Mercer Beasley/Signed Articles/Brook Zelcer
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- Justice Deferred: The Case for Mercer Beasley by Brook Zelcer
Although unable to play the sport himself, Charles Fenton Mercer Beasley rose from obscurity to become the prototypical tennis professional during America's great tennis boom of the 1930's and 40's. Beasley helped develop the explosive Ellsworth Vines and the machine-like Frank Parker while simultaneously serving as surrogate coach to the growing legions of players who took his How to Play Tennis with them to the hard courts of the public parks and schools where the sport was just beginning to take root.
A posthumous inductee of the College Tennis Hall of Fame, Beasley's Tulane teams dominated the old Southern Conference. At Princeton, to whose ivied walls Beasley triumphantly returned 30 years after being expelled as a freshman, his teams were perennial eastern powerhouses.
Seventeen of Beasley's players won a total of 84 four national titles and seven of them are enshrined in Newport’s Tennis Hall of Fame, among them Vines, Parker, Bryan “Bitsy” Grant, Helen Jacobs, Gardnar Mulloy and Doris Hart. Beasley saw them all in a career that spanned the years between Bill Tilden and Billie Jean King, and while the sum total of his charges constitutes nothing less than an historical survey of the sport, the remarkable story of Beasley's ascension to prominence has been all but forgotten, lost like the applause from yesterday’s galleries, a thing for only aging hackers and historians to think about.
Mercer Beasley was born on July 18, 1882, to a family of prominent New Jersey jurists. Uncle William S. Gummere served thirty one years as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, his grandfather, Mercer Beasley, served as a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, and his father, Chauncey H. Beasley, was a Princeton alumnus and District Court Judge. Given his family's connections and wealth, a career in the law seemed a foregone conclusion for Beasley, but his tenure at Princeton was short-lived.
A local paper referred to Beasley's "passing out" and being "ousted" in the span of four months, and reported, "for some reason or other the faculty did not agree with his [Beasley's] solution to academic problems." Beasley spent the next 18 years traveling from one occupation to the next--among them railroad detective and pressman’s devil--before finding himself at the decidedly middle age of 39 as an assistant manager at the Notlek Amusement Company of New York City, a precursor to Chelsea Piers.
While Beasley's duties included general maintenance and running the pro shop, he started to coach the customers, although his own playing skills were poor. Beasley blamed his uninspired tennis on the "complicated" instruction found in a tennis primer given him by his father, but his eyesight is the likely culprit. In many photos, he is pictured wearing coke bottle glasses, and protégé Phillip Osborne remembers his coach having to drop and hit the ball from his hand in order to demonstrate groundstrokes.
Beasley was a natural, and in no time he had the Notlek regulars playing their best tennis. Word got around, and legends Vinny Richards and Bill Tilden visited with Beasley, offering up advice and encouragement. Wealthy Midwesterner Victor Elting came to Notlek to hire Beasley, and found his future pro disposing of a wheelbarrow full of cinders. When Elting offered him the job, Beasley said he wasn't qualified. But the persistent Elting doubled Beasley's current salary, and in no time Beasley and wife Audrey were off to the well manicured grounds of the Indian Hill Club of Winnetka, Illinois, where Beasley reinvented himself as a teaching pro.
The Wizard of Winnetka
When Mercer Beasley took up his grip for Illinois in 1921, professionalism of any kind was widely despised in tennis. In fact, the life of a pro at a typical country club was still that of a servant, and tennis very much a sport of the elite. At the Indian Hill Club, Beasley was allowed to eat in the club dining room only through the direct intervention of Elting himself. But no matter, for however out of place he may have appeared to others, Mercer Beasley was always his own inimical self.
He arrived at court each morning dressed in a white jockey cap, long flannel pants and a pinstriped blazer. In his arms were instruments such as boxing gloves, hammers, baseball bats and bicycle tires, anything to help teach his system of the game. And it worked.
Five years later his students Louise McFarland and Marjorie Gladman bagged a junior national title each. In 1932 Time declared Beasley the most significant teacher in the history of U.S. tennis. By then he had developed Vines and Parker, his two great protégés, and promoted the game to hordes of other competitive and recreational players. To the vast majority of Americans, Beasley was tennis. He traded jabs and jibes with lightweight champ Benny Leonard, and even held court with the mighty Babe Ruth, who complained of any game that required him to keep the ball inside the fences.
