SquashTalk>Columns>"Clio’s
Corner": James Zug
> Walter Montenegro
Diamond
in the Nick: The Story of a Ball Manufacturer

By James Zug.
June 5, 2001. © 2001 Funded by Squashtalk.com. May not be reproduced
online without permission.
Illustrations:



He
was reading a copy of Popular Mechanics at his desk
at the
New Yorker Hotel, on Eighth Avenue. It was 1931. He was twenty years old.
He was a night bookkeeper. He had left Toledo, his hometown in Spain,
a year earlier. Although he had graduated as a CPA in Spain, he still
enrolled at Bay Ridge High School in Brooklyn, so he could learn English.
He was desperate to learn English. “I never stayed with Spanish friends,”
he says. “I only spoke English. I made it my business to learn English.”
It was the height of the Great Depression. He luckily found a job at night
at The New Yorker. “Figures are all the same,” he says.

One night he was reading this boy’s magazine.
There was an article with a lot of diagrams about how to build your own
tennis racquet stringing machine. “I read it like the Bible,” he says.
He took some wood and followed the directions and built his own racquet
stringer.

He never looked back.

Walter Montenegro is now a few weeks shy
of ninety-two years of age. He and I sit in the lobby of a Best Western
in Hackensack, New Jersey. He is barely five-feet tall. He eats nothing,
drinks nothing, barely moves at all for two hours. He talks intently about
his life in the tennis and squash worlds.

DEPRESSION STRINGING
He worked as a stock clerk in the merchandise wing of Abraham & Strauss,
a Brooklyn department store. He married a Brooklyn-native named Marie.
They had no honeymoon. Married one day, back to the work the next. With
his jerry-rigged machine, he started a stringing business on the side.
One dollar and seventy-five cents a racquet. More for silk strings. Took
him over an hour to do one racquet. But that was good money. “I became
infatuated with the idea of stringing racquets,” he says. “Took it up
as a hobby and eventually went into the business of stringing of racquets.”
Walter’s Tennis Service, he called it. Based at his home on 5th Street
in Brooklyn.

He soon was in touch with tennis manufacturers.
One supplier was Cragin-Simplex. Calhoun Cragin, a former nationally-ranked
tennis player, founded the company in 1914 when he merged with the Simplex
Corporation that made a metal tennis racquet press with a distinctive
X shape. During the Depression, the company was failing. In 1936 Cragin
offered it to Montenegro for eleven hundred dollars. That was a fortune
to a kid from Toledo. He borrowed the money (his lawyer milked him for
a hundred bucks to do the paperwork) and became president of Cragin-Simplex
Corp., 53 Park Place, New York.

THE CRAGIN RACKET
Cragin had occasionally made squash racquets since it was founded, but
its emphasis was on tennis. After the Second World War Montenegro changed
that. He opened a new 60,000 square-foot racquets factory in North Attleboro,
Mass. and began marketing squash racquets: the Whipstroke, the Coronet
and the Hornet.

“The Cragin-Simplex bats are perfectly balanced
to put extra ‘whip’ into every stroke,” read the advertisements. “Smash
hits don’t bother it. And it’s a racquet that never acts ‘boardy’ or stiff
because the superb construction of the bat actually ‘gives’ with the ball.
The grip? Cushiony. Fits your hand like a favorite glove. Never ‘cramps’
your hand, even after hours of hard play.” The Whipstroke became the exclusive
racquet of the North American Professional Squash Racquets Association
(the predecessor, in large part, of today’s PSA). Montenegro, cleverly
kow-towing to the egos of the pros, made up these racquets in the colors
of a pro’s club and with the pro’s signature on the handle. In 1969 Cragin
bolstered its line with a Mohibullah Khan Personal Model “with built-in
power for the incomparable Khan touch” and adorned with a little Islamic
flag.

Relationships with the pros became so friendly
that Montenegro served as treasurer for NAPSRA. After 1947 he donated
the trophies for the U.S. Professionals, a tournament now called the Tournament
of Champions.

Montenegro became friends with Joe Hahn,
a Detroit standby who lived in Montclair, New Jersey and was president
of Clairmont Cadillac, and he learned of the perennial problem with squash
balls. Since 1938 the official U.S.S.R.A. singles ball was the Seamless
560 and the official doubles ball was the Seamless 561, made by the Seamless
Rubber Co. in New Haven. The singles ball was black, loaded with carbon
(thus staining the walls of squash courts with that distinctive pock-marked
smear), had little bounce and was usually troublesome. One box of balls
played beautifully, another was filled with duds. Some broke immediately,
others went clumpy and clay-like. Some got too warm, others stayed rock-cold.
Summer was an absolute no-go season.

