Respecting the Roots
The Barelas courts have a link to Albuquerque’s past, but their future is clouded with questions.
Once upon a century ago, the center of Albuquerque had public tennis courts.
One of those venues, the popular "Zoo courts," stood alongside what became the Rio Grande Zoological Park, on 10th Street SW in the Barelas neighborhood. The Zoo courts were torn down about 1970, and a replacement, also referred to by some as the Zoo courts, was soon in place a few hundred yards east, on 8th Street.
Today, the six "new" Zoo courts are the only public tennis courts in downtown Albuquerque. They are also a liability. In numerous places cracks in the courts’ surface have widened, dangerously so.
The city does not have the funds to make more than patch-work repairs, and that not until next year if at all.
This is unfortunate, for the roots of tennis in Albuquerque and the Southwest can be traced to the Barelas area. To neglect that connection is to diminish the work of two important men.
Roy A. Stamm, though slightly built, had a large love for tennis. Stamm had arrived in New Mexico in 1882 while still a boy. He picked up the sport by watching a group of visiting college students bat around a ball.
Soon he became a tennis standout for Albuquerque High and then for the University of New Mexico, where he graduated in 1898.
For the next 50 years he promoted the game.
A pair of doers
If Roy Stamm was the godfather of New Mexico tennis, Julius Staab was a founding father. Staab was born in Santa Fe in 1874, to parents who emigrated from Germany and became hugely successful retailers. Like Stamm, Staab embraced tennis. On July 3, 1912, Staab joined four others in El Paso to create what is now the USTA’s Southwest Section.
A graduate of Harvard, Staab attended Columbia Law School. Like Stamm, Staab was small in stature. He had been the coxswain of the Harvard crew, and likely played a good deal of tennis back East. He spent two years with a Chicago law firm before returning to New Mexico, to Albuquerque, to work as an attorney. By all accounts, Staab possessed a brilliant mind.
A year apart in age, Stamm and Staab knew each other well and played tennis together regularly. But that association ended far too soon.
A bachelor, Julius Staab in the summer of 1913 went on a vacation in Europe. While touring Switzerland he died suddenly, at age 38. The loss was a shock to the city and especially to the burgeoning tennis community.
The Albuquerque Morning Journal reported Staab’s death was due to "stomach troubles." A newspaper story said, "It’s believed that grief over his father’s recent death and his duties as a probate judge and his law practice wrecked Judge Staab’s constitution."
A relative of Staab’s told Counterpuncher otherwise. Staab died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while being treated for acute depression in a Swiss sanitarium.
Roy Stamm became a prosperous wholesaler of fruit and produce. He and his wife Elizabeth raised three sons. Two of them, Allen and Bob, were junior tennis stars. Allen died in 2003 at age 91. Bob Stamm will be 91 this November. A third son, Bill, who is 98 and in good health, did not play tennis.
Roy Stamm stopped playing tennis when he could no longer see the ball. He was 82 when he died in 1957.
"We thought our father would live much longer," son Bill says. "He never smoked or drank. He was always so active. I guess it was his time."
Next to tennis, favorite activities of the senior Stamm were camping and backpacking. Each year, he awarded a two-week camping trip to any boy who won the New Mexico high school singles championship. Bob won three such singles titles and two in doubles. Allen won a singles and a doubles crown.
In his lively, 1954 autobiography "For Me, the Sun," Roy Stamm wrote that his two tennis-playing sons faced each other on a court only once—in California during World War II. The brothers would play a single set and spectators were allowed save for dad in the umpire’s chair. Bob Stamm prevailed, 15-13.
Roy Stamm coached his sons on the old Zoo courts. At one point, just about anybody who owned a tennis racket used those courts. For several years the New Mexico Open and the New Mexico Closed tournaments took place there. A frequent tennis partner for Stamm was Ernest Blumenschein, the renowned Taos artist who happened to be a tennis fanatic.
Stamm and Staab shared something besides tennis. They made things happen. When he wanted a clay tennis court, Stamm built one on the banks of the Rio Grande. He so fancied a grass tennis court that he installed one downtown, behind the sporting goods store he ran during the 1930s and that specialized in tennis equipment.
Staab became a member of the State Bar Examiners because he wanted to make sure lawyers were qualified. To uphold the law, he served as Assistant District for Bernalillo County. When Congregation Albert was struggling, he spurred a fund-raising drive. At the time of his death he was the county’s probate judge and maintained a busy practice. When Staab saw the need for an organized tennis body, he traveled to El Paso on his own to offer guidance and legal advice.
