More than 75 Years of Televised and Private Sports Action Continues in Isolated Terminal Annex
Difficulty, as legendary television newsman Edward R. Murrow once proclaimed, is the excuse history never accepts.
As media outlets start to broadcast live sports action without crowds, there may be comfort in knowing the challenge is more than three quarters of a century old.
For the 1940s launch and rollout of its first commercial television outlet, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) televised live sports competition staged in seclusion in the room where Murrow would broadcast his most historic shows. Today, the hidden upstairs annex at Midtown Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal has some discoveries to share.
The Room Where It Happens
A tribute to Manhattan’s enduring ingenuity for gerrymandering sports sites, the 250-by-60-foot expanse two floors below the Grand Central roof has served as home to television’s first regular sportscast, and competition in a variety of sports from boxing to badminton.
A snowless ski slope and a faux ice skating surface each had a run in the space. Tennis courts have defined the hideaway since the mid-1960s, including during a controversial 30-year hold on the lease by Donald Trump starting when the future president was 32.
The sanctum is among the Grand Central-tied stories that have come to life during New York Sports Tours‘ private sports history tour experiences. The public version of the tour outings, now on hold as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, starts at Vanderbilt Avenue across the street from Grand Central. The immersive tour is an exploration of how sports has helped shape culture and society.
“A Greater Sense of Excitement and Immediacy”
Part of sports’ impact came from a desk-bound boxing luminary inside the CBS room in 1942, six months after the start of commercial television, and 40 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that ignited World War II.
On January 16, 1942, former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey took viewer calls in the soundproof space for a live 90-minute war-bond fundraiser that brought in more than $100,000. The show’s signal could only be received within Greater New York on the fewer than 5,000 sets in existence, but the telecast electrified CBS management.
CBS reported the achievement to television’s commercial regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), noting, “The telephonic link between audience and studio evoked a greater sense of excitement and immediacy than had been achieved by any other approach to television.”
“Suddenly Emerged as an Authority on What is Sartorially Perfect for Television”
CBS started leasing the den during television’s experimental days in 1937, after the space housed department store furnishings and credit businesses.
Already established with radio and music recording studios in other buildings in Manhattan, CBS would partition the Grand Central room — the largest television studio space in the country — into 44-by-60-foot Studio 41 and 45-by-76-foot Studio 42 (separated by a removable wall), an announcer’s booth, broadcast control operations, a 15-by-12-foot art department, a carpenter’s shop and production offices. The overhead space for lighting and sets was impressive, with 40 feet between the room’s ceiling and floor.
On July 1, 1941, the day the FCC authorized commercial television, CBS television had one station, WCBW (known as WCBS-TV starting in 1946) and was without a television network. Inside the two Grand Central studios, the station realized many national and international firsts in sports.
The inaugural television sportscast, hosted by established sportswriter and radio sportscaster Bob Edge, launched from the Grand Central studios at 9 p.m. on the first day of commercial television. Among the sports news that day was a Yankee Stadium doubleheader during which the New York Yankees‘ Joe DiMaggio kept his hitting streak alive for the 42nd and 43rd of what is still a Major League Baseball (MLB) record 56 consecutive games.
On the historic half-hour sportscast, Edge’s first guest was Yankees pitcher Paul Schreiber. Like sports media itself, Edge was first known as a hunting and fishing expert before establishment as a spectator sports observer. The other guest on the first WCBW sports show was fishing champion Gwendolyn Bloomingdale. A month later for the sportscast, Edge had in studio the team from Monmouth County, New Jersey, that had won a tuna fishing tournament.
Edge’s sports show aired five days a week in black and white. The host found the Grand Central studios an incubator for various television components. Attire was one. The month WCBW went on air, CBS fashion editor Rosellen Callahan reported, “Edge has suddenly emerged as an authority on what is sartorially perfect for television… Bob has found that shirts in off-shades of blue, grey, tan and salmon pink televize best as do suits in lighter hues.”
