Giving 'Em Fitz: Germantown Cricket Club a reminder of a sport's, and legend's, former glory

Defeated by himself: Philadelphia's Bill Tilden dominated tennis in the 1920s, but arrests on morals charges made hima pariah. He died, broke and alone, in California. Above, Tilden, at a 1938 match in Glasgow, Scotland.
Defeated by himself: Philadelphia's Bill Tilden dominated tennis in the 1920s, but arrests on morals charges made hima pariah. He died, broke and alone, in California. Above, Tilden, at a 1938 match in Glasgow, Scotland. (   Associated Press)
Posted: July 07, 2014

In 2014, there are plenty of easy, unflattering analogies to be made about Germantown and U.S. tennis, which have both seen better days.

The glorious history of both, however, can still be found in a splendid Philadelphia relic, one whose foreboding brick walls have shielded and conserved.

The Germantown Cricket Club, a green oasis in that gritty urban neighborhood, is one of this city's greatest and least-known sports treasures.

Now that another Wimbledon is concluding without an American in sight and Germantown's many losses have included even its namesake high school, this still-active institution stands as a stark reminder of both decline and preservation.

Relocated from Nicetown in 1890, the club changed its focus in the early 1900s as cricket's popularity waned and lawn tennis' boomed.

Its standing in Philadelphia society was made evident by its grand clubhouse, built in 1903 and recently restored. The Georgian structure was designed by America's best-known architects, McKim, Mead & White, a New York firm whose credits included Madison Square Garden, New York City's Penn Station, and the East and West Wings of the White House.

On the club's still perfectly manicured tennis lawns, three straight U.S. Nationals (precursor to today's U.S. Open), five Davis Cup finals, and a 20-nation Federation Cup were contested.

Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Bill Johnston, Bobby Riggs, Rene Lacoste, Margaret Court, and Helen Wills Moody all played there.

So did Billie Jean King, whose Philadelphia Freedoms begin play Sunday in what is the Philadelphia region's last vestige of big-time tennis.

King, then Billie Jean Moffitt, starred for the United States, runner-up to Australia, in the 1964 Federation Cup, the women's version of the Davis Cup.

But the club's closest link to history was a member who grew up in a Tudor mansion - dubbed Overleigh by his wool-merchant father - 100 yards away, at 5015 McKean Ave.

"Big Bill" Tilden, arguably America's greatest tennis talent as well as one of its most tragic sports heroes, honed his considerable serve-and-volley skills on Germantown's grass courts, where in the 1920s he would win two U.S. National championships.

He captured that event seven times overall, six in succession, and became the first American to triumph at Wimbledon. Tilden won 10 Grand Slam singles crowns, plus six in doubles and five in mixed doubles. He led the United States to an unprecedented seven consecutive Davis Cup titles. In 1924, he didn't lose a match.

His Germantown neighborhood was then home to blue bloods, many of whose grand homes, like his own, survive.

Better preserved, and even closer to the club, is the smaller house once owned by Tilden's aunt, at 519 Hansberry Ave. After the premature deaths of his parents and older brother, the future legend also lived there and, from a rear bedroom window, had an even better view of the tennis.

It wouldn't be until the early 1940s, after his aunt's death and long past his prime, that Tilden finally departed Germantown for good. In subsequent years, the athlete's deterioration would be as sad and visible as that in parts of Germantown.

Living alone in California, Tilden twice was arrested in the 1940s on morals charges involving teenage boys.

Following those incidents, the cricket club stripped him of membership and removed the portrait of its most notable, now most notorious, member.

In 1950, he had his last taste of renown. In an Associated Press poll on the greatest star in each sport for the previous half-century, Tilden emerged with the largest voting margin, greater than Babe Ruth's in baseball or Bobby Jones' in golf.

Three years later, on June 5, 1953, he was dead at 60 after a massive heart attack. Broke, Tilden had been living in a shoddy Hollywood boardinghouse. His trophies had been pawned. There were no decent clothes for his wake, so a friend bought a tennis sweater.

His Los Angeles funeral was sparsely attended. No Philadelphians came.

Later that month, his ashes were interred at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Northwest Philadelphia, where a historical marker is one of the only indications that this was Tilden's hometown.

His final resting place is a mile or so from the cricket club.

The club's website boasts that its thriving membership enjoys 24 grass, 12 clay, six hard-court, three har-tru, and four indoor tennis courts. There are also three squash courts.

Tilden is mentioned only as having "sharpened his skills" there. A photo of the tennis great is uncaptioned.

A block away from the walled club, Overleigh has been subdivided into eight apartments.

Its facade, much like the reputation of the tennis player who grew up there, has lost its luster.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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