USA Table Tennis

It’s 1957, and Cherry Blossom time in Washington, D.C.—Cherry Blossom Open, that’s the name of the tournament at which, for the first time, DCTTA V.P. Robert Chaimson’s daughters, Barbara (later Kaminsky) and Donna (later Sakai), future USTTA Hall of Famers, are mentioned in Topics. At the time, the best women players in the D.C. area, none ranked nationally, are Virginia Rutelionis, Kay Young, Virginia Redmond, and Helen Horton. By season’s end, 14-year-old Barbara will be ranked 3rd in this group, and 10-year-old Donna 6th. Both sisters have considerable dues to pay before they’re National Champions, but they’ll be helped immediately by their Club’s move to a new location—419 Ninth St N.W., where there’ll be “six tables with adequate playing room, dressing facilities and convenient parking.”

At the South Bend National’s, Barbara could play in a maximum of 4 events—and this she did. She came 3rd in Girls Under 15, behind the winner Sharon Koehnke and runner-up Josie Burnett. Lost to perennial National Junior Miss Champion Sherri Krizman in the quarter’s of that event (one game went to deuce). Got to the semi’s of the Junior Mixed with D.C.’s Clark Goldstein. And was beaten soundly in the Women’s Doubles with DCTTA Secretary Kay Young.

With the coming of the new season, Barbara did well in the June Jefferson Memorial Open to upset U.S. #13 Marianne Bessinger, before falling to the eventual winner, Michigan’s Ellen Tiffany. (Later, in September, Bessinger would avenge this loss.)

At the Bob Chaimson-run Potomac Open in Oct., Under 17 Junior Miss winner Barbara, counter-hitting well, forced Young into the 5th in the Women’s final, and won the Mixed with Eddie Record over Jim Shea/Virginia Redmond.

In her first Women’s National Team Championship (NTC’s), Barbara (10-11) more or less held her own, and in the process scored a commendable win over Milwaukee’s U.S. #8 Marion Mueller. Following that, Barbara won the D.C. Constitution Open over not only Young but Rutelionis, and so began to establish herself as the best woman player in the area.

Moreover, Barbara was branching out—came up to the Dec. Westchester Open in White Plains, N.Y. There she eked out a 19 in the 3rd win over Helen Germaine, still formidable, though it had been 23 years now since she’d first been a U.S. Open finalist. Never mind that Barbara couldn’t contest with U.S. Champion Neuberger—if she kept competing like this, one day she might.

Indeed, at the Jan., ’58 Eastern’s, Barbara must have 14, -19, -12, -11 startled Leah, for surely the Champ must have been unable to breathe easy until winning that close 2nd game. Then, though Barbara, paired again with Record, had no chance in the Mixed against U.S. Open titleholders Leah and Sol Schiff, she was able with Rutelionis to defeat Leah and Jean Gere to win the Women’s Doubles.

Another Singles win for Barbara at the Mar. Pennsylvania Open—over U.S. #10 Gere. And perhaps an unexpected Mixed Doubles title too—with Tibor Back—for Men’s Singles winner Danny Vegh had sportingly agreed to partner…Barbara’s sister, 11-year-old Donna.

Three weeks before the U.S. Open, Barbara lost to Rutelionis at the D.C. Capital Open, but afterwards at the Apr. National’s she did as well as she could. In the Women’s, she lost in the 8th’s to the winner Susie Hoshi. Then beat California’s Si Wasserman-coached Charleen Hanson to win—her first U.S. Open Championship—the Girls Under 15, for which, because of a July birthdate, she was still eligible. In the Junior Miss, Barbara lost in the semi’s to 1957 U.S. World Team member Sherri Krizman who was then stopped from winning her 6th straight Under 17 title by L.A.’s Sharon Acton, also coached by Wasserman.

That summer, D.C.’s Walter Keim, without consulting any official in the USTTA, just up and contacted the U.S. military’s Special Services, and so arranged to have 1957 U.S. Team Captain Bill Gunn take a U.S. Team of Walter’s son Billy, Sharon Acton, and Barbara out on a Table Tennis Tour of “air force bases in some remote areas, such as Newfoundland, Labrador and Iceland.” Any trouble getting along with Bill, Barbara? Nope.

