Pages

Saturday, September 29, 2018

THE WOODIN CUPS | Where the Trophies Are Now

Alice Tepper Marlin with the gold Woodin
 Singles Cup. Thanks to the ITHF for
 showing the cups and permission to 
post photo (by JT Marlin).

NEWPORT, R.I., September 29, 2018 —Yesterday, after lunch at Castle Hill in Newport, Alice and I visited the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) with classmates.

The ITHF led us on a one-hour tour arranged for Portsmouth Abbey School alumni attending our 60th reunion.

The tour was ably led by ITHF docent Liz Morancy, who was a fount of information about tennis history. 

The ITHF wisely encourages photos (how else can people learn what a great place it is to visit?), but does not allow videos, or taking photos with flash.


The Sold-Gold Woodin Cups

By special advance arrangement, after the tour, Alice and I were taken upstairs to the Information Research Center that houses the museum’s library, archives, and staff offices, where the Curator of Collections, Nicole Markham showed us the Woodin Gold Cups. These trophies were awarded in 1926-1949 by the Maidstone Club, East Hampton, N.Y., in an annual invitational tournament for women. Top-ranked women players were invited to come to East Hampton to compete on the Maidstone Club grass courts for the cups.

The smaller Woodin Doubles Cup is
one of two, each valued in 1926 at
$2,000 ($30,000 today). The larger
Singles Cup may be worth $100,000.
Since 2016, when I first wrote about the Woodin Cups (https://bit.ly/2NPj1qA), I have been eager to locate and look at the cups. They were of unusually high value and were of great significance in signaling in the 1920s that women's tennis tournaments should be given the same level of respect as the men's. 

They were the only solid-gold cups offered as prizes in any tennis tournament, men's or women's. 

The pineapple-topped Wimbledon gold cups for men, for example, are not solid gold—they are sterling-silver cups with gilding. Women champions are awarded sterling-silver plates that have some gilding.

In the photo that leads off this post, Alice Tepper Marlin holds in her cloth-gloved hands the gorgeous gold cup with a portrait of William McChesney Martin (ITHF Hall of Fame Class of 1982) in the background.

It's appropriate to note Martin's portrait because when cup donor Will Woodin became Secretary of the Treasury in 1933 under FDR, he was also ex officio Chairman of the Federal Reserve System. This was Martin's position (by appointment, not ex officio; the law was changed during FDR's long administration) when I was an economist at the Fed in Washington in 1964-66.

Martin became Honorary Chairman of the ITHF. He was married to Cynthia, daughter of Dwight Davis, founder of the Davis Cup, the first major international tennis cup. Martin was, by the way, the longest-serving Fed Chairman ever (Alan Greenspan is in second place).

Under the challenge-cup terms of the Woodin Cup, it was loaned to the victors for a year. There would be three winners each year, one singles winner and two doubles winners (duh!).


When Childe Hassam was visiting East Hampton,
he made sketches of Helen Wills preparing for
the Woodin Cup play at Maidstone. Source: ITHF.
When it was won three times (by the same two doubles players, in the case of the doubles cup), the cup became the property of the winner. 


The Maidstone Club, through the Woodin Cup, became a major facilitator of gender equality in tennis. The support of the club and its members, who provided lodging and other in-kind assistance to the female tennis players, helped women's tennis attract an audience and therefore enabled the organizational apparatus that made women's tennis a permanent fixture.


Woodin Cup winners who went on to become Grand Slam champions include Alice Marble, Helen Hull Jacobs, Molla Mallory and Helen Wills [later Moody]. All of them are also members of the ITHF. Marble was inducted in 1964; Jacobs in 1962; Mallory in 1958; and Wills in 1959. Jacobs and Wills were fierce opponents, whose games were called "the battle of the Helens".

Helen Wills Sketch, 1924.
Source: ITHF.
Famed artist Childe Hassam made many sketches of Helen Wills Moody. Three of them are in the ITHF. Two of them are shown here.


Spectators were drawn to the sport as the skills of women tennis players grew. The original long-skirted women's tennis outfits, which hampered play and made women’s tennis a slower game, were reduced in length, allowing women greater freedom to run and return the ball. Many of the early outfits used in women's tennis are on display at the International Tennis Hall of Fame; one of them features a tennis costume that looks like a ballet tutu. Helen Wills often wore a knee-length sailor suit. Charlie Chaplin was once asked what the most beautiful thing was that he ever saw. He answered: “The movement of Helen Wills playing tennis.” 

End of the Gold Cups 

In 1949, Louise Brough won both the Singles and the Doubles cups for the third time (with the same doubles partner, Margaret Osborne duPont, although the record is confusing because of her marriage and name change between the first and second tournaments).

Helen Wills Sketch, 1926.
Source: ITHF.
Louise Brough Clapp donated her two golden Woodin trophies to the Museum in 1997. She died in 2014. 


After 1949, the golden Woodin Cups at the Maidstone Club were replaced by three silver ones by the eldest child of Will and Nan Woodin, Anne Woodin Miner. 