To carry on the initiative of his late friend, Roy Stamm in the late-1930s served as president of what was then known as the Southwestern Section.
A downtown draw
The new Zoo courts, which opened in 1972, did not miss a beat in attracting a steady stream people from the heart of Albuquerque, a few blocks north.
"A lot of city workers used would come here on their lunch hour or after work to play," says Joe Dimas.
Dimas was born in the Barelas neighborhood 66 years ago. He has come to the Zoo courts this recent morning to talk about what the courts meant to him. As he tours the site, he stops at a gaping crack on one of the courts. "I can’t imagine anyone coming to play here now. You know, from the street, these courts look fine. But up close, the conditions are horrible."
Indeed, weeds pop out of the many cracks on the courts along the fences. Graffiti blankets court signage and litter is evident.
"Why isn’t the city doing something?" Dimas wonders.
The reason is funding. Not enough money, say officials in Albuquerque’s Parks & Recreation Department. In truth, there is no money to resurface Barelas the proper way.
The six courts need to be bulldozed and then two separate layers of asphalt put down before a Laykold topcoat is applied.
The current courts have a thin layer of Laykold and beneath that dirt. Thus, the cracks simply reappear and widen year after year.
"This place has so much promise," Dimas says.
Dimas would know. He learned to play on the old Zoo courts and then he refined his tennis game on the new Zoo courts. That led to him coaching high school tennis for many years at both West Mesa and Rio Grande.
"I didn’t really learn to play until after high school, but when I did, I played a lot here. It was like a home away from home."
"You could always find a game here," Dimas says. Many of those games were with the "Ernies." Ernie Lovato and Ernie Otero were Zoo court regulars, stocky city workers and close friends. Like Dimas, they were self-taught players of a high caliber.
The Barelas courts were not just for a blue-collar crowd. G. Ward Fenley, called "Doc" by all because he had a Ph.D. in French, played there for years on Saturday mornings. Fenley was joined frequently by a school administrator nicknamed "Shorty," who never went on the court without a cigar in his mouth. Several sets of doubles were typically followed by a visit to the nearby Barelas Coffee House for a breakfast burrito. "Hard to beat that," Joe Dimas says.
The NJTL steps in
As Albuquerque grew and more public courts opened away from the downtown, the Barelas courts saw less and less traffic. The courts experienced a comeback in the summer of 2005, when a National Junior Tennis League summer program began there.
The NJTL, started in 1969 by Arthur Ashe and two others, has always been aimed at low-income, high-risk kids. Inner-city youngsters. A perfect fit for heavily Hispanic Barelas you would think.
Bev Bourguet, former president of the Southwest Section, ran the Barelas NJTL for five years, assisted by a group of dedicated volunteers. It was never easy, she recalls. "There was always a theft problem there. People were selling drugs in the parking lot. There were a lot of shady characters about."
The program provided rackets to kids. "Nobody had any," Bourguet says. "A lot of kids didn’t even have sneakers."
Still, the program succeeded. "We had 60 or 70 kids some years," Bourguet says.
The past two summers there has been no NJTL at the Barelas courts. The crevices on the courts simply are not safe.
"It breaks my heart when I see what has happened there," Bourguet says. "This is a terrible loss for the community. When I would come down there, I used to hear all these kids laughing and having fun. There’s nobody there now."
Bourguet’s work was not in vain. The USTA named her program NJTL Chapter of the Year.
There are many other good reasons why the Barelas courts should not be abandoned. A Senior Center and a Community Center stand nearby. Three handball courts can be used as tennis backboards. A striking mural decorates the outside wall of the Community Center’s wall. The mural is high enough off the ground to deter graffiti.
What Barelas doesn’t have are kids—or few adults, for that matter—playing tennis.
Roy Stamm and Julius Staab would know what to do. They’d get the courts fixed, and fixed right, even if they had to do it themselves.
COUNTERPUNCHER is an online exclusive series written by Toby Smith, former Albuquerque Journal reporter, three-time USTA Southwest Media Excellence winner and past Section Marketing Committee member. Smith knows the landscape of tennis well, especially here in the Southwest, writing on tennis for more than 40 years.
To reach Toby, contact him at email@example.com or .
View past Counterpuncher stories HERE.