The A.G. Spaulding Company's "Mercer Beasley" model was the top selling racquet for much of the 30's and 40's, outstripping even the ubiquitous "Jack Kramer" in terms of its popularity. Many were the memorable matches played with the "Beasley," including the stellar 1949 U.S. singles title between Ted Schroeder and Pancho Gonzales.
Beasley’s How to Play Tennis (1933) was a perennial best seller at a time when instructors were scarce. How to Play Tennis approaches the sport from an entirely tactical, scientific perspective. Beasley’s goal: to produce winning tennis players. To this end, he preached the virtue of percentage play, calling good tennis the "avoidance of making errors," and emphasizing that "a point won on an error counts just as much as a point scored on an ace."
About 50 years before athletes cross trained, Beasley's students were already tapping other sports in order to master different aspects of tennis. Boxing taught players to attack short balls in the front court. "Foot up to it on your forehand side and shoot a right jab at it," Beasley would say. Basketball helped teach defensive play and alertness. Ballroom dance and gymnastics were studied. He discovered learning tools everywhere. He even used a marching band for players to rally to while practicing footwork.
While Tim Gallwey's Inner Tennis would later advocate for the realization of athletic spontaneity through deliberate mindlessness, Beasley preached the benefits of constant and focused attention. Of Frank Parker, Doris Hart exclaimed, "you could almost see him thinking out loud, so intense was his concentration." For years, Hart herself was too easily distracted on the court, a tendency that earned for her many heart wrenching defeats. When Hart finally defeated Louise Brough in the finals of the 1955 U.S. Nationals after four unsuccessful attempts, Beasley told her, "If only you had started thinking years ago, the game would have been much easier for you," a sentiment with which the indomitable Ms. Hart wholeheartedly agreed.
Beasley was a stickler for on-court deportment: "What you do on a tennis court during a tournament match is watched by every spectator in the gallery as well as by your opponent. Therefore, you should be perfectly natural in every way. Avoid making any gestures or audible sounds that might cause comment. There should be nothing to encourage or discourage your opponent. Not an action of yours should show elation or dejection. Nothing he does, whether it is to score an ace or to make an error, should change your expression." Indeed, both the mechanical Parker and the larruping Vines were renowned for their polite on court demeanor.
Beasley beginners learned to play "The Little Game," whose object was to develop ball control by shrinking the size of the court to its service boxes. Once they advanced to baseline play, Beasley's players were trained to see the court as a traffic light: when at or behind the baseline (red) the ball must be played safely; when in no-man’s land (yellow) a forcing but never reckless ball is played; while the frontcourt (green) is the area denoting more decisive shot making.
Going for the Lines
Mercer Beasley met Henry Ellsworth Vines, Jr., in 1925 when Vines was a boy of 14 and working at a Pasadena bakeshop. Beasley described the lanky Vines as he first encountered him as having "a Western grip [Beasley favored the Eastern], a roundhouse swing, and feet that wouldn’t be friends with each other." The two sat down and drew up a list of all that Vines wanted to accomplish in tennis: the National Junior title, Forest Hills, Wimbledon, and a professional contract. By 1933 Vines had accomplished all of the items of the list--save for the junior title.
A physical genius of the first magnitude, Vines possessed what are still considered the deadliest forehand and service in the history of the sport. In 1932 Vines used that service to bludgeon Bunny Austin in their Wimbledon final, cracking thirty aces in twelve games and winning the third set in less than ten minutes, finishing with an ace Austin never saw but simply heard slam off the stands behind him before he realized the match was over. During his Forest Hills victory of that same year, Vines' serve--measured at over 130 miles per hour in 1937--battered the great Henri Cochet, striking the Frenchman twice, most memorably bounding off his chest and into a grandstand of astonished spectators.
Vines’ great velocity on the serve and off the ground was not solely due to his extravagant talent and go-for-broke style, but also to the eccentricity of his grips. "Elly had a four-fingered grip not only on the serve but on the forehand as well," wrote Julius Heldman. "He simply extended his leverage by sliding his little finger- - and sometimes his last two fingers- - off the racquet." This extra couple of inches, combined with a generous backswing, helped the lanky Vines generate the tremendous whipping action and hitting speed for which he was famous.
When in the zone Vines was simply invincible. Of his ascent to championship class, Heldman noted that "Vines hit the number one spot with meteoric speed, climbing from a junior with potentiality to the top American man in the space of a year. All of a sudden the ball started to go in, and the gawky junior who was then only a mild threat became the sensation of Forest Hills."
