Up-Close and Personal: The Great Pancho Gonzales and Spectator Sports Back-Then

Pancho Gonzales  003_PSIn one very special sense, live sporting venues and the live spectator experience are nothing like they once were. Gone is the fan’s ability to experience, up-close-and-personal, the true essence of today’s sports “heroes.” The observable reality has been replaced by “images” that sports marketeers would have us believe.

A germane illustration of what has been lost today is my youthful experience with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tennis players who ever lived: Richard “Pancho” Gonzales whose reign at the very top of the tennis world stretched from 1952 to 1960 – a very long time.   I was born in 1940 and attended high school in the late nineteen-fifties. Many in my age group consider ourselves extremely lucky: We grew up during the “golden age” in America. But nothing is ever all one way or all the other. We had even worse racism than exists today, we had polio, we had World War II on our doorstep, but, in the early nineteen-forties, we soon had hopes for a brighter society to come…and it did come in the years following the war.   My youthful recollections include vignettes of a day-to-day existence that was much more free and unregulated than today’s way of life. Another appropriate phrase is “less manipulated.” In spite of inferior communication technologies in the form of no internet and infant television, we, nevertheless had a more intimate  access to the authentic personas of our sports “heroes” (I do dislike that terminology).   By today’s standards, we kids, back then, were under-privileged as far as attendance at major sporting events was concerned. Often, our sports heroes came to us only via newsreel, newspapers, bubble gum cards, and, later, television. Rare was the lad who actually was able to attend a major league baseball game or a big-time football game – college or professional. But for those fortunate enough to acquire a ticket to a major event, the experience was much different from that of today’s fan – far more intimate.

The Greatest Tennis Player in the World…and Yesterday’s Venues

  By 1958, my senior year of high school, I had discovered the sport of tennis. At that time, the best player in the world was the great Pancho Gonzales who possessed the most powerful serve and the most formidable all-around game ever seen at that time. In 1959, Gonzales, the ranking professional tour champion and the best player in the world, was coming to our area to play at the venerable “Cow Palace” arena, just south of San Francisco, as part of player/promoter Jack Kramer’s annual professional tour. Unlike today, in those days there was a definite distinction between amateur and professional status. Gonzales was playing head-to-head over a cross-country series of matches against the newest pro, Lew Hoad, the great Australian amateur champion, two years prior. Also featured on the tour were two other recently turned-pro members of Australia’s legendary amateur tennis dynasties, Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper. I had a particular fascination with Gonzales and how his background and reputation stood in such glaring contrast with the gentlemen tennis stars from Down-Under.

Pancho Gonzales  004_PSMy dad and I had good tickets for that evening; we arrived at our seats early so as to soak in the entire atmosphere of the event. During the preliminary match prior to Hoad vs. Gonzales, I happened to look behind our block of seats and noticed a tall, lean, but muscular fellow in sport jacket and slacks perusing the arena from where he was standing in the aisle, several rows behind us. He had black, wavy hair and projected a swarthy complexion coupled with a brooding, stern expression. I watched him for a minute or two before concluding that the imposing figure was the great Pancho Gonzales, himself, probably accustoming himself to the environment prior to his curtain call. Nobody else seemed aware as people walked to and fro past him; I summoned up my courage, and, leaving my seat, I approached him with a fuzzy new tennis ball in hand which I had brought in high hopes of getting someones’s autograph that evening.

I asked, “Are you Pancho Gonzales?” He slightly nodded and quickly added that he would not autograph my tennis ball. “Bring me something I can write on,” he said. I scurried back to my seat and got the program I had purchased on the way into the arena. He scrawled in the lower-left corner of his full-page picture, “Pancho Gonzales,” and I was thrilled. I still have that program with his autograph.

Pancho Gonzales  001_PS As expected, Pancho, with his great skills and matchless competitive fervor, had his way with young Hoad that evening and throughout most of Kramer’s World Professional Tour. The dash and dark fury of his play that night fit perfectly with my pre-conceived notions of him.

Gonzales was an intimidating tennis player who played with speed, power, and an unrelenting desire not just to win, but to mow down his opponents on the court. He learned his tennis not from some teaching pro at the local tennis club, but from playing with other young, under-privileged lads on the public tennis courts in Exposition Park, adjacent to some very poor neighborhoods in central Los Angles. It is no exaggeration to say that he came up the “hard way,” quite unlike many of the other players he met on the amateur circuit during his young adult years. As a tennis player, Richard “Pancho” Gonzales was largely self-taught. His economic underdog mentality, plus the paucity of minority players on the tennis circuits were likely the elements which fueled his fierce determination to not only succeed in his sport, but to dominate it.

Seeing the Real Pancho Gonzales…Up-Close-and-Personal!

  I got to see more of Pancho and the Aussies a few years later at a swanky club tournament north of San Francisco. This time, Gonzales, still in his prime, was playing the feature match against the latest Aussie challenger (and phenom), the great Rod Laver. The match did not go so well this time for Pancho – soon to be obvious afterward even if one did not witness the match itself. Shortly afterward, as the small crowd of us spectators filed out of the compact tennis stadium and through the clubhouse, we walked right past a large round table in the club bar ringed by the entire contingent of Aussie players heartily enjoying a few drinks and each other’s company. No sign of Pancho, there. Outside – in plain view along the curb in front of the clubhouse, sat Pancho, still in tennis togs and racket in hand. His young, attractive wife sat beside him and was doing her best to calm his obvious anger over the loss to Laver. Pancho was well-known as temperamental and extremely competitive, and here, as exhibit A, was proof for all to see. No skill at lip-reading or body language was necessary to get Pancho’s “drift” from just across the street.

