Skip to content
9 min read

The Pilgrims and Pickleball – The Untold Story

Murmurs from the Losers' Bracket Frank Cerabino 12-12-2023

We here at Murmurs from the Losers’ Bracket have been inspired by fellow pickleballer, Perri Blackmer.

She offered an alternative origin story for the game, one that’s too hard to resist. 

“Most people aren’t aware that after stuffing themselves on turkey the pilgrims played the First Pickleball,” Blackmer posted on the Dink Pickleball site.

The whimsical idea of pickleball arriving in America on the Mayflower and being central in the first Thanksgiving is such a better story than real one about a small group of dads coming up with a driveway amusement for their bored kids during a 1965 summer vacation in the Pacific Northwest.

So, we here at Murmurs from the Losers’ Bracket feel moved to flesh out the unexplained details of Blackmer’s alternative origin story, not because it’s true, but because, well, pickleball deserves a world-class yarn.

***

And so it came to pass in the year of 16 hundred and 21, that a group of persecuted European paddlers were driven from their home in Wimbledonshire.

They had been openly scorned and reviled by their neighbors, who had come to believe that these paddlers were being possessed by an evil spirit that compelled them to play a silly game from dawn to dusk with unnatural devotion.

This game, which was called “Devil Ball” by its detractors, was said to drive its players mad through the constant exposure of concussive clicking sounds and disputed line calls.

Something had to give. 

Seeking athletic freedom, the players decided to sail for America in search of new open-play opportunities. They had little more than a ship’s hold full of mostly-cracked balls, some demo paddles from a store in Selkirk-on-Kitchenhaven, a couple of fishing nets, and a ball machine that only one person knew how to use. 

But they had the urge to play, and it is said that during the voyage they had already begun posting round robin pairings. 

“We shall find a place to live where we can rally freely, without being branded as tennis heretics, and without having to experiment with quieter balls that don’t bounce right,” said William Bradford.

Bradford would become the first president of the Plymouth Colony Pickleball Club (PCPC). He was reputed to be a man of great rectitude, except for his penchant to play as a 3.5 in tournaments, even though everybody knew that he was a 4.5 or better.

Upon landing at Plymouth Rock, Bradford said their game shall “henceforth be known as pickleball.” 

“And others may ask, ‘Why pickleball?’” Bradford continued. “And we’ll just make something up … What’s that? Did somebody say a dog? Sure, why not!” 

Upon arrival, the pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony Country Club, and quickly consecrated it as the site of the first pickleball tournament in the New World.

To pad the brackets and raise more entry-fee wampum for the prize winners, the Pilgrims invited the nearby Native American tribe, the Wampanoag people, to participate.

What has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving was actually a pickleball tournament with better-than-average local food vendors.

The Pilgrims were quite surprised to learn that despite never having played the game, the Wampanoag were quick learners and gifted athletes. They were, in many cases, much better than the Pilgrims at the game.

A secret to the Wampanoag’s success was an innate ability to adjust to the wind conditions and be more in communion with the ground during dink battles.

The very first Thanksgiving tournament ended with many of the Wampanoag players advancing through the brackets and making it to the winners’ ceremony.

What happened next is a subject of debate among historians. Some say that the winners’ medals had been stolen in advance of the medal ceremonies. But others say that the decision to give the Wampanoag players smallpox-infected blankets, instead of medals, was intentional.

At any rate, it didn’t take too long before the Pilgrims were just playing pickleball amongst themselves and bickering over the steep membership fees at the Plymouth Colony Country Club.

“I can’t believe we’re paying for pickleball!” groused noted group elder, William Brewster, who is believed to have invented the senior citizen discount in America. 

The Pilgrims turned out to be a contentious lot, dividing themselves into factions as a way of making proprietary claims for the best players. 

Before long, the APP (Association of Plymouth Pickleballers), the PPA (the Plymouth Players Association) and MLP (Major League Plymouth) were holding conflicting tournaments.

The inclusion of women players did not go smoothly, either. At first, the inclination of the Puritan men was to eliminate the best female competitors by calling them witches and burning them at the stake.

Somehow the game survived, despite the contentious nature of its founders and a complete lack of empty box stores to convert to indoor-court facilities during the long New England winters.

While the way pickleball is played today is far different from the way the Pilgrims had played, we still retain some of those early traditions.

For example, coming together at the net at the end of a game is a custom that began in the Pilgrim era, although it’s believed that instead of saying “Good game” and tapping paddles, the Pilgrims hit their opponents’ heads with their paddles while saying, “Play another one?”  

MURMURS FROM THE LOSERS’ BRACKET

Read past editions of Murmurs from the Losers’ Bracket, including:

Frank Cerabino is a long-time columnist for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, a pickleball addict like the rest of us, and a newly published author. Check out Frank’s newly released book, I Dink, Therefore I Am: Coming to Grips with My Pickleball Addiction (available on Amazon and a great read (or gift!) for any pickleball player), for pickleball tips and laughs!

I Dink, Therefore I Am | Frank Cerabino

READ SIMILAR STORIES

View All

05-01-23

Frank Cerabino

Murmurs from the Losers' Bracket: Pickleball's Most Powerful Spoken Word

The most powerful word spoken on a pickleball court is “Out!” All sorts of things can happen if you use it carelessly....

7 min read

08-08-22

Frank Cerabino

Murmurs from the Losers’ Bracket: Getting Beyond “Good Game”

After every pickleball game, there is an obligatory paddle tap, where the players on the court will mutter "Good game, good...

6 min read

05-15-23

Frank Cerabino

Murmurs from the Losers' Bracket: It's Been a Hard Day's Night for Pickleball Skeptics

Pickleball moved up another rung on the sports ladder this week by being the subject of a funny and withering put down from...

10 min read