Stu Pospisil: How Omaha showed the game of tennis some love


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Oct 12, 2023

Stu Pospisil: How Omaha showed the game of tennis some love

Dewey Park, starting with eight clay courts, was the city’s first municipal tennis center. The national clay court championships began at the Field Club of Omaha in 1910. A look at the photo taken by

Dewey Park, starting with eight clay courts, was the city’s first municipal tennis center.

The national clay court championships began at the Field Club of Omaha in 1910.

A look at the photo taken by OWH staff photographer Earle "Buddy" Bunker that later won the 1944 Pulitzer Prize.

Omaha won its fight.

Those in the city’s corner were many of its rivals: Chicago, Kansas City, Des Moines and Denver the largest.

And that’s how the United States Clay Court Tennis Championship got its start at the Field Club in 1910.

Stu Pospisil

In a sport that came to town 30 years earlier, no event has made more racket nationally.

When Field Club built courts as part of its 1901 opening, it went with clay — used for most courts west of Chicago — instead of grass. Clay covers a wide range of crushed materials, such as stone, brick or shale. Natural sandy loam was the Field Club’s highly praised consistent surface.

The club’s inaugural tennis tournament, the Interstate, gained in prestige and attractiveness for regional players. It soon became known as the Middle West Championships.

Conrad Young, the club’s tennis chairman, had higher aspirations. He wrote to the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association in July 1907 for permission to rename the Middle West as the National Clay Court Championship.

Permission denied.

Young kept pushing. So did others. Letters of support came from clubs from Chicago to Denver.

The U.S. Open in Newport, Rhode Island, was a blue-blood event on meticulously manicured grass courts. Anyone out in the west felt an outsider, more so when leaving their clay surfaces.

“The easterners do not seem to realize the vast difference in the clay court game from the grass court game,” The World-Herald wrote in 1908.

What shook up the austere association was the threat of a split in the ranks, western clubs leaving to form their own organization and hold a national clay court championship at St. Louis, Cincinnati or Omaha. “War Clouds Gather” was the headline in the New York Tribune in January 1910.

The Field Club designated Oklahoma tennis champion John T. Bailey, a friend of the tournament, as its envoy/negotiator at the association’s annual meeting. The easy part was the approval of a clay court championship. But where would it go?

The argument between Omaha and Cincinnati, St. Louis out of consideration early, lasted until the wee hours with the national committees. Two members from Illinois were adamant for Cincinnati. But at 1:30 the next morning, after his impassioned endorsement, Omaha secured the first tournament on a 5-2 vote.

“It was a hard fight, but we were determined to bring the first tournament of the kind to the west and succeeded,” Bailey said later. “I guess we simply wore the other chaps out.”

Omaha kept the men-only tournament for 1911 and regained it for 1913, after a year in Pittsburgh. It never came back.

The city’s next big tennis event, ill-fated, was in 1946. A clay court surface topped what they played on in the original City Auditorium for the Missouri Valley indoor professional tournament that included heavyweights Bill Tilden and Bobby Riggs, and hometown favorite Johnny Tatom.

The canvas for the arena floor never arrived, so a mix of heavy soap and glue water was used to attempt a smoother surface. Riggs was upset the first night. No more than 300 showed up any night. The promoter took a bath.

No such improvised courts were inside the Civic Auditorium when it hosted the Midlands International indoor tournament from 1969 to 1974. The inaugural event, called the 1969 Omaha International, was for amateurs only. The rest included professionals playing for prize money.

Singles champions included Cliff Richey, Stan Smith and three-time winner Ilie Nastase. Jimmy Connors lost in three finals, two to Nastase.

A 1975 Midlands International was planned, but scheduling conflicts (including a move to Boys Town’s field house) — and Connors not intending to play — scrubbed the event.

The city’s tennis history dates to 1879, when Warren Rogers built its first court on his father’s estate near 19th and Leavenworth Streets. In the same neighborhood courts sprung up at the homes of C.W. Hamilton and Judge E.B. Kennedy.

Those spurred interest. In 1883, the Omaha Lawn Tennis Club rented Count John A. Creighton’s property, “Dude’s Pasture,” on the northeast corner of 18th and Chicago Streets. In one year, membership reached 180. “Gents to wear white flannel shirts and pantaloons, ladies to have their dresses of stripes of the color of the club,” was its dress code, according to the Omaha Bee in 1884.

By 1886, a large club had grounds on St. Mary’s Avenue and another club was at 16th and Seward Streets.

The Omaha YMCA renovated a skating pavilion at 23rd and Harney Streets, building four courts, in 1889. The Y’s courts in the early years moved to 20th and Miami Streets (one of the first baseball parks in the city), 19th and Farnam Streets, 28th and Dodge Streets, 24th Street and Ames Avenue and Lake Nakoma (Carter Lake). Early courts for the YWCA were west of 24th and Harney, then at 49th and California Streets and 17th and Jackson Streets.

