It’s Tennis, Charlie Brown

An obscure character was a stand-in for the creator of Peanuts when he fell in love with tennis during the sport’s boom in the 1970s.

Patrick Sauer | Racquet and Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,896 words)

This story is produced in partnership with Racquet magazine and appears in issue no. 9.

In May 1951, seven months after a new comic strip called Peanuts debuted, an extremely roundheaded Charlie Brown is shown trying to return a tennis ball. He whiffs, then walks to the net to discuss a rule change with his pal Shermy, a once prominent but since forgotten character. The last panel shows both boys to be a half foot below the net as ol’ Chuck proposes, “One point if you hit the ball, two if you get it over the net!”

Throughout its 50-year run, tennis was a leitmotif in Peanuts. It wasn’t quite as prevalent as baseball or ice hockey, but forehands in the funny pages weren’t uncommon; the sport was shown or mentioned in a total of 236 Peanuts installments. The heyday of tennis in the beloved strip coincided with the tennis boom of the 1970s, which is when Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz was hitting the courts most frequently, thanks to his tennis-loving wife, Jean, as well as a close pal with 39 Grand Slam titles to her name.

It was during this time that Schulz introduced Molly Volley—a ferocious, determined, win-at-all-costs player decked out in a bucket hat and a black-and-white checkered dress, sporting a prominent unibrow and, later, a few extra pounds. Molly lived and died by one core belief:

You know where champions are made? Well, they’re not made at Wimbledon or Forest Hills, I’ll tell you that! They’re made right here on these dirty, bumpy, miserable courts where you call your own lines and keep your own score!

Charles M. Schulz — his friends called him Sparky.

The aphorism may sound like the clichéd copywriting in a sneaker ad, or perhaps the in-one-ear-out-the-other pep talk of a high school coach. But the words carry genuine weight when uttered by Molly, the heart and soul of Peanuts tennis and one of the grittiest players of the 1970s. A forgotten legend, she had to overcome not only her opponents—like the skinny jerk “Bad Call” Benny, who taunted her as “Fat Legs”—but also her inept doubles partner: a beagle with no second serve, a penchant for eating too many in-match chocolate chip cookies, and a bad habit of blapping the put-aways.

In a 1980 TV Guide interview, Schulz described Molly Volley as both an offshoot of his sincere investment in the sport and a caricature of on-court human behavior. “She is one tough cookie who embodies the widely held American belief that the only thing that matters is winning,” he said. “Molly doesn’t actually cheat; she just shades the call a little. Charlie Brown is appalled by her conduct. I can empathize.”

Just like with tennis in real life, on-court anxiety is the recurring Peanuts tennis theme. Schulz’s angst is Snoopy’s angst is Molly Volley’s angst is our angst. It’s summed up perfectly in a 1973 Sunday strip that’s 11 panels of Snoopy double-faulting and destroying his racquet with a ferocity and inner turmoil to scar Joe Cool forever. In Peanuts, tennis is a Sisyphean struggle, and in the struggle come the laughs. Losing is funnier than winning.

* * *

While Schulz portrayed tennis as a never-ending series of disappointments, his real-world correlation is a “love-love” story. Yet in the comic strip that was his life’s work, he barely gives the beauty found between the lines even a backhanded compliment.

Charles Schulz—“Sparky” to his friends—was a big jock and sports fan his entire life. He especially loved ice skating and ice hockey, which harked back to his Minnesota childhood. In 1969, after Peanuts hit, Schulz set up shop in Santa Rosa, Calif., and built the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, complete with the “Warm Puppy Cafe.” Schulz’s home ice would lead him to tennis, thanks to a new doubles partner for the senior-circuit years of his life.

“I would bring my daughter to the ice rink every day to go skating and then go play tennis, which intrigued him,” said Jean Schulz, Charles’ second wife, whom he married in 1973. “We played a lot in the early years, took lessons, built an indoor court, and I even won a Nevada mixed doubles senior event with our coach. We put together a nighttime doubles league for several years. The sport became a big part of our lives.”