“Sports Get the Most Attention”
WCBW kept a schedule of 15 hours per week of programming in 1941 and 1942, with about 70 percent of the shows live. Directly below the studios was the terminal’s large waiting room. Directly above, the Grand Central Art Galleries were in operation from 1923 to 1958. CBS would take over that top-floor space for rehearsals and to house some of its technical equipment.
CBS used 15 Vanderbilt Avenue as the address for its Grand Central operations. Its employees and guests utilized a doorway that remains as an entranceway to The Campbell Apartment (now stylized The Campbell), a cocktail lounge near the entrance. The Campbell was created in the former office and client-entertaining space of John Campbell, the president of Credit Clearing House. The credit business was based upstairs in the future television studio space.
The upstairs location was chosen by CBS because of the terminal’s one-block proximity to the new towering Chrysler Building. Coaxial cable was physically installed connecting the studio with transmitter antennas on the top of the Chrysler Building.
Although CBS was at the forefront of some development for the new medium — including research on color television that would lead to CBS broadcasting in 1951 a northern New Jersey horse race as the first live sports event in color — the company was still years away from creating technology to broadcast live from remote locations. That reality forced CBS to bring sports action into its studios for broadcast to television’s small potential audience.
The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which in 1939 had televised the nation’s first sports event — a college baseball game between Columbia and Princeton in Manhattan, available to about 400 television sets — was one of two commercial stations at the advent of commercial television. Manhattan-based NBC used the Empire State Building for its transmitter and DuMont its 42-story DuMont Building headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.
NBC had shown that sports could bring converts from radio to television, as many bars that had installed television sets scored an uptick in customer traffic. Boxing proved the biggest draw.
“Pigeons Used to Fly In”
Sports continued to percolate in the third-floor Grand Central loft. C.E. Butterfield of the Associated Press (AP) reported in October 1941 of the CBS and NBC stations that “sports get the most attention… CBS, which does not have equipment for remote pickups, is doing what it can in the studio. It has been trying exhibition table tennis and is now turning to badminton… an invitation tournament to run seven weeks on Friday nights.”
In 1991, 40 years after WCBW’s commercial start, former CBS actor and stage manager Gil Fates remembered, “It’s not easy to shoot ping pong… Badminton was worse, because it would go up out of the lights… One thing we had to correct initially was to put screens on the windows because the pigeons used to fly in, and they would sit on the scenery and coo at us while we working.”
By the end of 1941, sportscaster Edge had impressed Brooklyn Eagle broadcast columnist Joe Ranson, as “one of the smoothest interviewers this corner has ever seen on television. He does a neat job.”
“Keeping Down the Delinquency Potential”
From Thanksgiving Day in 1942 to May 4, 1945, the studios cut back programming drastically as the nation was focused on war needs. At the reopening, more than half of the few thousand television sets in use in the country were in Greater New York, but CBS was still without a mobile unit for live broadcasts.
Nonetheless, the CBS studio programming included a host of in-studio sports, aided by a labor dispute with the American Federation of Musicians that had halted music shows at the station.
That year, psychologist L.N. Chalfin wrote for the trade publication Televiser about the possible impact of television. “Among the sociological possibilities, television can be envisioned keeping down the delinquency potential by attracting young people to sports telecasts, thus keeping them off the streets at night,” Chalfin concluded.
“Now One Quickly Realizes the Bonanza”
A few months later, Televiser noted of CBS’ 1937 move to Grand Central, “What a white elephant is must have appeared to outsiders at the time! Now one quickly realizes the bonanza CBS has in its virtually unlimited quarters.”
Friday night boxing was regularly televised from the studios. Televiser reported, “CBS is trying to find out what makes good television, to discover, to develop and to perfect program methods and procedures. They would like to make a televised boxing bout of a good prize fight.” A look at footage from a CBS boxing match broadcast from the Grand Central studio space appears below.
