By Warren Kimball
Stephen Wallis Merrihew was perhaps the most effective and tenacious campaigner for lawn tennis, in America and around the world, the game has ever seen. His best known role was as editor and publisher of American Lawn Tennis (ALT) for nearly forty years, starting in 1907 as the official USNLTA organ. That long tenure was impressive, but Merrihew’s strongest credential was what he was, what he stood for, and how he comported himself as a public figure in the international world of lawn tennis. For some forty years, Merrihew acted as the wise and gentle conscience of international lawn tennis and the USLTA. He took editorial positions consistent with his beliefs in what was best for tennis, even when it meant opposing the official governing bodies. He conducted positive, non-confrontational educational campaigns in ALT that challenged stereotypes and paved the way for firm actions that promoted diversity in racial matters as well as class, and for acceptance of the "open" game – open to amateurs and professionals alike.
His was a positive crusade of building, not destroying. The edifice he worked on was the international growth and promotion of lawn tennis. The implements were simple - pen and typewriter - but the result was a wonderful product of a sensitive, dedicated patron of the game. Sensationalism, the bane of news reporting, never tempted him. He traveled to tennis events constantly, in the United States and Europe. He was on a first name basis not only with all the top players, but with those he met at small events and college matches. He welcomed professionals both personally and in the pages of ALT. He supported early proposals for open tennis, but never discarded his belief that amateur tennis should be maintained. An accomplished player himself, he played the game nearly every day until late in his life, when health intervened.
Merrihew not only spread the word about his wonderful game, but he stitched it together in ways that no other tennis publication or organization has been able to do. In 1944, when Merrihew sold ALT (though he remained as editor and then writer until his death in 1947), the new publisher solicited testimonials for a "symposium" on the man most called "Pops." One hundred twenty letters from all round the United States and abroad were printed – a few samples of the comments tell the story:
1. He gave some tennis balls to kids waiting to play at the 7th Regiment Armory in New York – starting a lifelong friendship with one (Herbert Bowman) who went on to win the first Junior National Indoor Championship.
2. Ted Schroeder (ITHF inductee), who won the US National and Wimbledon championships, wrote that "every issue of ALT is testimonial enough."
3. Frank Froehling (a top college and amateur player) recalled "Pop," always "looking out for his boys," persuading a reluctant tournament committee to correct its own error of overlooking Froehling’s entry.
4. Francis Hunter (a top player in the 1920s and ITHF inductee) insisted that Merrihew’s contributions to tennis went way beyond the magazine "through the value of his counsel and inspiration."
5. Russell Kingman, a former USLTA officer, referred to Merrihew’s "honest opinion, tempered, always, with the give-and-take of good sportsmanship."
6. Bill Tilden (ITHF inductee) summed it up, writing that "Merry" was "the greatest and most unselfish lover of the game of tennis I have ever known."
Merrihew’s personal style and behavior as publisher-editor epitomized the competitive sportsmanship of the lawn tennis game he loved so much. He seems to have had no enemies. As an active volunteer for the US(N)LTA he often raised awkward questions, taking principled stands that questioned the policies of the USLTA and even the ILTF. But never with anger, never with ad hominem remarks, never in a way that would damage the game. He supported governance changes that would eventually democratize and decentralize the USTA. Even in 1924, when that Association’s leadership, adamant about its amateur rule and frustrated by Merrihew’s calm and steadfast support for Bill Tilden on the player-writer dispute, discontinued using ALT as its official magazine, Merrihew moved on without complaint or comment. No one spoke ill of him in public or in private, then or any other time.
In 1922, when the British withdrew their claim that Wimbledon constituted the world championship in tennis, and the USLTA voted to join the International Lawn Tennis Federation, Merrihew pointed out that what many (particularly Merrihew) regarded as a dream had become a reality – "lawn tennis will be played in the same manner all over the world."
No touch was too small. He kept prisoners of war during World War One in touch with lawn tennis by mailing them copies of ALT. At one point (just before the Second World War), ALT was going out to tennis lovers in seventy-two countries around the world. Throughout World War Two he featured photographs (often on the cover) and articles about lawn tennis players in the armed forces – some famous, most just doughboys and Red Cross workers – who tried in one way or another to continue playing. Pictures of some American servicemen showing giggling Chinese women how to hold a racquet may have been staged, but they were a powerful and persuasive visual statement of one of his most ardent beliefs, that lawn tennis was a sport for all nations, all classes, all people.
Despite discrimination in the tennis world (largely based on race), the pages of American Lawn Tennis routinely carried reports during the 1920s and after, with photographs, of ATA (American Tennis Association, the "Negro" organization) championships starting in the 1920s, when lynching was still frighteningly common. That coverage was the doing of Merrihew, not the USLTA. In 1923, a quarter-century before Afro-Americans could play in USLTA-sanctioned events and a half-century before black Americans could finally play at most of the tennis facilities throughout the country, it was he who caught the beauty and promise of sports in an era when racial, social and gender prejudice were routine and unchallenged, offering an alternative and wonderful world-wide vision of the game:
Lawn tennis can be played indoors as well as out, and under artificial light as well as under the glare of the sun. It rises superior to race, or rather it attracts every race of people; . . . Once the sport of two or three white races, whose members went on the court clothed in rigorously conventional apparel – flannels and other garments to match – we now see players brown, yellow and even black, garbed in every degree of picturesqueness and simplicity; . . . In short, in our present-day game of lawn tennis, clothes do not necessarily make the man, or woman.
He did not have to add – nor does race.
His criticisms and questions stimulated awareness and contributed to changes in the USTA and in lawn tennis. He let the pages of ALT speak out with photographs and articles against segregation, sensing that lectures and speeches would fall on deaf ears. He spoke out for assimilating professionals into the greater world of lawn tennis at a time when a search for "pure" amateurism threatened to stifle the growth of the game.
All the while, he and his magazine were most effective good-will ambassadors and publicists for lawn tennis during its crucial formative era. Not until television and open tennis would another force be as powerful. He lived up to his own mission statement, made in 1907 when he founded ALT:
to strike abuses wherever existing, to speak freely and with emphasis on all matters affecting the well-being of the sport; in other words to be absolutely untrammeled, keeping in mind always one object – the upbuilding of the sport.
If there were an American tennis hall of fame, Merrihew would be a unanimous selection.
Warren Kimball, a long-time USTA volunteer who served four years on the USTA Board of Directors, has been working on an institutional history of the USTA since he retired from teaching history at Rutgers University. This is a "short subject" taken from his research.