These silver invitational Woodin Cups were presented annually for six years, until 1955. Anne Miner's son Charles (usually called Charlie, like his father) and her daughter-in-law Maisie took over from their mother,  along with fellow Maidstone member and cousin Anne Gerli. 

Maisie Miner was born Mae Hoffman in Charlotte, North Carolina and grew up in the south until she married Charlie, whom she met while he was training at a U.S. Army Air Forces base in the south during World War II.



Althea Gibson and the End of the Cups 

By 1949, Althea Gibson came to tennis prominence. She was born in tiny Silver, in Clarendon County, South Carolina, near Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. Gibson's family moved to New York City to improve their access to good jobs. Young Gibson became a star paddle-tennis and basketball player and adapted easily from these games to win at the Harlem River Tennis Courts. She started winning the American Tennis Association (for African-Americans, who were excluded from mainstream tennis) tournaments, won a sports scholarship to Florida A&M, and won the ATA women's singles championship every year from 1947 to 1956. (Source: https://www.tennisfame.com/hall-of-famers/inductees/althea-gibson.)

Long before Arthur Ashe came on the scene in men's tennis, Gibson became a leading player. She was the first African-American of either gender to win the women's singles trophy at both the U.S. National Championship, in 1950, and Wimbledon, in 1951. The only comparable U.S. predecessor in breaking through the color barrier in spectator sports was Jackie Robinson in baseball.

Given the fact that a long-uprooted southern lady was then closely involved in decisions about the Woodin Cup, it is unsurprising that Gibson was not invited to play at Maidstone, which was not as unanimously ready to  pioneer in reducing 
barriers to competition on the racial front as it was on the gender front.


However, many Maidstone members who were aware of Gibson's extraordinary tennis skills favored inviting her to play at Maidstone and some offered to provide her with a place to stay in their homes.

The intra-club controversy in the mid-1950s over inviting her might have been decided in favor of Gibson, but there was another consideration. The costs to the Maidstone Club of remaining in the fast-growing professional tennis circuit were rising. The Maidstone invitational tournament for women might have ended anyway; the controversy was the catayst.

Althea Gibson proved herself a star within two years. She won:


  • the women’s singles and doubles French Nationals in 1956,
  • the Australian Nationals in women's doubles in 1957,
  • the single women’s at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1957-1958,
  • the women’s doubles at Wimbledon in 1956-1958,
  • mixed doubles at the U.S. Nationals in 1957, and
  • the title of top-ranked woman player in the world in 1957. 
International Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee (1973) Althea Gibson. This was a
major hurdling of the spectator-sports color bar, 1951-57. Source: ITHF.
By the end of the 1958 season, Gibson had won 58 combined singles and doubles titles. She had compiled an impressive 53-9 record at the majors (16-1 at Wimbledon; 27-7 at the U.S.; 6-0 at the French; 4-1 at the Australian) and had been a member of the 1957-1958 Wightman Cup teams, helping the team win a championship in 1957.

Robert Ryland, who was playing tennis at the same time as Gibson and became coach to Venus and Serena Williams, said that Gibson would probably have beaten the Williams sisters. Certainly, he said, Martina Navratilova "couldn't touch her.” He considers Gibson one of the greatest tennis players that ever lived.
Women's Tennis Costumes on Display at the ITHF.
One in front looks like a ballet dancer's tutu.

In 1958, however, Gibson abruptly retired from tennis. She wanted to turn
professional and decided she couldn’t afford to keep playing tennis under the rules of the day. There then wasn’t much money to be made in professional women’s tennis.

That happened, the record suggests, because women's professional tennis was a stepchild to men’s tennis. The running of the tournaments and governance of the sport was dominated by men, resulting in a lack of attention to equal treatment of men and women.

Gibson's solution to her financial needs was to turn to professional golf. In 1964, at age 37, she became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.

Our docent  Liz, in front of a case
of ancient cans of tennis balls.
Gibson's earnings rose when she switched to golf. She won many matches and earned thousands of dollars.

However, the money was still not enough to pay her bills. She struggled to make ends meet towards the end of her life when she was widowed. Her friends periodically took up collections for her.

The New Silver Cups

Following the death of Will Woodin's granddaughter Anne Gerli in 2016, the Maidstone Club reinstituted cups for women's tennis, after a hiatus of six decades! Three new silver cups were donated by Gerli's three daughters for intramural women's tennis at Maidstone (https://bit.ly/2NPj1qA).

Thanks to the ITHF for arranging an exciting visit, especially to the docent, Liz Morancy, and Curator, Nicole Markham, who showed us the Woodin gold cups and provided helpful comments on the history of the gender and color barriers in tennis.

The content of this post is part of a draft of a forthcoming biography of William H. Woodin and his family as well as other possible publications. The text and personal photos for the book are copyright © 2013-2018 by John Tepper Marlin. Please respect the rights of the author to the output of the thinking, time, and expense he has devoted to collecting this material about the Woodin Cup. Please forward only the link to this post. Do not cut-and-paste blocks of material, which eliminates the source of the document. Please contact him if you wish permission to distribute this further other than via a link – john [at] cityeconomist.com.