CAPE MAY — William J. Moore, believed to be the country’s first black tennis professional, held a racket in his hand almost until the day he died in 1973, one month short of his 101st birthday.
Cape May’s tennis club on Washington Street in Cape May was named in his honor on his 100th birthday, July 31, 1972. Moore, who began teaching tennis in Cape May in the early 1900s, was posing for pictures on one of the courts a week earlier.
“He was hitting a tennis ball and tripped and fell and wound up breaking his hip,” longtime club member and employee Tony White said.
Despite the injury, he still insisted on attending the ceremony. Among the photos in the clubhouse at the William J. Moore Tennis Center is one that shows a smiling Moore lying on a stretcher during the dedication.
It was the culmination of a tennis career that began almost by accident.
According to Moore’s autobiography, “William of Cape May,” he was working summers as the club executive of Cape May Golf Club on Lafayette Street.
He spent his spare time watching the few club members who preferred tennis to golf.
“Most of the club members were golfers, but there were always a few who were interested in tennis and were very good players so that on weekends there were always some good tennis matches on the courts,” he wrote. “As my liking for tennis grew, I spent many hours watching these expert players and leaving by observation about the fundamentals and strategy of the game.
“Later on, one of these players, Robert W. Gifford, said to me, ‘William, somebody in this club must take more interest in tennis. As everything around here seems to be in your scope, it’s up to you to learn tennis.’”
Gifford gave Moore a few books on tennis, a racquet and train tickets to travel to Philadelphia to watch some of the top players in action. Over the years, Moore attended the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in New York, several Davis Cup matches, and events at Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware.
As a longtime schoolteacher — he opened and served as principal of the segregated West Cape Elementary Annex School for almost 50 years and created the William J. Moore Scholarship Fund — Moore realized the importance of developing a system of teaching tennis that would both be instructive and fun.
“Children will work at something they like to do and from the start they found it fun to hit the ball correctly and get it over the next and in the court,” Moore wrote. “It gave them the pleasure of achievement while they were developing correct habits and reflexes.”
The golf portion of the club began to fade in the 1930s, but tennis remained popular there through the years. According to a 1975 article in the Cape May Star and Wave, the city took over ownership of the land, but continued to lease the tennis courts to Moore during the summers.
In the early 1960s, Thomas Harris Jr., Sidney Newcomer and Robert Alexander donated land on Washington Street for the current tennis center. It opened in 1962 with five clay courts — it now has 16 courts — and Moore as the center’s manager and teaching professional.
He also hired many local kids to work there in the summers.
“One of my first jobs was working for Mr. Moore chasing tennis balls in 1964 when I was 12,” Cape May native Henrie Washington said. “We also dragged all the courts after closing and after we were done, he let us play on one of the back courts until dark.”
Moore retired in 1966 at age 94. His son Ossie, one of nine children raised by Moore and his wife, Susie, took over as the pro and manager and held that position until his death in 1983.
Like his father, Ossie Moore was also a patient, enthusiastic instructor who taught the game to many of the club’s 350 current members.
“My husband (Cy) and I both learned how to play tennis from Ossie,” Cape May resident Heidi Cummings said. “I was sitting while Cy was hitting balls and Ossie told him he was a natural. Then he turned to me and said, ‘If you keep practicing, you could be a decent player in about 10 years.’ That’s about how long it took.”
Even after he retired, however, William Moore was never far away from tennis.
He was a frequent visitor to the club in his later years and took pleasure in watching his son continue the tradition he established 80 years earlier.
“I started playing tennis there as a kid in the early 1970s,” White said. “Mr. Moore was probably 98 or 99 at the time, but he was there in the mornings, smoking a pipe and sitting in a big wicker chair.”
He was still there when he turned 100, even if it meant lying on a stretcher.