In 1950, the sports world, like much of our society, was very different.
Tennis was about to become integrated but as Bruce Schoenfeld writes in his new book, "The Match: Althea Gibson And Angela Buxton - How Two Outsiders, One Black And The Other Jewish, Forged A Friendship And Made Sports History," the game was slow to accept anyone perceived as an outsider and neither felt she was properly recognized for her achievements.
Gibson and Buxton traveled long roads, faced long odds and fought long-standing traditions, which allowed for less-than-equal treatment in order to make names for themselves in the sport of tennis. They didn't make much more than that because big-money tennis was still many years away.
About Gibson, Schoenfeld tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith, "She was the first black of any gender, either gender, of any nationality, to play at Forest Hills in the U.S. championships, to play at Wimbledon. She won Wimbledon; she won Forest Hills, but could never make a living at tennis and had a difficult time the rest of her life."
Gibson is often called the Jackie Robinson of tennis and, while she did break the color barriers in many of the places she played, her story is really quite different from that of Jackie Robinson. She blazed a trail, but it was many decades before anyone followed her in women's tennis.
Back then, Schoenfeld notes, people who participated in the sport came from the same background and though they weren't getting rich or famous, they did enjoy a country-club type of lifestyle. Schoenfeld says, "What they had was this wonderful life style, roaming around the world, playing tennis. People, who weren't like they were, made them uncomfortable in many cases. "
As for Buxton, he describes her as "an overachiever. She was a Jewish girl from Manchester, who lived in South Africa as a child, because World War II was going on. And she came back to England a bit ahead of the game in terms of tennis - during the war there were no materials. And she ended up befriending Althea Gibson. First, asked her for her autograph as a 15-year-old. Ended up as her doubles partner, later in life as her great friend."
Though their paths crossed only briefly on the court in 1956, their friendship lasted nearly 50 years. There's a scene at the French Open when they're playing each other and which really seemed to solidify the relationship.
Schoenfeld tells the story, which he says is at the center of their friendship. He says, "Whoever wins this semifinal goes to the final and it's a big deal for both of them. For Althea, it would be the first black. For Angela, she's this overachieving British girl. Althea's bra strap breaks, beginning of the third set, tied one set all. Angela, as a reflex reaction, runs around from her side and shields Althea from the crowd. She was no favorite of the crowd and hustles her off to the dressing room. The French, the authorities wanted to disqualify Althea for leaving the court and say to Angela, 'Just say yes, I'm pressing this case and you're a finalist.' And Angela said, 'No I'm not going to do that. She's my friend. I wouldn't do that to her.'"
They were two outcasts who helped break down barriers in the lily-white world of tennis. As Schoenfeld writes in his book, they often lacked people to talk to, friends to eat with and partners to practice and play doubles with, except when they were together.
Gibson was such a recluse in her later years that Schoenfeld says he struggled to find ways to bring her personality out.
There was no place for these women to go once their successful championship tennis days were over. Gibson ended up living in Newark, almost destitute in poverty wanting to commit suicide. Schoenfeld says, "She wasn't actually dying. She was just despondent and calls Angela in 1995 and says, 'I'm calling to say good-bye. I can't pay my bills. I'm sick. More than that I'm kind of humiliated. I don't want the world to see me like this.' Angela, her old doubles partner, saves her, as she did and said, 'No, you're not. I'm going to raise the money and make this happen. Look at the friendship. It started out asking for an autograph and she saves her life."
Read an excerpt from "The Match":
Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina, but at three years old she was bundled off to Harlem to live with her aunt Sally, who sold bootleg whiskey. That's the story as she tells it in I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, and we have no reason to doubt it. Althea's memory fadeed by the end; she was said to be unable to recall the details of a single tennis match she played. "I don't remember everything I did, or when, or how," she said in a lucid moment not long before her death. But there is enough verifiable fact already on the record to get us where we need to go.
She was born in Silver, South Carolina, on August 25, 1927, to parents Daniel and Annie. She weighed eight pounds. She spent much her youth in Harlem with her younger brother and three sisters, and couple of years in Philadelphia -- most likely 1934 and 1935 -- with ht aunt Daisy. This was not unusual at the height of the Great Depression. Families dispatched their children to live with relatives who still had work, and food to eat.