Schulz played a little when he was younger, but he didn’t fully immerse himself in the game until he met Jean. Already in his early 50s, his on-court limitations would drive Schulz bananas, but unlike the rest of us tennis duffers, he could turn his foibles into Peanuts gold. Like when Snoopy warns, “He who lives by the poach, dies by the poach.”

Still, shortcomings and all, a natural athlete is a natural athlete, and Schulz impressed the best. “Sparky was a smart player, a student of the game who knew what to do, but also a perfectionist who would get so frustrated when he missed shots,” said Rosie Casals, the Hall of Famer who got to know Schulz through the Tennis Classics, a senior series she organized through her promotion company, Sportswoman.

The Tennis Classics were comprised of players over 30 who had won a Grand Slam, earned a million dollars, or both. From 1983 to ’85, Schulz laid carpet down over the ice and hosted the “Snoopy Cup” in Santa Rosa. The first two years featured only female players and included an international mix of luminaries such as Virginia Wade, Francoise Durr, Betty Stove, Wendy Turnbull, Nancy Richey, local favorite Sharon Walsh, and, the biggest star of all, maiden-year champion Billie Jean King. (You bet your Sopwith Camel[1] there was a golden beagle trophy.)

The Snoopy Cup was more than a garden-variety tournament, Schulz made sure of it. He foot most of the $50,000 bill, covering travel, expenses, and $35,000 in prize money for the 12 to 16 players, which included men like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver in the final go-round. For Schulz, it was a gift to the community, who, in kind, packed the arena for a hell of a show.

“The Snoopy Cup included a pro-am, and all the linespeople and volunteers were dressed in tuxedos. It was an upscale event with cocktail tables and chairs, just a great atmosphere with Schulz provided running commentary throughout the tournament: ‘Oh, looks like [Roy] Emerson doesn’t have his backhand this game…,’” said Casals, who still runs Sportswoman and the Love & Love Foundation for junior tennis. “This was before the Charles Schulz Museum opened, and he invited all the players to come to his studio to see artwork nobody else saw. Not only did Sparky open his doors, he opened his heart.”

The Snoopy Cup was short-lived, but it wouldn’t have gotten off the ground in the first place if not for Schulz’s friendship with Billie Jean King, whose name would be dropped in Peanuts 11 times. Charles’ wife, Jean, wasn’t sure when or where her husband of 27 years met King, but she said he often called up people he admired, be it an artist, novelist, musician, etc., so he may have specifically sought her out. Schulz certainly admired King, referring to her later in life as one of his three favorite people, forming a quirky triumvirate along with President Dwight Eisenhower and golfer Sam Snead.

Their bond led to some unforgettable tennis moments. In 1977, thanks to King, the Schulzes visited the players’ tearoom at Wimbledon. Even more incredible was watching the debut of a Queens native who would inspire Schulz’s middle-school tennis brat, “Bad Call” Benny, the spiky-haired, headband-wearing loudmouth who lipped Molly Volley about her ample frame.

“We were on the bleachers, hardly anyone in the crowd, and you could hear John McEnroe already arguing in just his first match,” said Jean. “You could see the talent, but what I remember the most is two lovely British ladies were there to watch tennis and chat. When McEnroe’s nastiness started up, one said to the other, ‘Such a shame, such a bright young lad.’”

The second appearance of Molly Volley in a Peanuts strip, in which she lays down the law.

In the Peanuts universe, Billie Jean King was both a muse and a collaborator for Schulz. She had a lot of fun with the introduction to 1979’s Snoopys Tennis Book, focusing solely on the abilities and exploits of Charlie Brown’s famous pooch on the occasion of his first trip to Wimbledon. Per usual, Snoopy had himself an adventure, standing on Centre Court, beating Chris Evert’s mom in a practice round, eating 12 bowls of strawberries and cream, and falling in love with Linky Boshoff[2].  King writes:

Snoopy has rightfully established himself as Everyman’s tennis player. He has become an inspiration to all of us, hackers and pros alike. Hang in there, Snoopy, and don’t ever stop swinging away. We need you.”

