Controversial entry into Hall
Author: Stan Hochman
BIG BILL TILDEN was the first American to win Wimbledon. Won it again, 10 years later, at age 37, the oldest player to win Wimbledon. Won every tournament he entered for a 6-year stretch. Played on seven consecutive Davis Cup championship teams.
Tilden dominated tennis in the 1920s, a golden age of sports that included Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, and Jack Dempsey. Big Bill, that's what the writers called him even though he was only 6-1 and a lean 170 pounds. Called him "a man of mystery" because they didn't want to write that he was a homosexual, prancing to the strum of his own lyre, even when he began traveling with handpicked teenage ball boys.
Tilden, who was born in Germantown, died in 1953. Coronary thrombosis. Maybe all that smoking, all those steaks, all that ice cream, all that stress. Died alone, at 60, in a Los Angeles apartment, battered, practically broke, virtually friendless, $88 to his name. This was after he'd been jailed twice, first for contributing to the delinquency of a 14-year-old boy, and then again, for violating probation, this time with a teenage hitchhiker.
Frank Deford wrote a compassionate book about him in 1975, "Big Bill Tilden." And now, A.R. Gurney has transformed that book into a thought-provoking play called "Big Bill" that is currently in previews at the Newhouse Theatre at New York's Lincoln Center.
Last week, Tilden was among 19 athletes and managers inducted into the brand-new Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, an institution, in its own words, "dedicated to honoring those athletes, coaches, teams . . . that have, through athletics, brought pride and glory to the great city of Philadelphia . . ."
It couldn't have been easy, kicking the doors wide open, first year, honoring someone who spent time in the slammer for molesting a kid, even though the kid had a troubled history and what went on was said to be consensual.
"We debated for over a year," said Hall of Fame founder Ken Avallon. "Eight of us, the board of directors, and the majority didn't feel we needed to be in position to judge people.
"The arguments focused on Tilden and Pete Rose. It was a tough decision, but we decided to make the criteria what they accomplished on the field. It is the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Honor."
Debate it if you must. Baseball asks its voters to consider character and integrity when choosing Hall of Famers. Football doesn't. No one is sure how basketball's electoral process works.
Deford was not surprised that Tilden was in the first crop of Philadelphia inductees. "If you're selecting them on the basis of quality of play," he said, "then Tilden is going to be at the top of the tree. He's got to be in the top three or four." And if he were playing today? "People are always making the argument when comparing athletes of different eras, 'Would he be big enough?' "Deford said. "Red Grange, at 5-9, 160, for example.
Well, Tilden had all the physical attributes. "He was dedicated enough, although he smoked, and didn't train that well. But he dominated his era and he'd be just as good today."
And if Deford wrote his book today?
"Good question," he said. "There's a lot more understanding about homosexuality. I had dinner with the playwright the other day, and with John Michael Higgins, who plays Tilden. "We talked about today's more liberal attitude, and whether the world would be more accommodating today. The thing is, there is much less sympathy for a pedophile. "I thought I was as sympathetic as I could be in the book. The guy was a tragic figure, a sad, sad man."
"He descended, literally, into hell," said Marilyn Fernberger, the organizer of the Philadelphia indoor championships for so many gaudy years. "It was all part of an era. Acceptance today would be very different.
"He is one of the greatest players ever. He's in the tennis Hall of Fame, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The USTA recently honored him as the male player of the Golden Era of the U.S. Open.
"My husband, Ed, and I collect tennis memorabilia. And when some of Tilden's trophies came on the market we bought the runner-up trophy from the Philadelphia Indoor tournament, 1916. After that, he retired from competition for a while and changed his game. Reformed it. And from then on out, he never lost anything."
Developed a twisting second serve to go with his booming "Cannonball" first serve. Studied opponents and beat them at their own game, boxing with the boxers and slugging with the sluggers. Wrote textbooks about the game, including "Match Play and the Spin of the Ball."
There's a scene in the play where a Penn student working on a research paper discovers that the university library has snatched Tilden's books from the shelves. Well, they're back now, and Tilden is in Penn's tennis Hall of Fame, even if he didn't make the varsity in his first try, in 1915. His picture is back on the walls at Germantown Cricket Club. And the tennis courts at Germantown Academy, from which he graduated, are named for him.
He was flamboyant, arriving at the court wearing his trademark camel's-hair coat. He never showered with the other competitors and toward the end, he seldom showered at all. He could be kind and he could be cruel.
The bitter side is symbolized in Gurney's play by the episode involving French champion Suzanne Lenglen. Tilden baits her into playing a set with him by bumbling through a warm-up with one of his protégés. And then he smokes her, 6-0.
If he won a point on a linesman's bad call, he'd give it back. He fought the stodgy establishment and he was a pioneer on the pro tour, competing into his 50s. Squandered much of his money backing bad Broadway plays. Even acted in a couple. In the play, someone sneers at his qualifications as an actor. Tilden sighs and says, in anguish, "I've been acting all my life."
Game, set and match.