In Harlem, beginning in about 1936, Althea lived at 135 West 143rd Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, in what are now called the Frederick E. Samuel Apartments. The brick is red from a new coat paint, but in those days it was brown. Fire escapes run up the front the building, as they did when Althea lived there.
She and her friend Alma Irving would spend hours at the playground shooting baskets, or at the Apollo Theater watching movies. School was hardly a priority. Althea would go truant for days at a time. She'd ride the subway all night rather than head home and face the whipping she knew would follow. Her mother would walk the streets at two in the morning, calling Althea's name. Her father couldn't control her, even when he used his fists. At one point, she spent a night at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, on 105th Street, showing off welts on her back where her father had beaten her out of frustration. It wasn't his fault, she allowed; she just couldn't stay home. It wasn't drugs, or sex, or anything more serious than stealing fruit from the Bronx Terminal Market that kept her away. She had a restlessness in her soul.
Before the war, Harlem wasn't yet a slum. That happened later, when New York's outer boroughs opened up for blacks, and then suburbs, such as Mount Vernon in Westchester County, did. White flight from urban areas is well-chronicled, but plenty of blacks flew, too, the moment the cage door opened. Why wouldn't they leave the congestion of Harlem, the crumbling pavements, the rusted fire escapes where children would waste away steamy summer nights, if they could? Many of the wealthiest, the most successful, and the most creative abandoned Manhattan for, quite literally, greener pastures. Count Basic left for St. Albans, in Queens. Cab Calloway, too.
Harlem wasn't a slum in the 1930s and early 1940s, but it was a ghetto. It was insular, a world of its own. Like the Jewish ghettos of central Europe, it housed people of all economic strata. An entire sepiatoned cross-section of American life lived on the latticework of city blocks, from river to river, from about 110th Street up to 155th. There were millionaires on Sugar Hill and bums in the gutter. There were preachers and housepainters, small businessmen and card sharks. There were blacks up from the Caribbean and blacks from the American South, two wholly different categories of people that often regarded each other warily.
There's Joe Louis in a famous picture from 1935, striding down a Harlem sidewalk in a three-button camel's-hair coat, looking majestic. Down there on the left, wearing a leather jacket and high boots outside his blousing pants, is the young Desmond Margetson, who had connived to work his way to the front row of the assembled crowd as Louis walked past and the photographer snapped, and now is grinning for posterity like a madman. Margetson would later play tennis at New York University and, in 1954, partner with Althea in a doubles tournament at the Seventh Regiment Armory. It isn't merely coincidence that the same names emerge repeatedly at different points in this story. The world was smaller in those days, and exceptional people found a way to achieve -- or at least to catch a glimpse of Joe Louis if that's what they wanted. Margetson would surface again in 1957, when his engineer's mind conjured up the idea for the tennis bubble, which covered an outdoor court and enabled enthusiasts of all races to play in inclement weather.
Harlem had its own nightclubs, of course; those were famous. Whites came uptown to see acts at the Apollo. But it also had good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, restaurants, clothing stores, an galleries, even soda fountains like Spreen's, where black kids would squander a nickel on an egg cream or chocolate soda, just as the white kids were doing on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn Heights.
In those days, government organizations took an active role in urban life. Centralized solutions hadn't yet been discredited. The Police Athletic League was empowered to close entire city blocks to traffic. Each summer, it commandeered blocks all over Harlem and called them Play Streets. There weren't many playgrounds in Upper Manhattan and even fewer parks, so the pavement became stickball fields and hopscotch and paddleball courts. Fire hydrants were routinely opened to keep kids cool. The police, those benevolent peacekeepers, supplied all the equipment; all you had to do was show up. It was like summer camp, except that you could hear the mothers at their apartment windows, one after another calling their children in to dinner.
The PAL regularly closed off a portion of 143rd Street. Althea wandered by one day and began to play paddle tennis, which utilized a short wooden paddle and a rubber ball, like a Spaldeen ...
Excerpted from "The Match." Copyright © 2004 by Bruce Schoenfeld. All rights reserved. Harpercollins Publishers. Used by permission.