In 1945, CBS’ “visual station” as New York’s Daily News billed WCBW at the time, broadcasted a parade of live sports action from the studios, with billiards, fencing, boxing and gymnastics in the mix. Billboard magazine called a billiards telecast featuring pool champion Willie Hoppe, “among the most pleasant 15 minutes we have spent watching CBS shows in past months.”
There were also women’s sports developments in the annex. Regarded as television’s first female director of live sports programming, Frances Buss had started work for CBS as a temporary receptionist. Two weeks later, the FCC green lit commercial television and Buss started work at the Grand Central studios as a on-air scorekeeper for CBS’ first televised game show.
In the Grand Central loft, Buss served as the director for boxing competition, other sports events, and additional programming. After CBS secured its first mobile unit for the start of 1946, she directed horse racing, MLB and other sports action until she retired in 1954.
Although live sports broadcasts gravitated to traditional sports venues because of CBS’ expansion to remote broadcasts, sports couldn’t quit the company’s Grand Central expanse. Until CBS moved out of Grand Central in 1964, signals from shows from CBS studios elsewhere in Manhattan were routed by physical cables through master control in CBS’ Grand Central space.
“The Largest and Most Modern Television Studios in the World”
CBS became the broadcaster for home games of the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers starting with the 1946-1947 season. Edge was in charge of the game broadcasts. As a December 1946 wire story from Montreal reported, the game feed was “relayed over special telephone lines and repeaters, to the A.T. and T. headquarters downtown; up to At the Grand Central Terminal building and then over to the station’s transmitter in the Grand Central tower for transmission to the 7,000 television sets in the greater New York area.”
Sports remained in the Grand Central studio in various forms and fed a lot of programs to television’s expanding audience outside of New York. Nationwide by the end of 1947, about 864,000 households in the country had television sets, roughly 60 percent outside of the New York metropolis.
After a major remodeling of its Grand Central studio space in 1948, CBS proclaimed the hub, “the largest and most modern television studios in the world.” That year, CBS Television Network was formed when a Philadelphia station became an affiliate. Within a year, 30 stations were part of the network, and in 1952 would feed programs seen by West Coast viewers.
“Something Special Just Passed in the Television Night”
In 1950, a year before CBS’ 15 Vanderbilt Avenue operation was connected to California via coaxial cable, the Grand Central space debuted What’s My Line?, which would become television’s longest-running prime-time game show. On the program, panelists guess a contestant’s profession through questioning, with the final guest a recognizable figure the panelists question while they are blindfolded.
On February 2, 1950, the premiere What’s My Line? episode was televised live from the studio. The first mystery guest, shown in the below footage, was New York Yankees shortstop and future longtime Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto.
On September 26, 1956, in the studios, rising actor Paul Newman played fictional star pitcher Henry Wiggen in a live hour-long performance of Bang the Drum Slowly. The Mark Harris novel about a dying player that the performance was based on was published the same year.
New York Times television critic John J. O’Connor would write of the performance, “The audience can have no doubt that something special just passed in the television night.” The full live performance, for the show U.S. Steel Hour, is below.
“It’s Like Covering a Football Game”
CBS was praised for its nimbleness and spontaneity inside the third-floor space, and regarded as the most prominent pioneer in television news. CBS had a newscast on its first day on the air and was the only station to go live on the Sunday of the Pearl Harbor attack the same year, with a 90-minute show that was the medium’s first breaking news special.
At the 1940 World’s Fair in the city, a programming survey of visitors to four buildings with television demonstrations found sports was more popular than news. In the 1940s in the Grand Central studios, single personalities in Grand Central covered both topics.
One reason for CBS’ continued climb in news stature was its in-depth live political convention and election coverage starting in 1948. CBS news producer Don Hewitt credited sports. A former New York University scholarship track athlete, Hewitt joined CBS’ television news division in Grand Central in the 1940s and would rise to become lead producer of CBS Evening News and the creator and chief for 35 years of CBS’ 60 Minutes.
