Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Deep Tennis: The Good-Time '30s
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Deep Tennis: The Good-Time '30s 10/08/2008 - 5:48 PM

2397921557_6fb9b60203Are you ready for the Great Depression, Part Deux? Will we soon be standing in soup lines at Trader Joe’s and doing the Charleston all night to keep the blues away? That last thought may not be as terrible as it sounds. The dances of the 1930s gave us the Big Bands we still listen to today. Maybe it’s not an accident that my favorite musical purchase of 2008 has been a reissue of the best of them, Lester Young with Count Basie, 1936-’40. Not that I’ve been listening to it all that much since the market tanked and my Wachovia stock sank to the bottom of the ocean. Looking at my iPod today, I see that the last song in the “Recently Played” section is a little angrier than the Charleston: It’s the Dead Kennedys' “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” and it sounded about right on the subway this morning.

Now maybe it won’t get that bad, maybe we’ll still love our landlords, maybe we'll wait in sushi lines at Trader Joe's instead, but since the 1930s are suddenly in the air, I was curious to see what happened to big-time tennis during that era. As much as any sport, it has mirrored the historical patterns of the last 100-odd years. It began as an upper-class diversion and followed the fortunes of the country’s ruling establishment through the amateur era, until both were blown up in 1968. One example: In 1929, the market tanked, the ’20s stopped roaring, the Golden Age of Sport ended, and East Coast WASPs, who had ruled that decade like no other, were kicked off their pedestal. Tennis followed in lockstep: 1929 was also the year that a 36-year-old Bill Tilden, a product of the Philly elite and the last champion to come from an old-line East Coast cricket club, won his final title at Forest Hills.

So what happened to this rich man’s game when there were a lot fewer rich men around? I went to the best one-stop source for this kind of information, E. Digby Baltzell’s indispensable (and of course, out of print) Sporting Gentlemen, a sociological history of tennis from, as the subtitle says, “the age of honor to the cult of the superstar.” As you might gather from that phrase, old Digby didn’t have much use for the Open era and its “mercenary” touring pros.

But he did have a great love for the American men's champions of the 1930s. In the chapter, “The Grass Court Circuit Becomes a Melting Pot,” Baltzell identifies the Depression as a Golden Age for tennis in this country. “America produced—in Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez (plus Ted Schroeder, Budge Patty, Gene Mako, and others)—the greatest generation of world-class tennis players in the history of the game. This great generation, whose stars were all bred in California, was also the most democratic one to play for glory on the clean-cut lawns of the staid and snobbish cricket and tennis clubs along the Eastern Seaboard.”

The guy’s got a way with words, eh? He sounds like he could be reading out a list of legendary warriors from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Still, Baltzell isn’t wrong; that’s about as impressive a group of players to come from one state, let alone one country, in any era. As far as I can tell, this was the first real democratization of tennis in the U.S. (The second would come in the public-court boom of the 1970s.) Kramer, Riggs, and Gonzalez were not upper-class kids, and they came from egalitarian California, with its public hard courts rather than private grass-court clubs. In this decade the balance of power in tennis shifted West and would never return to the Northeast. (Incidentally, the 1930s also produced Britain's first and perhaps only working class tennis champion, Fred Perry.)

What’s interesting is that these players weren’t molded at an academy—they would have gone to Bollettieri’s star-making factory today—but by the local representative of the sport’s national ruling body, Perry Jones of the Southern California Tennis Association and the Los Angeles Tennis Club. “Mr. Jones,” as he was known to his players, ruled “with an iron hand,” according to Baltzell: “Perry T. Jones loved tennis with a single-minded passion which overshadowed any need he might have had for women or money. . . . His talent lay in his ability to discover and foster budding tennis talent.”

