Anyone who worked for George Mitchell knew of his obsession with tennis. Mitchell taught himself to play as a boy in Galveston, and he was captain of the tennis team at Texas A&M.
As CEO of Mitchell Energy and Development, employees knew that Mitchell left the office promptly every afternoon for his regular tennis match, and nothing kept him from it. His assistant, Linda Bomke, would break up any meetings that ran long, and some employees were known to follow Mitchell to the parking garage if they had something to tell him, because nothing kept him from his game.
In 1968, he helped found the Houston Racquet Club because he felt the city needed a venue exclusively devoted to tennis. As I explain in George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet he believed that too many country clubs in Houston were focused on golf, and the golf crowd looked down on tennis. Plus, many of them excluded Jews at the time, and some of Houston’s most prominent Jewish businessmen had been essential supporters of Mitchell’s energy company when he was starting out. Mitchell wanted a club that would be open to everyone. The Houston Racquet Club had no restrictions on membership, and it played a unexpected but important role in the advancement of women’s sports.
Three years after it opened, a group of top women players met with Gladys Heldman, once a top-ranked athlete who competed at Wimbledon in 1954. After her career, Heldman published an influential magazine, World Tennis, and became an advocate for professionalizing women’s tennis. The group included Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, and seven others who at Heldman’s urging formed their own pro tour. Heldman convinced George and other key club members to host their first tournament. She then persuaded the chair of the tobacco company Philip Morris to underwrite the competition and donate $7,500 in prize money—at the time the biggest purse ever offered for a women’s-only tournament, which typically paid a fraction of what men received.32 The fledgling women’s league struggled to establish itself in the male-dominated world of professional tennis, but the effort that began with the meeting at the Houston Racquet Club evolved into the Virginia Slims tour, the cornerstone of women’s professional tennis.
The tour got an unexpected boost thanks to grousing from many prominent male players. The bickering culminated in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” between King and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs before thirty thousand people in Houston’s Astrodome, which George attended with some of his children.34 He didn’t realize it at the time, but his insistence on an all-inclusive club laid the foundation for the establishment of women’s professional tennis, which in turn opened more doors for women in other professional sports.
Mitchell was inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007.
George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet can be ordered online and will be available in bookstores everywhere on Oct. 11.