Until 1933, only men were permitted to play in the National Championships of both the Parker Brothers’ American Ping-Pong Association (APPA) and its rival, the Sept., 1931-formed NYTTA. However, as early as 1930, Cecile Stewart, wife of the USTTA’s first President, Bill Stewart, won the Chicago District Open Women’s Championship; and in 1931 she successfully defended her title against Helen Ovenden, and so was ranked #1 in the Rankings put out by the Western Association arm of the APPA.
Meanwhile, in New York, there was a Women’s event in the 1930 Eastern Ping-Pong Championships--won by Fannie Magaric (Ma-GAR-ic), who, as Mrs. Fan Magaric-Pockrose at the 1932 NYTTA National’s in Bamberger’s Department Store in Newark, N.J., would be allowed to play an Exhibition Match against her most formidable opponent in the East, Brooklyn’s Nina Berman.
At the May 15-18, 1933 NYTTA National’s in Gimbel’s Department Store in New York, Magaric-Pockrose beat Ovenden for the Singles title in 5. In coming all that way from Chicago, where she lived and for years would help Ed Dugan run the Stay and Play Club, Ovenden must have really wanted to win a U.S. Championship--the more so because in the earlier Mar. 10-12 APPA National’s in Chicago she’d been upset in the 8th’s, 20, -18, -19, by the best St. Louis player, Ethel Baer Schneider.
It was at this ‘33 APPA National’s that Jessie "Jay" Purves (she preferred to be called Jay) first came to prominence. There were 40 entries in the Women’s field (as opposed to a mere 9 in the counterpart New York National’s), and Purves started shakily--barely survived a match-point-down second-round match against Catherine Hammond, wife of soon-to-be USTTA Ranking Chair Reginald Hammond. But following that scare she scored an easy win over Mabel Etzweiler, of interest because, after having played for just one year, she won the first tournament she ever entered, the Dec., ‘32 Milwaukee Championship.
In the semi’s, however, it took a pivotal 3rd game (-13, 18, 21, -17, 18) for Jay to get by teenager Gertrude "Trudie" Schnur, daughter of Will Schnur, owner of the well known P. Becker table tennis company of the time. Then, in the final, against Flossie "Flo" Basler, for three seasons (‘32-34) the Chicago Open District Champion noted for "her fast forehand drives and...wicked twisting serves," Purves was (-16, 19, 21, 13) again challenged, but again won the close ones to become the first APPA Women’s Singles Champion.
Defending her title at the ‘34 APPA National’s in Cleveland, though, wasn’t going to be easy. In the semi’s, Indiana’s best, Flo Wiggins, down 2-0, staged a rally that forced Purves to 5. And then Jay had to face penholder Ruth Aarons, a not yet 16-year-old there in that Rainbow Room of the Carter Hotel who was about to be garlanded for greatness. Ruth had beaten Emily Fuller in the other semi’s in straight games, but she’d have plenty of (20, 20, 15) uncertain moments in her final against Purves.
Jay was smart--a 1927 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois. And she was very well qualified to be Director of Women’s Athletics at the Maine Township High School in Des Plaines. She’d been called "the best all-round girl athlete in America before Babe Didrikson, for she "excelled at field hockey, bowling, basketball, track, baseball, swimming, and golf." Had Ruth lost either of those two first games, she might also have lost the Championship, for, though Jay didn’t have a spectacular game, or even exceptional technique, she was steady and very competitive.
In Feb., 1935, Purves won the Western’s from Ethel Schneider in what was described as a 5-game "heady" match. (Poor Ethel--within a year she would die of blood poisoning.) But in March Jay was upset in the Illinois Open by one of her pupils, Marion Jacoby--who wept on beating her.
At the Apr., ‘35 Chicago National’s--with the demise of the APPA, the first all-USTTA National’s--Aarons took care of Schneider in the one semi’s, but in the other, Purves, down 2-1, had to struggle to beat an improved Fuller. In the final of course Jay had no chance against rising superstar Aarons.
The U.S. Women’s Team to the ‘36 Prague World’s would not be funded, so, though both Aarons and Fuller came from monied families, it was not at first clear whether they wanted to play abroad, or whether anyone else could afford to go at her own expense. An unknown player named Corrine Migneco, a U.S. citizen studying piano in Vienna, had been recommended by an ITTF official who’d seen her play in competition in Hungary, so she was available to team with Ruth. But, as Fuller had finally decided not to go, who else?
Turns out that Purves will commit to the trip. "She will try to obtain some funds through friends, but failing in that she will spend some of the money she has saved from her teacher’s salary, which is...at least $2,000." So, with Jay picking up a helpful $200 through exhibitions, and with Migneco already cost-cutting-close to Prague, the ‘36 U.S. Women’s Team would be Aarons, Purves, and, sight unseen, Migneco.