The Kountze Place club organized on 20th Street in 1891 with four courts for its nearly 50 members. It was still active in 1913.

The St. Croix club, which took over the YMCA’s Harney Street facility, opened a clubhouse and six courts at 31st and Center Streets in 1905.

A 1907 Omaha Daily News article told of private neighborhood courts maintained just west of Central High School and at Seward Street and Military Avenue, 42nd and Lake Streets, 16th and Dorcas Streets, 48th and Burt Streets, 26th and Blondo Streets, 26th and Farnam Streets and 40th and Boyd Streets. In Bemis Park, it was noted, was a flourishing club and Dietz Park was working in its courts.

Miller Park had the first municipal courts, built in 1910. In 1917, it had three of the city’s 14. Kountze, Bemis, Elmwood and Riverview Parks had two apiece. The Gifford tract had two and Spring Lake Park one.

When Parks Commissioner Joe Hummel decided the city needed a tennis hub, he reconfigured the baseball diamond at 31st Street and Dewey Avenue in 1926 for the first four of what became a 15-court complex.

Dewey gained eight new all-weather courts and was dedicated in 1947 as the Omaha Tennis Center. The clay courts went away in 1960.

The Hanscom-Brandeis indoor center opened in 1967. Two-time U.S. Open champion Pancho Gonzales played in the exhibition match that opened the first four of eventually eight courts.

In 2000, the city shifted its outdoor tennis hub to Tranquility Park. Dewey shrank to nine courts, with three converted in 2005 to clay and named for clay court advocate Jack Mallett.

Tranquility’s 27-court complex (plus four junior-sized) started with six courts in 1998. It’s named the Harry and Gail Koch Family Complex.

Which takes this review of Omaha’s tennis history full circle. For Koch’s father, Harry Sr., was on those clay court tournament committees at the Field Club and a crack clay player himself.

That idea to move traffic from 30th Street has been bandied about since the 1930s.

Many Omahans of a certain age remember visiting Santa at Toyland in the Brandeis department store. The tradition dated to the 1900s when J.L. Brandeis and Sons were the proprietors of the Boston Store.

The Benson and the Hanscom are only two of the more than 70 theaters that sprung up outside downtown Omaha during the first half of the 20th century. The majority opened — and closed — during the era of silent films.

Omaha’s first auto club, formed in 1902, included 20 of the city’s 25 auto owners. Their first activity was a road rally to Blair and back.

Take a look back at the history of the Chermot Ballroom and some of the big names that played there.

The New Tower’s front lobby had a Normandy castle motif with great stone walls, heraldic crests and wood-burning fireplace. The massive beams and lofty ceilings carried over into the Crest Dining Room.

A generation of Omahans — and newcomers to the city — likely are unaware that Peony Park, the major amusement spot from the 1930s through 1994, was at 78th and Cass Streets.

Pardon the pun, but another of my deep digs has turned up forgotten burial grounds across Douglas County.

The fame of Curo Springs was so far-reaching that in pioneer days — every fall and spring — people from 100 miles away (some crossing the Missouri in crude boats) would come to load up with the water.

Here are some books relating to Omaha and Nebraska history, many by local authors, to check out.

They were the twin banes in Omaha’s pioneer years. One of them came back to life during the nighttime deluge that hit the area last weekend.

The Omaha Chamber of Commerce was prepared to remove its $35,000 hangar — built in modular sections — until the city was ready to build a municipal airport. Then came back-to-back windstorms.

Research has turned up a juicy nugget — the whereabouts of the burial site of Omaha, the Triple Crown horse in 1935. Hint: there are people resting every night on top of it.

Keystone has become the name applied to the area bounded by 72nd and 90th Streets, Maple Street, Military Avenue and Fort Street. It has expanded since Keystone Park was platted in 1907.

Ezra Meeker’s crusade is credited for reawakening awareness of the Oregon Trail in the early 20th century. In the process, he erroneously linked Omaha to the trail and others took his word for it.

An Omaha real estate firm had the idea in the heyday of the '20s that it could sell 1,500 cottage lots platted away from the lakes and the Platte River. So what happened?

Check out a glimpse of Omaha’s Black history before 1880.

The Dan Parmelee-Tom Keeler feud, which included an Old West shootout on the outskirts of old Elkhorn in December 1874, left Keeler dead and made news nationwide.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Omahans had their pick of drive-in movie theaters. Cars with families and cars with teens -- some watching the film and others, well, you know -- side by side, wired speakers hanging inside a car door.

Clontarf never was incorporated as a village, but functioned like one and wielded political clout larger than its 47 acres. There was a lawless element, too.

'Mascotte was a big joke but it looked good while it lasted.' The village had a factory, railroad depot, hotel, general store, school and about 40 cottages. By 1915, it was all gone.

West Dodge Road has been rebuilt over and over. And along the way, the Old Mill area has lost its mill, its hazardous Dead Man’s Curve and the most beautiful bridge in the county.

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