“The reason we did [sports events] was became the cameras got in one spot,” Hewitt notes in the 2009 book The Origins of Television News in America. “Along comes a political convention and I’m saying to myself, ‘Hey, we know the date it’s going to start… we know what time we can get through… we know where we can put the cameras. The hall’s already lit for us. It was like covering a football game. It’s easy.’ It’s the first time that television could be at a big event and didn’t feel crowded out by radio’s ability to move into places we couldn’t move.”
The most legendary CBS television newsmen who emerged from CBS’ Grand Central studios were Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Cronkite would become anchor of CBS Evening News and known as “the most trusted man in America.” Murrow broadcast both of his signature shows, See It Now and Person to Person, from the Studio 41 control room on the eastern side of the annex.
On See it Now, Murrow’s guests included sports personalities. The show is where Murrow famously took on Joseph McCathy over the United States senator’s anti-Communist rants, but the first guest on the first Person to Person show was Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella during the 1957 World Series. Cronkite’s various sports duties included his interviewing future New York Yankees World Series champion pitcher Bob Turley in the following July 1954 show excerpt.
“On the Fringes of the News Department”
The same year, 32-year-old Jim McKay was brought on for a limited role for the start of the Cronkite-anchored CBS’ The Morning Show, where former Yankees pitcher Tommy Heinrich had some on-air duties. McKay came to the station four years earlier with a goal of being an intrepid news reporter. He had been a Baltimore Evening Sun police reporter and was noticed by CBS after he was the first voice heard on Baltimore television, for a station started by Sun owners.
CBS had other plans for McManus when he arrived in Manhattan. On his first day of what would be 11 years with the company, CBS management explained to McManus that the company had hired a programming consultant. McManus was told he would change his name to Jim McKay and host an entertainment show named The Real McKay. McKay reluctantly accepted the new name and format — which would include singing performances by McKay — for $500 a week plus $25 for each commercial sold on the program.
Starting in 1957, McKay played a reporter on a daily drama program titled The Verdict Is Yours, shot in the Grand Central studios. “I was on the fringes of the news department, and I kept trying to push that way, but it just wasn’t happening,” McKay would recall in a 1984 Sports Illustrated interview.
Cronkite was chosen to host the 1960 Winter Olympics, the first Games to be broadcast on television in the United States. McKay was asked to fill an on-air role with Cronkite at the northern California event.
But the pressure of doing The Verdict Is Yours at night, then the live morning show and some other on-air duties stymied McKay. He suffered a nervous breakdown and secured professional help for depression. He told his superiors that he had pneumonia. CBS sportscaster Chris Schenkel accepted McKay’s Olympics gig.
“Full of Waiting and Frustration”
In his 1998 autobiography, McKay wrote that he felt, “my news ambitions would never be filled and that I was blocked from progressing in sports. It really got to me… The studio and New York itself began to feel like my enemies… Most of the time, all I could do was cry, for no apparent reason.”
With CBS on board to broadcast the 1960 Summer Olympics, former Yankees traveling secretary Bill MacPhail surprised McKay. Then the president of CBS Sports, MacPhail offered the hosting role to McKay. Because satellite technology was not in place for television, videotapes from the Games in Rome would be jetted to New York. McKay would then host the action on delay from the Grand Central studios.
McKay gave a large audience a timely look at a Summer Olympics for the first time. Many viewers were not happy with the below coverage of the 100-meter freestyle swimming final, as the race was too close to call. The resulting outcry was a catalyst for the introduction of electronic timing in swimming.
Among McKay’s viewers was ABC television sports chief Roone Arledge. Arledge offered McKay a job on an upcoming summer replacement show. The program, Wide World of Sports, debuted in April 1961. McKay, then 39, was in the anchor’s chair. He went on to host the show for 37 years.
“I saw several things,” Arledge says. “One was his manner of presentation. He came closer to the news in the sense of Murrow/Cronkite drama than anyone else in sports.”