For a while in Corbillon Cup play (best of 5 matches--two singles, followed by a doubles, then, if necessary two more singles) the U.S. was undefeated. Purves downed the French Champion, Carmen Delarue. Then, against Hungary, although Aarons and Purves couldn’t win the doubles, Migneco came through with the 3-2 decider, beating Magda Kiraly-Baba, a later Singles quarterfinalist. So we were doing o.k.
But against Czechoslovakia, both Aarons and Migneco lost in 3 to former two-time World Champion Marie Kettnerova, and Aarons/Purves lost the doubles in 3. Winning the Championship now was unlikely.
Germany, too, was a very strong team. As expected, Jay was beaten by their #1, Astrid Krebsbach, and Aarons/Migneco failed to take the doubles. One more loss and the U.S. was for sure finished. But when Ruth rallied to win both her singles in 3, the tie was tied. And now Jay "showed her courage." For, after the German #2, Hilde Bussmann, a future World Women’s Doubles titleholder, "had blasted through her 21-9, she refused to wilt and with amazing returns pulled out the second game after trailing 8-12." She then triumphed "from 19-19 in the third to complete Germany’s first defeat."
Ruth was warm in praising Purves--she said Jay "showed as great a demonstration of tactics and fighting spirit as I have ever seen." That’s the kind of thing a partner likes to hear, eh? Particularly when, if Ruth and Jay had been able to win the doubles against the Czechs, their chances of winning the Cup would have been much improved.
Against the Austrians, Ruth’s supporting cast did some adept scene-stealing. Purves beat their #2 Traute Wildam, and then she and Migneco won the doubles, 24-22 in the 3rd.
If the once-defeated U.S. could take the rest of its ties and once-defeated Germany could beat undefeated Czechoslovakia, then, according to the rules of the day, there would have to be a three-way round-robin play-off.
But against England, a team that had lost four ties, Migneco could not win a match, and, though Aarons won two, Ruth and Jay, good vibes notwithstanding, again lost the crucial doubles. So, when the Czechs eventually beat the Germans, the U.S. and Germany tied for second.
The Women’s Singles play would naturally center around Ruth, for, in dramatic fashion here, she would become the only U.S. player ever, man or woman, to win a World Singles Championship.
In her Singles match, Purves lost in the 1st round to the German #3, Anita Felguth, in 5.
In the Doubles, though Jay and Ruth beat the #2 Czech team, 19 in the 4th, they again fell to the #1 Czechs, Kettnerova and Smidova in a (-16, -24, 9, -18) closely contested match.
The Mixed Doubles was strange. Purves and Bud Blattner (World Men’s Doubles winner here with Jimmy McClure), had to play a preliminary round and lost it, 19 in the 5th. And of course you might think, if they couldn’t even beat another preliminary-round team how far could they have gone? Perhaps quite a way. For the Czechs Milos Hamr and Traute Kleinova whom they lost to were the eventual winners (after an unprecedented postponement of the final--it still hadn’t been played 7 months later!).
Naturally, Captain Sidney Biddell and his U.S. Team, especially our three World Champions, came back to the States wreathed in smiles.
In one of his Chicago Tribune columns, the famous APPA Champion/Promoter/Exhibitionist Coleman Clark, who, beginning with the ‘36 National’s had donated a permanent Women’s Singles Trophy, made the following plea: "We strongly urge women who take the game seriously to avoid high-heeled shoes and tight-fitting clothes. Further, we plead with them to cast aside bashfulness and enter the tournaments." Total number of Women’s entries for this ‘36 Philadelphia National’s? Twenty-eight.
Purves, recovering from a hesitant start, defeated Fuller in the quarter’s (22, -14, 15, 13), then was beaten by U.S. #5 Anne Sigman in 5.
Jay had more success in Mixed Doubles, less in the Women’s Doubles. Paired again with Bud Blattner, they extended the overwhelming favorites, Aarons and Victor Barna, to a 4-game final. And in as attractive a foursome as you might find on any court anywhere, Purves and Fuller were snipped to the quick in a 19-in-the-5th nail-biter to Aarons/Sigman.
Oh well, Emily would have a good many dramatic days to come, and Anne wasn’t doing badly at the moment. She and Stan Fields (formerly Feitelson) had committed to playing "colorful exhibitions for 5 consecutive weeks at Philadelphia’s finest night club, the Cafe Marguery in [the] Hotel Adelphia," then moved on to bookings at the exclusive Shorham Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Club Madrid in Palm Beach, Florida. The so-called "Golden Age" of U.S. Table Tennis--which surely History will see as something more than a romantic notion to entertain?--was promisingly upon them.