More than that, Jones was a stickler for what was proper. L.A. sportswriter Jim Murray titled his posthumous tribute to him “Last of the Victorians”: “He wore bow ties and tinted glasses," Murray wrote, "and no day was too hot for him to appear with his collar unbuttoned or sleeves rolled up. He made Southern California the tennis incubator of the world—by providing the best competition, facilities, cooperation, and instruction.”

Jones was closer to Australia’s Harry Hopman than he was to our Nick Bollettieri. Like Hopman, he loved everything about the sport, including its (now-outdated) dress and manners. He may sound ridiculously fussy to us now, but part of his mission was to make these middle-class 1930s kids respectable enough to represent Southern California in the East Coast private club circuit that was still the major leagues of U.S. tennis at the time.

Jones liked the well dressed and polite Ellsworth Vines and Jack Kramer but struggled with the rebellious Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. That’s right, King and Riggs, the eventual combatants in the Battle of the Sexes, were both diminutive non-conformists from religious families in Southern California, and both learned under and fought against Perry Jones over successive generations. But whereas Riggs forgave Jones his snobbery (Riggs jokingly said he wanted half of his ashes spread over the L.A. Tennis Club, the other half over Forest Hills), King couldn’t. And her resentment extended to Jack Kramer. King made sure that the Battle of the Sexes was played in Houston at the same time as the Pacific Southwest Open, the prestigious tournament that Perry Jones founded and Kramer ran in L.A.

Whatever his foibles, Jones produced a generation of champions and complete tennis players—this was also a great era for U.S. doubles. Beyond that, he produced a group of memorable, even towering American sports personalities. Vines was the ultimate athlete, Kramer was the soul of the game for years, Riggs the jester, Gonzalez the tough lone wolf. As much as some of us may miss the “personalities” of the 70s, the Connorses and McEnroes, they’re exposed as spoiled brats when compared to the 1930s generation. Kramer and Co. strike us today as men’s men, guys who Hollywood could have cast as the solid American kids who lived through the Depression and eventually won the war. They eventually fought their own battles, against the amateur establishment, by forming the great pro tours of the 1940s and 50s that led to tennis becoming a big-money sport around the world.

No one was truer to that simple, solid American image than the best player of the 1930s, Don Budge. A tall, strong, redhead from Oakland, Calif., he didn’t learn the game from Perry Jones, but he was influenced by him in one way. “I won my first match and as I came off the court there was Perry Jones waiting for me,” Budge wrote in his memoirs of their first meeting. “I hustled over to pick up a compliment. Instead, with a distinct frown, he looked me up and down. ‘Budge,’ Mr. Jones finally snarled, ‘those are the dirtiest tennis shoes I ever saw in my life. Don’t you ever—don’t you ever—show up again on any court anywhere at any time wearing shoes like that.’ I nodded and slunk off. . . . I know he made an impression on me, for I’ve never gone on court since that day with even scuffy shoes.”

Like the L.A. greats, Budge improved himself, not just his game, through tennis. Baltzell describes him as “one of the finest sportsmen-gentlemen to play the game.” That’s also the description he gives Budge’s opponent in one of the most famous matches of all time, Germany’s Baron Gottfried von Cramm. As any serious fan knows, Budge beat the Baron in a fifth rubber in the 1937 Davis Cup tie between the two countries, held on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It was the Federer-Nadal epic of its day, instantly hailed by Bill Tilden as the greatest match ever played.

More impressive to me now, though, was that Budge and Cramm, the California democrat and the German aristocrat, were lifelong friends. When I think of them and their long-gone gentlemanly era, I think of the following anecdote.

Budge had upset Bunny Austin in his first Wimbledon in 1935. Cramm, his next opponent, introduced himself and they started talking. Cramm said that the American had showed poor sportsmanship because he had thrown a point after a linesman made a bad call against Austin. Budge was appalled; he considered himself a sportsman first and foremost. Cramm explained that to throw a point was to embarrass the linesman before a large crowd. It was better sportsmanship to play each point as it was called.

