Early Help Spurred Parrish to Greater Heights

John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer…

O.H. Parrish Jr., didn’t discover tennis until he was almost a teen-ager.

Once the Richmonder got hooked on the sport, he would go to any lengths to improve his game.

That included hitchhiking from his home to Byrd Park and playing with men much older so he could get better.

“I was a member of the Officer’s Club [which became the Westwood Club] and I started taking lessons, just by happenstance, from a fellow named Chuck Straley, who was the pro at the club,” said Parrish. “He got me started.”

Straley, who went to the University of Richmond, won the city singles title in 1956 and was runner-up to Bobby Payne the next year.

“Very soon after [taking lessons], I started going down to Byrd Park,” continued Parrish. “I hitchhiked to Byrd Park every day of the summer from where I lived in the West End. I knocked on Mr. Woods’ door about 8 o’clock in the morning.”

That would be the legendary Sam Woods, who lived and taught at Byrd Park for many years and coached the ultra-successful boys tennis team at Thomas Jefferson High School to the majority of its 15 state championships.

“I knocked on his door and he’d say, ‘Who goes there?’ I would say, ‘It’s O.H., Mr. Woods,’ and he’d come out and hit balls with me for a while. Then I’d usually play with Bill Schutt or somebody, and play the men in the afternoon.

“I did that until I was 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. When I was 17 or 18, I started playing some at the Country Club of Virginia. But it was Sam Woods, and this story repeats itself for any number of players in the city, at the beginning.”

Parrish would later go on to win four city singles titles and three state championships, as well as a number of doubles crowns with different partners. He also starred for the University of North Carolina, where he played No. 1 singles and doubles his senior year.

Because of all those accomplishments, Parrish will be inducted into the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame on Oct. 19 with a dinner and ceremony at the Westin Hotel. Tickets ($75) are available through the sponsoring Richmond Tennis Association.

“Byrd Park was where the best tennis was played at the time,” said Parrish. “I’d go out there in the afternoon, and around two, three, four o’clock, all these good players would start coming out. Bob Atwood, Frank Hartz, Ralph Whittaker, Gene Short. Guys like that.

“Playing with those older guys, they’d beat you like a drum. But that’s how I got better, playing those guys who were good.”

Parrish’s game continued to improve when he went to TJ and gradually he began to hold his own with the older players. He played No. 1 singles and doubles at TJ his junior and senior years.

“I liked it and I started getting better,” Parrish recalled of his earlier days. “I got really interested in the game. I had pretty much a singular focus on tennis. That’s what I did. I loved it. I played every day, all day long.”

Parrish won the 18-and-under boys division of the City Jaycees tournament when he was 16, announcing his arrival as a contender.

As far as what he learned from Woods, Parrish said it was mostly fundamentals.

“By the time I started taking lessons, if you will, from Sam Woods, he was getting along in age,” said Parrish. “He would hit balls to me and talk to me about my grip, the right position to be in. It was all the fundamentals. That’s all anybody taught me – was the fundamentals.

“The most important thing was I knew Sam Woods was going to be [at Byrd Park] when I got there from my house.”

Woods died in 1963, the same year Parrish won his first state crown. He had captured his initial city title the previous year.

Parrish was in college at the University of North Carolina by then and is most proud of his accomplishments as a senior.

“I think the ACC, winning that was pretty special for me,” said Parrish. “That was the first year they did it in flights.”

Parrish captured the No. 1 singles flight, as well as the No. 1 doubles (which he had also won as a junior).

After Parrish graduated from UNC in 1965, he returned to Richmond, got married and went to work for State-Planters Bank.

Parrish swept the city and state crowns in 1965 and again in 1967. But he didn’t spend as much time working on his game for a variety of reasons and eventually he couldn’t keep up with the younger players. His last singles title was the city in 1969.

“A lot of people continued on and on and did it well,” he said. “I just didn’t have the interest in carrying on. I was interested in other things. Played a little golf. And of course, work and family and this and that. I just wasn’t as interested.”

Parrish’s last appearance in a final came in 1973, when he had to retire in the fourth set against Tom Magner in the city tournament. It was a very hot afternoon at Byrd Park and painful leg cramps forced him to call it quits.

That was also the last year that the city singles was a best-of-five- sets affair.

“It became very clear to me that I wasn’t going to beat Bobby Heald anymore,” he said. “It just wasn’t going to happen. Then it became very clear that I wasn’t going to beat Richard McKee. Those young guys. So what’s the point?”

After he stopped playing competitively, Parrish spent some time helping juniors.

“The thing I enjoyed was working with the Richmond Tennis Patrons [Association] and playing with some of these kids,” he said. “The early-morning sessions. Mark Vines would call me up and say, “Mr. Parrish, will you come hit with me Saturday?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’

“I played with him a lot. I played with Richard. I played with Tommy Cain, Junie Chatman, Neal Carl. They were kids and I could work them over pretty good. But it was good for them. The important thing is those kids would call you.

“It reminded me of what I did. I didn’t have to call people but I’d go to Byrd Park where they were and play with them.”

Parrish’s advice to young players today if they want to get better: Play as much as you can with older and better players.

That formula certainly worked well for him and turned Parrish into one of the top players of his era.

This article was featured on the web site in 2011.