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Tennis, anyone?

Posted: June 16th, 2017 | Columns, Featured, PastMatters | No Comments

Famous players in North Park’s backyard

By Katherine Hon | PastMatters

Summer is coming! It’s time to go outside and play.

If tennis is your game, maybe you play all year at the Morley Field tennis complex, home of the Balboa Tennis Club (BTC). In that case, you are part of a long history of the club, local players — and the tennis courts themselves.

The Maureen Connolly Brinker stadium court at the Morley Field tennis complex (Photo by Steve Hon)

BTC traces its origins to 1922, when a small group of tennis players raised $5,000 and cooperated with the city to build six tennis courts next to the present War Memorial Building off Park Boulevard. The site is now part of the San Diego Zoo parking lot.

The San Diego Tennis Association obtained the lease to operate the courts in 1924. The BTC was officially formed in 1939, when their articles of incorporation were drawn up as a public nonprofit with the mission to “foster and develop the game of tennis in San Diego … and to encourage competitive play with other clubs of this and other communities.”

In June 1966, the BTC moved to its current location at Morley Field. In July 1983, the club assumed all operational responsibilities for the complex.

The BTC is strongly involved in the community. In 2012, the club worked with Balboa Naval Medical Center and the San Diego District Tennis Association to host the first annual National Wounded Warrior Tennis Camp with 60 wounded, ill and injured service members and their families from around the U.S.

The North Park Historical Society especially appreciates the BTC’s annual hosting of the North Park Car Show in the parking lot fronting the tennis courts on the first Saturday after Labor Day. (This year the show will be Sept. 9 from 10‑2 p.m. — save the date!)

The BTC also maintains the San Diego Tennis Hall of Fame, a collection of memorabilia about some of San Diego’s most illustrious players.

Ben Press and Maureen Connolly, pictured in 1956, were long-time friends and North Park neighbors during their youth. (Courtesy of Ben Press)

They include Maureen Connolly Brinker, a tennis phenomenon of the early 1950s who had won three straight U.S. National and Wimbledon titles by the time she was 19.

She became the first woman to win a Grand Slam (Australia, France, Wimbledon and the U.S.) in 1953.

She broke her leg in an equestrian accident in 1954, which ended her tennis career. She later became a feature writer for the San Diego Union, and met her husband Norman Brinker, a member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team, on an interview assignment.

The stadium court at the Morley Field tennis complex was dedicated to her in 1971.

Maureen Connolly started learning how to play tennis at age 8 on the University Heights Playground courts (now the North Park Recreation Center) near her home on Idaho Street. Her first tennis teacher was Wilbur Folsom, another member of the San Diego Tennis Hall of Fame.

A San Diego native, Folsom graduated from San Diego High School and later San Diego State University, where he earned his teaching credential. He devoted 35 years to helping young people learn tennis, and became known as the “Architect of Tennis Champions.” Two days after he graduated from high school in 1927, he was hit by a car at Park Boulevard and Meade Avenue. The accident resulted in the loss of his left leg, but that did not affect his passion for tennis or his skill as a teacher. On Oct. 28, 1967, on his 59th birthday, he was honored at Morley Field when Mayor Francis Earl “Frank” Curran declared it to be Wilbur Folsom Appreciation Day for Folsom’s service to the community.

Wilbur Folsom was honored at Morley Field on Oct. 28, 1967. (Courtesy of Ben Press)

Another North Park champion who learned from Folsom was Ben Press. He was a neighbor and friend of baseball great Ted Williams on Utah Street as well as Maureen Connolly. He attended San Diego High School and played varsity tennis at UCLA. He taught tennis for more than 60 years, and some of his students included actors Errol Flynn and Charlton Heston. He served as a tennis pro at the Kona Kai Club, Hotel del Coronado, and Hilton Beach and Tennis Club. He wrote a regular column about tennis for the San Diego Evening Tribune in the 1970s.

The courts that hosted these luminaries and many other tennis players were initially funded in 1932 as part of a $300,000 unemployment relief bond approved by the City Council during the Great Depression. The recreation facilities built for about $70,000 in what is now Morley Field included the swimming pool and clubhouse still at the southern end of Texas Street and eight tennis courts. These facilities opened with other amenities to much fanfare in January 1933. Several courts were added immediately; by 1966, a total of 24 courts had been built and the tennis stadium court was under construction. The BTC is always implementing upgrades to the complex, including resurfacing courts to blue and changing lights to LEDs.

Morley Field is a unique place to play and celebrate history. So get out there and have some fun!

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at info@northparkhistory.org or 619-294-8990.

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