Sunday, May 17, 2020

Alabama’s Roberta Alison Baumgardner Seeks Competition, Makes History

Roberta Alison Baumgardner, who joined the Alabama men's team in 1963
(contributed photo)
Although I've stayed connected to tennis with webinars and the occasional streamed or televised event during this pandemic, I miss covering actual live tennis matches. In the past 15 years, this spot on the calendar has been devoted to NCAA tennis, with the French Open Junior championships just around the corner, but with all those events canceled or postponed, I have had more time to look deeper into tennis stories I would normally just file away as interesting.

Earlier this month, the SEC tweeted a short item about the legacy of Roberta Alison Baumgardner, who played on the men's varsity tennis team at the University of Alabama in 1963, becoming the first woman to play a varsity sport in the SEC.  I had never heard of Alison Baumgardner, and I was interested in finding out more about her, given the sheer improbability of this happening in the deep south, long before women's collegiate athletics were transformed by Title IX. This Tennis Recruiting Network article, posted today, is the result of my curiosity about a woman I should have known about, and did not.

Although Alison Baumgardner was not cast in the mold of Billie Jean King, she adhered to a standard of excellence that sought the best competition, and was willing to do what it took to get that competition. She calmly pursued the notion that her tennis ability was more important than her gender, and held to that meritocratic principle throughout, even when opposing coaches and players forfeited matches rather than compete against her.

Jason Morton, who convinced her to join the team and convinced Bear Bryant to lobby the SEC to allow women to compete on men's teams, deserves a great deal of credit for his role in providing her an opportunity, as do her teammates, who supported her. But it was Alison Baumgardner who had to play the points, endure the scrutiny and persist in competing when giving up would have been easier.

I would like to thank Alabama women's head coach Jenny Mainz, Alabama men's head coach George Husack and Princeton men's head coach Billy Pate, who coached at Alabama when the Indoor Center named after Alison Baumgardner was built, for all their assistance in getting this article written. And thanks to Billie Jean King, Ed Terrell, Earl Baumgardner Jr and John Gardner for sharing their memories and photos of this exceptional woman.

And thanks again to Tennis Recruiting Network, who once again gave me the opportunity to pursue an article I thought important and encouraged me to take the time I needed to complete it.


#RollTideTennis said...

Excellent article on TR.net Colette and thanks for making the tennis community aware of Roberta's legacy. We are lucky to train and compete inside a building that bears her name and be benefactors of a family's generosity. Our men's team got to meet Earl Sr. this past season and gain a bit more appreciation for Roberta's courage, competitiveness and compassion. Roll Tide Roberta.