Bill Tilden: A US tennis hero, but with a morals clause

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Posted: Apr 28, 2016 4:21 PM
Bill Tilden: A US tennis hero, but with a morals clause

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In the 1920s and 1930s, Bill Tilden was to tennis what Babe Ruth was to baseball. Honoring him with a historical marker should be an ace — if not for questions about his conduct with teenage boys.

Tilden's athletic accomplishments are hard to overstate. He became the first American to win Wimbledon in 1920, won seven U.S. championships, triumphed at Wimbledon twice more and maintained his prowess on the court for decades. The Associated Press voted him the greatest player of the first half of the century in 1950, and he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959.

A group is pushing for a historical marker at Philadelphia's Germantown Cricket Club, his home court. But his mixed legacy has raised roadblocks, especially in a state where the sex abuse scandal involving another sports figure, Penn State's Jerry Sandusky, still reverberates.

The panel that approves historical markers voted down Tilden's nomination in March, 4-1.

"Tilden's accomplishments in tennis are unquestioned," the panel wrote. But his criminal history led them to deny approval.

"The climate about this type of sexual misconduct is too fresh in the minds of Pennsylvanians," Karen Galle, coordinator of the state's historical marker program, told the AP.

Tilden was arrested in Beverly Hills, California, in November 1946, after a 14-year-old boy was caught driving the star's car erratically. Officers pulled them over, and when the teen exited the car, police said, his pants zipper was down.

Police charged Tilden with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and he served seven months in jail. He was arrested again in 1949 on allegations that he violated probation by being in the company of another teen boy, and that he groped a third teen. He served 10 months at a prison farm.

In his heyday, "Big Bill" Tilden's dominance on the court was featured regularly in magazines, newspapers and newsreels. Born to a wealthy Philadelphia family, he was friends with Hollywood elite like Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn, was a guest of the Duke of York at Buckingham Palace and played at the White House at the invitation of President Warren Harding.

He's credited with urging children of all economic backgrounds to learn tennis, once a sport only for the wealthy. Modern players still value his manuals on how to play.

A character based on him even appears in Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." Lolita takes lessons from an aging, gay tennis legend named Ned Litam (an anagram of sorts for Tilden) who surrounds himself with a "harem of ball boys."

After his convictions, Tilden's Germantown membership was revoked, and his portrait was removed. When Robert Couch became club historian in the 1980s, there was no trace of Tilden.

"Everything you see in this club, I got on eBay," he said.

Tilden died of a heart attack in 1953 at 60. The only public reference to him in Philadelphia is at Ivy Hill Cemetery, with a marker reading "William T. Tilden 2nd. 1893-1953."

As years passed, the club began to embrace Tilden's memory. His portrait reappeared, and the catering service now offers a "Tilden Dinner Buffet Package."

A group of Philadelphians worked on the historical marker application for more than a year, compiling letters from tennis clubs, historians, former Wimbledon winners and newspaper clippings.

"He's the most forgotten of America's athletes," said Allen Hornblum, a member of the marker effort who's working on a Tilden biography.

Vic Seixas, who won Wimbledon in 1953 and at 92 is the oldest living Grand Slam singles champion, submitted a letter.

"He was undoubtedly the greatest tennis player of his time, if not all time," said Seixas, speaking by phone from Mill Valley, California.

The group plans to reapply later this year.

Sports writer Frank Deford, whose articles about Tilden for Sports Illustrated later became a biography, said that the state's rejection is short-sighted and that a Tilden memorial is long overdue.

"Should those two arrests outweigh everything he did as a tennis player?" said Deford, speaking by phone from Key West, Florida. "It just seems like a certain amount of charity and forgiveness would play into this."

Tilden retains his place in the Tennis Hall of Fame. In April, the hall took an unprecedented step in expelling Grand Slam doubles champion Bob Hewitt, who was convicted in South Africa last year of rape and sexual assault.

Tilden wouldn't be the only subject of a Pennsylvania historical marker with a criminal background. Joseph Huston's marker highlights his work as architect of the state Capitol but doesn't mention his conviction for accepting bribes for work on the building.

But crime involving children "is a touchy subject that people want to stay away from," said Jaime Schultz, a sports historian at Penn State. "It's especially hard in the state of Pennsylvania."

Sandusky was Penn State's defensive football coach for decades under Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno. He was convicted in 2012 of the sexual abuse of 10 boys. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison but maintains his innocence and has filed an appeal.

The scandal led to firings, fines, lawsuits, the suspension of the football program and Paterno's wins being vacated for a time. Penn State also removed a statue of Paterno in 2012. The school's president said it would be a "recurring wound" to victims of sexual abuse, even though Paterno hadn't committed any crime.

But what the public is willing to forgive changes, Schultz said.

"Memorials are so complicated," she said. "It's about so much more than the individual."