“You Honored Yourself, Your Network and Your Industry”
“We had to wait for children,” McKay would write in his autobiography about life with his columnist wife Margaret, “finally and gracefully realizing that it was our destiny to adopt two irresistible babies, whom we named Mary and Sean. The eleven years at CBS were full of waiting and frustration.”
With satellite technology in place, McKay turned Manhattan-based Wide World of Sports into a major hit, and popularized sports of all stripes and from many countries. Each episode was accented near the start with nine of the most famous words in sports history, voiced by McKay — “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Schenkel was ABC’s lead anchor, but McKay would leave the event as the sportscaster still most associated with breaking news. When Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and trainers in Munich, McKay anchored 16 consecutive hours of news to millions of viewers.
“When I was a kid my father used to say our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized,” McKay said during the Munich coverage. The next day, he received a telegram from a former Grand Central studios colleague. Years later, McKay said the words were more significant than any award he had won: “Dear Jim, today you honored yourself, your network and your industry. Walter Cronkite.”
McKay recognized that CBS’ Grand Central operations not only mark the start of commercial television sports behemoth CBS Sports, but helped change the lives of many. His son’s life is one. Today at age 65, Sean McManus is the chairman of CBS Sports.
“May Be A Better Use of the Space”
In 1963, a year before CBS purchased 80 percent of the Yankees, the company moved its Grand Central operations into a sprawling former Sheffield Farms dairy depot on West 57th Street. Pigeons and ping pong were but memories, but trains were not.
Through all the studios’ years at Grand Central, CBS production personnel would complain that vibrations from incoming and outgoing trains would shake the studio, sometimes messing with the outgoing signal. Said Hewitt 50 years after commercial television’s start, “The studio at Grand Central — that is now a tennis court, which may be a better use of the space than we made of it.”
“High-Octane Enjoyment for the Jaded Sports Spectator”
In Feburary 1965, Hungarian immigrant Geza Gazdag opened the studio space as Vanderbilt Athletic Club, with two vinyl-grass tennis courts. To make room, he spent $17,00 to remove the Studio 41 control room, cables, and other other CBS structures and equipment. Gazdag added to the venue that October a plastic 65-by-30-foot ski slope with a rope tow. The New York Times would note of Gaztag and the facility, “When he finished it, there was no fancier club in town.”
Gazdag had fled his native Hungary in 1957 during an attempted revolution in the Communist country and became an assistant professor of physical education in New Jersey and director of the Fifth Avenue Sports Academy in Manhattan.
Gazdag was a constant promoter. As an experiment at one of the tennis tournaments at his Grand Central club, he encouraged fans to cheer and boo during action like they were at a boxing match or football game (they didn’t). For a tournament with an elite women’s field, he had spectators led from the stands to take on the players in brief matches. He tried a surface that simulated ice skating. One year, he told AP that he was training female entertainers to fence, with the hopes of staging a “fencing ballet.”
In 1966, with television’s rising opposition to unpredictably long tennis matches, Gazdag hosted a tournament based on a system that would become a major game changer.
The tournament featured many top players, including 1963 Wimbledon champion Chuck McKinley, who had become a New York City stockbroker, and Arthur Ashe. A semifinalist at the 1965 national amateur singles championship in Queens, Ashe would win the title in Queens in 1968, the first year the tournament was professional tennis’ US Open.
Jimmy Van Alen had been shopping his VASS scoring system to tennis insiders. Not wanting matches to run past starting times of those that followed, Gazdag was game. In an AP story promoting the 1966 tournament, Van Allen said, “When we say a match will start at 8 o’clock, it will start at 8 o’clock.”
AP explained that the event would use “the Van Allen Simplified Scoring System, with 31 points cnnstituting a match. The winner will be determined by the total number of points made in the event. Every player will meet every other player in the field once.” Four years later, the US Open adopted VASS’ sudden-death tiebreaker, the only change in the sport’s scoring history.
