American handball is a sport in which players use their hands to hit a small rubber ball against a wall such that their opponent cannot do the same without it touching the ground twice. The three versions are four-wall, three-wall and one-wall. Each version can be played either by two players (singles), three players (cutthroat) or four players (doubles).
Games in which a ball is hit or thrown have been referenced as far back as Homer and ancient Egypt. A game similar to handball was played by Northern and Central Americans from 1500 BC, most famously by the Aztecs as the Mesoamerican ballgame. However, no references to a rebound game using a wall survive. It is thought that these ancient games more closely resembled a form of hand tennis. Further examples of similar games include the European-originated games of Basque pelota (or Jai-alai), Valencian frontó, International fronton and Welsh handball.
The first recorded game of striking a ball against a wall using a hand was in Scotland in 1427, when King James I ordered a cellar window in his palace courtyard to be blocked up, as it was interfering with his game. In Ireland, the earliest written record of a similar game is in the 1527 town statutes of Galway, which forbade the playing of ball games against the walls of the town. The first depiction of an Irish form of handball does not appear until 1785. The sport of handball in Ireland was eventually standardized as Gaelic handball. By the mid-19th century, Australians were playing a similar game, which developed into the modern sport of Australian handball.
In "Treacherous Beauty," by Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case about the Arnold-Andre conspiracy, Major John Andre and General Sir Henry Clinton are said to have played a game called handball during the American Revolution. The earliest record of the modern game in the United States mentions two handball courts in San Francisco in 1873. The sport grew over the next few decades. By the early 1900s, four-wall handball was well established and a one-wall game was developed in New York City by beach-goers who hit bald tennis balls with their hands against the sides of the wooden jetties that lined beaches. This led to a rise in one-wall handball at New York beaches and by the 1930s, thousands of indoor and outdoor one-wall courts had been built throughout the city. American handball is seen predominantly in parks, beaches, and high school yards in New York, Chicago and other large urban areas.
National championships in handball have been held annually in the United States since 1919. These championships were organized by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) until 1950, when their control was transferred to the newly formed United States Handball Association (USHA).
Influence on racquetball and wall paddleball
The sports of racquetball, squash, fives, four-wall and one-wall paddleball were heavily influenced by handball. Four-wall paddleball and one-wall paddleball were created when people took up wooden paddles to play on handball courts. Four-wall paddleball was invented in 1930 by Earl Riskey, a physical-education instructor at the University of Michigan, when he came up with the idea of using paddles to play on the school's handball courts. Racquetball was invented in 1949 by Joe Sobek in Greenwich, Connecticut, when he played handball using a strung racquet.
American handball is played on a walled court, 40 by 20 feet (12.2 m × 6.1 m), with either a single (front) wall, three walls, or in a fully enclosed four-wall court; four-wall courts typically have a ceiling while three-wall courts may or may not. The four-wall court is a rectangular box. The front wall is 20 feet (6.1 m) square, and the side walls are 40 feet (12.2 m) long and 20 feet (6.1 m) high.
In the middle of the floor lies a short line, dividing the floor into two 20 feet (6.1 m) squares. Also along the floor is the service line, which is 5 feet (1.5 m) in front of the short line. The service zone is the area between these two lines. The back wall of the court is usually 12 feet (3.7 m) high, with an above gallery for the referee, scorekeeper and spectators. Some courts have a glass back wall and glass side walls to allow for better viewing. (In three-wall court handball, the court often has a front wall and two full side walls, or the front wall is flanked by two triangular wings.)
Handball may be played as singles (two players against each other), doubles (two teams of two players), or "cutthroat" (three players rotating one against two). In cutthroat handball, one server plays against two receivers, until he or she is "put out." Then, the left-most receiver serves. Serves rotate in this way until one player wins by scoring either 7, 11, 15, or 21 points. Should both teams reach a score 1 below the winning score, the game can be continued by 'win-by-two' or 'straight'. In 'win-by-two', the winning score is increased by 2 points. In 'straight', the score remains the same and cannot be pushed. When a tie of 20 is reached in a 21-point match, a common decision is 'straight 25', where the winning score is set to 25 and cannot be changed. The cutthroat mode of play is also known as "triangles."