Budge never questioned another call, and wrote this in his memoir:

I had grown up learning tennis on the courts at Bushrod Park in Oakland, California, Gottfried had learned with such people as King Gustav of Sweden. But his real nobility was in his human qualities, rather than his lineage. From the first day I met him he became one of the greatest influences on my life. Gottfried Cramm’s ideals bordered on being beautiful.

Cramm was jailed in 1938 by the Nazis on a “morals” charge of having a homosexual relationship. When he was released, Wimbledon denied him entry into the Championships, and the United States wouldn’t allow him into the country to play at Forest Hills. As for Budge, while Cramm was in prison his friend gathered signatures from other athletes and wrote a letter in protest to Hitler. Tennis had helped teach Budge to judge this man, so different from himself in so many ways—and even an enemy in political terms—as an individual, a competitor, a friend. He knew the German's true personality from the way he conducted himself on a court. This supposedly snobbish sport had served him in the most democratic way possible.

The 1930s may have been a hard era for most, but not for tennis lovers, because it gave us great men—and great players: check out the photo at the top of this post if you doubt the elegance and athleticism of the old champions—like Don Budge.


 
35
Comments
 

Posted by SwissMaestro 10/08/2008 at 05:58 PM

1st?

Posted by SwissMaestro 10/08/2008 at 05:59 PM

yes! interesting, i would never have taught things could have been like that way back in the day...

Posted by chinkyv101 10/08/2008 at 06:09 PM

Second? hee hee

Posted by chinkyv101 10/08/2008 at 06:10 PM

As always, great post Steve!

Posted by tennis kad 10/08/2008 at 07:19 PM

you rock. another great story unearthed from the bowels of tennis history.

Posted by Andy C 10/08/2008 at 07:20 PM

What an enjoyable read! Who would have guessed that the "greatest generation" was coined not by Tom Brokaw, but by E. Digby Baltzell in a sociological history of tennis.

Incidentally, I just finished Pete Sampras' autobiography, written with Peter Bodo, and it sounds like the grass roots, entrepreneurial, California tennis culture played a role in Sampras' development, too.

In one scene, Sampras is contracting with a local college coach to learn the volley. In another, he’s practicing footwork in a trailer park. The most conventional part of Sampras’ development was lessons with groundstroke guru Robert Landsdorp.

Compared with the academy approach, the Sampras’ plan was largely improvised, stitched together by a loose-knit group of freelance tennis nuts sprinkled across the Los Angeles sprawl.

Posted by nora 10/08/2008 at 08:25 PM

Steve,

Bushrod Park in Oakland still has the courts Don Budge learned his tennis on. They're at 59th and Shattuck. There are three free public hard courts in a very modest public park. My daughter has soccer practice at the same park, and there's a childrens playset too. Over the years the courts have been up and down: there's a bar right across the road on Shattuck called Bosun's Locker that had a double murder about 15 years ago, and the neighbors had 59th st. shut down to through traffic to impede drug dealing. Nevertheless, it's basically a good place, and there have been regulars there consistently for many years. When they'd start up their doubles robin on a Sunday morning you could forget about getting the court off them until lunchtime at least.

I stopped playing tennis after one too many bad ankle turns on the Bushrod courts, when they were in pretty bad shape. I vividly remember lying on the ground, panting and whining, knowing I wasn't going to be playing tennis for weeks or months. The courts have got a beautiful surface now, though. The park frontage had a bit of a facelift as well, although the Canadian geese still poop all over the soccer field.

They're called the Don Budge Memorial courts, but I don't think there's anything detailed about Budge on an inscription there: there should be.

Thanks for this article.


Posted by Syd 10/08/2008 at 08:29 PM

I second Andy C and say, "what an enjoyable read." And sure pertinent to our times, though we've hardly felt the first sting of it yet, but hopefully we will not descend into a 30's dustbowl style of depression—if the gods allow. During the 20's and 30's homosexuality was a crime in both Germany and England—as well as many states in the U.S. and I believe that England did not take these laws off its books until well into the 1960s.

