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Alex Eichmann:
California Squash Legend

Twice beat Niederhoffer;
Built Several Bay Area Clubs


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May 18, 2004, By Rob Dinerman © 2004 SquashTalk

ACCIDENTAL
ENCOUNTER WITH SQUASH

Ralfe Miller (l) presents Alex Eichmann
with his eponymous trophy.
(photo © 2004 courtesy Alex Eichmann)

It is ironic
in view of the standing he would subsequently acquire as arguably the
most historically significant figure in the annals of Pacific Coast squash
that this exceptional all-around athlete discovered the game completely
by accident when he enrolled in a physical education course in the spring
of 1960 during the last semester of his senior year at the University
of California, Berkeley. The course was by happy coincidence taught by
Ralfe Miller, a former runner-up in the Pacific Coast Squash Championship,
who immediately spotted the potential in his young charge and encouraged
him to pursue the sport after his graduation.

By that time.
Eichmann had already achieved excellence in baseball, where as a pitcher
he played semi-pro ball in the Bay Area for several of his high-school
years after becoming one of the few players to make the varsity as a freshman;
soccer, where he followed in the footsteps of his father, Alex Sr., a
member of the 1920 German Olympic squad; and golf, where he made all-city
in high school and later led the UC Berkeley team to its best season in
decades.

He also would
become good enough as a bowler to routinely record scores in the 200 range,
and one of his fondest athletic memories in later years was of leading
his intramural college basketball club to three school championships,
even though members of the UC Berkeley squad that defeated West Virginia
71-70 in the 1959 NCAA championship game were dispersed, usually two to
a team, throughout the intramural league and Eichmann’s teams did not
have any players from that championship roster.

In one memorable
final during the spring of ’59, Eichmann’s team beat an intramural opponent
that featured varsity star Darrall Imhoff, who would have a successful
career as an NBA starting center on the Elgin Baylor-Jerry West Los Angeles
Laker teams that constantly opposed the Boston Celtic dynasty during the
1960’s. At 6 foot, 10 inches, Imhoff was much too big for anyone on Eichmann’s
team to guard, but Eichmann, in an early version of the strategy that
is presently routinely utilized against the current Laker starting center
Shaquille O’Neal, ordered his teammates down the stretch to intentionally
foul Imhoff, a poor free-throw shooter due to the line-drive trajectory
of his delivery, and the strategy paid off handsomely in a close and very
satisfying victory.

This latter
incident provides an instructive look into some of the characteristics
that would later serve him so well when he decided to focus on squash
several years after graduating from Berkeley. Though Eichmann was only
5 foot, 9 inches and 160 pounds, the arm strength he had developed as
a pitcher and bowler enabled him to generate significant power, especially
on his forehand drives, and his agility and multi-front athleticism made
him an excellent retriever with noteworthy stamina. All of these qualities,
buttressed by a competitive attitude whose intensity level became the
stuff of legend, enabled Eichmann to frequently will his way to victories
over opponents with far greater playing experience and shot-making skills
by relentlessly running everything down and simply refusing to give in
until his foes ran out of strength or patience or resolve, or all three.

But the shrewdness
that also infused Eichmann’s approach to squash was often overlooked,
as was the wisdom he displayed in improving and expanding his game by
seeking top players from the east who relocated to California and making
them his practice partners. This group included two Harvard stars, namely
Larry Sears, who would win the ’62 and ’63 Pacific Coast championships,
and later Victor Niederhoffer, the ’64 National Intercollegiate champion
and ’66 U. S. National champion, who took a job teaching at the UC Berkeley
Business School in ’69 and with whom Eichmann had a captivating series
of matches during the several years that Niederhoffer lived out west.

