August 28, 1950 was a historic date in tennis. Althea Gibson defeated Barbara Knapp 6-2, 6-2 becoming the first African American to participate in the US National Championships.
In her next encounter, she came up short against Louise Brough, who was a three-time Ladies Singles winner at The Championships. Brough won the first set 6-1 and lost the second 6-3. Gibson was ahead 7-6 when a thunderstorm suspended play. When the players returned to the court, Brough rallied and closed out the match 9-7.
On September 8, 1968, Arthur Ashe defeated Tom Okker, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the first US Open Men’s Singles final. Because Ashe was playing as an amateur his Netherlands opponent, who was a professional, received the $14,000 winner’s prize money. Income aside, the triumph was extraordinary because Ashe became the first African American male to win a Grand Slam title.
While these accomplishments were noteworthy the fact Jimmie McDaniel had nudged the door open for both Gibson and Ashe should not be overlooked…
Reading this statement some will ask – Who…?
Well here is a story about a little-known individual who played a significant role in breaking tennis’ White exclusivity in the US.
McDaniel, who was one of seven children, grew up in Los Angeles, California. Willis, his father, was a former Negro League baseball player who became a railroad porter. His mother, Ruby, after Willis passed away, worked six days a week as a housekeeper so the family could survive.
A natural athlete, McDaniel, when he was young, learned to play tennis by hitting against a wall. He never had a lesson but would stand in front of anything that reflected his image, such as a mirror or store windows, and practice his strokes.
He attended Manual Arts High School, in the mid-Wilshire District of Los Angeles. Initially, he focused on track and field and won the Southern California Scholastic high-jump title. As a high school senior his sports’ interest turned to tennis. The tall, lefthander joined the all-white team and quickly became its best player leading the squad to the league championship title.
According to local tennis lore, in 1935, McDaniel played a practice match against Bobby Riggs, a student at Franklin High School, in Highland Park (a Los Angeles suburb). The 17-year-old Riggs, who was No. 1 in the US Boys’ 18 division, defeated his 18-year-old opponent 7-5, 13-11. (This is the same Riggs, who in 1939, was The Championships’ Gentlemen’s Singles, Doubles and Mixed Doubles winner, and lost to Billie Jean King in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes”.)
In 1938, Ralph Metcalfe, the former Olympic medal winning sprinter, who taught political science and coached the track and field team, recruited McDaniel for his Xavier University of Louisiana program. Though his quickness and jumping ability enabled him to excel in track and field, the Los Angeles native, once he enrolled, decided that tennis was his game.
Segregation limited his intercollegiate competitive opportunities, but he dominated play against opponents from Historically Black Colleges such as Hampton, Prairie View A & M and Tuskegee Institute. Between 1939 and 1941, he entered 43 tournaments and won 38, including the American Tennis Association (ATA) Men’s Singles three consecutive years (1939–’41).
On July 29, 1940, on a court at The Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem, New York, McDaniel and Don Budge discounted tennis’ long-standing racial separation competition restrictions.
Budge had turned professional after winning the First Grand Slam (the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US National men’s singles) in 1938. One of his first contracts was with Wilson Sporting Goods. The company sponsored the exhibition, at the home of the ATA, between the two best players in the game…One who was White and the other who was Black (and still a Xavier University of Louisiana student).
Court-side seating was barely 2,000 but there was such interest in what was taking place that spectators watched from the roof tops, fire escapes and the windows of surrounding buildings. It is almost incidental that Budge won 6-1, 6-2.
Following the match, though he dominated his very nervous opponent, Budge thoughtfully offered, “All he needs is a little more practice against men of our caliber and I’m convinced that he will have a good chance of being one of the best players in America.” (Obviously, tennis segregation, in those days, made this impossible…)
For some reason, it is rarely revealed that after the singles, Budge teamed with Dr. Reginald Weir, the first African American to play the US Lawn Tennis Association Indoor Championships in 1948, to take on McDaniel and Richard (Dick) Cohen, a Xavier University of Louisiana teammate. (There is no record of the match score.)
The exhibition reached far beyond the tennis court as Cicely Richard, a specialist in creative writing and journalism, brought out in an online post, “In 1940, Donald Budge, the finest white player in America, took it upon himself to go into Harlem, in New York City, to play an exhibition match at the Black owned Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. He played against the top black player of the day, Jimmie McDaniel.
“The fact that McDaniel lost the match handily is no more than a footnote to the significance of Budge’s appearance. It was the first time that a black player was able to test his skills against a white player; to gauge his strokes, strategy and knowledge of the sport against the best in the world. A white player had taken a stand in support of equal opportunity. Players, you see, have never been the problem; it has always been the administration struggling to break with tradition.”
