athletic Director, “Pop” Graham, won the National Cup in handball, a sport that the team, besides Gonick, had never played until freshman year of college.

Up until 1958, Rensselaer was a relative no name in the sport. The big players in the national handball championship were schools that are still prevalent in college sports today, names like the University of Texas and Notre Dame. Texas had won the previous three years, but in fact, it was RPI that had actually tied with Notre Dame in the championship. It was suggested that each team hold the trophy for six months, but Notre Dame insisted on a rematch, and it was Mike McQuillen who won the bout, 31-14. When interviewed by The Rensselaer Polytechnic, McQuillen remarked, “We hoped to be up among the leaders but never expected to capture any title.”

A year later, in 1959, RPI stunned again, winning the national championship for a second time in a row, this time in Houston, Texas. Veterans Harvey Poppell and Fernando Arias returned, with the team being rounded out by newcomers Cal Mittman and Charlie Goldberg. This time, they managed to beat the University of Texas for first place. Unfortunately, that would be the last time RPI won the national handball title, but they certainly put on a show, with Arias helping to take the title with a 21-12 win in the finals.

Handball is not competitively played at the Institute today, but it has a long history at RPI. Though there is limited information on the sport at Rensselaer, handball is first mentioned in a 1911 Rensselaer Polytechnic article, stating that the then new ’87 gym was equipped for handball play. A decade later, in 1921, the official interclass handball league was established at the institute. However, it was the interfraternity play for the Barker Trophy (more on that in an upcoming post) that helped to spawn intramural, as well as intercollegiate, handball tournaments. These lasted at the school until 1980, when the sport was replaced by racquetball for the Barker Trophy.

There was a brief pause of play in the fall semester of 1943, due to “lack of population,” as most men were helping to contribute to the war effort, but interestingly, handball contests were held for Naval Aviation cadets on campus. According to an article in the February 9th, 1942 Rensselaer Polytechnic, handball, among other sports, helped “instill…the competitive spirit so necessary in combat duty.”

Throughout the years, there were many attempts to get handball recognized as a varsity sport, but sadly, that would never come to fruition. Instead, it remained an “approved organization,” meaning that, though there were competitions and awards, and it got its budget from the Union, it was never recognized as an RPI varsity sport. Therefore, players never received RPI sports recognitions or achievements. Instead, students played out of the pure love they had for the game.

Towards the late 1970’s, the interest in handball was waning, and the Executive Board decided not to pay for upgrades to the handball courts. Though there were students who still practiced the sport, by the 1980’s, competitive handball had all but tapered out at RPI.

Today, in places such as the Bronx and Brooklyn, there seems to be a cultural renaissance happening in handball popularity. It’s estimated that there are 2,300 public handball courts in New York City’s five boroughs, and competitions and tournaments are still played across the country, in various cities and colleges. Do you think competitive handball will ever make a return to RPI? Leave a comment below!

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3 Responses to Once a No Name, Twice a Winner

  1. Tom Martinetto says:

    I recognize the name Harvey Poppell. I think he was class of 59 and a member of Zeta Psi which I joined in 60. It has been a long time but I don’t remember anyone mentioning the handball national championship when I was at RPI. I may have played intramural handball for the Zetes because I was from NYC and we did play a lot of handball in the city in the 50s. Actually I played handball for many years until switching to racquetball in my 40s.

    Anyway it was great article.

    • Kelsey O'Brien says:

      Very interesting information! It seems like a lot of people switched from handball to racquetball when handball was losing its popularity. Thank you for the comment, Tom!

  2. Susan Perkins says:

    I’d love to see handball make a return to RPI and to competition, generally. Handball offers a much more personal approach than racquetball and relies on more pure skill, without racquet assistance, and it’s cheaper – no expensive racquet needed!

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