Snubbing Of ‘Whirlwind’ Turns ITHF To Hall Of Shame

By Doug Smith
Updated: September 8, 2007
WASHINGTON, D.C. – When will the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) do the right thing? The ITHF announced Friday three candidates for selection to the contributors section of its Hall, keeping that wing of the facility closed to African Americans and making it impossible for me to continue to support the Newport (RI)-based organization.

The 2008 candidates — the late Mark H. McCormack, the late Eugene L. Scott and Donald L. Dell — made noteworthy contributions and deserve recognition. But so does the late Dr. R. Walter (“Whirlwind”) Johnson, an unsung hero from the tennis world’s tainted past. Though Johnson died 36 years ago, he appeared on the ITHF ballot for the first time last year, but fell short of the 75% of votes needed for induction.

Left up to me, a plaque honoring Whirlwind would have been placed at the Newport facility years ago. His legacy is something that should be honored and cherished not only by African Americans, but by tennis lovers everywhere.

Just last week, the sports world glowed as the USTA paid tribute to Althea Gibson, one of Johnson’s most remarkable and talented proteges. Fittingly, Gibson, who 50 years ago became the first African American to win the U.S. Open, was honored in a stadium named for Arthur Ashe, another Johnson success story. Throughout their lives Gibson and Ashe, the only African American male to win Grand Slam titles (U.S. Open 1968, Australian Open (1970), Wimbledon 1975), repeatedly praised and thanked Johnson for being the wind beneath their wings.

I know of Whirlwind’s meritorious service not from what others have said, but rather from what I saw as a teen. He inspired me and so many other African American youngsters with his vision, determination and generosity.

From the early 50s until his death in 1971, Whirlwind sponsored and nurtured hundreds of African American juniors, including Gibson and Ashe, the only black players who have been inducted into the ITHF. During the era of racial segregation, no one did more to change the face, if not the heart, of the tennis world than the soft-spoken, tough-as-nails physician.

I was 18 years old when I met Whirlwind in 1960 at his Lynchburg, Va. home, where he had built a tennis court in his backyard. I was among a group of black juniors, including a skinny kid from Richmond, Va. named Ashe, invited to train together on Whirlwind’s backyard court before competing at the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) Interscholastic Championships in Charlottesville, Va.

For two weeks, I enjoyed the comfort of his home, three meals a day and — as far as I knew — the best training conditions for juniors anywhere. Rackets were strung free of charge, new clothes and shoes were provided when needed, and we always started practice sets with new balls. His backyard training camp was a prelude to the high-tech training academies/camps, such as those now run by tennis gurus Nick Bollettieri, Rick Macci and former champion Chris Evert.

Because he wanted us to be accepted as people, as well as players, he also gave us lessons in humility. Recognizing that tennis fans occasionally might be as insulting and dangerous as some baseball fans were to Jackie Robinson. Whirlwind indoctrinated his young guests with a variation of the turn-the-other-cheek philosophy that Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey instilled in Robinson.

He demanded that his players always display manners beyond reproach. He instructed us never to argue with the umpire and insisted that balls hit close to the line be called in favor of the opponent, even if we knew that the call was incorrect. He also gave us etiquette lessons each night at the dinner table. I remember still the simple lessons. Once he told me, “Remember Doug, when eating soup, always scoop your soup away from your body.”

Years later, when I learned that Whirlwind had operated his backyard training camp for more than 20 years, I decided to document his life story. The task, which took 20 years to complete, was published two years ago. It’s entitled Whirlwind: The Godfather of Black Tennis.

Among other things, it outlines why Whirlwind long ago should have been inducted into the ITHF. Among the reasons:

— At a time when blacks were barred from competing in most USLTA sanctioned events, Whirlwind made his presence felt on the predominantly white junior circuit and became the tennis world’s premier civil rights pioneer.

