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A Remarkable Life: Alice Marble

by Lorri Ungaretti

Probably the best-known sports star who lived in the Sunset District as a child was Alice Marble. She was a great tennis player whose life story had more twists and turns than many movie scripts.

Marble was born on September 28, 1913, in the northern California town of Beckwourth. Her family moved to San Francisco’s Sunset District at 1619 12th Avenue when Alice was five. Her father died within the year, and Alice’s mother was left to raise five children alone.

As a young child, Marble was always interested in sports, especially baseball. She wrote in her memoir that she and her brother Tim attended SF Seals games, going early “so we could play catch in the bleachers before the game.” Thinking Marble was a boy, a player one day asked her to play catch with him. “I kept expecting someone to tell me to leave,” Marble wrote. “Instead, my hero, Lefty O’Doul, asked me to shag flies for him. Joe DiMaggio, beside me in center field, yelled encouragement.” Before long, local newspapers printed stories about the new “Seals mascot,” and a San Francisco Examiner sportswriter dubbed Marble the “Little Queen of Swat.”

When Alice was thirteen, her brother Dan gave her a tennis racket saying, “You can’t keep hanging around the ballpark, and hitting balls through people’s windows . . . and acting like a boy.” At first, Marble was devastated to lose her time with the Seals, but she learned to love tennis—and to play it well. She began practicing and playing matches in Golden Gate Park.

She always excelled at sports, earning seven varsity letters in track, softball, soccer, and basketball while attending Polytechnic High School. However, two traumatic events devastated her as a child in San Francisco: while roller skating watching a friend crushed under the wheels of a streetcar, and being raped as she left Golden Gate Park after playing tennis. In 1942, Marble married Joe Crowley, a soldier sent to fight in World War II. She lost their child when she was five months pregnant, then learned shortly thereafter that her husband had been killed in action. She survived a suicide attempt and continued to play tennis.

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Lefty O’Doul and Alice Marble, 1938.
Photo courtesy of the SFPL History Center

Alice Marble’s story doesn’t end with personal tragedies and tennis victories. During World War II, she was asked to spy on Hans Steinmetz, a Nazi sympathizer who had been her lover years before. The U.S. Government believed that Steinmetz had stolen great pieces of art for the Nazis, and Marble’s task was to photograph the artwork. She lived with him in Switzerland and played the part of the devoted lover.

One night when Steinmetz was out, Marble photographed the art pieces. When she met with her American contact, she knew something was wrong when he demanded that she turn over the camera and film to him. Marble refused and ran into the woods. The contact (who was a double agent) shot her in the back. Amazingly, Marble survived with little permanent damage, but the camera film had been destroyed. Marble wasn’t finished yet, though. It turned out that she had a photographic memory, and was able to “recall a great deal of what I had seen in the basement vault of Hans’s chateau.”

Marble was also an outspoken advocate for fairness in tennis. In July 1950, she wrote an open letter that was published in World Tennis magazine. The letter criticized the association for not inviting Althea Gibson to play in the Forest Hills tennis tournament because she was black. Marble wrote, “If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. ... If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.” Marble said that if Gibson were not given the opportunity to compete, “then there is an uneradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.”

Gibson was allowed to enter the 1950 U.S. Championships, becoming the first African-American player to compete in a Grand Slam event.

Marble spent her remaining years lecturing, teaching, playing exhibition tennis matches, and painting. In the 1950s, she had a cameo role in the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn film, Pat and Mike. She is memorialized in San Francisco by the Alice Marble Tennis Courts on Russian Hill. She died in 1990.

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