Tony Baden Fuller (1938-2018)
Nick Preston writes:
Tony Baden Fuller saved the game of Eton Fives from disappearing into an abyss when the game’s sole manufacturer and supplier of balls suddenly collapsed in 1960. Tony invented a new ball and in so doing, he revolutionised the way the game was played. Today, anyone who plays Eton Fives, plays with the Baden Fuller ball.
The most important aspects of Tony’s life were his family and his love of Eton Fives. His two daughters, Jo and Susanna, when still children knew that their father was different – he built his sandcastles on the beach at his beloved Cornwall not like most of us with a spade, but with his hands. His wife Jane, when asked recently if she had any pictures of Tony playing Fives, remarked that she only ever saw his hands and his bottom!
Apart from Fives, Tony devoted his life to his family and disadvantaged young children. He was a devout Christian, unafraid of death and served as Chairman of the Deanery Synod, on the Parish Church Council and the Bishops’ Think-tank. After doing his National Service at RAF Hendon, and following his early career with Shell, he joined ICI and subsequently became a great exponent of environmental packaging. He ran the Youth Club at Gerrards Cross for many years, learning how the Mods and Rockers used to spike each others' mopeds with sugar in each others' petrol tanks, He was anchored to his family throughout, and nothing gave him more enjoyment than to take his daughters to the premiere of Star Wars or his four grandchildren to the latest Harry Potter films. But he still and always had time for Fives, so much so that when the family moved to Warminster, he made the most extraordinary discovery when he visited Warminster School and found, to his astonishment, that he had parked on what transpired to be a unique and historic Fives Court, the likes of which had never been seen before. He discovered that it was different to any other type of Fives – so Warminster Fives was unearthed. Whether he ever knew what type of ball was used, we shall never know.
Anthony Thomas Baden Fuller was born in 1938 on the Kent coast. His parents, thinking that Hitler would invade at any time, swiftly evacuated him to Tunbridge Wells and from there Tony was sent to Uppingham School in 1951. It was at Uppingham that the young Baden Fuller was introduced to the game of Eton Fives to which he both came to excel and love. In 1955 he made the IV and a year later became Captain. He went up to King’s College Cambridge in 1956 winning a Shell Scholarship where he read Natural Sciences. He won Half Blues in 1958 and 1959, playing in the same team as PE Reynolds, and partnering the late CD White and fellow Uppinghamian JM Watson. He never lost to Oxford.
And so it was, when in 1960 while working at Shell, that he became aware of the game’s precarious state with the demise of the firm Jefferies Malings of Woolwich, the sole supplier of Fives balls. Unbeknown to the powers that be, he took it upon himself to invent a new ball. It is said that he spent over 100 hours, working throughout his lunch breaks, devising a formula that ultimately became the new ball. Prototypes were tested at Uppingham, not least by his younger cousin Charles who was charged with reporting back. His early attempts at construction were fraught with danger: he used a glue compound which Charles recalled would suddenly implode on court leaving a trail of white glue on walls and floor much to everyone’s shock and amusement. But finally in 1963, he came across the solution which ultimately comprised 13 ingredients, now often explained simply as half rubber and half cork.
The story goes that he presented his new invention to the then Chairman of the Eton Fives Association and politely asked if he might claim some reimbursement for his time! But the Corinthian spirit that then prevailed in the EFA, resulted merely with a polite thank you for giving back to the game what it had given to you!
Unperturbed, Tony set about selling his new ball. But as demand grew, so did the burden. Tony’s wife Jane recalls the day when she had to fill her small Mini Cooper with two gross of Fives balls to take them down to the local post office to fulfil an order. It was proving all too much and at this point they decided to pass the balls and their supply to the EFA in return for a mere thank you!
The new ball caused immediate consternation to players and teams. With no ‘official’ date set for any roll out, schools found themselves turning up for matches and finding that the opposition were using the new ball, much to the disadvantage of the away side. An Uppingham team in 1964 are quoted as saying that ‘last week we played the Old Citizens, they had just played Repton and discovered that they were playing with the new ball’. Uppingham were due to play Repton the next week. Who played with it first in a competitive fixture is not known, but given its origin, it’s surprising that Uppingham were not the first. What is more interesting is that Tony joined the first international Fives tour to Nigeria in 1965, with Gordon Stringer, David Guilford, Martin Shortland-Jones, David Barton, Simon Negretti and Monty Moss. It was here in Northern Nigeria, where he introduced the new ball to his colleagues on tour, but to the touring team’s surprise, the Nigerians introduced their own ball to their visitors, a tennis ball no less, resulting in matches being played alternately with both ‘new’ balls! And to add to the confusion, both teams won! While the Nigerians claimed victory, Jane recalls that Tony always told her that their hosts adopted a very flexible and unfamiliar scoring system - an assertion corroborated no less by Gordon Stringer!
But the new ball had far reaching consequences: it completely changed the nature of how the game was played. To put this into context, an appreciation of what the original ball was like and how it behaved helps to understand how the game changed with the adoption of the new ball. The original ball was slightly smaller, made of soft calf leather and stitched on its four seams. It was supple, and when wet, it absorbed water and became heavy and unplayable: it also split frequently and probably lasted no more than one game which helps to explain why new boys were often called to collect the balls from the back of the courts as fagging duties. Certainly when hit hard, it failed to trouble many a good lower step player. More so than today’s game, then the game was more touch and poise with fewer of the big slams to the back court that have become such a feature of the modern game. It was the buttress and the top step where the majority of the action took place. The Baden Fuller ball thus changed all that and because of this, the game today is faster and the balls last longer.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that Baden Fuller was one of the giants of our game. He was both modest and unassuming, and despite losing touch with the game on a day to day basis over the years, he nevertheless never lost his passion for his life-long love of Eton Fives. In November 2016, his achievements were publicly acclaimed when at the Uppingham Revival Dinner celebrating 163 years of Fives at Uppingham, both Richard Barber and Dale Vargas presented Tony with a wonderful tribute to his outstanding achievements in front of an audience of 100 people from the Fives world. It was a beautiful leather bound copy of Dale Vargas’s and Peter Knowles’ ‘A History of Eton Fives’ and in it Tony’s achievements are there for all to read. Only last year he was belatedly made a Vice President of the EFA although sadly died before he could attend his first meeting.
Over the years the Fives world has lost touch with many names and faces who at varying times were always present on court usually due to the perennial problem of there being no courts where people end up living. But it is a mistaken belief that Fives has left their souls. The introductory sentence that his Family chose for Tony’s Epitaph is testament to how much the game of Fives brought such pleasure to him throughout his life: ‘Tony’s lifelong passion was for Eton Fives’’. He was indeed one of the Game’s great unsung heroes.