Actually, entertainers (and tennis players are a type of entertainers) do quite well during a depression. Everyone wants to forget their troubles.

Posted by skip1515 10/08/2008 at 10:43 PM

Steve, this was thoroughly enjoyable, and a great taste of what tennis' history is like for those whose interest is piqued by your column.

I'm not so sure Jones was the SoCal Hopman, though. While everything I've ever read or heard suggests that Hopman had a code that you broke at your peril (Bob Hewitt, anyone?), and players he kept both above and below the salt (Nails Carmichael?), he knew how to train players , was a top flite player himself, and wasn't the autocratic ruler that Jones could be. Pancho Gonzales didn't fare so well with Jones, and it's not a stretch to believe it had as much to do with Gonzales' background as it did with his loner mentality.

Plus, I had the chance to play at Hopman's facility once when he was still alive, where I learned a valuable tip about equipment. Hopman's sneakers had holes cut in them where his feet had blisters or corns, and I was told this was something he'd done for his players when they had foot problems, as well. It's worked perfectly for me when needed, and the look on other players's faces when I've taken a knife to their sneakers to help them has been priceless.

But he'd never have passed muster with Jones.

Posted by claudia celestial girl (Los Angeles) 10/08/2008 at 11:35 PM

wow - this article made my day. I was traveling on a airplane all day. Lost luggage, and watching the terrible financial news. Ironically enough i was also watching the current 'best match ever played' - the 2008 Wimbledon final - on my ipod on the airplane. I thought Rafa and Roger were the two best gentlemen in sports. But your story just shows that in a completely different generation, these two would have fit in, not stood out. Thanks for the research. I had no idea that California had such a tennis tradition. I grew up in Oakland, but didn't know about Bushrod Park. A couple more comments - I guess to the California traditions of tennis we can add the unorthodox early training of Venus and Serena Williams on the public hardcourts of Compton. I don't know much about Sam Querrey's history, but hopefully he'll add to the legendary names to come from CA.

cheers, -c

Posted by audie 10/09/2008 at 12:12 AM

We'd appreciate these '30's champions more if there were more videos of them, Budge and Gonzales especially.

Posted by md 10/09/2008 at 08:33 AM

two errors at least in this article

a. Adolf Hitler did not call Von Cramm before the match - that is an invention though it was widely believed at the time.
b. the charges relating to homosexuality brought against Von Cramm were trumped up charges - a common tactic by the Nazis to discredit opponents. Von Cramm had never hidden his distaste for the Nazis and as a national hero was hard to otherwise discredit. It is sad to see such a badly researched article on what is supposed to be an expert tennis website.

Posted by jewell 10/09/2008 at 09:34 AM

Interesting post - I love reading about tennis history.

Makes me ashamed of Wimbledon in that post-war period though.

Posted by jojo 10/09/2008 at 10:44 AM

Who cares whether your shoes are dirty? Meanwhile African Americans
were not allowed to join the USTA or compete at even club tournaments......thank goodness that era of "honor" is gone, although
many of their ideals of sportsmanship were truly honorable. I wonder if that idea of embarrassing the linesman was one that was universally held.....I thought it was considered sporting by most to give the point to the opponent after an obviously poor call

Posted by ND 10/09/2008 at 11:48 AM

Steve, You have enough material for at least three screenplays here :). They should be making movies out of all this stuff. Awesome! Thanks for the history lesson.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/09/2008 at 01:16 PM

Another gem from Stephen Tignor. Well researched and beautifully written.

And yes, the photo at top clearly demonstrates the easy grace and athleticism of the game's finest players nearly a century ago. Until Laver and Sampras came along, many considered Budge the best of all time (I'm trying to avoid using the acronym that sparks far too many debates in these forums.)

