Jeff Budge would have loved being around in 1938.
People had a lot on their minds 75 years ago, especially during the third week of September. On the political front, Hitler and Chamberlain were negotiating in the Bavarian Alps. In the sports world, horse racing fans, which then included just about everybody, were waiting for Charles Howard and Samuel Riddle, owners of Seabiscuit and War Admiral, respectively, to finalize their plans for a much-anticipated challenge race between the two thoroughbreds.
And, at the Forest Hills Tennis Club in New York, most tennis fans were pulling for Budge’s father, Don, to win something called the Grand Slam. Adding to the anxiety Don Budge must have felt about his quest to capture all four major tennis championships in a single calendar year was the New England Hurricane of 1938, which postponed the tennis tournament for six consecutive days.
After the long break, play finally resumed and Budge, after posting a win in the semis, defeated his good friend Gene Mako in the finals of the U.S. National Tennis Championships to become the first player ever to win the Grand Slam.
While Jeff Budge, a Saratoga Springs resident for four years now, would have enjoyed watching his father’s accomplishment, he is first and foremost a horse racing fan these days and would have been thrilled to be on hand for Seabiscuit’s win at Pimlico five weeks later. Unfortunately, those two great moments in sports history happened more than a decade before he was born, But to hear Budge talk about them, it’s as if he were there.
Now manager of the Book Bag Store at the Saratoga Springs Library, the 63-year-old Budge spent time in the architectural, retail and investment worlds before leaving Newport, R.I., in 2009 to head for upstate New York to be close to the thoroughbred racing business. He and his wife, Christienne Mackaye, bought a house adjacent to the Oklahoma training track and have been part owners of a number of horses, including One Golden Road and Halo Moon.
Budge was born in Los Angeles in 1950, but the family moved to New York City when he was 4. His father was well past his prime by then, but still played competitive tennis on the professional exhibition circuit and lost the 1957 National Pro Championships in Cincinnati to Pancho Gonzales, a defeat Jeff refers to as his father’s “last big match.” While Don became the head pro at the Town Tennis Club in New York and later started the Don Budge Tennis Camp at Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Chatham, Va., the younger Budge completed kindergarten through 12th grade at Collegiate School on the Upper West side of Manhattan, and then went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studied architecture.
Jeff Budge played tournament tennis as a junior, but never took the game too seriously, preferring to stay out of the shadow of his famous father. He still loves the game, however, and these days, when he’s not working or watching the horses, you can usually find him playing tennis on the artificial clay courts of Saratoga Spa State Park. Budge has a son, Donald Alexander Budge, who lives in San Francisco. Don Budge, who turned professional in 1939, died in January of 2000 in Scranton, Pa., at 84, having never fully recovered from an auto accident a month earlier.
Q: Your father and Rod Laver are the only two male players to win the Grand Slam. Your father is also the only player to win six Grand Slam events in a row. Did he talk about his career much?
A: My dad was very modest about his accomplishments, but he was happy to talk to people about his career, and he did a number of newspaper and magazine interviews after he was done playing. Somebody [Fred Perry] had won all four of the big championships before, but never in the same calendar year, and it was when my father was going for it in 1938 that they named it the “Grand Slam.” He had an incredible winning streak in 1937 and ’38 [92 matches in a row], and I wish he could have played during the big money era. At the height of his career he was the best tennis player in the world, and at one time they clocked his serve at 122 miles an hour with a wooden racquet. But it’s not like he went around talking about it a lot. I had to spend a lot of time in the library researching his career to find out more about him.
Q: Did he say much about the U.S. Championships of 1938?
A: When he won the Grand Slam, he only lost five sets the whole year. I researched the hurricane of 1938, which held up the tournament for several days and reshaped the coast of Long Island and Cape Cod, but what I remember him telling me about is milkshakes. He loved milkshakes, and him and Gene [Mako], his doubles partner, would go and drink a lot of them between matches. Before he played the final against Gene, he said the milk was just sitting in his stomach and he was starting to feel sick. He thought he was going to lose it.
