How Texas Tennis Survived The Great Depression & WWII
The Great Depression
The boom that Texas and the country experienced in the twenties ended as panic led to the stock market crash and the country headed into the Great Depression. When the Dust Bowl hit West Texas, the problems there were compounded. Oil was big in Texas, but by 1933 oil prices had plummeted from $1.10 in 1931 to just 10¢ a barrel. The effects of the Depression were felt all the way to the country club and to the tennis court.
Bud Turner, who grew up playing for Charlie McCleary in Waco, Texas, thought back to his days traveling during the Depression. “I marvel at the tennis tournaments now. They [tennis players now] come up in these corvettes and mobile homes. When we went to tournaments, we would wear our tennis clothes and we would carry a paper bag and our tennis racquets, and we'd carry a sign for where we wanted to go. Three or four cars would go by and then one would give us a lift. We would have a dollar and a half in our pocket to play a tournament and a paper sack. We’d always carry a pair of socks and a shirt for the finals in the paper sack. I remember in Austin we slept on the State Capitol lawn overnight. The guard came, but we didn’t have anyplace else. He just said, ‘You boys hold it down.’ He realized we were there for tennis, that we were tennis players since we wore our tennis clothes.”
Edgar Weller, who was inducted in the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 1990, grew up playing on the Austin Athletic Club courts during the Depression. “Nobody had any money. I don’t know how they found the money to let me be a member of the club - my folks, that is. It was a really tough time. You just did what you could. You used balls till they were frazzled. I’m sure it hurt every sport at that time. People were more worried about living than they were playing. Tennis wasn’t a big sport back in those days. It didn’t come to be big until [Lamar] Hunt got it on television [World Championship Tennis].”
Country club memberships dropped with some members forced to resign over delinquent dues. Not all was lost in the tennis world, however. Some determined individuals and groups not only kept tennis going, but also started new tennis endeavors. Jack Norton of Houston ignored the challenges of raising money during such tough times and started the River Oaks Tournament. The tournament went on to become the oldest tournament in the nation to be held at the original site. In 2008 the River Oaks tournament was merged with the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships.
Charlie McCleary, of Waco, also ignored the Depression and built the Waco Lawn Tennis Club with money raised from memberships. He was only eighteen years old at the time. McCleary’s juniors became some of the best in the country, winning the state tournament twice in a row and making it to the semifinals of the National Interscholastic Tournament with two teams. One of those teams, Bud Turner and Moe Brown, made the finals.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s a number of great players rose out of Texas. Berkeley Bell, Bruce Barnes, Wilmer Allison, Edgar Weller, Karl Kamrath and Bob Kamrath all came out of the Austin Athletic Club. Weller recalled, “All the UT players went and played there, when they weren’t playing at school. There was an incentive to get better, to have a chance to play with them.” Wilmer Allison won the National Intercollegiate Championship in 1927. Berkeley Bell won it in ‘29. In 1929, ‘30 and ‘31 Bruce Barnes won the Southwest Conference in both singles and doubles. He and Karl Kamrath won the national title in 1931. After finishing college, Barnes joined Bill Tilden’s professional tour group and traveled the world playing tennis. Allison played Davis Cup from 1929 to 1936. In 1935 he won the U.S. National Championship (now the U.S. Open). Rice University also saw success nationally during the 1930s. Wilbur Hess won the National Intercollegiate title in 1935. Frank Guernsey followed him with back-to-back national collegiate titles in 1938 and 1939.
World War II
At the end of the 1930s, World War II descended upon the world. Wimbledon, the French Championships, and Davis Cup stopped play. "We shall now, for a time, be able to draw a long breath, look about calmly and decide upon the best manner of dealing with our domestic problems,” Samuel L. Hardy, editor of the Official Lawn Tennis Guide, reflected in the 1940 edition. On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the people of the United States were caught up in the war. Approximately three-quarters of a million Texans served in uniform in WWII. Others served by volunteering in other ways. Some gave their lives.
“There was just a void there for a while. Everyone that was eligible was drafted,” recalled Edgar Weller, who was stationed in California during the war. Wilmer Allison left for the US Army Airways Communications Systems the day after he defeated George Ball in the 1941 Texas Sectional Tournament. He won the match after fighting back from two sets and 1-5, with a match point down in the third to a fifth set victory. River Oaks cancelled their tournament in 1942 and wouldn’t restart it again until 1946. Tennis equipment, shoes, and string were hard to get. Rubber from tennis balls was needed for tires. Gasoline rationing made local travel difficult. Travel overseas was restricted. The 1943 Beaumont Tournament ended up with a field of only twenty men and twenty women as a result.
