Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. It started in 1965 with a badminton net that had no racquets or shuttlecocks. When Rep. Joel Pritchard returned from a game of golf one afternoon in the summer of 1965. His son Frank was hanging around. Challenged to come up with a game that would keep his family occupied, Pritchard hunted around his Bainbridge Island, Washington vacation home.
He was looking for a substitute for the racquets and birdie that he needed to set up a game of badminton. Pritchard’s eyes lit on the paddles of a ping pong set and a whiffle ball. He set his family to playing badminton with these odd materials. The game was an instant hit with his kids. Over the week, they discovered the whiffle ball would bounce on the badminton court.
The game, named Pickleball by Joan Pritchard after the “pickle boat” in crew races, a boat crewed by the leftovers of other boat crews, would be a family staple for the remainder of the summer.
When Joel Pritchard and Barney McCallum returned to Bainbridge Island the next summer, they made some changes to the game. They based these on how they saw their kids playing it the previous year. The basic rules of the game continued to be refined. The Pritchards also had a new dog, Pickles, named after the game they invented.
By the 1980s, pickleball was starting to catch on. Professional equipment was made for the game. The game received its first official rulebook in 1984, written by the U.S. Amateur Pickleball Association. By 1990, it was at last being played in all 50 states.
Like the whiffle ball that the game was originally played with, today’s pickleballs have holes in the plastic surface of the ball. The holes are drilled at even intervals. The holes in an indoor pickleball tend to be larger than those in an outdoor pickleball, and the balls have fewer of those holes. Outdoor pickleballs are also made of thicker and harder plastic, to be less affected by wind and bounce more predictably on less even surfaces compared to their indoor counterparts.
All Official Pickleballs Have Holes
The rules of Pickleball as defined by the US Amateur Pickleball Association since 1984, and USA Pickleball since 2005, define a pickleball as having holes. The modern pickleball, however, has far different holes than the original whiffle ball that was used to play the original game. A wiffleball has oblong holes that are designed to allow wiffleball pitchers to throw curveballs and other baseball-style breaking pitches with a small, light, slow ball. A pickleball has small, circular holes that are designed to stabilize its flight as it travels from court to court.
Some unofficial pickleballs do come without holes. There are foam pickleballs available from various vendors. Practice pickleballs are made of foam to make them quieter, and typically come with a tennis ball-style line. These balls, while they are acceptable for practice or casual games, especially in noise-conscious environments, are not official pickleballs and not accepted by USA Pickleball for official play.
An official indoor pickleball has slightly larger holes and is made of thinner, softer plastic than the outdoor version of the same ball. According to USA Pickleball Rulebook, Section 2.D, Page 6, all pickleballs “shall have a minimum of 26 to a maximum of 40 circular holes, with spacing of the holes and overall design of the ball conforming to flight characteristics.”
“The ball shall be made of a durable material molded with a smooth surface and free of texturing. The ball may have a slight ridge at the seam, as long as it does not significantly impact the ball’s flight characteristics.”
Outdoor pickleballs are typically on the heavier end, weighing up to .9 ounces. This extra weight makes it fly more stable in windy conditions and makes it faster. A player at outdoor pickleball has less time to react to the ball and had better not get in the ball’s way because it will likely hurt when it hits. A player hit by an indoor pickleball can expect a momentary sting, but the heavier, sturdier outdoor pickleball, especially if hit hard enough and fast enough, might leave a bruise or even a welt.
The greater number of smaller holes on an outdoor pickleball also makes it less affected by the wind. Outdoor pickleballs fly truer and straighter in windy conditions than their indoor cousins, which can be blown all over the court by errant breezes, having been made for still-air conditions.
Pickleballs are made to fly true under their relative court conditions. This is an important consideration because the sport is meant to be played like other racquet sports, where players can predict how the ball is going to behave based on where and how fast it was hit.
Why Do Pickleballs Have Holes, Anyway?
Pickleballs having holes is a combination of factors. One undeniable factor in this is the fact that pickleball was started with a ball from a child’s whiffle ball set. The whiffle ball was a part of the game from the day Joel Pritchard and Barney McCallum invented the sport in 1965, and that tradition stuck with the sport through its definitional phase in the 1980s and 1990s to today.
The holed ball is a link to the sport’s origins in the 1960s. But also, the holes in the ball have an additional practical purpose. Because the ball is a large object made from lightweight, hollow plastic, a solid ball would not fly true. A ball without holes in it will be blown by errant breezes. This would make accurate shot placement difficult and add complications to the act of predicting, reacting to, and returning an opponent’s ground stroke or volley.
It would make the game more difficult to play, and more difficult in ways that don’t create fun gameplay situations. The holes in a pickleball are an essential part of the game of pickleball as it’s played, and allow pickleball to be played with simple, inexpensive materials, making pickleball a sport that anyone, regardless of age or income, can enjoy. Pickleball is everyone’s game, and the holes in the ball are part of what makes it so.