Returning from that unique trip, Barbara, now ranked U.S. # 10, would take another one. On attending the Canadian National Exhibition Open in Toronto for the first time, she, and, at the last minute, her conscripted sister Donna played for the U.S. in the Junior Miss International Matches and beat the Canadians 3-0. In the Women’s, Barbara (the Junior Miss winner over Montreal’s Marie Duceppe) beat Toronto’s Diane Wisman in 5 before going down, 19 in the 4th in the semi’s, to 4-time Canadian Closed Champ Jenny Marinko.

At the 1958 Chicago Women’s NTC’s, the D.C. Team, fielding its best, didn’t play its best—with Young a poor 5-13, U.S. #7 Rutelionis 8-10, and Barbara a not exactly inspired 10-8. Barbara’s losses were to California’s Acton and Vallerie Smith (later Bellini); to New York’s Neuberger and Bernice Chotras; to Chicago’s Millie Shahian and Jackie Koehnke; to Wisconsin’s Carrol Blank Jaeger; and to Indiana’s Mildred Hardin. Traditionally, how players play at the Women’s East-West Matches, or now at these Women’s National Team Championships (which replaced the East-West Matches), determine who will make the U.S. World Team.

However, Selection Chairman Gunn, his California Committeeman Wasserman, and ex-officio Committeeman President Rufford Harrison greatly favored youth, particularly L.A.’s Acton (National’s runner-up after a 5-game semi’s win over Neuberger). But Sharon was 15-3 at the NTC’s—with losses to Neuberger, Chotras, and Shahian, all of whom were 17-1. Gunn especially was very prejudiced against the strong older players, former National Champions Neuberger and Chotras, both of whom he thinks have no future, but who will win future U.S. Opens. Favoring also Smith (14-4 at the NTC’s) over Neuberger and Chotras, he strongly influenced (though professed not to) his Committee to vote the teenage Chaimson on the Team, using a voting system of accumulated points that was flawed in that it allowed just one of the five selectors (voting Neuberger his 6th choice and Chotras his 8th!) to drastically alter the reasonable consensus of the others.

When Chaimson, after so many losses at the NTC’s, was named with Acton to the abbreviated two-player ’59 World Corbillon Cup Team (one or two more players could be added if they paid their own way), a firestorm of criticism erupted not only from Neuberger and Chotras and their supporters, Gusikoff, for instance, but also from teenager Koehnke’s father. Gunn justified breaking with tradition, justified his choice (of course he’d been on that Northern Tour with Barbara and Sharon and presumably had gotten along well with them) by saying that Chaimson “is very young, and still improving; is dedicated to the game and very ambitious; I think she will be in it for many years; she plays an all-round game, both attack and defense, plus a good deal of counter attack. I think she is our best bet for the future.” While this may well be true, the traditional argument is that Barbara’s not yet proved herself, and that it’s not right to deprive those whose record is best from receiving what little reward’s available to them in the Sport.

First stop overseas for the U.S. Team was the Belgian Open. Barbara lost early in the Women’s, but in the 8-entry Junior Miss she had South Korea’s Hwang Yool Ja down 2-1 before losing. But, oh, how she lost. Team Captain Wasserman tells us that Barbara, behind 20-15 match point, defended steadily, and grittily drew to deuce. However, Hwang wasn’t unnerved—indeed, “attacking with renewed vigor, she rammed through the final two points.” It was too much for 16-year-old Barbara—she “burst into tears.” Wasserman said she was just overcome with “shock and frustration” and that he “hugged and tried to comfort her as she sobbed uncontrollably.”

In Women’s Doubles, Chaimson and Koehnke (Jackie’s father had paid her expenses to join the Team) were beaten by Claudine Collignon and Mavis van Gelder who with her husband Louie as local liaisons had attended to the Team’s every need. In the Mixed, Barbara and Bernie Bukiet went down in 5 to Rumania’s Adelbert Rethy and France’s National Champion Claude Rougagnou. Capt. Wasserman didn’t think the Bernie/Barbara combination a good one—too much pressure on too young Barbara. Little did Si know, though, that beginning in 1962 (Barbara would then be engaged to Bob Kaminsky), Bernie and Barbara would pair together just fine—win the 1st of their three National Mixed Doubles Championships.

