Pros and Cons: Ex-inmates redefine handball at Forest Park

Slideshow: Handball Brings Together Players of All Stripes in Forest Park

Pros and Cons: Ex-inmates redefine handball at Forest Park
Jennifer Silverberg

The handball courts loom high over the dirt running path in Forest Park. The last time anyone painted the twenty-foot-high wooden boards they were a soft canary yellow; today they're a sun-bleached gray. In lush green surroundings, the handball courts are a stern sight, rising from the lawn like industrial ruins.

The players, when they start to arrive around noon by foot or bicycle, show up with a racquetball and a pair of gloves. Rarely do they schedule games ahead of time.

"Somebody turned over a rock," a man calls out by way of greeting as the courts fill up on a recent Monday afternoon.

Jerry Jones, a.k.a. Junior, dreams of a career as a pro handballer.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jerry Jones, a.k.a. Junior, dreams of a career as a pro handballer.
"Not any of us would know each other if it wasn't for this blue ball," says Sandy Daniels, a car-dealership owner and the only regular female player.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Not any of us would know each other if it wasn't for this blue ball," says Sandy Daniels, a car-dealership owner and the only regular female player.

The casual, pick-up-game style of play doesn't tend to work for Jerry Raymond Jones, known better as Junior. He paces impatiently on the baseline, a cell phone to his ear, trying to get a friend to the courts for a game of singles.

The sun is high, and there's a group of players sitting in the shade; none is interested in going toe-to-toe with the sinewy Jones.

"I don't fuck with Junior," one chuckles.

"I ain't gonna play you no singles," another snorts. "You think I'm crazy?"

Jones, a fair, boyish-looking 29-year-old with a boxer's nose, grins immodestly. "I'm a flat-wall player, for real," he says. "But I'm good at this, too."

Jones learned flat-wall (single-wall handball) in a place where there is an abundance of them: prison. Handball is one of the few sports that are allowed and encouraged in many federal and state penitentiaries where bats and racquets are out of the question.

According to Forest Park Handball Club president R.P. Murphy, Jones is one of the best in the core group of about 100 who come out regularly.

"He's a fantastic young player," says Murphy. "When they are locked up like that, they really get a chance to really develop their game."

Regulars here estimate that about half of the players come to Forest Park after they learned the game in prison. Though the handballers often don't know each other's last name (in the case of doubles there's a racial prefix, "White Don" and "Black Don," for example), the jailhouse stories tend to trickle out during sideline conversations.

"I thought it was just a prison game," says Ram Burrows, who was released in 2009 for a drug sentence. "Then I came out and met these guys who've been playing since the '60s."

As Jones demonstrates his serve against the court's high wall, it's not difficult to picture him behind the concrete barriers at Greenville Federal Correctional Institution in Illinois.

"This really changed my life, for real," he says.

The fact that Illinois and Missouri's prisons have become a farm team of sorts for Forest Park only explains part of the reason why the crowd here — sometimes 30 or 40 deep, drinking beers, smoking, shelling peanuts between games — stands out compared to the preppy joggers trotting past. Beyond the former inmates, the courts have always attracted an eclectic mix: restaurateurs, doctors, lawyers, Imo's delivery drivers, construction workers, entrepreneurs, prison guards and the unemployed. Forest Park even (very occasionally) lures the man some consider the greatest handballer to ever live, St. Louis' own David Chapman. And no matter what their background, handballers universally describe the game the exact same way:

"It's an addiction," says Terry Huelsman, the owner of the Break Billiards in Cahokia, Illinois. "It's a poor man's country club."

But among so much openness and camaraderie, the players also keep secrets. This is a place where the men (there is currently only one regular female player) go to lose themselves. The things they keep private vary from tales of failed business ventures to chemical dependencies to violent crime.

Three decades ago the handball community in Forest Park was forever changed when one of its own was gunned down as he left the courts. Today the man's killer is a frequent visitor to the Forest Park courts, though he hides his identity from the handball players who continue to tell the story of the 1979 murder in almost mythic terms. But more on that later.

"Most of the people there are looking for an escape. There's a lot of damaged people out there," confirms Rick Nelson, a retired insurance broker and Forest Park regular of eight years. "It's really hard to think about something else when you're whacking a blue ball against the wall."

Slideshow: Handball Brings Together Players of All Stripes in Forest Park


The shifting demographics at the Forest Park courts reflect larger trends within the sport, though Matt Stamp, the development coordinator at the U.S. Handball Association, says the sport may actually just be coming full circle.

"The four-wall game, there's talk that its roots were in prison — you were inside four walls," he says.

The park built its first two handball courts in 1929 just as the stock market was in a nosedive, and the game took off during the Great Depression that followed. In the 1940s and '50s, Jewish players dominated the sport — both in St. Louis and across the nation. Members of the St. Louis Jewish Community Center Association would play four-wall handball indoors during the winter and the three-wall game outside at Forest Park in the summer.

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11 comments
Katherine Annemarie
Katherine Annemarie

I love seeing the dudes in the handball courts when I run in the park. They always look like they are having so much fun. I will definitely read this.

JenCraze
JenCraze

Must read article for Handball players...murder, redemption and Handball community coming together has been my experience being a Handball groupie for 15+ years now. 

JenCraze
JenCraze

Must read article for Handball players...murder, redemption and Handball community coming together has been my experience being a Handball groupie for 15+ years now. 

cdmccrea_
cdmccrea_

HORRIBLE TITLE!!!

Makes folks think that only ex-con's are playing and then they show a skinny guy with a tattoo and a black woman.   OUCH!

And the MAJORITY of handball courts are in South City and of course the main one in Forest Park.

Again, OUCH......bad title(s)   Ex-Con  and Misfits.....come on!!!

Craig Richason
Craig Richason

Great article. I miss playing handball down there, myself.

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

Nothing wrong with this 're-definition' of Forest Park.   The vicious choking of the MUNY to 7 lousy weeks, denying METRO express to the residents of St. Louis County, and fraudulent use of the peoples' money and resources by those who control  the institutions of the Zoo-Museums district are not good re-definitions of Forest Park.  An obsessive number of festivals-killing the restaurants.

 
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