TAKING
ON THE NIEDER

Alex Eichmann (at T) against Victor
Niederhoffer
(photo © 2004 courtesy Alex Eichmann)

By the time
Eichmann’s rivalry with Niederhoffer began, he was already well along
in a decade-long period of dominance in squash in the region that would
eventually result in more than 40 tournament wins, highlighted by Pacific
Coast titles in ’67 (on his home Olympic Club courts and over Brooks Ragen
in the final), ’69 (over Steve Gurney, who in the mid-1970’s would become
the head coach at Yale), ’70 (over George Morfitt, later a U. S. and Canadian
multiple age-group champion) and ’72 (again over Gurney, a constant Eichmann
rival, though Eichmann wound up with a decisive 8-2 career edge). Eichmann
also was a Pacific Coast finalist in ’64 and ’71, a six-time California
state champion, the winner of the NorCals four straight years from 1970-73,
six times the Olympic Club Invitational titlist, five times each the winner
of the Ralfe Miller tournament and the University Club of San Francisco
event and a three-time champion in the University Club of Los Angeles
tourney.

In the first
tournament of the 1969-70 season, the Ralfe Miller (named of course in
honor of Eichmann’s first squash mentor, who was himself a legendary figure
in California squash lore) Eichmann and Niederhoffer met in the final,
with the latter narrowly winning the first two games in tiebreakers, taking
a much-needed rest in the 15-4 third game and reasserting himself in the
15-9 final fourth. But even in sustaining that defeat, Eichmann noted
the one chink in his redoubtable foe’s armor and determined to find a
way to exploit it going forward. Niederhoffer at that time was somewhat
out of shape and overweight, and he likely would have lost had his uncanny
shot-making not (barely) carried him through those first two games and
thereby given him the luxury of being able to let the third game go and
conserve his energy for the fourth.

Eichmann realized
that if he could up his own conditioning level even further and make his
rematches with Niederhoffer more battles of attrition than tests of their
respective racquet skills, he might well defeat his storied opponent.

Victor Niederhoffer takes the runner
up trophy, Eichmann the NorCal winner.
(photo © 2004 courtesy Alex Eichmann)

By the time
these two next met, in the final event of that season, the NorCals, Eichmann
had won all five of the intervening tournaments in which he had played,
including his third Pacific Coast title. Though the pre-final rounds of
the tourney were played at UC Berkeley, the final round was moved to Orinda,
site of the beautiful private court owned by Dr. Richard Martin, whose
gallery could accommodate far more people than that of any court in the
college facility. Eichmann’s plan worked to perfection, though only barely,
as Niederhoffer was forced to expend so much energy in winning the lengthy
15-12 first and third games that after falling immediately behind in the
fourth he totally conceded that game 15-0 (!), the only shut-out game
in either direction of Eichmann’s entire career.

The fifth was,
in Eichmann’s words, "as grueling as it gets."

Niederhoffer,
a first-ballot inductee into the USSRA Squash Hall Of Fame several decades
later, would win the Nationals four straight years from 1972-75 and become
Sharif Khan’s most notorious rival during the 1970’s, even beating Khan
in the final round of the ’75 North American Open in Mexico City. Throughout
Niederhoffer’s career he fully earned his reputation for winning down-to-the-wire
matches—but on this occasion, it was Eichmann whose superior fitness
and tenacity carried the day, to the tune of a 15-13 fifth-game victory
that is still talked about reverentially among longtime aficionados of
that era.

Eichmann recorded
a second victory over Niederhoffer, also in five games, seven months later
when they met in an early-season Olympic Club vs. UC Berkeley team match,
but this setback only served to galvanize the latter, who had already
set his sights on winning the ’72 Nationals in Detroit. Eichmann attributes
his first-round win over Gulmast Khan, Sharif’s younger brother, in large
part to the frequent practice sessions that he and Niederhoffer scheduled
as a run-up to that tournament, but in the second round he lost decisively
to The Champ himself, who would go on to win that Nationals without losing
a single game.

Eichmann would
begin winding down his playing career during the next few years, though
he did have one last hurrah in February ’74 in Annapolis, site of that
year’s Nationals, when he played No. 1 and led the Pacific Coast to victory
in the Five-Man Team National Championships. He and teammates Morfitt,
John Hutchinson (Eichmann’s conqueror in the ’71 Pac Coast final), John

Puddicombe and Dick Radloff prevailed 3-2 in a memorable final over a
tough Westerns squad paced by the O’Laughlin brothers, Dave and Larry.

