Unexpectedly Bobby Gusikoff called me and, in the throes of uncontrollable tears and spasmed speech, gasped out that his long-time friend Erwin Klein had just been shot to death in Los Angeles--killed in an argument on Sept. 30, 1992 by a business partner who then fatally turned the gun on himself.
It was a death that would disturb even those already accustomed to everyday violence, for Hall of Famer Klein--4-time U.S. Men's Singles Champion and (with Leah "Ping" Neuberger) 1956 World Mixed Doubles Champion--had been a legendary name in U.S. table tennis for decades...literally ever since that U.S. Open day in 1952 when, as an unranked, red-haired, freckle-faced, fun-loving, "Chubby" kid from a California playground, he forced Dave Krizman, U.S. Boys #1, into a tenacious 5-game final.
By the time he was 14, young Erwin, adapting (as he would always adapt) to the rapidly changing technology of the sport, had become the best men's player in California--and with either the old hard bat or the new sponge rubber one.
At 16, he really came of age: won the Canadian International at Toronto by defeating John Somael, Bernie Bukiet, and Sol Schiff, the U.S.'s 3rd, 4th, and 5th ranked players. He also won the Junior's, the Men's Doubles, and the Mixed Doubles. Everything.
In the 1955 U.S. Open, 4-time World Singles Champion Richard Bergmann, an intensely proud professional, presented his own laurel wreath of respect to Klein by partnering him in the Men's Doubles--which they won. And of course the Junior title was Erwin's too. But in the Men's Singles he lost in the 1/4's to the eventual winner Dick Miles, whom he would later tour Japan and Korea with. ("What a sweet, gentle man Erwin was," said Dick, greatly saddened on hearing of his friend's death. "What a wonderful sense of humor he had.")
In the prestigious '55 English Open, Erwin lost to 3-time World Singles finalist Alex Ehrlich and, flinging his racket aside, vowed never to play with hard rubber again. As usual, though, his doubles play was exemplary: with pick-up partners he won both the Junior Men and Mixed. And in the German Open that followed he teamed with Bukiet to defeat Miles and Somael in an all U.S. Men's Doubles final.
The '55 World's was at Utrecht and here Klein suffered one of the most disappointing losses of his career. Playing with a raw, flat sponge, maybe half-an-inch thick, he had Japan's Yoshio Tomita 20-16 match-point down in the 5th, then played 1-2-3-4-5-6 great points--but lost them all. (The next year, Tomita, World #11, would pair with two-time World Singles Champion Ichiro Ogimura to win the World's Men's Doubles.)
1956--that was the year many aficionados recall Klein at his imperturbable best. He won the U.S. Open--over, first, Bergmann in the semi's in straight games, then Bukiet in the final, after being down 20-15 match point in the 4th. And he again took the Doubles with Bergmann.
At the Tokyo World's, in the Team's, Erwin beat England's two-time World Champion Johnny Leach and the Czech Ladislav Stipek, but lost to Bergmann, 19 in the 3rd. In winning the Mixed (from 14-10 down in the 5th), Erwin and Leah upset the favored team of Ivan Andreadis and Ann Haydon. (In '57, the Czech Andreadis would win the World's Men's Doubles with Stipek, and the Englishwoman Haydon would be the losing finalist in the Women's Singles.)
Although Klein, with still one more year in the Junior's, would semi-retire from the tournament scene, begin Pre-Dental studies (first at the University of California at Berkeley, then, later, at Northwestern), he would continue to have many enviable successes. In the 1957 U.S. Open he was runner-up to Bukiet. In the 1959 U.S. Open he lost in the 1/4's to Schiff after having Sol match-point in the 4th. That year's Defending Champ, Marty Reisman (who, strangely, was never to play Erwin in a tournament), said that Schiff and Klein mirrored each other in their effortless two-winged smooth-flowing strokes. Klein, said Marty, "had perfect anticipation, super-fast reflexes, and a superb touch."
In 1960, Erwin again won at Toronto--over Houshang Bozorgzadeh. He was also named "Outstanding Player" at the USOTC's. In 1961 he captured his second U.S. Open by downing Mike Ralston in 5. In 1962 he won the Eastern's, deuce-in-the-4th, from Bukiet. And then, amazing (could it happen today?), he'd had a conflicting exam he simply had to take, had notified the U.S. Open Tournament Committee of this earlier, but, even as he was on the plane flying into New York from Chicago, and even though he was the Defending Champion, he was defaulted. Frantically, Gusikoff had tried to preserve Klein's entry, had even gotten Erwin's first round opponent to cheerfully accept $25 to scratch himself from the draw and declare Erwin the winner, but this was disallowed. Nor could Erwin and Bobby take consolation in the Doubles; they were beaten in the final by Miles and Norbert Van de Walle.
In the 1963 U.S. Open Klein lost to arch-rival Bukiet 23-21 in the 4th, but then teamed with him to win the Doubles over Defenders Miles/ Van de Walle.
By now Erwin had abandoned the idea of being a dentist, but with an important industry-contributing fiber-optic invention would become interested in the business of dentistry. His table tennis didn't seem to suffer. For the '64 U. S. Open he'd incorporated into his game a very good "loop," which helped him to down defender Bobby Fields in the final. "Most people think table tennis is in the wrists," he was telling a Sports Illustrated reporter; "actually, it's in the upper legs and lower back." In 1965 he won his fourth and last Open--over Bukiet in 4; then paired with him again to win their third straight Doubles.
Though Erwin would continue to play in U.S. Opens and also in the '67 Stockholm World's, and would even experiment for a while as a penholder, he would never find the time or interest in the Dal-Joon Lee era to do more than at best hold his own with such accomplished players as Jack Howard, Dell Sweeris, and Glenn Cowan. Finally, he just stopped playing in tournaments.
To realize what an intensely interested student of the game Erwin really was though, consider that in 1980, long after he'd left the competitive tournament scene, you could find him in Berne, Switzerland at the European Championships (where of course no Americans were entered). There he struck up an at first indifferent conversation with England's John Hilton, then, following Hilton's persistent requests, began coaching and encouraging him, round after round, to the Englishman's increasingly less incredible destiny. Inexplicably though, after Hilton was crowned Champion, this stranger, for that's what Erwin was to him, didn't even want to speak to John. "I've done my job for you," he said. And walked out of Hilton's life forever--though not out of his Memory, his Imagination.
"It brings a tear to me eye to think about his help," said John 10 years later in Baltimore. "It meant so much to my table tennis career. His name, I found out later, was Erwin Klein. I'd like to see him again. Do you know if he's here? I never really thanked him enough."
Amen. It may be that we all never really thanked Erwin enough. He was a unique Champion in our for-how-long-shared little world, and so deserves, I'm sure we all agree, a few well-remembered words from us now....