When I was younger, I had the privilege to be the son of a father who worked in the sports industry. In the late 1970s, my dad was the Executive Director of World Team Tennis, which back then was riding the wave of the Tennis Boom to look like it might be a viable major league. In retrospect, of course, it’s not, though it still exists as a somewhat popular small venue league, mostly through the tireless efforts of Billy Jean King. But back then, WTT had the ability to attract all of the major women stars — Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Virginia Wade, the young Martina Navratilova, and of course Billy Jean King herself — mostly because the money for women in tournament tennis was nowhere near the size it is today. Men, on the other hand, stood to lose more if they skipped the pro tour circuit to play team tennis, so for the most part the league was filled with up-and-comers and stars of the past — Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, true hall of famers (literally — both are in the Tennis Hall of Fame) played in the league. The league also flirted with the same sort of big-ticket purchases that MLS has tried. Much like David Beckham (and now Clint Dempsey) being lured from Europe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg both did short stints in WTT.
Anyway, my Dad was the sort of head business man of the league. The Commissioner in 1977 was a retired U.S. Tennis star named Butch Buchholz. You may not have ever heard of him because he was a pro player in the days before Tennis entered the “Open Era.” This meant that once he turned pro in 1961, he was no longer eligible to play on the Davis Cup team (which he had done previously) or at Wimbledon. My Dad was the Numbers Guy to Buchholz’s Tennis Guy (although Buchholz later went on to run successful Tennis tournaments and businesses, and is now in the Tennis Hall of Fame himself).
(As an aside, it’s probably the only time an American sports league was run by two guys — Schwarz and Buchholz — whose names sound like they have T’s in them, but don’t).
I was 10 in 1977. From my perspective, my dad’s job had zero perks whatsoever. We lived in suburban St. Louis, near the League’s headquarters (which had moved from much more kid-friendly Newport Beach when Buchholz, who lived in Missouri, had taken the job as commissioner). There was no St. Louis team to go see; his office was like any other business office. But midway through the fall of 1977, Dad announced that the family was moving to Boston and he was going to take over running the Boston franchise, the Lobsters (get it? - LOBsters!!!) as their Executive Director ( essentially COO without usurping that title from ownership). The Lobsters had talent — Roy Emerson and Tony Roche were our male stars, Terry Holliday and Martina Navratilova were our best women.
Having a dad who runs a team is way, way cooler than having a dad who oversees the money-side of a league. We got to go to every game. We got to hang out with the players — picnics in the off season, dinner at our house, etc. I distinctly remember a somewhat intoxicated Roy Emerson reading a story about Koala bears to my sister (who was about 8) and stifling his laughter at his difficulty in saying “marsupial” without slurring. I also know I played Ultimate Frisbee (which I was pretty good at) with Martina on a bright sunny day in Brookline.
When the 1978 season started, the perks really ratcheted up. Purely through nepotism (and probably because I was willing to work for free — remember, this was a cash-strapped fledgling sports league), I was chosen to be the scoreboard boy for all home games. I got to wear the same uniform as the ballboys (and girls — at least in my memory we were a coed group) which was a pair of tight white 1970s shorts and a red Boston Lobsters t-shirt. I sat way above the crowd at the top of Walter Brown Arena (where BU plays hockey, even to this day). and I’d change the old-style plywood score tiles after each point. Scoring was pretty easy — WTT had invented a much simpler 1,2,3,4 system than the 15-30-40-Game method, on the theory that the sport would gain traction faster if the scoring actually made sense. (Spoiler — it didn’t work). And I’m pretty good at math, so that was easy. I was basically in heaven, even though I’d rather have been watching football, or baseball, or basketball, or maybe even hockey than tennis. It was still awesome.
Awesome, that is, until one day disaster struck, in the form of a temporary promotion. In a classic case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, I was asked to step in as a temporary fill-in at ballboy. I guess a lot of the kids who did that job called in sick (or maybe they were on vacation, I don’t know) and they were one ballboy short. Someone had the brilliant idea that since I was already in the same uniform, I was a natural for the job. I even remember thinking this made sense, and being super-excited to move down from the top row of the arena to being on court during the match.
