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Paddleball Billy plays to beat of bar band

It's a rowdy Saturday night at an Irish pub in downtown St. Petersburg where a bunch of 20-somethings are celebrating a birthday.

The band calls Bill Hannon up to the stage to join them for a song or two. He grabs his instrument and steps under the bright lights.

But Hannon is no young heartthrob musician — the bow-legged 78-year-old plays the paddleball. With a beer in his left hand, he thwacks to the beat of the music until closing time.

No one acts like anything unusual is going on. The crowd adores Paddleball Billy.

• • •

Hannon grew up in Detroit with seven siblings in a big Catholic family.

When he was 10 or 11, he won a contest that changed his life. Duncan, the company that makes yo-yos, was promoting a new product: the paddleball.

It sponsored neighborhood showdowns of tricks and endurance, to see who could paddle the longest without missing the ball. Hannon kept entering and winning.

He won roller skates, then went to the finals, held in the Fisher Theatre in a historic building in downtown Detroit.

Hannon and two cousins walked 5 miles to get there. Audience applause whittled down more than 200 contestants until Hannon was the last one.

He won a bicycle, but it was too big for him and his cousins, so they walked all the way back home.

His mother almost fell off the porch to greet him.

• • •

Hannon doesn't remember when he picked up the paddleball again.

The Army veteran became a butcher in Detroit and a regular in the Irish pub scene. By the time Detroit started a St. Patrick's Day parade in 1958, his childhood knack had a comeback.

He's played almost every year in the parade, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this weekend. He migrated south after his friends moved to St. Pete Beach and opened the Harp and Thistle, an Irish pub.

This holiday, the parade fell on Palm Sunday.

The group that organizes it held a meeting earlier in the year to discuss whether they should reschedule.

Hannon proposed his idea: "Well, I'm not sure if it's a solution, but is there any possible way that we can change Palm Sunday?"

A few moments of silence. Then roars of laughter.

• • •

Wherever he goes, Hannon carries a green plaid knapsack full of paddleballs with the strings wrapped around the handles. He has two favorites: a green, shamrock-shaped one, and one painted orange with the crouching tiger of the Detroit baseball team. Another is covered in stickers of Snoopy celebrating St. Patrick's Day.

After years of traveling and meeting other Irish music enthusiasts, he's become somewhat famous. On Friday, he appeared in shamrock-covered pants on a Chicago TV show, which escorted him to the studio in a limo and paid for his flight. Fans have posted videos of him playing on YouTube. A friend has printed his picture on sweatshirts and postcards.

Hannon carries a disposable camera and likes to show off photos of himself: playing on a cruise for Irish music lovers; getting kissed on both cheeks by Irish beauty queens; thwacking away in a leprechaun-green pullover at the Dunedin Celtic Festival.

He's also collected stories of his adventures, which he'll retell at any chance, leaning in close as if he's got a secret.

Two decades ago in Toronto, Hannon went looking for an Irish pub. He asked an Irish police officer, who told him to get in the car. The cop took Hannon to a bar where a couple were playing Celtic folk. He asked if he could join them with the paddleball, and they said yes.

Years later, he saw the band, Guinness, at the Harp and Thistle in St. Pete Beach. He said nothing, just got on stage and started paddling.

• • •

In St. Petersburg, Courigan's Irish Pub is his new hangout. He's there pretty much any time Guinness plays, usually on Friday and Saturday nights. Blue-eyed Billy drinks Bud Light from a tall beer glass. When the time comes, the band calls him to the stage. He chooses a paddleball and starts playing, making a smacking sound he times to the beat.

The more he gets into it, the more he bounces his leg. His friends at the table clap along to the music.

When he wants to get fancy, he'll flip the paddle around, hitting the ball from both sides without looking.

The ball flies out a few feet before coming back in. He almost never misses.

Stephanie Garry can be reached
at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.

Paddleball Billy plays to beat of bar band 03/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 5:23pm]
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