William "Big Bill" Tilden isn't a household name anymore. He's just the best tennis player Philadelphia ever produced.
In 1950, the Associated Press declared the three-time Wimbledon champion the greatest player of the first half of the last century.
Some experts still insist that Tilden, a Germantown native who died of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 60, was simply the best ever, a cerebral, all-court player who mastered the art of ball spin and both dominated and modernized the game.
Think of what Babe Ruth was to baseball. But bigger.
"Babe Ruth was known here, but he wasn't known in India or China or France," said Allen Hornblum, a Northeast Philadelphia author who is finishing a 500-page book about the tennis player. "Tilden was international."
One might expect the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) to swiftly approve a nomination to place a small plaque honoring Tilden at the entrance of his home court, the Germantown Cricket Club.
It's not quite that simple.
"I've been with the program for 11 years. We've never had this type of situation," explained Karen Galle, coordinator of the commission's historical marker program.
The "situation" is a result of Tilden's arrests about 70 years ago for sexual misconduct with teenage boys.
Accounts from the day vary, but according to the Associated Press, Tilden was arrested in Beverly Hills in 1946 for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Police stopped Tilden's car and found a 14-year-old boy behind the wheel with his zipper down. Tilden pleaded guilty and served seven months on a prison farm, according to Hornblum.
Tilden was arrested again in 1949 for a probation violation amid allegations that he was in the company of an unsupervised teen boy and had groped a third teen, according to the AP. He was sent back to the prison farm.
Galle said Tilden "clearly met the approval criteria" for a historical marker, but a PHMC panel rejected the application, 4-1, last March because of the California criminal cases. She said the Pennsylvania State University sexual-abuse scandal played a role in the decision and "made the panel think that maybe this isn't the time."
But Hornblum's group has resubmitted the plaque nomination with additional support, including letters from Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, two-time Grand Slam champion Richard "Dick" Savitt, three-time Grand Slam champion Manuel "Manolo" Santana, and Overbrook native Vic Seixas, who won Wimbledon in 1953 and the U.S. National Championship in 1954 and is the oldest living Grand Slam winner.
"I'm totally in favor of it," Seixas, 93, said by phone last week from his home in Mill Valley, Calif. "Bill Tilden was one of the greatest tennis players that ever lived. I can't even say I was the best player from Philadelphia."
Seixas said the historical marker "has nothing to do with his personal life. It has to do with his tennis life."
Tilden, who grew up down the street from the Germantown Cricket Club, was the first American-born man to win Wimbledon, in 1920. Standing 6-foot-2, he had a monster serve, but also a knack for drop shots and spins that could paralyze opponents.
"Nobody could do all of that the way he did," said Hornblum, whose book about Tilden, American Colossus, is due out next year.
Tilden, who also financed Broadway plays and hobnobbed with such Hollywood elites as Charlie Chaplin and Katharine Hepburn, was ranked No. 1 six times, with a career record of 907-62, according to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
"His contribution to the game was extraordinary," said longtime sportswriter Frank Deford, who wrote a Tilden biography. "He brought so much attention to tennis, apart from the fact that he was by far the best player. He was charismatic. People either loved him or hated him. They came out to cheer against Tilden or for him. As a consequence, he made tennis much more popular."
Deford said he supports the Tilden historical marker.
"The old man deserves some credit in his hometown," Deford said. "I hope he makes it."
After Tilden's arrests, his Germantown Cricket Club membership was revoked. But today, several photos of him hang in the clubhouse, which overlooks a manicured lawn that will be converted into 24 courts once the weather warms - the same courts that Tilden once ruled.
The club's board of governor's supports the campaign for the historical marker "to honor Bill Tilden's contribution to the game of tennis," according to a letter of support.
"His presence is kind of here sometimes," said Bob Couch, the club's longtime archivist, who purchased some of the Tilden photographs on eBay.
Couch said the circumstances of Tilden's arrests remain nebulous. He bristled at the comparison to Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach serving a prison term for his conviction on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
"He had protégés by the dozens and dozens for decades. Nobody ever came forward and said they were molested," Couch said of Tilden. "If anything, he was probably asexual."
Hornblum has unsuccessfully sought Tilden's criminal file. He said he suspects Tilden was a closeted gay man who "had some sort of psychological fixation on teenage boys," but there is no evidence that he was a serial predator.
"It's not like I want to put Bill Tilden on the top of City Hall and take Billy Penn down," Hornblum said. "I just want a stinking plaque at the entrance of Germantown Cricket Club."
Tilden makes an appearance of sorts in Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita, in which the title character takes lessons from Ned Litam, a gay former tennis player with a "harem of ball boys." Ned Litam spelled backward contains the name Tilden.
Regardless of Tilden's sexuality and crimes, the plaque controversy raises a larger question about the state-approved historical markers, said Mark Rabuck, the archivist at Germantown Academy, from which Tilden graduated in 1910.
"Are the markers to signify history? Or are they for boosterism? If it's the former, then absolutely he deserves some recognition," said Rabuck, who wrote a letter of support to PHMC.
Rabuck, also a history teacher, said Tilden's crimes were serious, but "we should be mature enough as a society to understand that Tilden was both a brilliant athlete and a damaged man."
The PHMC's panel of historians will make a recommendation on the Tilden plaque nomination by the end of March, said Galle, the coordinator of the program. She said Friday that she doesn't know which way they're leaning.
"It's tricky," Galle said. "No question. I'm not sure how it's going to go."