40 Love: Why I’ve spent $15,000 collecting vintage wooden tennis rackets

Dan G. White

Historically, the first tennis rackets were produced in the 1860s. Beginning in the 1880s, the sport of tennis began to emerge and, by 1920 the sport saw a surge in patent applications for racket designs, construction techniques, stringing, presses and balls. During this time, thick handles with no grips transformed into the thinner handles with leather grips. The 1940s through the 1980s marked the modern era of the wood racket with some very well-designed and well-constructed rackets produced, not to mention the volume of rackets produced during the tennis boom of the 1970s.

Within the last three years, I have spent at least $15,000 on rackets.

vintage tennis memorabilia

Some of the objects in Dan White’s collection include this custom pair of rotating wood carousels to display his collection of vintage wood tennis rackets.

There are many ways to collect wooden tennis rackets, from antique rackets (about 1860-1920), to the player-endorsed wood rackets, which ended in the early 1980s after powerful composite rackets replaced its wooden counterpart. Most of the true legends of tennis had at least one endorsed racket. Many manufacturers avoided endorsements due to the associated costs involved. However, these rackets are now sought after and collected around the world.

Wood rackets are a lost art, sporting beautiful and ornate construction. There were many patents filed on racket designs, some of which border on just plain odd. One could focus on just the odd rackets, while others strive to collect all the player-endorsed rackets of which include more than 200 players (some players endorsed as many as 20 or more different models).

Within these collections are “junior” models, racket head covers and presses, and tennis balls. To the collector’s delight, there are a great number of new rackets still in the original packaging that can be had — after all the condition of the racket is important to its value.

Ellsworth Vines tennis racket

Vintage Wilson racket featuring Ellsworth Vines.

An even more challenging subset of player endorsed rackets is the player endorsed photo decal models of which both the player’s name and photo appeared on the racket. I know some serious collectors who have spent half a lifetime collecting photo decal rackets. It’s believed at least 80 rackets feature players or non-tennis players such as Joe Namath (football player), Hugh Forgie (badminton champion) and one is even a sports mogul’s daughter Ellen Renwal (her real name was Lawner – Renwal spelled backward).

Since I started my collection of photo decal rackets, I have obtained 40 of the 80 players – the last 40 are getting very hard to find. The main producers of endorsed rackets included Wilson, Bancroft, Slazenger, Chemold, Regent, Spalding, Dunlop, Wright & Ditson and MacGregor.

Most collectors take this hobby seriously and have collected pieces for investment purposes. I have seen rackets sell for more than $5,000, although these are so rare that only a few exist in the world. The more common rackets go for as little as $1 on eBay.

The good news is that there is still plenty of wood rackets from the 1900s and more coming available as attics and garages are cleaned out. I am amazed at the number of unique rackets I have found in local thrift stores. On any given day, there are more than 200 wood rackets for sale on eBay, a quick way to acquire the more common rackets still available at good prices.

You can expect to pay about $2 to $4 in a thrift store for a wood racket. On eBay, you may get a racket for $2 and pay an additional $6 to $12 in shipping costs. I have paid as little as $0.99 and as much as $700 for a racket on eBay.

Don Budge wood tennis racket

New rackets can still be found unused and in the original packaging, such as this Don Budge model with matching tennis ball.

No one knows how many collectors there are but the number appears to be growing. There are dealers who sell rackets as well as other tennis memorabilia and they are looking to sell at top dollar.

Another fun addition to collecting is to get these rackets autographed by the legends. I have been successful in getting many of these players to sign my rackets at charity tennis events where these long-retired players show up for fundraisers. I have autographed rackets, including Billie Jean King, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, just to name a few. And don’t forget to add the history of each player.

For example, I recently found a German racket endorsed by Hans Nusslein, whom I had never heard of. However, after a little Internet investigation, it turns out that Nusslein was a champion in the 1930s and had beaten American champion Bill Tilden several times. He won the World Professional singles title in 1933 and the U.S. Professional title in 1934. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006 — fascinating stuff!

One final challenge to collecting wooden tennis rackets is storage and record keeping. At more than 1,500 rackets, storage has certainly become a challenge.

My rare and most valuable rackets are in glass-covered shadow boxes hanging on the walls (these tend to be of the antique vintage), and my favorite player endorsed rackets are on a beautiful wood rotating carousel of my design (the “RacketRack”) holding up to 96 rackets each. The 80-inch tall carousel rotates in a very small three-foot diameter circle, taking up very little room and allowing for easy viewing.

Dan White resides in South Florida. He is a publisher and editor of a professional trade magazine and an avid tennis fan and player. He was a teaching pro in California and played tennis for Florida Atlantic University in the early 1970s. He is a member of the Tennis Collectors of America and the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum in Newport, Rhode Island. Mr. White is currently working on a new book titled “A Field Guide to Player-Endorsed Wood Rackets.”

Related Links: eBay Guide: Wooden Tennis Rackets

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