Thanks to your work, Steve, many of who knew little of the man can now count him as one of the true gentlemen of our great sport.

Posted by Well Left 10/09/2008 at 01:54 PM

Nice work, Steve. I can't wait to see your take on Marble, 'Teach' Tennant and World War II one of these days.
Thanks for covering Budge and Cramm's relationship off the court so well.

Posted by nora 10/09/2008 at 02:30 PM

md -- thanks for pointing out Steve's errors in the article. They are interesting, though minor, and presumably come from Steve's stated source for his information.

Since you have a higher standard of research than Steve, and since I don't know of any tennis website with better information, please write an article yourself. What about a detailed story (no errors, please!) on Bill Tilden or Jack Kramer or Pancho?

I look forward to reading your piece, so thanks a lot in advance!

Posted by jhurwi 10/09/2008 at 02:46 PM

Re Baron von Cramm: the Wikipedia article mentions "a lengthy article about von Cramm's career in the 5 July 1993 issue of Sports Illustrated," which I have never read but which might be of interest to those who want to know more about him. There was also a discussion of the 1937 Budge-Cramm Davis cup match at "Talk Tennis" on Tennis Warehouse.com in February 2007: tt.tennis-warehouse.com/archive/index.php/t-117105.html.

The source for the story about Hitler's phone call to Cramm was an interview given to reporters by Budge after the match. However, one of the posters in the Talk Tennis discussion said that Cramm always denied that he received such a call, and it is not mentioned in any of the German-language sources about Cramm which I was able to access online.

Posted by Charles 10/09/2008 at 03:33 PM

Great article, Steve! But let's not forget about the original California Comet, Maurice McLoughlin in the 1910's. Would love to find out more about him...

Posted by SwissMaestro 10/09/2008 at 03:59 PM

steve-

will you on top of the bracketology for the Madrid Masters Series?

Posted by jhurwi 10/09/2008 at 11:13 PM

A follow-up on Cramm and the errors cited by md:

a)His 1938 conviction for homosexuality:
Although the prosecution on a morals charge was politically motivated, the charge was not simply invented out of whole cloth. According to the New York Times account of the trial (May 15, 1938), Cramm acknowledged in court that he had had a homosexual relationship in the early 1930's with Manasse Herbst, a Jewish actor/singer, and that Herbst had subsequently blackmailed him for $12,000

b)the telephone call from Hitler: as I mentioned above, Cramm evidently denied receiving such a call, even after World War II when it would not have been politically damaging to acknowledge the call. However, it is hard to imagine why Budge would have made up such a story and told it to reporters right after the match if it had no basis in fact. Does anyone know more about this?

How times have changed department: in the 1930's, Time Magazine put tennis stars on its cover, even European ones. Here is a link to the cover depicting Cramm on 13 September 1937 http://tinyurl.com/4ejvwy.
And for the past several years we've been complaining that Roger Federer couldn't even make the cover of Sports Illustrated!


Posted by md 10/10/2008 at 06:20 AM

interesting responses to my post -

a. what is your source for Von Cramm admitting in court he had a homosexual relationship - obviously if I am wrong I am prepared to apologise to Steve. I had always read (in quite a number of books) that the charges were without foundation.

b. the source was Don Budge and he obviously believed it to be true but Von Cramm always denied it and I am inclined to believe him

Posted by md 10/10/2008 at 06:24 AM

Nora - I would not deem myself to be sufficiently expert to write an article on this era. It is one that interests me greatly though.

Posted by steve 10/10/2008 at 10:35 AM

here's an article on cramm from si in 93:

http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1138011/1/index.htm

budge said in his memoirs that a call was from hitler, cramm said it was from someone else. the writer, ron fimrite, quotes players of the time saying its was known that cramm was a homosexual, but that that those specific charges may have been trumped up.