But it was not by chance alone that Vines' murderous bullets finally began to fall consistently within the confines of the court. With Vines specifically in mind, Beasley invented "The Game of Errors" in 1932 and discussed it in his book, How to Play Tennis. "The factor, more than any other, that was responsible for making Ellsworth Vines, Jr., the world’s foremost player in 1932 was 'the Game of Errors,'" Beasley explained. "There are no earned points in 'the Game of Errors'. If you make an ace [winner], it scores as an error for your opponent....doing away with aces and earned points induces longer rallies and does away with reckless slugging." In 1931 a more consistent Vines captured 15 singles titles, including the U.S. Nationals, erasing Fred Perry in the semifinals and George Lott in the final. The next year, when he won the Wimbledon Singles and the U.S. Singles and Doubles crowns, experts began speaking of Vines as the greatest player of all time, among them the great J. Donald Budge, who called his friend Ellsworth "the greatest hitter of a tennis ball I ever saw." But 1933 ultimately proved a frustrating year for Vines, and was his last both as an amateur and with Beasley. During that year’s Wimbledon fortnight, Beasley fretted while Vines struggled to find his form. Beasley was in the habit of charting his charge's matches, so when Vines took the court, Beasley seated himself in the stands equipped with yellow legal pads. Beasley even went so far as to tape written reminders of conservative play, such as "Hit The Ball Up" and "Get The First Serve In" to Vines' racquet handle.
The press soon took an interest in Beasley's unorthodox methods, especially after Vines confessed to reporters that he played better when he knew his coach was watching, and Beasley cheekily added he was going to help Vines win by telepathy. Before the tournament was three days old, the matter had snowballed into a gigantic controversy. The Daily Express carried a photograph of Beasley, who was now known as a "guru," sitting in the stands, jotting "mysterious" figures on a yellow legal pad. Soon afterward, a member of the Wimbledon tournament committee was assigned to sit next to Beasley and keep a log of his motions to see if they coincided with Vines’ change of strategy. Nothing untoward was discovered, and Vines eventually succumbed to defeat at the hands of Jack Crawford in one of the greatest finals center court has ever seen.
Ultimately the wisdom of the "Game of Errors" is unimpeachable, for in it players accumulate points not through risky play but by simply refusing to miss: "The basic principle of tennis is accuracy not strength. If it were a matter of hard hitting and brute strength it stands to reason that the strongest player would win, while actually quite the reverse is true," Beasley wrote. "Accuracy--the ability to return the ball to any desired portion of the court--that is the secret of tennis."
While American Lawn Tennis may have referred to Beasley as the sport's Rube Goldberg, he was in fact one of his sport's greatest visionaries, pioneering in synthetic string, composite racquets, and ultra-light footwear. In 1934 Beasley patented a "Practice Machine constructed for the purposes of throwing a ball such as a tennis ball, baseball, or other missile." While coaching at Princeton he invented a scoring system featuring no-ad, 45 minute timed sets. According to the Princetonian, "At the end of this period a gong will ring and the man who is ahead in games will be credited with the victory. The new system should liven up the game for the spectators." Beasley co-invented "The Coach Master", a radio transmitter with an antenna about three feet high, and a tiny receiver worn by the player on a specially wired belt. This tool, scorned by indignant reactionaries at Forest Hills as the "Beasley Blarer," allowed the coach to feed commands directly into the student's head as he or she practiced.
In 1940 Beasley patented an adjustable balance control racquet ("The ABC") which made possible the readjustment of the racquet weight in mere seconds without the use of burdensome tools. Incredibly, Beasley even invented a moveable mass system reminiscent of today's successful Kennex Kinetic line; where Kennex features sand in the hollowed frame to provide shifting weight at impact, Beasley used mercury.
In 1926 philanthropist Ted Bacon suggested a young ball boy as a potential student to Beasley. The coach quickly formed a strong bond with the likeable youngster, Frank Parker. "Parker was my boy. I coached a lot of players before him, but the day I saw this red-headed, 10-year old kid shagging balls on the court of the Town Club in Milwaukee, something clicked. I used to say nothing compares with the joy of saying to the boy, 'Well played!'" Beasley knew he had a future champion on his hands, and the two were on the court together constantly. "Wherever we would happen to be, he would practice, practice, practice," Beasley said. "Day in and day out, Saturdays and Sundays when other boys were at the movies."
