Harrison’s Play Warranted Publicity in 1965

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Harrison’s Play Warranted Publicity in 1965

During his illustrious, Hall of Fame career, Arthur W. “Bud” Collins wrote extensively about Richmond native Arthur Ashe and his many exploits on the tennis court.

But the world-renowned journalist only penned two articles about another Richmonder, John W. “Bitsy” Harrison, and both of those came in the summer of 1965.

While Ashe became a fixture on the international circuit – winning three Grand Slam titles – after rising from virtual obscurity on Richmond’s North Side, Harrison dominated the local scene in the 1960s and took his considerable talents on the U.S. amateur circuit.

One such foray found him in Milwaukee for the Westerns, one of the leading stops on the amateur circuit, to the best of his memory in 1965. That’s where Harrison faced Frank Froehling, ranked No. 5 in the country, in an early-round match.

“He had a really big forehand to go with a huge serve,” said Harrison, “but if you could get it to his backhand, you had a chance.”

Harrison got the ball to Froehling’s backhand enough times to win the match and pull off the upset.

It bears mentioning that Harrison lost to an up-and-coming youngster named Cliff Richey in the following round. Richey, who was gaining a reputation for boorishness on the court, got disturbed when the crowd started applauding his errors.

So he shouted to them, “Why don’t you all shut up so I can beat this [expletive],” according to Harrison, who told me it was the first and only time someone had cursed at him during a match. Richey went on to win in straight sets.

But getting back to Froehling losing to Harrison. Not long afterward, the U.S. Davis Cup team was chosen for the inter-zonal semifinal tie against Spain. Newly minted captain George MacCall picked Froehling over Ashe, a somewhat curious decision.

“Collins wrote an article criticizing the pick of Froehling over Ashe to play in that tie,” Harrison recalled. “He said that Froehling lost recently to Bitsy Harrison, who’s not even the best player in Richmond, Virginia.”

Being called the second-best player to Ashe at the time was a huge compliment. Ashe, who was still in school at UCLA then, was fast becoming one of the top players in the world and had already been chosen for the Davis Cup team previously.

“It didn’t bother me in the slightest,” said Harrison. “He [Collins] happened to be factually correct.”

When the tie with Spain was played later that year, Froehling lost twice in singles, as the U.S. was beaten 4-1 in Spain.

The following year, Froehling was one of eight players in the inaugural Fidelity Bankers Life Insurance Invitational Tournament at the old Arena. Another entry in the draw was Ashe, who was making his “debut” in front of a Richmond audience.

When he was growing up, Ashe was not allowed to play on the main courts in Richmond because of the segregated laws of the day. Therefore, this was going to be the first opportunity for many Richmonders to watch him display his serve-and-volley skills.

Unfortunately, Froehling spoiled Ashe’s return by beating him in straight sets. Froehling went on to the final, losing to Chuck McKinley.

“Two things,“ said Lou Einwick, tournament director for all 19 men’s indoor tournaments in Richmond. “We knew Froehling had a big serve, and on the indoor surface we had, which was canvas, it was going to be a difficult match for Arthur.

“Also, the lighting in the Arena wasn’t very good, and Arthur had eye problems. It was right after that match, the loss to Froehling, that Arthur began wearing glasses. Not having glasses sure didn’t help matters any for Arthur that night.”

Losing Ashe in the first round wasn’t exactly what Einwick had in mind for the opening day of the tournament.

“Realistically, I don’t think any tournament director roots against anybody at any time, but you never like to see your big star get upset,” said Einwick. “Arthur was the big reason a lot of those people had come to the tournament.

“Nobody had seen him before. He was probably the hottest player on the tour. The fact that he had said that he would come play in the tournament was all falling into place, and then it all fell out of place very quickly.”

Ashe returned to Richmond a number of times afterward and won the tournament more times (three) than anyone else.

Froehling, who died in January at 77 after a long battle with leukemia, had a nice career himself. He was part of two Davis Cup winning teams {1963 and 1971} and reached the final of the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills in 1963.   

Anyway, back to Harrison and his run-in with Collins in the newspaper (Boston Globe).

Later that summer, during the U.S. National Doubles in Brookline, Mass., Harrison and his partner, Jim Beste, knocked off the highly-ranked U.S. duo of Stan Smith and Bob Lutz in one of the early rounds. It was the second time they had beaten Smith and Lutz that year.

 The next day, Collins wrote an article in the paper “implying strongly” that Harrison and Beste had “talked them out of the match.”

“I saw Collins in the clubhouse and asked him, ‘Where did you get that crap that you wrote about us in the paper this morning?’” said Harrison. “We hadn’t said a word to them during the match. He acted like we had conned them out of it.

“It sounded like he had made something up, that there had to be a reason Smith and Lutz had lost to this unknown team. He did not answer my question at all. But I called him on it. I got along well with Bud though. I knew Bud and I liked him.”

Collins, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, died in 2016 at 86. He kept writing until a year or so before his death.

Harrison, who turns 80 in November, lives in a home on Stingray Point at the mouth of the Rappahannock River near Deltaville. He’s still interested in the tennis scene in Richmond and keeps up with the top junior players.

A member of the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame, Harrison won the city singles title in 1960 and the state championship in 1966. He also won the Mid-Atlantic boys and men’s crowns and was ranked as high as No. 18 in the country in 1965.

That nickname Bitsy doesn’t seem to apply to Harrison, who during his prime was 6-7 and weighed about 220. It goes back to his chlldhood days when he and his older brother, Arthur, were growing up in Richmond’s West End.

“They called him Mister Big and me Mister Little,” explained Harrison, “and it just evolved [to Bitsy] from there.”

Bitsy stuck with him for the rest of his life and that’s how he was known on the circuit, even though he towered over most of his opponents. Especially during that memorable summer of 1965, when he received that publicity from Collins.