Q: In 1937, your father won a pivotal Davis Cup match against Gottfried von Cramm of Germany that is considered by many tennis historians as the greatest match of all time, rallying from a 4-1 fifth-set deficit to win the final set, 8-6, and send the U.S. into the Davis Cup finals. Did he talk much about Von Cramm, who was imprisoned in Germany soon after losing the match after being tried for homosexuality?
A: He talked about von Cramm a lot and he would always clarify how he wasn’t a Nazi. He was from German nobility and a consummate gentleman on the tennis court. He taught my dad a lot in matters of courtesy. My dad grew up with all these Americans who would shout at the linesmen when they made a bad call, and while my dad was always pretty well behaved, there was a match he was playing against von Cramm in which he strongly questioned a line call. Von Cramm told him after the match, “Don, I’m very disappointed in you. You questioned the linesman and embarrassed him in front of 30,000 people.” Like I said, my father was never too bad, but after that match he really transformed his behavior. He was always a true gentleman on the court.
Q: American Bill Tilden, another tennis great, was a bit older than your father, and served as von Cramm’s coach during that Davis Cup match and at other times. Like von Cramm, Tilden was also a homosexual. Did he talk about the two men and their relationship?
A: Tilden’s life was always an issue, but my dad never talked about it much. He never dwelled on it and it wasn’t that much of a big deal. But he really liked von Cramm. There’s the story — and it’s one my dad told me so I believe it — that before their Davis Cup match in 1937, they were sitting in the clubhouse talking with Ted Tinling, waiting to go on the court, and the phone rang. Tinling told him, “you got a phone call,” and von Cramm said, “I’m about to step out on the court, I can’t talk,” and Teddy says, “I think you might want to take this.” So von Cramm gets on the phone and my father can hear him say, “Yes, mein fuhrer; danke, mein fuhrer.” It’s been disputed whether or not the conversation actually happened, but my father always maintained that it did. He was very much aware of the pressure von Cramm was under.
Q: What was your father’s relationship with some of the other great American players, such as Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Billy Talbert?
A: He would joke about Bobby and his shenagians, but not in a bad light. I think he liked him and they were friends, but he was much closer with Jack Kramer and Billy Talbert. Our whole families became very good friends with each other.
Q: One magazine had your father romantically linked with Olivia de Havilland as well as other actresses. Are those stories true?
A: I guess he dated a lot of Hollywood starlets way back when, but he didn’t talk about that much. He talked mostly about my mother. I didn’t find out about all the other stuff until much later.
Q: Was your father a horse racing fan?
A: No, not at all. His passion was jazz. Benny Goodman became a good family friend, and my dad also became friends with Tommy Dorsey. He liked to tinker on the drums, so they would often let him come up on stage and play a tune or two. It was kind of like [John] McEnroe and his guitar. If you’re a star you get invited to come up and join the band. My dad wasn’t a great musician, but he was good enough to get through it and have some fun with it.
Q: How much tennis did you play as a kid?
A: My dad left it up totally to me and my brother. If you wanted to play, fine, if you didn’t, that’s fine. When I was 14, he told me I was good enough to play in the state championships if I wanted to. Well, I tossed and turned all night, and I imagined this scene; “Hey Budge’s kid is on court three, let’s go watch him,” and there’d be this big crowd there and I’d hit a bad shot and somebody would shout, “Oh, he’s a bum, he’s nothing like his old man.” I guess I just didn’t have the fortitude to handle that kind of scenario and shrug it off. But I still love the game, and my greatest enjoyment comes from meeting all the nice people that I do while I’m playing. We love this area, and Saratoga State Park is a wonderful place to play tennis.
Q: When did you become a horse racing fan?
A: My second wife, through a partnership, bought me a racehorse for my birthday. She was a big fan and I’ve become a big fan. We started coming up to Saratoga for the summer quite a while ago, and finally we just decided to move here. I love the racing, I love the handicapping. I’m an avid reader, so I read the book about Seabiscuit and I’ve seen the movie, and they’re both favorites of mine. There are great stories in this sport. I would have loved to have been there for Seabiscuit-War Admiral.