Frank’s widowed mother took in washing to support her family of five children in Depression era Milwaukee. Before Mercer and Audrey Beasley came into his life, Frank seemed destined for blue collar work. But all of that changed when the Beasleys offered to legally adopt the fifteen year old prodigy. The couple explained to Parker's mother that the life of a touring player promised to be better than that of an unskilled laborer. Frank's mother turned down the couple’s legal request for adoption, but did allow Mercer and Audrey to take custody of her youngest child.
When the Beasleys went to Lawrenceville, young Frankie Parker came too, and helped to make the prep school's tennis team a practically invincible force. Following his win at the Southampton tournament in 1935, a photo of Parker appeared in American Lawn Tennis, flanked by Mercer and Audrey, the caption below referring to the happy trio as "family."
Young Frankie Parker did not so much hit the tennis scene as he did explode. Having reached the final on his own the previous year, he won the Town Club tournament the year after meeting Beasley, and by twelve he had defeated 23 year old Helen Wills Moody in practice sets. He was the best junior in the country at 15 and again at 16. His serve was so accurate he could use it to hit a dime on the court, his forehand so reliable he could drive it consistently through a 12-inch hole. Parker was a machine, a mechanical man who never missed.
Don Budge’s account of an early encounter with the two illustrates the deadly efficiency of the Beasley/Parker tandem at its peak: "Parker drew me in an early round and his coach, Mercer Beasley, who traveled with Frankie, rated me as such an unlikely threat to the Boy Wonder that even before our match started he left and wandered off to scout Parker’s next opponent. With Beasley away, I beat Frankie in the first set and went ahead of him 3-1 in the second- - and this was best of three. At about this time, however, the news of the impending upset had worked its way back to Beasley, and he scurried back. He stood there on the side of the court and just studied me for a few minutes. Then he called Frankie over between games and whispered something in his ear. I was rather bemused, delighted with all the attention I was receiving...But then we went back to play, and immediately, all Parker hit me was an alternate succession of drop shots and lobs- - back, up, back, up. It was the perfect tactic, since I still had no net game whatsoever and little better idea how to cope with a lob...As soon as the new strategy was installed, Parker swept me to a snappy defeat, and from there the Boy Wonder went on to new horizons."
The Dynamic Duo lost momentum in 1935, when Beasley changed Parker's topspin forehand into one designed to resemble the way Leo Durocher threw a baseball from shortstop to first. The result was, predictably, disastrous. The stroke made Parker look "like a man trying to drive a nail sideways," Phillip Osborne said. Jack Kramer called it "painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa." Coach and student re-worked the forehand every spring, trying to recapture the essence of the original, but to no avail.
Like the forehand, the Dynamic Duo's personal relationship unraveled as well. In 1937 Beasley's 43-year old wife divorced him to marry 22-year old Parker. His wife and ward claimed to have been in love for three years. Beasley said he learned of the affair while in Bermuda where he worked seasonally as a teaching pro. Beasley played the matter down, saying that he had "lost a love set."
"I don't feel any antagonism toward either of them," he said. "They're both swell people and I hope they'll be happy." For a while, Beasley would go to watch Parker in competition, but always as a spectator and never again as a coach.
The tennis world wasn't as forgiving. The United States Lawn Tennis Association dropped Parker’s national ranking from third to eighth.
Frank Parker went on to become one of the great champions of American tennis, playing in many memorable matches and winning dozens of important titles- - including two French and two U.S. singles titles- - while remaining consistently in the U.S. top ten for 17 years, a record he held until the advent of Connors.
Frank Parker may have been one of Beasley's biggest and greatest tennis stars, but he wasn't the coach's last. Until his death in the mid-1960s Beasley remained a force on the tennis scene. His post-Parker roster included Hall of Famers Doris Hart, Gardnar Mulloy and Pancho Segura.
Though Beasley isn't the household name that the stars he helped create are, his tennis contributions are felt everyday. Sampras, known to play little tennis on the practice courts, has Beasley to thank. Whenever a ball machine is used on a court, Beasley's presence is there. His public tennis programs were the predecessors to those that would later produce Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, James Blake and other tennis greats. Taken in their entirety, Beasley's accomplishments stand as proof that he is worthy of a place among the greats in the annals of his sport. In fact, Mercer Beasley belongs in the Tennis Hall of Fame: baseball bats, marching bands, boxing gloves, and all.© 2008 Brook Zelcer. Reprinted with permission of the author.