On then to the Dortmund World’s, where on the very first day of the Team’s arrival Norby Van de Walle lost his meal-ticket booklet. Fortunately the German officials, albeit reluctantly, agreed to replace it. Soon after, Barbara left her handbag in the hall overnight with her meal booklet in it, and of course next morning no handbag. What, another free booklet! Forget that, said the Germans.

In Corbillon Cup play, the U.S., in their 9-team round robin Group, finished—ugh!—dead last, 0-8. Of course you knew what was coming: the woman scorned, Leah Neuberger, later in a letter to the E.C. would lead off with a blast. “Never in the history of the USTTA has an American team made such a poor performance.” With the U.S. leading Spain 2-1, Acton in the 4th match lost the 1st game at deuce, and Chaimson in the 5th match lost her last game at 19. Against Sweden Acton won two but Barbara lost two, and in the doubles the Guntsch sisters finished with a 22-20 swing game. Acton also won a match against Switzerland, but Koehnke couldn’t help. In the other five ties, we couldn’t score at all.

It was embarrassing to watch them, said Leah who played in the Individuals but wanted nothing to do with the U.S. Team, including partnering any of the women in Doubles. But don’t blame the players, she said—they did the best they could. “The blame should go to the selection committee who elected to choose inexperienced players to participate with the best players in the world.”

In Women’s Singles, except for Leah, there wasn’t a single win. Such a thing had never happened before. Worse, they all lost their first Consolation match. Against weak opposition Leah advanced to the quarter’s where she was beaten badly by Rumania’s Geta Pitica (who in 1961 would be World Women’s Doubles Champion). I can’t help but think Leah’s “demotion” by the USTTA Selection Committee was a hard blow to her ego, damaging to her confidence, and affecting her play.

A loss almost every time a U.S. pair went on court—that was the usual pattern of our Doubles play. Chaimson/Acton, you might say, just walked over and shook hands with the super-strong Hungarians Koczian/Mosoczy. But in the Mixed Barbara and Van de Walle, after knocking out a Welsh pair, fought their Chinese opponents –8, -14, -23 grimly to the very end.

Although her results were far from impressive, her play was a great competitive experience for Barbara, and now there was more of the same at the English Open. Though she lost early in the Singles, she showed plenty of heart in her –21, -15, 14, 14, -18 loss to Scotland’s Hawkins. Neuberger, too, against 1957 World runner-up Ann Haydon who was experimenting with a sandwich bat, was –13, -17, 19, 20, -11 feistily stubborn in defeat. In both the Women’s Doubles with Koehnke and the Mixed with Van de Walle, Barbara lost in the 1st round. Acton paired with England’s Betty Bird and in the 1st round they upset the South Korean Corbillon Cup runner-ups. They were eliminated in the quarters by England’s Kathie Best and Pam Mortimer who complained that after the English TTA’s two-year ban on sponge she was ill-prepared to play international spongers.

In the Junior Miss, Barbara lost in the 1st round, while Koehnke advanced to the semi’s via two 3-game matches, then was eliminated, deuce in the 3rdon two point-ending nets, by the Korean Hwang who back in Belgium had beaten Barbara deuce in the 5th. In the Junior Mixed, Barbara and Lancaster’s Jackie Keogh were stopped in their opener. But, ah, in the Junior Miss Doubles—hooray—our girls won a gutsy –15, 23, 12 match before being blasted in the semi’s.

Back home, Barbara could win. At the May 16-17 8th Annual Midwest Open, she beat the Ohio #1 Mary Landfair, and paired with Donna to win the Women’s Doubles. This, however, did not impress John Read of the Selection Committee. He objected to Barbara being named for the CNE International Match. “I most emphatically,” he wrote, underlining the word “emphatically,” do not believe Barbara Chaimson should have beenconsidered let alone picked as she is, and was, not good enough, and whatever potential she may have had might have been destroyed by playing so many far superior players. This could have hurt her very much.”

So what happened in Toronto? Our U.S. women won the International Match 6-4, primarily because Neuberger accounted for three singles and two doubles (with Bessinger and Chaimson), and Chaimson, though losing 14, -20, -22 to Jenny Marinko, crushed 1957 Canadian Closed Champ Susan Schmideck. In Women’s Singles, Barbara beat both Pauline Robinson and Marinko to find herself in the final against…who else but 9-time winner Neuberger. Ironically, given how her game had been dismissed by Leah and others, Barbara proceeded to 15, -14, 20, 15 win this Championship (helped by some undue psychic pressure of Leah’s own making?), and now, as Gunn had predicted, looked as if she had the possibility of a strong, long-lasting career in the Sport.

