Alex Eichmann Profile
by Rob Dinerman

May 19, 2004  -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.

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.

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.

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.

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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