Posted by steve 10/10/2008 at 10:40 AM

skip, it's true, perry jones couldn't teach tennis or play it well. an interesting character nonetheless. hopman just struck me as similarly devoted to tennis in all its old-guard forms. from what i know, hopman hated the professionalization of the game

Posted by howard 10/10/2008 at 11:27 AM

Also, in Baltzell's book, which is interesting and very entertaining, Gonzalez skipped school and showed up at the tennis facility early and Perry sent him away. He scolded him about his responsibiliy to himself and Gonzalez never skipped school again.

Posted by Sher 10/10/2008 at 03:54 PM

Wow, that was a great read Steve!

Actually thanks to articles like this one on tennis.com I'm getting a real zest for tennis history. I'm already reading about some tennis champions from before my time, but these guys also sound fascinating and I'm going to try looking up their biographies or any related accounts. Maybe "Sporting Gentlemen", if I can find it.

Posted by luxsword 10/10/2008 at 04:08 PM

Safin beat Davydenko ! 3 wins in a row ! Can't believe it ! This is cool ! And it's the week-end !

Sorry for the off topic, though.

Posted by steve 10/10/2008 at 04:15 PM

glad you liked it, sher. baltzell's book is available used on amazon

Posted by Kenneth 10/10/2008 at 07:08 PM

Yeah it was a great read, Steve, and I saved it for just this time when I knew I'd have little to do. You don't disappoint; in fact, if I may, you could up the output level, man! More for the masses, please.

Anyway, I'll have to agree with jojo however, in that while everyone was busy being sporting gentlemen, both blacks and homosexuals lived in second tier existence (as evidenced by your very article!). If we're to remember history proper (and I'm a major history buff), let us not forget that for a significant percentage of the world, we'd rather not return to the 'Good-Time '30s' or any period before the civil rights movement or Stonewall.

But interesting read nonetheless.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 10/10/2008 at 07:40 PM

As someone who came of age just after the Perry Jones era ended, I can say, that although I never even saw Jones, this is what we are talking about.

At the time, the Southern Cal Tennis association office was based in a small room located at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, just south of Melrose in L.A. The SoCal sectionals were played there, as was the Pacific Southwest.

LATC was basically the Bollittieri's of its day, in the sense that if you were a top ranked junior, you were invited to practice and play there.

What Jones controlled were (1) the actual rankings, and remember in the days before computers all rankings, especially junior rankings, were completely subjective, (2) the entries for national tournaments outside SoCal, and (3) the funding for travel to national tournaments outside SoCal.

Basically, if you were not favored by the USTA, you had no junior career.

Obviously, this system was prone to abuse, certainly in the case of minorities.

But when Budge was worried about Perry Jones's opinion about his tennis shoes, think about the context.

Today, if Nick Bollettieri thinks you have dirty shoes, it has no bearing on whether or not you get to play the national 16s.

Posted by Viv 10/11/2008 at 11:43 AM

Thanks,Steve,for a really great read.

Posted by md 10/14/2008 at 04:22 AM

On a final note and I hope Steve reads this I would like to thank him for writing this article. Whether or not the facts are totally correct is slightly irrelevant (I was a bit cranky when writing my earlier criticisms - I just didn't like Von Cramm being apparently smeared yet again with the homosexual tag which is irrelevant in tennis terms - he appears to have been a wonderful man and whether he was gay or bi or straight doesn't really matter) as this is a now neglected part of tennis history and was an early golden era. Just imagine the matches these players would have had in the absence of the amateur professional split.

Posted by tina 10/15/2008 at 08:34 AM

Big Bill figures into the mythology of Hollywood, too. I've read a few stars' bios from that decade, and it seemed like Tilden was everywhere, playing with all the stars on their private courts in Beverly Hills and Los Feliz. Old codgers still hang around the courts at Vermont Canyon and tell tales of those days. And as we've learned from a few of those stars' bios, gay or bi or straight didn't matter much to them, either.

Hi, nora! I didn't know that's why we never played when I lived in Oakland.


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