By Rhonda Glenn
Museum Moment: Althea Gibson’s Pioneering Two-Sport Legacy
Aug 25, 2011
Since the end of the Second World War, when women’s athletics really began to blossom, a few multi-sport women have turned to golf. Babe Zaharias, who won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics and later went on to win three U.S. Women’s Open titles, is without doubt the most famous. Tennis champion Althea Gibson, who made a foray into golf and died ill and broken in 2003, is less well-known. And yet, Gibson, an African American, was no less heroic.
Zaharias preceded Gibson into the national limelight by about 25 years, but their lives had striking parallels. As children, both lived on the edge of poverty. Zaharias was the daughter of a carpenter and grew up in Beaumont, Texas. Gibson, who was born in Silver, S.C., 84 years ago this month, was the daughter of a sharecropper.
Great champions before they were 30, Gibson and Zaharias were brash and cocky. Both were charming and funny and were beloved by close friends. Both endured controversy and neither profited from the amateur game. With no amateur worlds left to conquer, the drive to make a living led both into professional golf.
Althea Gibson reached her peak in tennis in 1957, the year Zaharias died. Gibson won singles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and became the first African American to be named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. She won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open again in 1958.
Films on the Internet show Gibson in action: Stretching back to make a serve, her racquet swinging back in a tremendous arc, then with her great reach and spring, covering the court like a lioness. It’s startling to see just how great she was.
“I may be the Queen of Tennis right now, but I reign over an empty bank account, and I’m not going to fill it by playing amateur tennis,” Gibson said in her 1968 book, So Much to Live For, written with Richard Curtis. “My finances were in heartbreaking shape.”
Gibson thought of leaving amateur tennis as early as 1958. She considered giving tennis lessons at private clubs, but was afraid they wouldn’t hire her because she was “a Negro woman.” She’d started developing her natural vocal talent by taking voice lessons in 1957 and Dot Records released her album, “Althea Gibson Sings,” the following year. The album received little notice, although she was booked onto the Ed Sullivan television variety show.
“It was with the greatest sorrow that I made my departure from amateur tennis,” she wrote about her retirement in 1958.
She delved into a number of enterprises: Her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Someone, was published. She had a small part as a maid in a John Ford-directed movie, The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden, but her aspirations for an acting career floundered. She barnstormed with the Harlem Globetrotters, giving tennis exhibitions before basketball games.
She dreamed of an Althea Gibson Academy for young tennis players and hired an agent and manager to help her put it together. The business relationship failed to work in Gibson’s favor.
“I remember her one time saying that her managers had these beautiful offices in New York City, and she was paying for them,” remembered Renee Powell, the second black player on the LPGA Tour and a friend of the tennis champion.
Gibson bought a 10-room house on Long Island for her family but by 1960, she was $25,000 in debt. She signed a contract with Ward Baking Company to promote Tip Top bread, a happy relationship that would last five years.
At the age of 33, at least 20 years later than most top golfers, she turned to golf. Over the years, Gibson had tried most sports and with no instruction, she could drive a golf ball more than 200 yards. Club professionals were impressed by her strength and hand-eye coordination and they pressed her to devote more time to the game.
Althea began spending long days at public golf courses, practicing from morning until dark. Then, in a stroke of luck, she received an honorary membership as the only African American member of Englewood (N.J.) Golf Club from Jerry Volpe, who recognized her potential.
Her tremendous power off the tee was countered by an inept short game. Julius Boros helped her with her bunker shots and she worked on her putting. But tennis and golf were so different.
In golf, Gibson wrote, “It’s you against the ball, you against distance, you against nature. Above all, it’s you against yourself, struggling with your muscles, timing and coordination for precise control of the swing. There’s nobody to blame if you lose.”
In 1963, Althea Gibson turned pro. The LPGA’s first African-American member made her debut at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati. Many LPGA players were Southerners, but if Gibson had feared racism, she was pleasantly surprised.
“I was warmly and naturally welcomed into the tour, and every girl was as gracious and considerate as she could be,” Gibson wrote.
The LPGA touted Gibson as a star. As a great tennis champion, she drew spectators who turned out simply to see her and perhaps get an autograph.
Appearing in just a few tournaments that first year, Gibson averaged a disappointing 84 strokes per round. In 1964, she desperately worked to improve and claimed she sought advice from every club professional she could, and many LPGA players. Gibson was gratified when her scoring average dropped to 77.5. She even led the Thunderbird Open with an opening round of 69, but was disqualified for turning in an incorrect scorecard in her excitement.