It turns out, there is actually some skill involved in being a ballboy. Maybe not a ton, but there is an art to properly getting the ball to the players without distracting them from their job of being really awesome at tennis. It’s probably something I could have picked up in 15 minutes of pre-match training, but those 15 minutes were not something that anyone thought to provide me. It’s also possible that a more observant kid might have picked the skill up from having watched dozens of professional matches from his perch above the arena, but as my wife will attest, I am not always the most talented person at looking outside my narrow focus, which had always been on KEEPING SCORE ACCURATELY. The stuff that happened between points was none of my affair, and I hadn’t noticed squat.
Anyway, those of you who know tennis well may be ahead of me at this point, but just to add to the fun, to this point, the only work I’d really done with a ball the size of a tennis ball was Little League. Again, at least in my hazy memory, this is before I lost my eye-sight to nearsightedness and could still hit a baseball, and before the sad reality of adolescence left me short and scrawny compared to my peers, and so I was the slugging first baseman of my local team. And so, when it came time to throw the ball to the tennis stars, I tossed it to them like I’d learned to toss the ball back to the pitcher from first. overhand and on a line.
For those of you not that familiar with tennis, that’s not how you do it. You bounce the ball so that it comes up about waist high on a single bounce, without a lot of mustard on the throw. Not shoulder high on a rope. I was only 11, so it wasn’t like I had a cannon for an arm, but a close range line drive when you are expecting a soft bounce is likely to catch anyone off guard. And that’s what happened.
Put in your mind an image of the 1970s East German women’s Olympians. Big, Burly women, right? Imagine what the women’s tennis equivalent of that would have been like. That was Betty Stöwe (pronounced Stove-Uh), who was actually Dutch, but she was a beast. She was coming off of what turned out to be the highlight of her career, reaching the finals at Wimbledon in 1977, losing to British hero, Virginia Wade. She was also a fantastic doubles player — she has 10 Grand Slam titles in women’s and mixed doubles, and finished second in another 17 major tournaments. And she was almost 6 feet tall and I was probably not even 5 feet. She scared me.
She also, it turns out, didn’t like a little kid chucking her a tennis ball baseball style. She threatened to kill me. She wasn’t the only one — Martina also balled me out, but she may have held back a bit more than Stöwe because she knew I was the boss’s son. For some reason, no one bothered to explain to me what I was doing wrong, and I wasn’t sharp enough, especially with the adrenaline and fear flowing through me, to figure it out on my own.
It’s hazy after that. I feel like maybe the WTT system had something like half-time, even though I also think they played 5 games (men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles), so maybe it was a break after the second or third of five games. Anyway, mercifully, somehow there was a break in the action and someone with some sense — maybe my dad? — pulled me out and replaced me with someone else. I ran off crying — at 11, I was still quick to tears — and I think maybe I fled to my perch at the scoreboard, where I could do my job well and no gigantic Amazons threatened me with large wooden (as they still were) rackets.
I suspect this story has nothing to do with it, but unfortunately, after that season (in which the Lobsters reached the finals but lost to the Chris Evert-led Los Angeles Strings), WTT went bankrupt and that ended its chance to become the fifth American major league. Martina went on to become the dominant women’s player of her era, though she left a big color TV behind that my mother, um, salvaged and on which we watched sports for the rest of my youth. The Lobsters owner, a guy named Robert Kraft, ended up sticking around in the sports business, as did some of the other owners, like Dr. Jerry Buss, who owned the L.A. franchise. My Dad gave up his dream to work in sports (though there is an interesting coda to that, the telling of which I will save for another day) and got a job that offered virtually no perks to a kid — he worked in the business office of a construction company until after I left home for college. I can’t say I was scarred too badly, but I can remember that feeling of knowing that an entire arena was somehow looking at me with distaste and not really knowing why, and I can tell you it does not feel good. On the other hand, it makes a great story, and that maybe makes it worth having gone through it, train wreck though it was. Maybe.