Dale Says

May 16, 2013

Alice Marble

Filed under: Colorful Characters — Dale @ 10:03 am

The next time you go exploring in San Francisco you might want to spend a minute at the Alice Marble Tennis Courts – on top of Russian Hill. It’s easy to find, because it’s less than a block from the top of Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world. The tennis courts provide breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz.

The tennis courts are named after a lady who lived an amazing life, and who serves as an inspiration to those who follow her. She overcame adversity and lived to be one of the greatest tennis players of her time.

Alice Marble lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and she became an icon for survival and equality.

Marble was born on September 28, 1913, in the northern California town of Beckwourth. Her family moved to San Francisco’s Sunset District when Alice was five. Her father died within the year, and Alice’s mother was left to raise five children alone.

As a girl, Marble was very interested in sports, especially baseball. She and her brother attended SF Seals games, going early “so we could play catch in the bleachers before the game.” Thinking Marble was a boy, a player one day asked her to play catch with him. “I kept expecting someone to tell me to leave,” Marble wrote. “Instead, my hero, Lefty O’Doul, asked me to shag flies for him. Joe DiMaggio, beside me in center field, yelled encouragement.” Before long, local newspapers printed stories about the new “Seals mascot,” and a San Francisco Examiner sportswriter dubbed Marble the “Little Queen of Swat.”

When Alice was thirteen, her brother gave her a tennis racket saying, “You can’t keep hanging around the ballpark, and hitting balls through people’s windows . . . and acting like a boy.” At first, Marble was devastated to lose her time with the Seals, but she learned to love tennis – and to play it well. She began practicing and playing matches in Golden Gate Park.

She excelled at sports, earning seven varsity letters in track, softball, soccer, and basketball while attending Polytechnic High School. However, two traumatic events devastated her as a child in San Francisco: while roller skating she witnessed a friend getting crushed under the wheels of a streetcar, and she was raped as she left Golden Gate Park after playing tennis.

Alice rebounded from those tragedies and she went on.

After school, Alice became a professional tennis player, and she was noted for her aggressive play on the court. However, after defeating an opponent, she would go back to the locker room and chat – discussing the match as a friend and confidant. In 1934 Marble collapsed during a match at the French Championships. Doctors diagnosed her with pleurisy and tuberculosis, and she took an extended rest.

Again, Alice rebounded.

She came back, and won Women’s Singles titles (1936, 1938–40); Women’s Doubles titles (1937–40); and Mixed Doubles (1936, 1938, 1939, 1940). At Wimbledon, Marble won a Singles title (1939); Women’s Doubles (1938–39); and Mixed Doubles (1937, 1938, and (1939). She was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year in 1939 and 1940.

That’s a remarkable story already. But the more remarkable aspect of Alice Marble’s life took place off the tennis court.

During World War II, Marble was married to Joe Crowley, a pilot, who was killed in action over Germany. Only days before his death, Alice miscarried their child following a car accident. That was too much for Alice, and she attempted to kill herself. Fortunately, she was not successful. She recuperated and, in 1945, she agreed to spy for U.S. intelligence. Her mission involved renewing contact with a former lover, a Swiss banker, and she obtained Nazi financial information from him. The operation ended when a Nazi agent shot her in the back, but she was extracted and recovered.

Again, Alice bounced back, and she greatly contributed to the desegregation of American tennis by writing an editorial in support of Althea Gibson for the July 1, 1950, issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine.

In 1964, Marble was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She then settled in Palm Desert, California, where she taught tennis until her death. Marble died in 1990 at a hospital in Palm Springs, California.

Alice Marble’s story of resilience is inspiring. She teaches us to never give up, and to fight for what we believe. It’s a story for the ages.

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