History's Headlines: Tennis, anyone?

 

It was one of those days typical of the summer of 2019. As Jeff Wenck, manager of Allentown's iconic Oakmont Tennis Club, looked at the puddles of a recent rain on its classic clay courts, a storm that weather forecasters had "promised" would not arrive until that afternoon, he saw the plans for that day's outdoor activities disappear in the drizzle. Instead of hitting tennis balls, Oakmont's younger members were gathered around a big screen TV watching tennis star Serena Williams.

But the day had one advantage. It gave Wenck a chance to recall Oakmont's early years as the club approaches its 100th anniversary celebration this August. "We were founded in 1919 by some Army officers located at the Camp Crane Ambulance Training Center at the Allentown Fair's fairgrounds", he says.

Wenck's personal memories of Oakmont go back to 1959 when he, the third generation of his family to do so, first started playing tennis there as a youngster. "Allentown was different then. It almost seemed like a small town where everybody knew everybody," he recalls. "But it seemed like you could always find, and it is still that way here today, that you could always find all kinds of people playing at Oakmont. A cab driver could play against a banker or lawyer."

Exactly how or why Oakmont got its start is not certain but the year 1919 offers a clue. World War I had ended in November of 1918. But it would take a while in the spring of 1919 for the camp to be phased out. Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Richard Slee, Camp Crane's commander, had the duty to close the camp. This was officially done on April 10, 1919 when he lowered the flag and turned the property over to the Lehigh County Agricultural Society once again. Somewhere in this time period, the remaining officers began, perhaps just to give themselves physical activity, what became Oakmont.

According to a full-page article that appeared in the Morning Call in 1924, it was organized by local people on March 16, 1921. The first officers were Allen Smith, president; Mrs. A.C. Taylor, vice president; C.D. Reber, secretary treasurer and directors A.C. Taylor and J. Ward Crankshaw.

A check of the city directory for 1921 gives the names and occupations of the founders. Allen Smith was a civil engineer. Mrs. Taylor was the wife of mechanical engineer Allyn C. Taylor. Chauncey D. Reber is listed as a purchasing agent. And J. Ward Crankshaw was sales manager for the Allentown-Bethlehem Gas Company, predecessor of UGI. Dr. I.M. Wright, a professor at Muhlenberg College, is also mentioned.

There was no reference to this event in the Morning Call on that date. But it is known that the first Oakmont Tennis Club's courts were located at 20th and Liberty Street across from the Allentown Fairgrounds.

One of the earliest contests that Oakmont participated in was against the Bethlehem Tennis Club on July 8, 1922. It appeared on the Morning Call's sports page the next day under the headline, "OAKMONT NET TEAM WINS DECISIVELY OVER BETHLEHEM.

The star players for Oakmont were Richard "Dick" Boyd, a local chemist and Harry Wieland, who with his father, George Wieland, ran a wholesale confectionary business. Here is how it appeared in the newspaper:

"The Oakmont Tennis Club opened its season in auspicious fashion yesterday afternoon by vanquishing the Bethlehem Racquet Club 7-2. Displaying superior court generalship and a complete mastery of strokes, the Oakmont racqueters were able to win most of the sets in a decisive style. The local net men captured five of the six single matches and two of three contests in doubles. R.N. Boyd and Howard Hoffman figured in a spectacular encounter in which the Oakmont star emerged victorious after a grueling three set matches. The lanky Bethlehemite lost the first set 6-8, evened things up by winning the second 8-6, and then dropped the last match by losing the last set 1-6. Boyd played an uphill game in the first set after Hoffman was within a point of the set several times. After dropping the first set 1-6, Harry Wieland showed a complete reversal of form and ran out the match in lightening-like speed 6-1. The tall Oakmont net artist hit real form in the last two sets and set a pace to fast for (Bethlehem player Ed) Tice."

The paper also mentioned fine playing by Reber, Wright and Smith.

With this kind of playing Oakmont had plans for its growth. But It was the post-World War I recession and a lot of projects were slowed by what some economic historians called the worst recession to hit the economy until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Apparently at this time there was another tennis organization in Allentown known as the Allentown Tennis Club. Their location was given as 600 Hanover Ave. In August 1924, the year the economy began to turn the corner, the Allentown club worked with Oakmont to create a tennis tournament open to anyone who lived in Allentown. The Allentown Tennis Club and Oakmont worked with the Lehigh Country Club and the city recreation council. Wright represented Oakmont on the planning committee.

The economy's growth also brought other changes for Oakmont that summer. The area around 19th street was beginning to be developed and the property at 20th and Liberty, with its proximity to the Fairgrounds was considered an ideal place for development.

So, Oakmont relocated to a property north between Allen Street and Tilghman Street. A map of the new facility that appeared in the paper showed the streetcar route and its stop on Albright Ave. Along with a clubhouse, the illustration depicted a future swimming pool and 19 tennis courts.

But Oakmont's real arrival in the tennis spotlight came in 1926 when it began hosting the Pennsylvania Clay Court Championships. From then until 1947 it attracted world class players to its courts. Among them was Bobby Riggs, long before the 1970s when he became a comic foil in his much-publicized match with Billy Jean King.

The fact that Oakmont is among the oldest and last of the traditional clay courts is a point of pride. "More and more you see clay courts being replaced by municipalities and colleges with hard courts, mostly because they don't like what it costs to maintain them," says Wenck.

Although it never got its swimming pool in the 1920s, what Oakmont does have is its tradition as family-oriented, a place where on any given summer afternoon you might see anyone from a cabdriver to former Congressman Charlie Dent working up a sweat. And it has sustained that for 100 years.