My last close look at Pancho and his world of tennis came at a senior players tournament at the more modest local tennis club. Now, several years later, new challengers occupied the top rungs of the world tennis ladder, but Gonzales and that former band of Aussies could still play some fine tennis as seniors. Our seats were but a few yards from courtside where Pancho was playing one of the Aussies (I cannot recall who). We were close enough at court level to see and hear everything – even the beads of sweat on Pancho’s brow. He seemed to be relaxed, satisfied with his play, and enjoying the match until one of the umpires started to call foot-faults on his serve. The umpires under such circumstances were always merely club members who volunteered for the duty – certainly not paid, experienced professionals.

After a couple of foot-fault calls, Pancho began to mutter and glower, and berate the umpire’s poor judgement, halting play for a considerable period. To everyone’s relief, play resumed and then it happened – another foot-fault call – exactly what the spectators at courtside were dreading. I recall a collective cringe! Gonzales was struggling to contain his contempt for the umpire and his call(s) while glowering some more. There was a very protracted dead silence. Suddenly, from the crowd, a brave, clarion voice rang out: “Play ball, Pancho!!” I’ll never forget it – another collective cringe! Now the intimate courtside crowd really held its breath; most were familiar with Pancho’s storied temper. I thought to myself, “I’m glad we are not sitting next to that guy in the crowd who just called out; who knows what might happen.” The atmosphere finally calmed, and the match resumed, thankfully without further incident.

I relate these episodes with the great Pancho in some detail to illustrate how up-close-and-personal the sporting scene was for us fans of that era. The aftermath of the Gonzales/Laver match as I witnessed it both inside and outside the clubhouse would not be visible in the controlled and varnished sporting atmosphere of today. Money was not the be-all and end-all for these athletes. Personal pride was clearly a prime motivator for a player, and that was especially true for Richard Pancho Gonzales.

The best athletes of the day, men like Gonzales, Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, etc. were all paid handsomely, but nothing in proportion to today’s scales. None became wealthy by age twenty – like so many today – based on mere potential alone. As these vignettes of Pancho illustrate, we fans could actually walk among and mingle with great athletes, seeing them at their best and, sometimes, at their worst – but seeing them as real people, not marketing creations. Security guards? There were none to be seen, unlike today where no star athlete is allowed to walk off the field of play…or anywhere, without one or two burly security “attendants.” Fans generally deferred to a self-imposed respect for the athlete and his/her privacy even when they found themselves in close proximity. Who or what is to blame for the current situation which requires constant security?

“Follow the money” as the saying goes – too much money, and too much marketing management of sport. I hate to listen to today’s athletes being interviewed. Everything they say is vanilla pap because that is the way business runs the show – don’t get controversial …ever. There are potential sponsors tracking your every word and every aspect of your image. The public is not completely blameless, either, fueled as it is with a worship for today’s sports “heroes” (I really dislike that characterization) which transcends any respect for the real person behind the image.

The small club tournament I described which highlighted the divergent attitudes of the good-natured Aussies and the brooding Gonzales would never be held, today. Such marquee players, today, command far more money than can be realized in such a small, intimate venue. That, more than anything else, characterizes the situation today. After a match, today’s players disappear into tunnels and corridors beneath the giant stadiums which are now requisite to fuel both players’ demands and large expected profits. After showers and inane press-interviews, limos now whisk athletes off to their downtown hotels and eateries. The sights I witnessed both inside and outside the clubhouse long after the match would never even happen in today’s environment.

I consulted Wikipedia to fill in a few facts about Gonzales’ life and career. I expected a few pages worth of material; instead there were eleven, there is so much to the story. Here are a few excerpts of particular note which relate to my post:

–Tony Trabert (fine player of the era): “I appreciated his tennis ability but I never came to respect him as a person. Too often I had witnessed him treat people badly without a cause. He was a loner, sullen most of the time, with a big chip on his shoulder and he rarely associated with us on the road. Instead, he’d appear at the appointed hour of his match, then vanish back into the night without saying a word to anyone. We’d all stay around giving autographs to the fans before moving on to the next city. Not Pancho.”

Trabert’s description, here, matches my eyewitness experiences uncannily accurately, except that Pancho did tolerate my interruption that evening so long ago and did autograph my program.

— Married and divorced six times, with eight children.

–Gonzales died in 1995, in poverty and almost friendless. The recent champion tennis player, Andre Agassi, paid for his funeral.

Although I might have enjoyed a drink at the bar more with the convivial Aussie players like Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall, and although I admired their exemplary sportsmanship, I always loved watching Pancho Gonzales play tennis because his emotions were real and right there on his sleeve for all to see….and he WAS the best in the world in his prime – for a very long time. Like him or not, Ricardo Alonso “Pancho” Gonzalez was “the real deal,” truly one of a kind.