Vincent Richards, Class of 1920
Olympic Medalist, Tennis
Vincent “Vinnie” Richards, Fordham Prep Class of 1920, was a tennis player whose fame at the height of his career in the early 20th century was comparable to that of other sports greats of the era, such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey.
The future Olympian was born on March 20, 1903 in New York City to Edward Richards and Mary McQuade Richards. Vincent’s father, who as a runner had himself been a respected local athlete in his day, was in the contracting business; his mother was a homemaker and, in a sense, the first manager of Vin’s early career. Edward and Mary raised three children: Gertrude, Raymond and Vincent, moving the family to Yonkers soon after Vinnie was born.
Vinnie first laid his hands on a tennis racket while he was still in grammar school and took to the sport immediately. It has been said that when he was not in school or delivering newspapers in his neighborhood — his first job — Richards speny hours each day playing against a wall at the intersection of Wolffe Street and Van Cortlandt Park Avenue. With the help of his older brother, Vincent would actually build the first tennis court he ever played on, though the homemade court would not contain him for long. By the time he was 10, Richards had graduated to the Glancy Courts on McLean Avenue in Yonkers and soon after found himself playing competitively at clubs throughout Westchester. In fact, Vincent Richards would first be dubbed “The Boy Wonder” at the New York Athletic Club at Travers Island in Pelham Manor, New York — a venue that had often been used by Fordham tennis teams in the early years, and would continue to be even down through the mid-20th century when fellow Hall of Honor inductee Robert Hawthorn began his legendary stint as the university’s tennis coach.
Entering the Prep at age 13, Richards was already becoming a well-known figure in the tennis world. In 1917 and 1918, he won the National Boys’ Outdoor Singles Championship, and at only 15 years old won the US Doubles Championship — the first of five in his career. During these years, the names Vinnie Richards and Fordham Prep were linked in the papers constantly, and the campus became a magnet for reporters vying for a glimpse of the rising star from Yonkers. The young celebrity’s Hughes Hall years seem to have been anything but typical for a Prepster of his day.
By the end of Vinnie’s second year at the Prep, his career, a possible illness, and the constant pressure of the media had worn him down. He spent a period of some months in Bermuda, where he apparently was tutored to maintain his academic progress. Upon his return, his family worked out a deal with Fordham University that allowed him to finish his high school work while playing for the university.
By 1920, he had successfully completed the equivalent of his Prep credits, hence his membership in the graduating class of that year. He would spend some additional time at Rose Hill studying and playing on the college level, and, fittingly enough for a former paperboy, eventually went on to study at Columbia’s School of Journalism.
A nationally recognized athlete during his Prep years, it was during the next few years after he left Fordham that Vinnie Richards attained worldwide notoriety. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he took gold in men’s singles, gold in men’s and doubles with Frank Hunter, and silver in mixed doubles with Marion Jessup, making him that year’s only triple-medal winner in lawn tennis events and the only American male to win gold medals in both singles and doubles in the 20th century – an accomplishment still unmatched at the time of Richard’s Hall of Honor induction in 2011.
Besides his outstanding Olympic outing and a men’s doubles championship at Wimbledon (also with Hunter), 1924 was also the year that Richards wed Claremont Gushee, the daughter of well-known New York restaurateurs Ralph and Louise Gushee. From a young age, Claremont was a sports enthusiast and an athlete in her own right as an accomplished equestrienne. Vincent and Claremont had actually met during his Prep days – she had been watching one of his tennis matches and was introduced by a friend. They fell in love immediately and would have married even then as teenagers had their friends and family not urged them to wait a few years.
Before officially turning pro in 1926 at age 23, Richards won numerous doubles and mixed doubles championships, played on several Davis Cup teams and took the French Open Doubles Championship. As a professional, Vinnie turned around and won the first US professional singles title.
In 1928, Vin embarked on a long tour of exhibition matches that pitted him against a Czech player, Karel Kozeluh. The winner, it was said, would be crowned Professional Champion of the World. The first match was played in Prague, and the pair traveled to London and then to Manhattan, where they played at 96th and West End Avenue with 2000 paying spectators in attendance and others hanging from windows in adjacent buildings. The pair also played on grass courts in Forest Hills, which was a problem for Kozeluh because he had little experience on grass. Vin was given permission to wear his cleats, and the Czech went barefoot — and lost. Vin and Kozeluh continued traveling, going on to play in Hartford, Baltimore, Chicago and Minneapolis — all part of a larger effort to increase the popularity of the game, which it did. In the end, after the series of close matches, Kozeluh had the better record, though Vinnie would beat him in the finals of the US Professional Championships that year and again in 1930.
He retired for the first time from tennis in 1930, but would return to the courts on and off for a decade and a half to cap off his list of athletic accomplishments with a few more titles. Eventually, Richards would embark on a second career with the Dunlop Tire & Rubber Company, serving as an assistant president of what else but the company’s tennis-ball-producing Sports Division. Not surprisingly, even in his retirement, Richards never truly hung up his racket; he remained a key figure in the tennis world, giving exhibitions, writing articles and sitting for interviews with the press.
Vinnie remained close to the Prep throughout his life, and visited fairly often. In the prefect’s diary of fellow Hall of Honor member Rev. Arthur Shea, SJ, special note is made of Richards’ gentlemanliness, cordiality and willingness to spend time patiently giving tennis tips to members of the school team. The diary also mentions that the Prep community was stunned and shaken when Vin’s tennis career was nearly ended in 1935 by a car wreck in which he suffered a triple fracture of his right arm. His recovery took months, and by his own admission, his game was never quite the same.
Vincent’s wife Claremont passed away shortly before Christmas in 1950. According to the accounts of those who knew them, Vinnie and “Gush” were as in love as the day they had met as high schoolers. Together, they had travelled the world before settling in Westchester and raising three children: Adrianne, Vincent and Dean. Vincent, Jr. would attend the Prep for a time before transferring to the Staunton Academy in preparation for a career in the military. He returned to Rose Hill, trained with Fordham’s ROTC and graduated from the university in 1953. All three of the Richards children, it is said, were fairly impressive on the courts, though they only played recreationally.
Vincent Richards died of a heart attack on September 28, 1958, and was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery.
In 1961, The Boy Wonder from Yonkers was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.