I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s because our democracy is dying. Or maybe it’s just because I ran across an old Sears catalog from 1975, filled with page after page of amazing vintage toys. One of those toys caught my eye — the original Paddle Ball.
A lot of you may know paddle ball as that popular beach game where two players smash a ball back and forth using plastic paddles, frequently nailing unsuspecting sunbathers in the head.
But the original Paddle Ball was a single-player game. It featured a wooden paddle with a rubber ball attached to an elastic string. The goal was to continuously hit the ball with the paddle as many times in a row as possible.
Paddle ball was patented in the 1920s. But its real heyday started in 1937, when the Fly-Back Toy Company created the iconic “bucking bronco cowboy” paddle ball set. The toy exploded in popularity, and was a mainstay in every kid’s closet until the late ‘80s.
Everybody played paddle ball, young and old. There are even paddle ball records. The most people controlling paddle balls at the same time is 443. And the most paddle balls controlled simultaneously by a single person is 9.
Paddle ball has been featured in numerous movies. There’s some spooky paddle balling in the Vincent Price horror movie House of Wax. And there’s some wacky paddle balling with Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles…
And who could forget the jiggly paddle balling of Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits.
Adult supervision was highly recommended when playing paddle ball. And not just because Marilyn Monroe was giving you all kinds of funny feelings.
Paddle balls were one of those toys that had an element of danger to it. Much like Lawn Darts or that Chemistry Set in a Box. You might have fun, and you might also set fire to your bedroom. It was 50/50 really.
I spent hours playing Paddle Ball as a kid. I knew every time I balanced that ball on the center of that wooden paddle, I was at risk. I was prepared for the cracked board that could explode in a hail of tiny wooden shards at any given moment. I was ready for that elastic band that would snap across my arm like a bullwhip. And I steeled myself for the worst punishment paddle ball could dish out — the hard smack right in the eye.
There’s nothing quite like a hard rubber ball drilling you square in the eye socket. You’d scream and cry. You’d be bleary-eyed and a little nauseous. But you picked that Paddle Ball up and got right back to whacking as soon as the doctor removed your eye patch. Because it was the 1970s and we laughed in the face of toy-related danger. And for that, my fellow brave Paddle Ballers, I salute you.