A civil rivalry between 2 cities Tournament: The Fitzgerald Cup, an annual squash battle between Baltimore and Washington, offers good sportsmanship and a touch of high society.

January 19, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- William H. Fitzgerald is standing in the bowels of an exclusive private club, hanging over a rail with his eyes fixed on an intense game below, not flinching as a speeding black ball with a yellow dot is whirring close to his distinguished head.

"Bravo!" shouts Fitzgerald, 88, the ball missing him, the match ending. "Bravo! Well done!"

In this tournament, some fans cheer the way they would at the opera, competitors are listed in the Social Register, the rivalry is concocted by a former ambassador and only gentlemen are asked to play. So goes the protocol for the annual squash tournament between Baltimore and Washington -- the so-called Fitzgerald Cup, a genteel rivalry now in its 50th year.

The athletes have hailed from Washington's diplomatic corps to Baltimore's oldest old-money families, and are among the best squash players both cities have to offer. At the University Club in Washington this weekend, theirs was a civil tournament -- good sportsmanship, fair play, healthy competition and, yes, even sweat.

"This is a gentleman's game," says Robert Travers, 45, before changing from his tennis whites into a silk bow tie and a navy blazer with a Fitzgerald family crest on the pocket. "The Fitzgerald Cup player prides himself on integrity, honesty, performance and service."

As if to prove his point, the Baltimore stock broker in Saturday's games vowed to give up undeserved points, wouldn't challenge a call in his rival's favor and shook his opponent's hand. Repeatedly.

Tournament tradition

Started in 1949 by Fitzgerald, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and lifelong squash enthusiast, the tournament has included ambassadors such as Britain's Sir Harold Cacca (before he became a lord), and a handful of State and Defense Department deputies.

Of course it wouldn't be the Fitzgerald Cup without a little blue in its blood -- with players such as Baltimore's Douglas C. Rice, the stepson of Robert E. Lee IV, a descendant of the Confederate general, and Fitzgerald himself, a Washington socialite and Republican patron.

But the championship also includes ordinary people who love the game -- players such as Baltimore's Gerd Petrich, a Towson dentist who so adores squash, he proposed to his girlfriend by inserting an engagement ring in a squash ball and plopping it on her Chinese food.

"In the early days, the Fitzgerald Cup was a competition between the elite," says John Voneiff, president of Maryland's squash association. "It was really between the private clubs -- the Maryland Club in Baltimore and the University Club in Washington."

In recent years, Voneiff says, the competition has become more democratic. Both teams hold contests to find the best players -- not necessarily the most socially connected ones, he says. And more players are coming from public clubs, such as Meadow Mill in Baltimore, he adds.

Tough battles

High society or not, the competition has always been fierce. Last year, Washington brought in a ringer, a professional squash player from Nigeria, to take a spot on its team (Baltimore won anyway). About a decade ago, according to Fitzgerald Cup lore, two competitors became so infuriated with the match, they started hitting the ball at each other instead of the walls.

Washington has historically dominated this championship, and won again this year, seven matches to six. But this time, the real draw was the anniversary commemoration, marked by the establishment of a Maryland Squash Hall of Fame and an endowment for junior squash players.

The post-game celebration -- far from a tailgate party -- was a reception at the ambassador's mansion with a buffet of ratatouille tartlettes, smoked salmon canapes, baby rack of lamb and other delicacies, as well as a 4-foot-tall "Methuselah" bottle of Perrier-Jouet champagne.

"Historically, this tournament was for powerful people," said Travers, before winning his match. "It reminds me a little bit of 'Chariots of Fire,' you know that movie, with all the codes and the crests. But it's not like an upper-crust thing. It's meant to bring goodwill."

A sport for the masses? This game, traditionally, has been one for the aristocrats.

Sport's background

Although the sport began as a pastime in debtor's prison in London around 1820, it quickly transformed into recreation for society children at Harrow, a boys school. There, students realized that a punctured ball "squashed" on impact, and so the name of the sport was born.

By this century, the game had become a fixture in private clubs and Ivy League schools. As if to prove its opulence, even the Titanic had a squash court, nestled in its bow.

Players were meant to adhere to good form always.

Case in point: As the Titanic went down, the ship's hired squash professional, F. Wright, and Col. Archibald Gracie, a traveler, found each other and politely canceled a match for the following morning, according to accounts of the disaster.

Gracie lived to write about the tale, but Wright was never found.

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