SQUASH
ENTREPRENEUR

By that time, Eichmann, then in his late 30’s, was beginning to turn his
squash-related interests in a markedly different direction, one which
may ultimately have had a greater long-term impact on squash in California
than that created by even his extended run of on-court accomplishments.
Inspired in part by news of the successful launching of the first commercial
squash club in New York a few years earlier, and with the strong financial
backing of a group of wealthy investors from nearby Hillsborough (about
20 miles south of San Francisco), Eichmann built the Peninsula Squash
Club in San Mateo in 1975, a four-court facility that swiftly displaced
the several private clubs in downtown San Francisco as "the place
to be" for squash devotees and the major hub of that sport in the
area.

Eichmann ran
every aspect of the club, from giving lessons to handling court bookings
to making sure the towel area was well stocked, and, once the word swiftly
got around, the best players in the area started showing up to practice
with Eichmann and tune their games for upcoming tournaments. His father,
whose own athletic achievements made him totally at ease in this kind
of environment, also became a constant and popular fixture at the club,
where Eichmann would frequently hold court in front of a happily captive
audience of his friends, admirers and members.

This entrepreneurial
undertaking proved so successful that five years later Eichmann built
a second and even more substantial facility, the Squash Club of San Francisco,
located in the great city itself and featuring among its eight courts
a glass-back exhibition court with a 300-spectator capacity gallery which
top WPSA pro Stu Goldstein deemed "the best court on our tour,"
quite a compliment given that during this early-1980’s heyday period there
were close to 25 tournaments (most of them held at exclusive private clubs)
on the annual schedule.

The two major
events hosted during that time at this latter club, namely the WPSA ranking
tour stop in March ’81 and the U. S. Nationals two years later, were both
fabulously successful, and there can be no question either that these
have to be considered landmark events in the greatest period of squash
expansion ever in California squash (with more tournaments, more flights,
larger draws and more enthusiasm than at any time either before or since)
or that this surge was to a significant degree attributable to the existence
and success of Eichmann’s two clubs, which for the first time made the
game readily accessible to many people who were not members of the few
private San Francisco clubs.

WPSA Stars (Sharif, Aziz, Gordie Anderson,
Frank Satterthwaite, Eichmann, Clive Caldwell at the 1981 WPSA Tour
event inaugurating Eichmann’s new club. (photo © 2004 courtesy
Alex Eichmann)

Nor can there
be any doubt that the boost that these clubs provided to the area, which
was duplicated by similar commercial-club successes in other regions of
the country, enabled the pro and amateur circuits in this country to grow
in a way that provided an entire squash generation with a degree of playing
and money-making opportunities that were, unfortunately, absent during
the arc of Eichmann’s own playing career. The massive expansion of the
game, and the proud realization of the important role that he himself
had played in its occurrence, was particularly fulfilling to this son
of San Francisco, who lived his entire life there before moving in ’95
to Sacramento, where he still is a frequent and proficient golfer.

Now 66 and seemingly
as feisty as ever, especially when recalling questionable referees’ calls
that went against him or opponents with whom he clashed decades ago, Eichmann
was able to retire in his early 50’s after getting "offers he couldn’t
refuse" from the real estate developers to whom he wound up selling
his clubs near the end of the 1980’s. He continues to enjoy the respect
and admiration of all who witnessed or were in any way associated with
his outstanding and multi-front squash career.

Tom Dashiell,
Eichmann’s mid-1970’s sparring partner and occasional tournament opponent
and later (in ’79) the first Californian to be ranked in the USSRA top
10, noted recently that throughout those years that it was Eichmann, "who
hated to lose more than anyone I have ever known," against whom he
would constantly measure the progress of his game. Ted Gross, the only
Californian to seriously compete on (and crack the top 15 of) the WPSA
tour, said that Eichmann had been his primary squash role model and the
inspiration for his own career aspirations. And Alan Fox, the USSRA President
during the early 1990’s and a Californian himself whose playing days substantially
overlapped with Eichmann’s, made special mention of the multitude of fronts
on which Eichmann had made enormous contributions and of Eichmann’s status
almost as an icon of that substantial period in west coast squash in general
and California squash in particular.

That he was
able to play with the type of edge he exuded throughout his career and
still command such affection all these years later from such a disparate
group of people is perhaps the consummate tribute to what this legendary
figure meant to squash during such an important time in the game’s evolution.



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