The ball is "served" by one player standing in the service zone. The server begins by dropping the ball to the floor of the service zone and striking it on the bounce with the hand or fist so that it hits the front wall. The ball must hit the front wall first; it may then hit at most one side wall; the served ball must pass the short line before the first bounce on the floor, but must bounce on the floor before reaching the back wall. When the served ball lands in front of the short line, it is called a "short," while a serve which reaches the back wall without bouncing is called "long," and a serve which hits both side walls before bouncing is called a "3-wall."
Shorts and longs are types of service faults, or errors. If the server hits two faults in a row, he or she is out and becomes the receiver. If a serve hits the ceiling, floor, or a side wall before hitting the front wall, the server is out (no second serve allowed). In doubles, the server's teammate has to stand in the service area with their back to a side wall in a service box, marked by a parallel line 18 inches (46 cm) from the side wall, until the ball passes the short line.
While the server has the ball the receiver must stand at least 5 feet (1.5 m) behind the short line, indicated by dashed lines extending 6 inches (15 cm) from each side wall. Once the ball is served, he or she must hit the ball either directly ("on the fly") or after the first bounce so that it bounces off the front wall. However, if the receiver chooses to take the serve on the fly, he or she must first wait for the ball to cross the short line (the dashed line, in racquetball).
The ball must not bounce off the floor twice. Nor can any player during a return hit the ball off the floor before it touches the front wall. The server then hits the ball on the rebound from the front wall, and play continues with the opponents alternately hitting the ball until one of them fails to make a legal return. After the serve and return, the ball may be played from anywhere and may hit any number of walls or the ceiling, so long as it hits the front wall before bouncing on the floor. Players cannot "hinder" (block) their opponents from hitting the ball. If the server fails to make a legal return, he or she is out and becomes the receiver. If the receiver fails to make the return, a point goes to the server, who continues to serve until he or she is out. Only the server/serving team can score points. The game goes to the player/team first to score 21 points. A match goes to the player/team to win two out of three games; the third game goes to 11 points.
A three-wall handball court is an outside court with a front-wall, two side-walls (these may be "full" or "half"—half being a pair of sloping side-walls), and no back-wall in the play area. It is played very much like an indoor four-wall court, only with the challenge of returning the ball without any back-wall rebound. The long line at the forty foot mark is considered in if the ball hits it when hitting the floor.
One-wall handball courts have a wall 20 feet (6.1 m) wide and 16 feet (4.9 m) high. The court floor is 20 feet (6.1 m) wide and 34 feet (10.4 m) long. When not played as part of tournament or league play, the one-wall game typically uses the bigger ball called "the big blue" (described below in the "Equipment" section). The main difference between one-wall handball and other versions is that the ball must always be played off the front wall. One-wall handball can be watched by more people than a four-wall game. The court is also cheaper to build, making this version of handball popular at gymnasiums and playgrounds. In New York City alone, an estimated 2,299 public handball courts occupy the five boroughs.
A typical outfit includes protective gloves, sneakers, athletic shorts and goggles. Eye protection is required in tournament handball, as the ball moves at high speeds and in close proximity to the players. It is rarely used in "street" handball, however, where a softer "big blue" ball is usually used.
The black or blue rubber ball weighs 2.3 ounces (65 g) and is 1.875 inches (4.76 cm) in diameter (smaller, heavier and harder than a racquetball), is hit with gloved hand (open palm, fingers, fist, back of hand) (informal games often don't include gloves).
Small ball versus big ball
A true handball is referred to as an "ace ball" or, in earlier days, "blackball". A racquetball used to play handball is called a "big ball" or "big blue". A small ball is hard and bounces higher. Types of small balls include the Red Ace (for men) and the White Ace (for women).
A big ball bounces lower and slower than a small ball and is softer and hollower.
Four-wall games use the small ball almost exclusively. Three-wall and one-wall games use both balls. Formal one-wall games, such as tournaments or school competitions, use only the small ball. Informal games, or "street handball," use the big ball most often. Both balls are used extensively in New York City, with formal tournaments for big ball – NYC Big Blue, for example. The International One Wall presence uses the big ball.