CRAGIN BALLS
In the late 1950s Montenegro started toying with the idea of making a
squash ball. At his new offices
at 163 Varick Street he vulcanized rubber and made molds and tinkered.
He gave Hahn bags of balls to test at the New York Athletic Club. “Of
course in the beginning those first balls were either too hard or too
dead or both,” Montenegro wrote to me before we met. “It took a great
number of tests and a tremendous number of balls to test and dispose of
before we arrived at the right or ideal ball.” In 1961 Cragin issued its
diamond balls: the single green diamond for singles play and the double
green diamond for doubles and the single yellow diamond for summer singles
play and the double yellow diamond for summer doubles play. The diamond
balls were revolutionary, for they were more lively, slowed the game down,
allowed for more shotmaking, broke less and, most importantly, made it
possible to play squash in the warmer months. Of all the reasons why squash
expanded in the 1960s and 70s, the mere fact of the diamond balls was
critical. It broke infrequently. It held its shape. It slowed the game
down and made it easier to learn. And you could play squash in July.

THOSE GREEN DIAMONDS
In 1961 the U.S.S.R.A. approved the diamond balls, discarded the Seamless
ball and made the green diamond the official U.S.S.R.A ball (Seamless
continued to call itself the official ball until the late 1960s). In January
1962 Montenegro began publishing Squash Magazine, a six or eight-page
newsletter. Distributed free of charge, Squash Magazine was the first
monthly publication devoted to American squash since Squash-Badminton:
The Magazine of Winter Court Games, which the American Lawn Tennis Association
issued in the mid-1930s. Despite the typos, the plain writing and the
naked commercial aspect, with Cragin advertisements scattered throughout,
the magazine was a dramatic improvement over nothing. The magazine was
chock full with U.S.S.R.A. news and announcements and was the official
newsletter of NAPSRA.

Montenegro, hawking his racquets, balls
and newsletter, went to many tournaments and was a regular fixture in
the gallery. “Squash meant a great deal to me,” he wrote to me. “It caused
me to have a great number of solid friendships. I worked sixteen hours
a day. My wife felt I was married to the company. I told her it was better
than if I was spending the time at a bar.” He recalled one snowy February
evening when Hahn called from Atlantic City. “I was in bed, sleeping and
I knew he wasn’t calling to say ‘I love you,'” said Montenegro. “They
had run out of balls at the Atlantic Coast Championships. I drove into
the city, went to Varick Street and got a couple boxes of balls and went
down to Atlantic City.” It was universally acknowledged that between 1945
and 1975 Montenegro, although he never played squash, attended more American
squash tournaments than any other person.

BEGINNING OF THE END
In 1969 a secretary at Cragin approached Montenegro with a proposition.
Her husband helped run Garcia, a gigantic fishing, tennis, camping and
hockey equipment company that was traded on the N.Y. Stock Exchange. Garcia
wanted to get into squash. Montenegro hesitated. He had run the company
for over thirty years. His son Robert was vice-president at Cragin. “I
never entertained the idea of a merger, I could see no reason for it,”
he says. “But eventually I said yes.” Montenegro relocated Cragin to Garcia’s
offices in Teaneck, New Jersey and worked as a salesman.

In 1976 Garcia went bankrupt. Montenegro
lost $464,000 (he remembers the exact amount) and his livelihood. He thought
about trying to continue by making balls in his garage, but it wouldn’t
work. “The shock was so great,” he says. “This took all the taste of working
out of my system. I did not have the means to start over again, and to
this day the one thing I regret the most is that because of that merger,
the squash ball was no longer available. It happened for reasons that
I will regret for the rest of my life. I will always be the sorriest man
on this earth, for having created but not willfuly, the reason for that
beautiful ball to be no more.”

The vacuum in ball manufacturing was taken
up by Bestobell-Merco, an Australian company, which made the Merco green
ball that was made the official U.S.S.R.A. ball in 1976 and the 70+ which
became official two years later. In 1978 Tom and Hazel Jones jumped into
the news vacuum and started publishing Squash News.

A few weeks after I met with Montenegro,
I received another typewritten letter from him. After mentioning a few
things, he got to the heart of his letter: “I also wanted to ask you whether
it is necessary to state the fact that I came from Spain, etc. I haven’t
taken it off my mind, and the real reason for it is that I always wanted
people to think I am a born Yankee. I don’t think many friends care about
it. In fact, I have always felt some prejudice for not having been born
here, after more than seventy years of living here.” That might be true,
but certainly it does say something about America that a boy from Toledo
can be such a fixture in the rarefied world of squash and by dint of hard
work help turn the sport into a game for the masses.

[ Read Origins of Squash,
also by James Zug]

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