Philadelphia News & Search
William “Big Bill” Tilden, the Philadelphia native and Tennis Hall of Famer who dominated the early 20th century game the way Babe Ruth dominated baseball, has been denied a historical plaque for a second time.
A panel of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has rejected the request to place a marker at the entrance of Tilden’s home court, the Germantown Cricket Club, according to a member of the group that had submitted the nomination.
The panel cited Tilden’s arrests in the 1940s for sexual misconduct with minors as its reason for voting against the nomination.
“As was the case last year, the panel felt that while the significance of this athlete’s tennis career and talent are indisputable, his convictions for sexual misconduct with underage boys preclude recognition with a PHMC marker,” the panel wrote, adding that approving the plaque “may be perceived to dishonor victims of sexual abuse at a time when Pennsylvanians are especially sensitive to this issue.”
Accounts of Tilden’s crimes vary, but according to the Associated Press, he was arrested in Beverly Hills in 1946 for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Police stopped Tilden’s car and found a 14-year-old boy behind the wheel with his zipper down. Tilden pleaded guilty and served seven months on a prison farm, according to Allen Hornblum, a Northeast Philadelphia author who is finishing a 500-page book about Tilden.
Tilden was arrested again in 1949 for a probation violation amid allegations that he was in the company of an unsupervised teen boy and had groped a third teen, according to the AP. He was sent back to the prison farm.
Hornblum, who was part of the group behind the Tilden plaque nomination, learned Monday of the decision on the plaque. He said that the group’s effort was doomed by the Penn State sexual abuse scandal.
“It’s unfortunate, but this really is the toughest state in the union to try to get this thing through right now,” Hornblum said.
Karen Galle, coordinator of PHMC’s historical marker program, told the Inquirer and Daily News in January that Tilden “clearly met the approval criteria,” but the Penn State case had made the vote difficult.
“We’ve never had this type of situation,” she said.
Several former tennis players had supported the plaque – including two-time Grand Slam champion Richard “Dick” Savitt, three-time Grand Slam champion Manuel “Manolo” Santana, and Overbrook native Vic Seixas, who won Wimbledon in 1953 and the U.S. National Championship in 1954.
Hornbum said of the PHMC panel members: “They’re almost like politicians in the sense that they become frightened of public opinion. If we tried to do this prior to 2011, or in another state, it obviously wouldn’t be as difficult.”
Tilden grew up down the street from the Germantown Cricket Club and was the first American-born man to win Wimbledon, in 1920. He was 6-foot-2 and helped modernize the game through his crushing serve and use of ball spin.
Some tennis experts still insist that he was the best ever. His overall career record was 907-62, according to the Tennis Hall of Fame. Tilden died of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 60.
Philadelphia News & Search