Overlooked No More: Jimmie McDaniel, Tennis Player Who Broke Barriers

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After his baseball career ended, Willis moved the family to Los Angeles, where he became a railroad porter. When he died, his wife, Ruby (Harrison) McDaniel, was left to care for their seven young children. She worked as a domestic six days a week to put food on the table.

Jimmie picked up tennis in elementary school, hitting balls against a backboard or practicing on the school’s sole dirt court. He never had a lesson and never played a junior tournament. At Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, he focused on track and field until his senior year, when he joined the previously all-white tennis team and led it to the league championship.

In 1935, McDaniel played a practice match against a fellow Los Angeles high school student named Bobby Riggs, who was then the top-ranked junior player in the country, and who would go on to win Wimbledon in 1939 and the U.S. Nationals in 1939 and 1941. (He is best remembered for losing to Billie Jean King in what was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” at the Houston Astrodome in 1973.) McDaniel lost, 7-5, 13-11, in the hotly contested battle, but according to his son, Kenneth, it wasn’t a fair fight.

“My uncle Al told me that Riggs was cheating Daddy that day,” Kenneth McDaniel, now 74, said in a phone interview, “but my father was too quiet and too polite to argue.”

There was a reporter there who saw the whole thing but, the story goes, said, “If I write this, I’ll get fired.”

When he was 18, McDaniel fell in love with a 15-year-old white classmate, and she became pregnant. For his transgression, he was forced to spend a year in a reformatory and was banned from returning to Southern California for an additional year. But his passion for tennis never waned.

In 1938, at age 22, McDaniel was awarded a track scholarship to Xavier University in New Orleans — he was a powerful runner who had once leapt 6 feet 4 ½ inches to win the Southern California scholastic high-jump title — but he quickly found his way to the tennis courts instead.

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