Pancho Gonzales And Mexican-American Sports History

African-American sports history (e.g., Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe winning the U.S. tennis title in 1968, etc.) is so heavily publicized that it`s striking to notice how little attention is paid to Mexican-American sports history.

For example, when Tiger Woods won the Masters golf tournament to become the first (part) black to win a major championship, it was widely announced that this was a historic breakthrough for minorities in the previous lily white game of golf that would get minorities interested in the sport for the first time, etc etc. This struck me as a bit odd considering that Lee Trevino, a Mexican-American driving range pro from a dirt poor background in El Paso, had won the U.S. Open 29 years before and had gone on to win six major championships in all, in four of which the great Jack Nicklaus, who intimidated everybody except Trevino, was the runner-up. Trevino was also the likely the funniest golfer of his era — he told the reporters after his Open win in 1968, “When I get enough money I`m going to become a Spaniard instead of a Mexican” – and one of the biggest draws.

Similarly, Nancy Lopez, a Mexican-American from New Mexico who debuted in 1979, was likely the most popular woman golfer of all time.

A reader wrote in recently to mention a name I hadn`t heard in years, even though I live in his hometown: Pancho Gonzales, who was probably the most famous tennis player in America when I was a little kid. The son of Mexican immigrants, Gonzales was born in Los Angeles in 1928, and grew up on the streets, spending a year in juvenile hall. His mom gave him a tennis racket for his 12th birthday, but he never had a lesson. He grew to be well over 6 feet tall and was considered the best athlete in tennis.

The tennis powers-that-be in LA didn`t want him around but after he got out of the Navy in 1946, he got so good that they started to help him. In 1948 and 1949 he won the American leg of the Grand Slam at Forest Hills. He went pro in 1950, and was #1 from 1954-1960,Back then, the Grand Slam tournaments were reserved for amateurs (unlike golf, which had Open championships for pros and amateurs alike since the 19th century), so when he went pro in 1950, and was #1 from 1954-1960, but he was locked out of the Grand Slams until they went open in 1968. At age 41 in 1969, he won the longest Wimbledon match ever, over Charlie Pasarell 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. That year, he was the leading American money winner, and remained highly competitive and a major draw for several more years. I would imagine he was the best over-40 player ever.

Gonzales was a mean son of a gun with a Ty Cobb-size competitive streak. He was a chain smoker, even on the court, dying of cancer in 1995. He had five wives (marrying one of them twice). His last wife, whom he married when he was 55 in 1984, was Andre Agassi`s sister Rita. Pancho`s new father-in-law, Andre`s dad, an ex-boxer from Iran, was so mad, he thought about having him rubbed out. Pancho died broke and Andre paid for his funeral.

It`s a helluva story, but that kind of thing just isn`t very interesting to the modern sporting press. Gonzales (who looks in pictures like a mestizo weighted more toward the European than Indian side) had to deal with discrimination, but compared to what blacks had to put up with, it was kind of vague. Also, perhaps because Jackie Robinson came up with the Dodgers of Brooklyn, the black cause in sports got imprinted emotionally on a lot of young Jewish boys in Brooklyn, who went on to have a huge influence on the media. Mexicans never interested Jewish sportswriters very much. Finally, this history never really went anywhere. Today, there are 30 million Mexican-Americans, but there don`t seem to be many more Mexican-American sports stars (outside of the fading sport of boxing, which Oscar de la Hoya is sacrificing his body to keep alive) than in the days of Pancho Gonzales and Lee Trevino.