While she had the support of LPGA players, Gibson was disheartened and angered by treatment she received on the road. Some clubs wouldn’t permit her to use the clubhouse facilities. Hotels turned her away.
Renee Powell recalled that when one such incident occurred, founding LPGA member Marlene Hagge was checking into the same hotel and heard the dispute at the front desk. After Hagge checked in, she told Gibson, “Get your luggage. You’re going to room with me.”
Lenny Wirtz, the LPGA Tournament Director, rose to Gibson’s defense. In one city, the host club refused to let Gibson play, so Wirtz withdrew the tournament and moved it to a public course.
In the 1960s, civil rights demonstrations were on-going in the South and two host clubs said they could not allow Gibson to play because of a possible trouble. Barbara Romack (who served as the acting LPGA president when elected president Shirley Englehorn was injured in an automobile accident), had to address the issue. The LPGA at that time was a small, closely-knit group and Romack and Gibson were friends and sometimes friendly poker rivals.
“I was nervous about telling her,” Romack said. “I had to tell this great, great athlete that the sponsors didn’t want her to play. But they had said if she would sit out a year, they would welcome her the following year and she would be invited to stay in their homes. She took it well. When I told her, Althea just said, ‘I understand.’ The next year, she played in the tournaments and stayed in the sponsors’ homes.”
In 1965, Gibson married William Darben, a friend of many years. Now Althea Gibson Darben, she continued to work on her game. She was now powering her tee shots well over 250 yards and in the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open, Althea fired 71-68-77–216 and tied Mary Mills and Sandra Haynie for first place. In the playoff, Haynie bogeyed the first hole and went to the sidelines. Mills outlasted Gibson with a par on the second playoff hole. Gibson tied for second, winning $2,032.50.
It was the high point of her golf career. As she aged, Gibson never made much money at golf and eventually drifted off the tour. In 1975, the State of New Jersey appointed Gibson its commissioner of athletics and Renee Powell is one friend who believes the position was offered as a way to give the great athlete an income. The job lasted for 10 years. The marriage to Darben ended in 1976. In 1983, Gibson married Sydney Llewellyn, a tennis coach from her youth, but they divorced in 1988.
In 1992, at age 65, Gibson suffered two cerebral aneurisms, followed by a stroke. According to Powell, Gibson also suffered from depression.
“It was so gray in her world,” said Powell. “And (when I called her) I didn't know what to say because it depressed me. I didn't know what to say to make her feel better. The sky wasn't blue to her. I’d say, ‘Althea, I'm going to come and see you,’ and she'd say, ‘Only if you come by yourself.’”
One day, Angela Buxton, who had been Gibson’s partner when they won the 1956 Wimbledon doubles title, telephoned her old friend and received a disturbing response. Buxton told The Guardian, a British newspaper, that Gibson told her she was considering suicide. Living on welfare, she had no money for rent or medicine.
Without Althea’s knowledge, Buxton arranged for a letter to appear in a tennis magazine and Althea began to receive checks from tennis fans around the world.
Althea Gibson died on Sept. 28, 2003 in East Orange, N.J., at the age of 76. She is buried in Rosedale Cemetery.
At a memorial service, David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York City, said, “A lot of folks stood on her shoulders. I’m not just talking about black folks, but many others who were inspired by what she achieved.”
With her flamboyant charm, Althea Gibson, an athlete of breathtaking talent and drive, would have made millions in today’s world of sport. Perhaps what counts most, however, in her mastery of one sport and pursuit of another as the first great minority female sports star, she will be measured by what she achieved and not for what she earned.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After a successful career as a tennis player that included five Grand Slam titles, Gibson turned to golf in 1963 becoming the LPGA's first African-American member.
“I may be the Queen of Tennis right now, but I reign over an empty bank account, and I’m not going to fill it by playing amateur tennis,” Gibson said in her 1968 book, So Much to Live For, written with Richard Curtis. To help support her family, Gibson switched over to golf.
Gibson did not take up golf until age 33, over 20 years after most other top players. She played in 11 USGA championships with her best finish being a T-26 in the 1970 U.S. Women's Open. In its collection, the USGA Museum has Gibson's scorecard from the 1965 Waterloo Women's Open Golf Invitational.