Unfortunately, the significance of the boundary crossing contest received little media attention because of what was taking place on the world stage in Europe and the Far East at the time.
On July 29, 2010, the 70th anniversary of the McDaniel–Budge meeting, Ed Cassiere, the Associate Athletics Director for Strategic Communications, wrote about the Xavier University of Louisiana saluting McDaniel on September 1, 1940, pointing out that the Xavier Herald, the school’s newspaper, said the event was, “a neatly arranged and deliciously prepared lawn supper…” attended by around 30 Xavier athletes and coaches.
(Cassiere also mentioned that the Xavier Herald, during the 1940’s, referred to the school as “the Notre Dame of the South”. Years later it was called “the black Notre Dame.”)
McDaniel completed his education at the university in 1942 and returned to Southern California. World War II was raging and there were jobs galore in the support industries. He found a position as a janitor at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation plant in Burbank, California. Upon retiring after 30 years, he had become an Assembly Line Supervisor.
His tennis career, for the better part of two decades, was put in the game’s “Remember Then…” vault. After taking the time to become tennis playing fit, he began competing again and achieved a Men’s 60 National ranking. He also set about teaching the game in which he once starred.
As a Southern California junior competitor, Beverly Coleman was regarded as an “up and coming…” Althea Gibson. During those days, she knew McDaniel and the players he practiced with – including Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez, Earthna Jacquet and Oscar Johnson – on the public tennis courts at Exposition Park, the 160 acre parcel of land where the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is located.
Coleman recounted, “I remember that Jimmie (McDaniel) and Pancho (Gonzalez) were spectacular athletes – taking my breath away with their cat-like, smooth athleticism but (Earthna) Jacquet was a powerhouse, a stallion with a huge serve and big volley game – not as agile as Jimmie and Pancho…”
She added, “It is true, Jimmie was a smooth and kind gentleman…”
Dee Williams Horne has been on the local tennis scene for some time. A fierce, feisty competitor, who “just picked up a racquet” (as she tells it), she has a thorough knowledge of the African Americans who made a difference in Southern California tennis. She recalled, “…Jimmie McDaniel was one of the nicest men in the world. He was very smooth and helped me technically. We won a Pacific Coast Mixed Doubles Championship. He was a very impressive and honorable man. Classy says it better.”
In the 1970s, Southern California was energized by the mini-skirts, bell-bottoms and “hippy hair” scene that went on to team with disco music and styles featuring glittering colors. Tennis was part of the electric excitement…It was “In”. For long-time players, it was hard to find a court because the game’s popularity became consuming…which is the reason the Tennis Place, a 16 court facility on Third Street and Fairfax, across from the legendary Framer’s Market, a must stop for tourists, was busy 24/7 after it open in 1976.
McDaniel was one of the teaching pros and on occasion, I would drop by…Not only to chat with Tennis Place manager Lillian Zipp, the sister of Carl Earn, an outstanding player who became a fabled instructor at the Hillcrest Country Club, but to “hit a few” then visit with him to see if he had any “Watch for them insights” concerning minority players making their way up the tennis rankings.
Looking back, I remember that though he was reserved, he impressed me. He had quiet dignity. We would talk about the way the game was being played and he would mention players who he believed understood how to play.
What was even more striking, like the renowned Jack Kramer, he was comfortable with who he was and what he had accomplished. He never, which is a word a writer should rarely use, but it fits here, talked about what he had won or his status – His place in the sport’s history.
Having written tennis about for almost a decade, I had met few players who were “McDaniel good…”, yet so humble. He rarely called attention to himself, but he had a wonderfully subtle sense of humor. Honestly, I wish I had been able to spend more time with him because I would have learned a great deal about tennis when African Americans were not allowed to participate, and more important, I would have had an opportunity to discover much more about a very special man.
Over time, the USTA has acknowledged that McDaniel was the greatest Black tennis player of the Pre-World War II Era. In addition, along with fellow Xavier University of Louisiana stars Richard “Dick” Cohen, Louis Graves and Robert Ryland, he was featured in the Black Tennis Pioneers presentation staged by the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum during the 2007 US Open.
On November 3, 2022, Xavier University of Louisiana, founded in New Orleans in 1925, held its inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame induction. Eighteen athletes, including Olympic medal winner Herb Douglas and celebrated basketball players Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Donald “Slick” Watts, along with two teams, were honored.
McDaniel was among the standout student-athletes recognized…
A tennis player who made an impact that is still being realized…
Born September 4, 1916, McDaniel passed away March 8, 1990. Having been inducted posthumously into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009, it is more than appropriate that Jimmie McDaniel was a member of the first Xavier University of Louisiana Athletic Hall of Fame class.
Title photo of Jimmie McDaniel is from the Xavier University of Louisiana Archive