Barbara’s runner-up Doubles play, too, spoke well for her. Neuberger/Louise Parent Gadanyi had to 22, -16, 17, 19 struggle to win the Women’s Doubles from Barbara and Pauline Robinson. And Leah and Schiff, many-time winners of this event, were 19 in the 4th pressed by Barbara and Chuck Burns. Also, I  note that on her way to winning the Junior Miss Barbara eliminated—indeed, almost 2, 5, 4 erased all trace of—Toronto’s Elena “Helen” Sabaliauskus. After such a hopeless showing who could predict Helen would ever be back again to play table tennis at this Exhibition Fairgrounds site? But of course this was 1959. In 1968 she’d be the Canadian National Champion.

Now a new face in the D.C. area. Another whose game would improve—the runner-up to Barbara in the Sept., 1959 Greenbelt Open, Yvonne Lescure (later Kronlage). At the mid-Nov. Virginia Open, won by Barbara, Lescure gave runner-up Rutelionis, praised for putting up players at her home, for having parties there and being a good cook, plenty of 5-game trouble.

The D.C. team at the Women’s NTC’s didn’t do so well, but no fault of Barbara’s, for in winning the Outstanding Player Award with a 14-1 record—in the absence of a California or N.Y. team, she lost only to Canada’s Velta Adminis (13-2)—she might even have begun to make a believer out of John Read.

At the 1960 Rochester, N.Y. Eastern’s, Neuberger got 19 in the 4th revenge from hard-hitting Barbara, now a high school senior. Leah knew Barbara had talent, partnered her in Women’s Doubles for a win, but in the Mixed, paired with Sol, Leah figured to, and did, take down Barbara and Tibor Hazi. (Tibor, I must say, in the Dec. Constitution Open sure proved himself sound with a hat trick that included a 22-20-in-the-5th win in the Men’s over Johnny Somael. I might also mention that, at the Lincoln Memorial Open that closely followed, Kay Young relegated Barbara to the unfamiliar role of runner-up).

In the Mar. 11-13, 1960 U.S. Open at the Sheraton Park Hotel in D.C., there’s not much to say about the 21-entry Women’s. Missing were Shahian, Chotras, Lona Flam Rubenstein (mother of three now), and all the Canadians. I was surprised that Barbara couldn’t begin to make a semi’s match of it with Acton. And more surprised when in her semi’s Val Smith beat Leah in 4. Winner was Acton, 21-4 in the 4th. Women’s Doubles was a no-contest win for Acton/Smith over Leah and Barbara, the Junior Miss Champion. Barbara and Tibor had a good win over Mike Ralston/Smith, but were stopped by the winners Acton/Gusikoff. It was the first time since 1950 that Leah (holder of 28 U.S. Open Championships) went home without winning at least one event at the National’s. To add insult to injury while Acton was getting the bouquet of roses, some guy, perhaps seeing the Sportsmanship Award Leah (“Pingie”) was given, reportedly asked her if she had any more trophies.

At the National’s USTTA E.C. Meeting, and I’m going to end Part I on this note, attention focused on the reciprocal U.S. vs. USSR Junior Matches approved by the U.S. Cultural and Sports Exchange Program that would be played first this July, in Russia, then afterwards in November in the U.S. Junior Men’s Tryouts were held, but no Junior Miss Tryouts. The USTTA Selection Committee felt that only Barbara was “of the required caliber.” It wasn’t known yet “whether the USSR would be interested in our sending only one girl.”

That dismissal of a Junior Miss Team, and Barbara individually, is just amazing to me. Supposedly the USTTA wants to encourage women and girls to play the Sport. But when a rare opportunity arises to provide a marvelous life experience, with little or no cost to the Association, it’s not going to happen—there’s no reward for the best of the U.S. girls who year after year have been playing in tournaments. Why should they, then, continue? Equally amazing to me is that apparently no one on the E.C. vigorously speaks up for them. If I were Bob Chaimson I’d be incensed. President Harrison, his E.C. and Selection Committee ought to be ashamed of themselves. The whole point of this People to People trip is, as the Chinese will later say, “Friendship first, Competition second.”

Think Barbara was affected by this slight? It sure would seem so….