Black Pioneer’s entry to Tennis Hall of Fame is doubtful

For the second time in three years the name of the late Dr. R. Walter (Whirlwind) Johnson is on the ballot for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) as a contributor. It remains doubtful, however, that Whirlwind, the man most responsible for launching the careers of tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe will receive enough votes (75% needed) to gain entry into the sport’s hallowed hall.

More than anyone else, the Johnson family has legendary tennis journalist Bud Collins to thank for Whirlwind’s second chance. Collins, a colleague and friend of more than 30 years, is a member of the ITHF nominating committee which chooses candidates each year at Wimbledon. A long-time Boston Globe columnist and ESPN tennis analyst, Collins is quite familiar with Whirlwind’s contributions. He supports Whirlwind’s induction in spite of our friendship, not because of it.

Collins’ status as one of the game’s most respected and admired journalists surely helped persuade the committee to consider Whirlwind in 2006 and again this year. Collins said some the members were unimpressed by Whirlwind’s achievements. In 2006, ITHF officials said Whirlwind received 73% of the vote, several short of the total needed for induction. Collins hopes that some of the committee members that opposed Whirlwind two years ago will switch their votes this year. Unfamiliarity seems to be at the heart of the opposition to Whirlwind’s induction.

“Many of the European members asked ‘Who is this guy?’” Collins said. “They say they don’t know him.”

Their response is scarily akin to the argument of those opposing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Though Obama is a U.S. senator, has written two bestselling memoirs and was thoroughly vetted during his primary victory against Sen. Hillary Clinton, the ‘we-don’t-know-him’ chorus, which is echoed repeatedly by the media, still clouds Obama’s chances.

Let us review, once again, some of the reasons Whirlwind, a black Lynchburg, Va. physician, who died in 1971, should be inducted into the Hall of Fame:
(1) He founded the American Tennis Association (ATA) Junior Development program in the early ‘50s and sponsored, trained and nurtured hundreds of black juniors – and several white juniors – for more than 20 years. The ATA, which was formed in 1916 by a group of black physicians, lawyers, businessmen and college educators, provided blacks the opportunity to compete and socialize with other tennis lovers, something they couldn’t do in the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). Whirlwind’s junior development program was a prelude to the high-tech training camps, such as those run by tennis gurus Nick Bollitteri, Rick Macci and tennis great Chris Evert.
(2) At a time when blacks were barred from competing in most USLTA sanctioned events, Whirlwind made his presence felt on the predominantly white junior tennis circuit by persuading tournament officials to accept his players in their events. Whirlwind provided room and board, clothes and rackets to juniors who stayed at his Lynchburg home and trained on his backyard court during the summer months.
(3) Through quiet, disciplined agitation, he made it possible for Gibson and Ashe and all other black champions to reach the highest level of the game by breaking racial barriers.

The first step in correcting an injustice of any kind is to concede that corrective action is needed. For whatever reason, too many ITHF officials seem reluctant or unwilling to recognize the heroic efforts of Whirlwind and others who confronted racism of that era and worked – at times under extreme duress – to open the sport to people of color. ITHF officials should follow the example set by Major League Baseball (MLB), which admitted that blacks were unfairly barred from the sport before the Civil Rights era and took corrective actions. Over the years several outstanding black players from the Negro Baseball League have been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Two years ago, 17 players and executives from the Negro League and pre-Negro leagues also were inducted into baseball’s Cooperstown (NY) Hall of Fame. “We wanted to honor and recognize them as quickly as we possibly could,” said Dale Petroskey, president of MLB’s Hall of Fame.

Tennis great John McEnroe publicly advocated Whirlwind’s induction in the foreword of a biography I wrote entitled, Whirlwind, the Godfather of Black Tennis. Serena Williams expressed her support of Whirlwind on her website. It would be useful other champions and former champions stepped forward as well.

Would the support of Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, Boris Becker, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, Steffi Graf, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi persuade a few more committee members to vote aye, instead of nay? I’d like to believe that it would, but…

Gibson and Ashe are the only African Americans with plaques of honor at the ITHF’s Newport (RI) facility. Thus far, the ITHF continues to deny access to Whirlwind and other black pioneers who belong. Through conversations with Collins and other tennis officials my sense is that those opposing Whirlwind won’t be easily convinced to change their minds. Because of Collins’ insistence, the nominating committee agreed to put his name back on the ballot for consideration, but it is pretty clear that the Hall of Fame voters once again will deny him the recognition and respect that he so richly deserves.

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