If ever a man backed unwittingly into a distinguished career, it was Mercer Beasley, the famous old tennis coach whose methods and results have always been about equally astonishing. He took up tennis in 1893, when he was 11, and because of poor eyesight has played it rather badly ever since. He never coached tennis at all until he was 40, when some wealthy Chicago tennis players found his suggestions "helpful" and offered to pay him to keep on making them. Last week he celebrated his 75th birthday at Forest Hills, Long Island, still a coach and still busily involved in the life which began at 40.
He has coached at Tulane, Princeton, Lawrenceville School and the University of Miami. He taught tennis at private clubs in Milwaukee, Pasadena and Chicago. In California in 1925, when he was searching about for one more player for the Pasadena High School tennis team, someone sent him to a bakery shop, where he discovered a lanky 14-year-old named Ellsworth Vines working in the oven room. Six years later Vines was the 20-year-old national champion.
In Milwaukee, Frankie Parker was a skinny, 11-year-old ball boy working for 5¢ a set when his quickness and accuracy caught Beasley's eye. Beasley brought him up to win the boys', then the juniors', then the men's national championships, and to a career in which Parker was rated among the top 10 players in the country for 17 consecutive years. Altogether, Beasley figures, 17 players have won 84 different national titles under his coaching. He has been a consultant to the Spalding sporting goods company since 1935, and for years now has been holding tennis clinics for children in public parks up and down the country.
"I always loved tennis," says Beasley, "but I never could play it." He first tried on his father's lawn in New Jersey, dressed for the game in cricket flannels, blazer and Eton cap. As a student at Lawrenceville School he couldn't make the tennis team but did play on his house football squad, weighing a fierce but fragile 120 pounds. ("After I had made about seven tackles, it was time to call the infirmary and say, 'Get Beasley's room ready.' ")
The crowd of tennis notables who gathered to honor Beasley at luncheon last week at Forest Hills seemed chiefly in a mood for reminiscence, but he would have none of it. He was concerned only with the present: food, people and tennis. As erect and bull-voiced as ever, he made a convincing advertisement of the beneficial effects of the game. He showed an agile wit, too. When a pile of congratulatory telegrams was shoved at him, he deftly extracted the sentiment from the moment by leafing through them and then announcing firmly, "All sent collect."