A Hero on the Field Nobody Off It

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I never knew Althea Gibson. I never saw her play. I never faced the insults that she did, never felt the sting of racial absurdities that she felt. But if I had, I would have been a much stronger person.
 
Althea Gibson died Sunday at the age of 76. She was the first black player to try the LPGA, before that, a world-class tennis player who won Wimbledon in 57 and 58. Unfortunately for her ' and us, incidentally ' she happened along during the era of racial stupidity. Ignorance was not just a fault of the country; it was a huge dark stain on the national conscience.
 
Althea was an outstanding tennis player in the 50s and a professional golfer for a decade, beginning in the early 60s. Sports heroes who happened to be borned black may have been treated better than their dark-skinned brothers in this age of illiteracy, but only marginally so. Black athletes were appreciated for their athletic skills, but when the lights went out and everyone went home from the arena, the situation reverted back to what it always had been. Jackie Robinson might have been a hero while he was playing games with the Dodgers, but the other 18 hours of the day, he was just a Negro, something less than human.
 
The same with Althea. She was a problem child in Harlem, a young tough who often ran away from home. At the age of 12, her father wanted her to be a prizefighter ' though, of course, there was no such thing as female prizefighters. She had ideas of her own, however, and occupied her time whacking a rubber ball off a brick wall. She met Fred Johnson, a one-armed tennis coach, and set about learning to play.
 
Gibson rose to athletic stardom and learned about the ignorance of racial prejudice at roughly the same time. It was nasty being a tennis star ' she was a major household name on the court, but much less off it. It was even worse when she became a professional golfer in 1963.
 
Never particularly strident in her beliefs, Gibson offered not to play in tournaments where her presence might embarrass the LPGA. However, Lenny Wirtz, the commissioner at that time, came up strong for her.
 
Gibson played in the Babe Zaharias Open at Beaumont, Texas, in 1964, though the club decreed that Gibson could not enter the clubhouse. When club members attempted to impose the same condition on Gibson in 65, Wirtz withdrew the LPGAs sponsorship and no tournament was held. Ironically, she had been named the Babe Zaharias Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 for her tennis stardom.
 
Some clubs called their tournaments invitationals instead of opens to justify refusing Gibson and fellow black Renee Powell the opportunity to play.
 
Though incidents like this repeatedly occurred, Gibson quickly put them out of her mind. She did an interview with British golf writer Liz Kahn for Kahns book, The LPGA: The Unauthorized Version, in which she dismissed the incidents out of hand.
 
Ive had problems, she said, but Ive forgotten the details. Ive forgotten a lot of the things that Ive gone through over the years. After theyve happened, theyre over. I dont need to hem and haw about them.
 
Theres a lot that I dont remember. I dont know whether Im lazy or I dont want to remember.
 
Of course, it was because she didnt want to remember. The palookas who refused to accept her as a fellow human were exhibiting their own infantile subhuman attitudes. Gibson chose to accept and deal with the gross injustices in her own way, becoming a giant in stoicism and in turning the other cheek.
 
When I was on tour in the 1960s, she told Kahn, I enjoyed it because I liked traveling from city to city. Ive always been a loner, but gradually I got a little friendly with some of the girls. Marlene Hagge and I liked each other. Shes a nice person who appreciated my talent as the first black woman on tour.
 
It was interesting how Hagge and Gibson first became friends. Hagge arrived in Columbus, Ohio, about midnight one year, just in time to witness Gibson being refused a hotel room because ' surprise! ' she was black.
 
Horrified, Hagge quickly marched up to Gibson and said, Come on in with me. Hagge demanded Gibson room with her. And over the years, the two became frequent road roommates.
 
She probably doesnt want to remember the prejudice, Hagge told Kahn. There have been some black militants in sport, but Althea was smart and never militant. We had trouble, especially in the South, and we said we wouldnt play unless Althea could be treated like everyone else.
 
Still, Gibson felt the hatred, boiling over underneath the surface. She was allowed to play many places, but always, she was made aware that she was different.
 
I was her friend, said Hagge. She was a very nice person. I felt good about being able to help someone, and we were equal friends. If she was your friend and knew you were on her side, she would do anything for you.
 
Martina Navratilova, herself an outstanding woman athlete 20 years later, paid homage to Gibson Sunday. She was a great champion and great person. We had a good relationship - she was always there for me even when I was a nobody,' Martina Navratilova told the Associated Press.
 
'Her life was very difficult, but she broke down a lot of barriers and doors and made it easier for a lot of us.'
 
I tried to set an example for future young Negro women, Gibson once said. I set an example of courtesy, obeying the rules and not going against officialdom. Thats the way I lived, the way I wanted to live for those others coming one day in the future. I like to say, Althea Gibson set a good example for others to follow.
 
She died with her dignity fully intact. She stood straight and tall, even when others were stooping to the ground with their racial prejudices and practices. The world, be it noted, has lost a great human being.
 
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