Roger, who? I’m a Gottfried von Cramm-iac!
Yes, I’m doing two posts in two days on a German tennis player from the 1930s that even Boris Becker didn’t know about when he won Wimbledon for the first time. I can’t help it – like everyone else who ever knew him, I’ve simply fallen in love with Gottfried von Cramm: sharp dresser, two time French Open champion, Baron, enemy of Hitler, war hero, husband of a Woolworth heiress and known practioner of the “German vice.”
I’ve posted some excerpts from the SI piece by Ron Fimrite, but please (please!) click here to read the full story:
On scolding Don Budge at the 1935 Wimbledon:
Von Cramm was not smiling when he introduced himself to Budge, and after congratulating him on his quarterfinal victory (over Bunny Austin), the baron took the younger man aside for a serious chat. “Don,” Budge recalls him saying, “you were a poor sport out there today.”
Budge was flabbergasted. The baron was considered the arbiter of court etiquette, and Budge, like most players of the time, sought to emulate him. Budge couldn’t for the life of him imagine what he had done wrong. “Do you recall,” Von Cramm continued in his perfect English, “that when the linesman gave Bunny a bad call on a ball that clearly hit the chalk, you deliberately double-faulted to compensate for it?” Budge did. It was common then, at a time when linesmen’s decisions were seldom disputed, for a player to lose a point deliberately if he felt his opponent had been victimized by a bad call.
Mystified, Budge asked Von Cramm what was so wrong about that. “But you must see, Don,” the baron replied, “that by doing what you did, you embarrassed that linesman in front of 15,000 people. It is unthinkable.”
“After that,” Budge said later, “I played the game the way it was called.”
On his supreme sense of sportsmanship (Gonzo, take note!):
“Game, set and match to Germany,” the umpire called (during the doubles rubber at the 1936 Davis Cup tie between Germany and the U.S.A.)
But no. The baron lifted his hand in protest. The ball had ticked his racket before (his partner) Kai Lund had hit his shot, he told the astonished official. Therefore, the point should go to the Americans. It was one of five match points the Germans would lose en route to a disheartening 8-6 defeat in the final set. The U.S. would go on to win the tie four matches to one and then lose to Great Britain in the Challenge Round.
(The German captain) was apoplectic after the doubles defeat. Germany had never won the Davis Cup, and Von Cramm’s sportsmanship had cost the fatherland a golden opportunity. The baron had disgraced both his country and his teammates, Kleinschroth sputtered. The normally affable Von Cramm leveled his captain with a frigid stare.
“When I chose tennis as a young man,” the baron said, “I chose it because it was a gentleman’s game, and that’s the way I’ve played it ever since I picked up my first racket. Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racket without my saying so? Never, because I would be violating every principle I think this game stands for. On the contrary, I don’t think I’m letting the German people down. As a matter of fact, I think I’m doing them credit.”
On von Cramm’s relationship to the Nazis:
The baron found himself on increasingly shaky ground (politically). He had already angered the Nazi regime by protesting the banishment from Davis Cup play of his former teammate Daniel Prenn, a Jew. And he had refused to join the Nazi party, despite repeated invitations from Field Marshal Hermann Göring. In one of his pleas Göring had ostentatiously torn to shreds all the mortgages held on Von Cramm castles by Jewish bankers. “Now,” the portly field marshal announced, “you are free.”
The baron stared at the shredded documents and said icily, “All the more reason for me not to join your party.”
On shaming Groucho Marx:
Apparently unaware of Von Cramm’s steadfast opposition to Hitler’s persecution of Jews—the baron’s first wife, the former Lisa von Dobeneck, was part Jewish—a contingent of nearly 200 members of the movie colony, including Groucho Marx, had planned an anti-Nazi demonstration at the (1937 Pacific Southwest) tournamen (in L.A.). The demonstrators intended to stand up as one and walk out of the arena the minute Von Cramm walked onto the court. Yet when the baron appeared, the protesters stayed rooted to their seats. It was as if Von Cramm’s mere presence held them fast. Afterward Groucho himself admitted that upon seeing Von Cramm, “I felt ashamed of what I had planned to do.”
On his wartime activities (after being released from a Nazi prison for being a homosexual AND fighting on the Russian front for Germany):
Once, at Bodenburg (his castle), von Cramm rescued a U.S. pilot who had been shot down nearby. “Why are you helping me?” the American asked.
“Because,” the baron replied, “I once played tennis with Don Budge.”
“Oh,” said the pilot, “then you must be Gottfried von Cramm.”
And these are just a few short excerpts from this remarkable man’s remarkable life. If you want more von Cramm, be sure to check out the recent book by Marshall Jon Fisher, A Terrible Splendor, about his 1937 Davis Cup match against Don Budge – it was like last year’s Wimbledon final, but with much, much higher stakes. Click here to read more.
Just have to say it – I LOVE TENNIS!
Photo of the dreamy Gottfried von Cramm via Marshall Jon Fisher’s, website. Click here to see many more.