The tradition of paying athletes in trinkets and trophies, as if their glory were diminished by something so base as money, was fading. Pro sports, still seen as a little rough and tumble, a little disorganized perhaps, were becoming more acceptable. There was a vulgarity to some of them ( NFL players lumbering across the landscape, knocking each other kablooey, did not speak to a refinement in our tastes) but also corresponding amusement value. More and more, they were gaining official sanctioning, sponsorship. The notion that sports had become an entertainment industry, and its athletes part of a new workforce, was inescapable every time you noticed Mickey Mantle posing with a Lucky Strike.
There were outposts of amateurism, but they were falling fast. Even college athletes had their ears perked up for opportunity. USC's great running back Jon Arnett took it as a joke when a broadcaster suggested that the simple transformation of a nickname might get him some classy wheels. "Cat," he told Arnett, "I'm gonna get you a new car." Thereafter, when Arnett ran the ball, he was identified as Jaguar Jon Arnett. Arnett did not get a free Jaguar (or any other automobile), but there seemed to be an understanding everywhere that such vehicles were available to young men who could gain six yards a carry.
Sports like tennis and golf, though, still had a patina of purity as bastions of fast-fading amateurism. They depended a great deal on the amateur ideal, which was not so much that athletes should not be paid but that they were so privileged by class and choice of sport that they would never need to be paid. But now, with so much time on everyone's hands, the wrong people were picking up clubs and rackets, threatening these outposts of royal pursuit with their wild and woolly participation, changing everything, really.
Tony Trabert, who was the French Open winner in 1954, was one of those young guys confounded by the pretensions of tennis. When Trabert hit the road in 1948, his father agreed to stake him to $1,000 for the summer, to see if he could survive among the country club set. "I got to Brookline for the national doubles," he says, "and the clubhouse was dark Couldn't sleep there. A motel cost 30 bucks, and I had just 50. Can't do that. I slept outside the clubhouse, suitcase as a pillow. It was a nice night."
The game's insistence upon its quaint pretensions of amateur purity was almost comical. Later, when Trabert won Wimbledon, he cashed in a gift certificate from Lily White Sporting Goods. "Got a couple pair of socks," he says.
Golf was more realistic, though it wasn't much of a profession. (Its big winner in 1954 was Bob Toski; $50,000 of his $66,000 total earnings came in George May's rowdy World Championship.) Amateurs were as likely to make news—and low scores—as the professionals. The most famous golfer in '54 was Ben Hogan, yet Billy Joe Patton, a 32-year-old lumberman, was almost an equal draw. He finished a stroke behind Hogan and Sam Snead in the Masters and probably had the largest gallery.
In fact, turning pro was not necessarily a golfer's best option. A Coast Guard veteran named Arnold Palmer, in gauging his prospects at age 24, certainly had reason to wonder whether professional golf was the life for him. In 1954 he was a top amateur, selling paint for a Cleveland businessman named Bill Wehnes. It wasn't a bad deal at all. He was playing a lot of golf, about as much as he wanted; a big part of his job, actually, was playing with customers and Wehnes most afternoons. Wehnes paid his way to tournaments too. A good life, actually. If Palmer had landed that big order from a TV cabinet manufacturer in Chicago in early 1954—with the kind of commission that might have encouraged him to remain a gentleman golfer—it might have been his life forever. That's the way he was thinking in 1954, going into the U.S. Amateur Championship in Detroit.
Many of the amateur stars of the day, unlike Palmer, did not have money worries. Perennial titlist Frank Stranahan was heir to a spark plug fortune. Bob Sweeny was a 43-year-old playboy—an Oxford-educated investment banker. But a Cleveland paint salesman beat them all to win the U.S. Amateur that year and decided to establish his own bona fides on the pro tour after all.
Palmer's decision was complicated by the fact that he was about to be married. Invited to bandleader Fred Waring's tournament after his big amateur win, Palmer arrived and met Winnie Walzer, who in a rather whirlwind romance quickly became his wife. In a way Palmer's proposal forced him into the professional life; he won most of the $8,000 he needed for Winnie's engagement ring in a little golfing foray arranged by Wehnes and pals, not turning pro exactly but winning some suckers' money all the same.
Turning pro officially did not pay so well. The tour required a six-month apprenticeship, which meant it would be a while before Palmer could cash a check. Only an endorsement contract with Wilson Sporting Goods made such a commitment possible. Palmer took the $2,000 signing bonus (plus $5,000 for the year), married Winnie (spending his honeymoon night in a truckers' motel off the Breezewood exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike), bought a tiny trailer (with money borrowed from his father and father-in-law) and embarked on the life of a touring professional. "We bought the trailer in Phoenix," Palmer says, "a small 19-footer, and pulled it around on the winter tour behind a Ford hardtop.