Three Years After Jackie, Althea
Three years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s racial barrier, another athlete who was born into a family of southern sharecroppers cracked open the U.S. National Championships,
Three Years After Jackie, Althea
Three years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s racial barrier, another athlete who was born into a family of southern sharecroppers cracked open the U.S. National Championships, forerunner of today’s U.S. Open.
Sixty-seven years ago this week, Althea Gibson became the first tennis player of color to swing a racket at the Nationals. Having built a winning portfolio with the American Tennis Association (ATA) and granted entry to compete at an all-white tennis club, the 23-year old subsequently made her debut in Forest Hills on August 28, 1950.
Founded in 1916, the ATA was the tennis version of the Negro League, black America’s answer to the practice of banning African-Americans from competing alongside whites.
But tennis was different. Entering the Nationals was not the same as breaking into a mass-consumption pastime sport like baseball. A mostly unpaid recreational pursuit, lawn tennis embodied the added hurdles of money, class and status.
Gibson’s initiation was more historic than triumphant. She lost in the second round of her inaugural tournament to the #3 seeded Wimbledon titlist, Louise Brough. It would take a half-dozen years and plenty of frustrations before landing her first trophy at the 1956 French Open.
What followed were two consecutive seasons of victories at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. By the end of her amateur career in 1958, she would clinch 5 singles grand slams.
Gibson was the first black champion in Wimbledon’s 80-year history and the first to receive the trophy personally from Queen Elizabeth II. She remarked that shaking hands with the monarch “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus”.
The tennis prodigy also stormed the doubles scene. In addition to a playing partner, Gibson found a soul mate in Angela Buxton, a Jewish tennis virtuoso who herself ran up against discrimination in her native England.
Together, the pair captured the doubles competitions at the French Open and at Wimbledon in 1956; the feat was as much a bold statement in the face of the elite tennis world as it was an athletic achievement.
Gibson was named Female Athlete of The Year by AP in 1957 & 1958. “Sports Illustrated” and “Time” both had her on their front covers, the first black woman to be featured.
Though born in the South, young Althea grew up in Harlem and started drawing attention after winning paddle tennis matches. A cadre of upper class black professionals took over and provided training and guidance. Boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson was one of her patrons.
At the time, players qualified for the Nationals by accumulating points at sanctioned tournaments, most of which were by invitation and held at private white-only clubs.
The unlikely tennis star, who was born in a rural shack and brought up on the streets of New York, was groomed with the necessary grace and elegance expected of ladies on the tennis court.
But it wasn’t until Alice Marble, a 1930’s American tennis celebrity, published an indicting article against the sport’s policy of segregation, that Gibson was allowed entry.
In July, 1950, Gibson received an invitation to the Eastern grass court championships at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, NJ. Her performance there was good enough to win a bid to Forest Hills.
And the rest as they say, is history.
FOOTBALL August 7, 2010 Wide receiver Jerry Rice is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Mississippi native spent most of his career with the San Francisco 49ers from 1985-2000, building a reputation as one of the greatest wide receivers in NFL history. Rice racked up a career record of 1,549 receptions, which included 197 touchdowns. Coming out of Mississippi Valley State, he won 3 Super Bowls with the 49ers (XXIII, XXIV, XXIX) and became a 13x Pro-bowler.
BOXING August 12, 2000 Evander Holyfield defeats John Ruiz in a unanimous decision to win the vacant WBA heavyweight title. It was their first faceoff in a trilogy that would see a win for each, plus a draw. Holyfield fought the greatest names of his era such as George Foreman, Buster Douglas, Riddick Bowe, and Lennox Lewis. In the infamous “Bite Fight” against Mike Tyson, Holyfield had a piece of his ear bitten off by Tyson. He retired in 2011 with a record of 57:44-10-3.
BASEBALL August 6, 1990 Jim Palmer is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The life-long Orioles pitcher played 19 years with Baltimore from 1965-1984, compiling a win/loss record of 268/152, ERA of 2.86, and strikeouts of 2,212. Palmer was a 6x All-Star and 3-time World Series winner (1966, 1970, 1983). Thrice a recipient of the Cy Young Award, he was the winningest pitcher in major league baseball during the 1970s decade.
GOLF August 10, 1980 Jack Nicklaus wins his 5th and final PGA Championship by firing 274 (-6), or 7 strokes ahead of runner-up Andy Bean. The 40-year old had won the U.S. Open just 2 months earlier following the worst year in his illustrious career (1979) when he failed to clinch any tour matches. The PGA victory at the Oakhill Country Club in Rochester, New York was the 17th major in his professional life. He ended his career with 18 titles, the highest on record.