Thirty years later, and nearly a decade after Schulz’s passing, King struck a more elegiac tone in the foreword to The Complete Peanuts Vol. 12: 1973–74, saying:

“While I have been fortunate enough to win some of the most prestigious titles in tennis, the trophy from the Snoopy Cup remains one of my most cherished mementos from my tennis career.”

The relationship between Billie Jean and Sparky was deeper than mere tennis camaraderie. He specifically admired her as a pioneer in women’s sports, which he championed throughout his life. There’s a prescient 1982 Sunday strip that lays out what amounts to a sports Bechdel Test[3] that is still relevant today.

Peppermint Patty and Marcie are watching a sports report, which wraps up without mentioning a single female athlete. Patty angrily list off 19 women, including King and Casals, but Schulz was no dilettante: Patty also checks less-than-household names like drag racer Shirley Muldowney, ice dancer Judy Sladky, and bowler Donna Adamek.

“From the beginning, Schulz populated the Peanuts world with girls who weren’t pushovers. They were well-developed, intelligent, interesting characters—he was very progressive in that sense,” said Andrew Farago, curator at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum and author of the 2017 compendium The Complete Peanuts Family Album. “In the comic strips it’s played for laughs, but women’s tennis players had to fight that much harder for respectability and to be taken seriously. Schulz was passionate about Title IX[4] and women’s sports. It was a deliberate choice on his part to make Peppermint Patty the best Peanuts athlete by far.”

Jean and Sparky.

Schulz was one of the first trustees of the Women’s Sports Foundation and an ardent supporter of the Golden Gaters, San Francisco’s World Team Tennis charter franchise. He kept women’s tennis in the newspapers as well, one great example being when Snoopy adorably imitated Tracy Austin by tying his floppy ears up in pigtails.

“Sparky wouldn’t have called himself a feminist, but he absolutely was, with a small f,” said Jean. “It shows in the way he treats the characters. Lucy is crabby and bossy, but he liked her. She wasn’t just an awful shrew.”

The same can be said—sort of—about Molly Volley, a stand-in for all those exasperated doubles partners everywhere.

“Sparky had a wicked serve; he came down on the ball, giving it a devilish spin. He played well at the net with his reach and reflexes, but running around wasn’t his strong suit, whereas I was out there to run around and have fun,” said Jean. “He used to think I was a better player than I was; that as a partner, I was going to get to a lot of shots I was never going to get to. He was very competitive and thought we lost matches we should have won. Molly is a cartoon conceit, but she is definitely channeling Sparky.”

* * *

During their avid playing years, the Schulzes had a tennis buddy, Molly Ackley. Rhyme her name with one of the game’s fundamental shots and voilà, a cartoon star is born, sobriquet-wise anyway.

“There weren’t all that many actual Molly Volley strips, and I don’t think many people remember them, but they still know her name,” said Jean.

Molly Volley officially joined the Peanuts universe on May 9, 1977. Snoopy’s pre–Molly Volley counterpart was a garage door, but he abandoned the inanimate wall for a shot at mixed-doubles/mixed-species glory. She appeared in a couple weeks’ worth of strips, growing more irate with her easily distracted, and way too honest, canine partner by the day. At the story line’s apex, Snoopy calls their opponent’s ball in, kisses Molly on the cheek, and sprints away as she screams into the void.

“Molly is one of the few characters who gets Snoopy flustered—he isn’t as confident around her as he usually is,” said Alexis Fajardo, senior editor at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates. “Some of my favorite tennis strips are when she’s just berating him, panel after panel.”