The Grand Central winter tournament turned annual, with club regular Hank Greenberg — a retired MLB great and New York City native — the event co-chariman with Gazdag. In addition to Greenberg, various A-list figures have played at the tennis venue since 1965, from The Tonight Show host and former Grand Central The Morning Show personality Johnny Carson to professional tennis stars in need of practice space during tournaments in the city.
Table tennis remerged in the space, with an annul tournament with international teams Gazdag had recruited. In 1968, about 1,000 fans showed up to watch the finals, a two-match sweep by Sweden over Czechoslovakia. Daily News columnist Gene Ward liked the spectacle, “which came on very strong as high-octane enjoyment for the jaded sports spectator.”
“A Half-Baked Job Isn’t Good Enough”
In 1970, the Vanderbilt Athletic Club courts hosted the ten-player $5,000 Vanderbilt Ladies Indoor World Invitation Tennis Tournament, billed as the first women-only indoor professional tennis tournament. Seating was available for 1,200 spectators. The winner’s prize was $1,500. The participants included defending US Open champion Margaret Court of Australia, three-time Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King of the United States, and 1968 US Open champion Virginia Wade of England.
Another Grand Central player, 21-year-old American Rosie Casals, was underwhelmed. She told AP during the event, “The courts are in horrible condition and there’s no room to run on them. Then they pull people out of the stands to play us in little matches and it makes you feel like a bloody fool… I’m sure the people here are trying their best, but a half-baked job isn’t good enough.”
The same year, nine players now known as the Original 9 signed for $1 each to play in a Virginia Slims-sponsored tennis tournament in Houston. Six of the nine had played in the 1970 Grand Central event. The Texas tournament turned into the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour which in 1983 created the WTA Tour women’s international professional tennis circuit.
By the end of 1970, Gaztag had brought in Dallas’ Tennis International as the club’s lead investor. The company gave notable designer Dorothy Draper a $100,000 budget to revamp the club.
“About eight years ago, they wanted to send me to the psychiatrist,” Gaztag told the Daily News in January 1973. “No one had the courage to be my partner.” During his initial eight months at the facility, Gazdag listed $156,000 in expenses and $10,000 in revenue. He told the Daily News he was comfortably profitable, with a $37 per hour court rate for prime playing hours.
‘It was Barbarian, Unrealistic, Undemocratic”
By May 10, 1976, while Gazdag was still negotiating terms of an expired five-year lease, the club had about 1,000 members. That afternoon, a city marshal and Grand Central security evicted Gazdag from the club for failure to pay rent. The city took over the lease and the operations, which included a pro shop and lounge.
The landlord, Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), placed a sign on the club entrance that claimed the MTA could only allow pre-paid club memberships to be honored through June. Gazdag sent a dozen representatives with signs to outside the 15 Vanderbilt Avenue entrance, to picket and to let club members know where they could be reimbursed. MTA security stopped them from entering the business and closed down the picketing.
MTA chairman David Yunich had been trying to persuade Gazdag to move from the terminal. In October 1975, Yunich had told New York magazine of Gazdag, “This guy’s been repeating a harvest at the public’s expense and we’re not in the business of letting a guy get rich that way… We think the property can easily bring $200,000 to $250,000 a year.”
That year, across the street from the east side of the terminal, the Commodore Hotel had turned to Donald Trump, then 29. With the Hyatt hotel chain, Trump purchased the hotel from Penn Central railroad company, to renovate and turn into the Grand Hyatt. The deal landed Trump his first big publicity. Three years later, Trump would secure the Grand Central annex lease in an agreement that New York City council member Henry Stern chastised as “incredible.”
The day of Gazdag’s eviction, he told the Daily News that he had offered the MTA a certified check the week before for $15,750 for all pending rent, plus additional payment for due utility charges. Gazdag, 52, added that he offered to increase his annual rent from $65,000 to $165,000, but was turned down. “It was barbarian, unrealistic, undemocratic,” Gazdag said. “I never thought it could happen in this country.”