Public opinion was divided on the value of sports in wartime and what role tennis would play. Some believed that all tournaments should be discontinued. However, “the sounder view prevailed that tennis in cooperation with other sports can be helpful in war as well as in peace and should be carried on as long as our Government approves,” Holcomb Ward, president of the USLTA reported in 1943. He went on to describe the role tennis played, “Tournaments have been used to raise money for war relief. The Service Bulletins have stressed the value of tennis in school athletics, and have taken part in campaigns to sell War Saving Stamps, to collect prizes for scrap metal and to distribute used tennis balls for play in army camps.”
Many army camps in Texas had tennis courts. Some officers encouraged their men to play. The 1943 Official USLTA Tennis Guide reported that the Army Aviation Training Command included tennis as a sport they recommend for young men learning to fly because “playing the game contributes greatly to endurance, speed, agility and coordination.” Bud Turner, of Waco, was encouraged to spend time playing when his instructor found out that he was a good player. “The PT instructor was a tennis fan and he flew me around to different tournaments…Lubbock, Victoria, Elgin Field in Houston, Randolph Field.” The war brought Bryan Morel “Bitsy” Grant to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Grant, winner of the National Clay Court Championship in 1934 and ‘35 and number three in the nation in 1935 and ‘36, won the 1943 Texas Sectional Championship.
Edgar Weller was able to play every day while he was stationed at a hospital in California. “From time to time, several of us would play exhibitions with film stars. There wasn’t much chance to play tennis for many. I just happen to be in a position to play. There weren’t any formations or anything like that at the hospital.” Leo LaBorde, Texas Junior Champion in the 1930’s and number two singles player for the University of Texas in the 1940s, was unable to defend his title in the Beaumont Tournament in 1945 when he was sent to the Naval Repair Base in San Diego. He did however have the opportunity to play such national stars as Ted Schroeder, Frank Shields and Jack Kraemer while he was there. “That’s where I played my best tennis. Nick Carter from San Francisco was stationed there, and by playing with him he got my game up,” LaBorde explained. Similarly, Clarence Mabry, while serving in the Naval Air Corps, was able to play with such stars as Bill Tilden, Vinnie Richards and Karel Kozeluh when he played War Bond Tournaments with the group up and down the East Coast.
“People did what they could do. If they loved to play, they would find a way to play - try to take your racquet with you. If you ever got a chance, you could even hit against the wall.” Edgar Weller explained. Charlie McCleary had to stop publication of Lone Star Tennis, his first magazine covering tennis in Texas when he was called to serve. He did, however, take his tennis racquet with him on board the ship that took him overseas for two years in the North African and European Theater. Towson Ellis, winner of over 69 Texas major zone tournaments and three national age-division tournaments, brought his racquet with him on the cramped quarters of a submarine in 1946. He was able to play in Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines.
Jim Schulze wasn’t able to play for three years while he served as a troop carrier pilot. When D-Day came, he flew directly into danger. “We started at midnight and dropped paratroopers. There was ten miles of airplanes flying over Germany in the dark. The first battery of twenty-millimeter guns shot at us. The bullets looked like water streaming up at us and then quickly passed in front of our wings. We approached the second battery, flying on the wing of another carrier. That carrier got hit. Fire exploded from the plane as paratroopers continued to jump. The plane veered away but suddenly turned back toward us. I put it into full forward and up to avoid being rammed by the plane, now out of the control of the pilot. Their crew didn’t make it.” Schulze’s honors include a Bronze Star, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Special Citation for Smoke Screen Mission.
Walter Driver, the 1940 Texas high school champion was called to active duty in the United States Air Force one week after winning the 1943 National Intercollegiate Doubles Championship for The University of Texas. He remembered all of his friends from tennis that didn’t return from the war, “It was a bad time for our age group.” “It has been a source of wonder to me all these years how I lost very few friends from high school, only a couple from my UT fraternity, but a relatively very large number from the tennis world of the time,” Walter wrote in July of 2000.