– He built a tennis court in his backyard in 1936 and founded the American Tennis Association (ATA) Junior Development program in the early 1950s. The ATA, which was formed in 1916 by a group of African American physicians, lawyers, businessmen and college professors, provided African Americans with the opportunity to compete and socialize with other tennis lovers, activities we were barred from experiencing in the USLTA.

– He was the main force behind the careers of champions, Gibson and Ashe, the other African Americans in the players’ wing of the Hall.

– So many others inspired directly/indirectly by Whirlwind continue to make major contributions to the world of tennis as administrators/directors and coaches: Former pro Zina Garrison, U.S. Fed Cup captain; Rodney Harmon, USTA’s director of men’s tennis; Leslie Allen, the first African American named a USTA tournament director and first to become chairperson of the U.S. Fed Cup team and Willis Thomas, ATA president and director of tennis with the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation in Washington, D.C., all were touched or influenced by Whirlwind.

Whirlwind isn’t the only African American tennis administrator worthy of praise and recognition for making major contributions to the tennis world. Indeed, the tennis hierarchy should follow the example set by Major League Baseball (MLB) and sift through the ATA’s annals and historical documents and then open its Hall of Fame doors to the black achievers who kept the game alive for people of color during that era of racial segregation.

A five-year study, funded by MLB, identified 17 players and executives from the Negro Baseball League and pre-Negro leagues worthy of being inducted into its Cooperstown facility. They all were inducted in July 2006.

“18 players from the Negro League already were in the Hall of Fame, but we knew there were many more who deserved to have plaques on the wall,” said Dale Petroskey, president of baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. “We wanted to honor and recognize them as quickly as we possibly could.”

In some ways, the tennis world is as closed to African Americans as it was in 1950 when Gibson became the first African American to compete in the U.S. Nationals (now U.S. Open). In the preceding years, ATA repeatedly had urged USLTA officials to give Gibson a chance to demonstrate her talent against white opponents. Having no respect for blacks, they ignored the ATA’s pleas. But shortly after Alice Marble, then one of the game’s top women’s players, publicly condemned them, they let Gibson play.

Tennis great John McEnroe already has publicly advocated Johnson’s induction. Would it help if other tennis greats, including Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras spoke passionately and publicly for Johnson’s induction as Marble did for Gibson? Would that prompt ITHF powers-to-be to find a way to correct a long-standing injustice?

In a letter to ITHF representative Tony Trabert, Johnson’s grandsons, Julian and Lange, expressed their dismay about their grandfather’s latest rejection. Among other things, they wrote: “Equality and justice are two principles, it is said, that distinguish the United States from other nations — yet, only for some. Who contributed more to those precepts in tennis than Dr. Johnson? Where is the equality and justice for Dr. Johnson? He left tennis far better off than he found it — or so we thought. If the criteria were truly one’s contribution to the game, versus politics and race, my grandfather would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame long ago.”

Dr. Johnson’s grandsons ended the letter noting that the ITHF’s refusal to honor Dr. Johnson “makes it clear that the Hall and the sport have forgotten some of its most important history.”

My sense is that they have not forgotten Dr. Johnson’s contributions; they have ignored them.

I’ve loved tennis as a player and journalist/author for more than 50 years and, despite an occasional brush with undisguised racism at various levels of the tennis world, I’ve always wanted to believe that the game’s governing body worked to insure inclusiveness. I no longer believe that. For the last eight years, I’ve tried to convince ITHF officials to open its doors to a man who unquestionably made lasting contributions to the tennis world.

At the U.S. Open this year, the ITHF sponsored a Breaking the Barriers exhibit, recognizing all the African American pioneers. It should make that exhibit a permanent part of the Hall and it should move now to reserve a spot for Whirlwind Johnson.

By turning its back on Johnson, the ITHF has turned its back, not only on black America, but on all who value fairness and justice. Now — not next year or next week — is the time for the ITHF to turn around, face and admit its failures on this issue, and find a way to do the right thing.