Gazdag surfaced within three years in England. In west London, he had kept the Vanderbilt name and started and managed the Vanderbilt Racquet Club with more courts than were at Grand Central. The club grew, perhaps best known for becoming the regular tennis destination of Princess Diana.
“To Real Estate Tycoon Donald Trump for a Virtual Song”
With Gaztag gone, the MTA transferred the lease to Brooklyn real estate professional Charles Kofman, for about $150,00 a year. The name of the operation changed to Grand Central Raquet Club. Kofman lasted 15 months before an owner of two other city tennis facilities took over the lease through its expiration in September 1978. Less than two months later, the MTA and Trump signed a 20-year lease for the historic annex and its tennis club for $80,000 a year.
In April 1979, Daily News writer Martin King reported of City Council member and future New York City Parks Department commissioner Henry Stern, “Stern charged yesterday that the Metropolitan Transit Authority ignored a higher offer and leased a tennis club to real estate tycoon Donald Trump for a virtual song… without public notice and competitive bidding and without asking for a share of the income. The club charges up to $58 an hour for use of the tennis facilities.”
Ham Richardson, who overcame juvenile diabetes to become a Rhodes scholar, a men’s doubles champion at the tournament now known as the US Open, and an investment banker, had put in a bid on the lease for $100,000 a year for five years. The proposal included a provision for the MTA to receive 10 percent of any gross club revenue above $250,000. Richardson said he couldn’t see the justification for the rejection of his bid. Trump said the MTA wanted someone it knew had the assets to repair and maintain the tennis facility.
At first, Trump used the space to store architectural designs and for other storage, as the Commodore renovation and tennis club refurbishment continued. Trump would reopen the tennis club as The Tennis Club, with court time for some hours set at $170.
Trump renewed the lease after the annual rent was increased to $95,000. In 2006, more than 20 years before he won a Pulitzer Prize for New York Times investigative reporting about President Trump that led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, 22-year-old Times sportswriter Michael S. Schmidt wrote a US Open-pegged story about the club and how some tournament players, including Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt and Great Britain’s Andy Murray, were using it for practice during a rainy stretch.
Wrote Schmidt, “Finding the courts may be the most daunting task, as the coach Brad Gilbert, Hewitt (seeded 15th at the Open) and Murray (17th) discovered Friday. They gave up trying to find their way through the maze of stairs and hallways and needed an employee to lead them to the club.”
In the piece, Trump says of the club, “It is one of the greatest secrets of my time and the only people who know are the ones who play on it. The ceilings are high and you can play without people walking all over you. You are right in the middle of Manhattan, right in the most expensive real estate in the world.” At the time, club memberships for September 4 to May 6 cost $5,145 for one hour of court time a week during weekdays or $8,350 for weekend play.
“How to Crawl, Walk, and Eventually to Run”
Trump operated the space until 2009. Around the time of the lease expiration, Metro-North Railroad was required to provide Grand Central lounge space for conductors. For the need, $18 million in federal funds were secured for renovation. After Trump’s lease ended, the historic annex was remade into two floors. The tennis club is on the top and the lounge below.
Trump said the space had become too small for him to show interest in the lease. Dr. Anthony Scolnick, a former athletic director at Manhattan’s Hunter College and an established owner of the borough’s Yorkville Tennis Club and Sutton East Tennis Club, won the bid. Although the facility size had decreased and would only allow for one full court, the MTA more than doubled the rent, starting at $225,000 a year.
The highest court rental fee, for certain prime times, has passed $200 an hour. In addition to the full Deco-Turf court at the Vanderbilt Tennis Club, there are two hitting lanes for practice. The club emphasizes instruction. On its website, the club has one quote, from Scolnick: “We are teaching people through progression — how to crawl, walk, and eventually to run.”
It’s a description that can easily be affixed to the sports legacy of the Grand Central hideaway.
As a result of the novel coronavirus, New York Sports Tours tour experiences will return at a later date. Gift cards can now be purchased here, then used after the tours restart.