The Don Goldbeck Memorial Trophy is named after a Texas tennis player who was killed in the war. Don Goldbeck was an outstanding player in boy’s singles and doubles. He had achieved a national ranking of number eight in the country and played a semester at the University of Texas, before he joined the Naval Air Corps. He was killed during a mission in 1945. Don’s father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. E. O. Goldbeck of San Antonio, donated the trophy to the Texas Lawn Tennis Association in memory of their son. Since 1945, the trophy has represented the Texas Section Men’s Singles Championship. Each year the champion’s name is engraved on the base of the trophy.
Back in Texas, Dallas Morning News reported that Mary Zita McHale Jacoby, a top player in Texas in the late 1920s and 1930s, felt compelled to “ ‘do something more concrete’ than aid in war charity drives, ‘something in which I could see the results of my work actually going into the war against the enemy.’ ” Mary Zita went to work in the North American Aviation plant in Dallas as a factory worker and converted her wages into U.S. defense bonds. Mary Zita’s husband Oswald Jacoby, a famous bridge player and mathematician, worked on the Navel Intelligence team that cracked the Japanese military codes, according to his 1984 obituary in the Houston Chronicle. Cracking the code helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. John McDiarmid, a former TCU player, ranked seven in the USLTA in 1936, served in the Civil Service Commission during the war. In 1946 he participated in the drafting of the United Nations Charter and then joined its staff.
Texas Tennis Rebuilds
When the war ended and tennis players returned to Texas, they found their courts in poor shape. They were faced with the prospect of rebuilding. Charlie McCleary’s Waco Lawn Tennis Club fell into disrepair during the war. When he came back to Waco, he and Bud Turner measured the grounds of Sul Ross Park for a new facility. Years later, after much persistence, Charlie saw the new city tennis facility built on that site. The facility was later renamed the Charlie McCleary Tennis Center. Austin players returning from war found that their favorite clay courts at the old Austin Athletic Club had been cemented over for use as a dance floor and skating rink. The 1948 Austin Tennis News Letter reported, “The War almost killed tennis in Austin.” Immediately after the war, a group of Austinites led by William T. Caswell formed the Austin Tennis Club with hopes of building a new municipal tennis center. The new center, named after Caswell was completed in 1948.
Leo LaBorde found that the war had also left a shortage of good junior players “The junior tennis in Texas was really low. That’s why I was looking to raise the level. We didn’t have very many good coaches at the time.” LaBorde went to work as a tennis coach for the Baytown, Texas school system. His teams won the high school team tournament three years in a row, 1951 to ‘53 and repeated for another three years in a row 1955 to ‘57.
Texas tennis survived depression and war. Out of the ruins, tennis would grow and thrive. Texans would again rise to national prominence and tournaments would be formed that would change the tennis world. These tournaments included World Championship Tennis, Virginia Slims, and Battle of the Sexes.
This write-up originated as a story by Greta Knoll, Texas Tennis Museum & Hall of Fame in 2001 for Tennis Life Magazine. Transcripts from the interviews are a part of the Texas Tennis Museum and Hall of Fame collection. Information and exhibits on inductees are on display at the Museum.
Galloway, Diane, Dallas Country Club: The First 100 Years.
Hardy, Samuel and Irving C. Wright: Wright & Ditson Officially Adopted Lawn Tennis Guide 1940. New York: American Sports Publishing Co., 1940.
McComb, David G., Texas: A Modern History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.
The Official United States Lawn Tennis Association Tennis Guide 1943. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company Publishers, 1943.
Vertical Files, Texas Tennis Museum & Hall of Fame, Waco, Texas.
Members of the Hall of Fame interviewed by author:
Clarence Mabry Class of 1982
Walter Driver Class of 1988
Jim Schulze Class of 1989
Edgar Weller Class of 1990
Leo LaBorde Class of 1996
Karl Kamrath, Jr. Class of 1997
Towson Ellis Class of 2000
Charles “Bud” Turner
"When we went to tournaments, we would wear our tennis clothes and we would carry a paper bag and our tennis racquets, and we'd carry a sign for where we wanted to go. Three or four cars would go by and then one would give us a lift." - Bud Turner
Bud Turner at Waco Lawn Tennis Club
“People did what they could do. If they loved to play, they would find a way to play - try to take your racquet with you. If you ever got a chance, you could even hit against the wall.” - Edgar Weller
Frank Guernsey brought his racquet with him while serving as a fighter pilot in the Air Force during WWII.