Molly Volley would reappear in July 1978 along with a new rival, “Crybaby” Boobie, who, true to form, bitches, moans, and sheds tears over Every. Last. Thing: The sun is too bright; the balls are too dead; the net is too high; the balls are too lively; the net is too low… To the point where Crybaby’s face is never seen, only the gaping whiny hole of her mouth. Accompanying Boobie is her unseen mother, who sits in a parked car and lays on the horn every time her daughter wins a point. Needless to say, it goes badly for Molly, who is not exactly gracious in defeat.

“Tennis is the driving factor in Molly Volley’s life. It’s right there in her name, and she doesn’t have time in her life for anything else,” said Farago. “In Molly Volley, you get the volatility of Lucy mixed with the athleticism of Peppermint Patty, who always wanted to win but, on the whole, had a much better sense of perspective.”

Shut up, Crybaby.

You can’t enter a women’s tournament.

The last appearance of Molly Volley, in which she is summarily dismissed, in 1990.

Later, in 1982, a heftier Molly would rouse Snoopy off his doghouse (with explicit instructions not too mention her pudgier build) for another match. They will be playing Crybaby and her brother, “Bad Call” Benny, who possesses the requisite attitude of a certain New Yorker the Schulzes saw back in Blighty. Benny calls her “Fat Legs,” Molly lays him out with a pop to the mouth, Crybaby loses it, and Snoopy wanders off to devour the cookies his partner brought for nourishment. His tummy ache would cost Molly yet another game, set, and match to her archnemeses.

“‘Crybaby’ Boobie and ‘Bad Call’ Benny are one-note characters, but they soften Molly Volley a little bit, make her seem more rational and levelheaded by comparison,” said Farago. “Schulz was commenting on stage parents, pushing their little kids to be tennis superstars, and failure was not an option. Boobie and Benny are brother and sister, so you can imagine what their home life is like.”

Molly Volley faded away following the “Bad Call” Benny match, appearing just a handful of times until her final one-off in 1990. (Her last indignity: ending up in a garbage can after chasing a return.) Molly’s vanishing act was a reflection of Schulz’s life, as he too drifted away from the sport in the 1980s, returned to golf, and quit playing tennis altogether by the decade’s end.

“Molly Volley was one of the weird side trips Schulz would take,” says Fajardo. “He glommed on to tennis and for a decade or more it fed his creativity, in part because of the bigger-than-life personalities on the court.”

Molly’s sporting spirit lives on at “Snoopy Central,” the Santa Rosa compound that’s home to the Charles M. Schulz museum and studio, ball fields, the ice rink where a hockey tournament is still held every summer, and the tennis courts that brought Jean and Sparky together—and sprung Molly Volley to life. Until she packed up her racquet and called it a day.

Poor Molly Volley never did get to hoist the Snoopy Cup. Her last full story line, in March 1986, concluded with the breakup of the damnedest mixed doubles team the tennis world has ever seen. Snoopy probably never should’ve ordered a pre-match pizza, but his heart wasn’t with his portly partner anyway. She doesn’t even appear in the final strip that week. It’s Charlie Brown who delivers the news, letting the erstwhile Tennis Beagle know that Molly Volley says he’s a terrible partner and they’re finished. To which Snoopy replies:

“Billie Jean still loves me!”

The end of the last full Molly Volley story line, in 1986.

[1] The Sopwith Camel was a biplane fighter that took to the skies in 1917. It is the plane Snoopy imagines himself piloting when he becomes, in his imagination, the World War I Flying Ace. He is, in fact, flying his doghouse.

[2] Delina “Linky” Boshoff is a former South African pro who won the US Open doubles in 1976 with her partner Ilana Kloss.

[3] The Bechdel Test (sometimes known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test) is a way of gauging women’s representation in films. Generally, it asks if, at least once, two women featured in a particular film are shown having a conversation about something other than a man.

[4] Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

* * *

Montana-bred, Brooklyn-based freelancer Patrick Sauer has written for VICE Sports, Smithsonian, Deadspin, GQ, and Esquire, among others. It is doubtful Lenny Dykstra is going to pay him back.

Snoopy is all of us.