Now something new. In conjunction with the 7-team National Men’s Intercities tournament, Jan. 2-3, 1937 in Chicago, the Women for the first time will have, well, not an Intercities of their own but a round robin of 10 selected players who will fight for the right to join the exempted World Champion Ruth Aarons on the U.S. Team to the ‘37 Baden World’s. Ranking Chair Hammond makes it clear that "only participants [in these Chicago Trials] will be considered for [the] U.S. team." That means that Aaron’s final opponent in the ‘36 U.S. National’s, Anne Sigman, who was unwilling to give up her conflicting Washington, D.C. Shoreham Hotel night club engagement, cannot be on the Team. Nor can Corinne Migneco, for, though she was apparently back in New England, she, like many another good player, wasn’t going to come out to Chicago at her own expense for these Trials.
The established favorites were U.S. #3 Purves, U.S. #4 Fuller, U.S. #5 Dolores Probert-Kuenz from St. Louis, and U.S. #6 Mildred Wilkinson from Chicago. Coming in to join them was the 17-year-old high school senior from Portland, Oregon with an unconventional name, Mayo Rae Rolph, a grip to match, and an attacking game that the others might fear as being uncomfortably disorienting to play against.
Rolph, as it turned out, lost two bitterly disappointing matches--first to the undefeated, top finisher Kuenz (15, -19, -16) and then, in a play-off for the last funded spot on the Team, to Purves (22, -21, -16). Perhaps Jay, being much older and certainly more experienced than Mayo, drew strength from matches she’d played at the last World’s, and perhaps yearned to be part of it all again. Anyway, after staying in contention that 2nd game at deuce, she’d be going to Baden with Aarons, Kuenz, and Fuller (who’d agreed to pay her own way).
Corbillon Cup play at this World’s consisted of a complete round robin among nine women’s teams. The U.S. started off well, beating France, Austria, England, and Hungary--with the doubles duo of Aarons and Purves winning a 19 in the 3rd match and losing a counterpart deuce in the 3rd one.
However, our evening match with the ‘33 Paris World’s Corbillon Cup winners, Germany, threatened to darken our psyches. Though Purves had beaten the German #2 Bussmann last year in Prague, Captain Cinnater opted to continue with Kunz, who’d been winning singles matches the last three ties. But when Dolores could not contest either game with Bussmann, we were in trouble, for it was assumed that she would also lose to the German #1, Astrid Krebsbach Hobohm, who’d taken a game from Aarons. That meant the Aarons-Purves doubles match was key. Uh, did I say we were in trouble? Make that big trouble. For against this German pair that had been undefeated in Cup play last year, Ruth and Jay were down 20-15 match point in the 3rd.
And won 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 straight!
Purves, for one, was in shock:
"Honestly, I can’t remember a thing that happened in the last seven points. I was totally in a daze and so scared my mind was a total blank. I was told I was white as a ghost and they made all preparations on the side lines for my collapse."
This comeback was something of a miracle--for, as I say, Kuenz would have been in great danger of losing to the hard-driving Hobohm, ‘33 and ‘36 World Women’s Singles finalist. Naturally in the 4th and last match of the tie, Ruth quickly finished off a demoralized Bussmann.
Finally, only one team to beat, and the Cup would be ours--as in fact this unprecedented year the Men’s Swaythling Cup would be too. The Czechs were up, though, for with just one loss--to Germany--they still had a chance for a three-way play-off.
Against two-time World Singles Champion Marie Kettnerova, Kuenz did her best--which was -16, -20 good, but not good enough. So again, even if Ruth were to win her two singles, the doubles would make all the difference. Kettnerova’s World Women’s Doubles Co-Champion from last year, Marie Smidova, didn’t come to Baden, but her Corbillon Cup replacement, Vera Votrubcova, whom Aarons beat in the first match of this tie and who if there were a fifth match Kuenz would have to play, would go on with her regular partner, Vlasha Depetrisova, to win this year’s World’s Women’s Doubles title, and then with Bo Vana the Mixed as well. That the two Czechs in this Cup partnership could play well together was evident when Ruth and Jay found themselves down 1-0 and at deuce in the 2nd. But again the Americans won when they had to. And Aarons, again on a high, cheered on by her teammates, beat Kettnerova two straight to end the tie.
So Purves, through her gutsy doubles play, had become a World Team Champion.
In the Singles, Jay drew an Austrian who proved no match at all, then -18, 13, -17, 19, 18 rallied gamely to defeat the 1935 World Singles finalist, Magda Gal (about-to-be Tibor Hazi’s wife), whom Kuenz had lost to in warm-up U.S.-Hungary matches played on the Team’s arrival in Budapest. But in the 8th’s, after fighting back from two games down, Jay was beaten 23-21 in the 5th by Czechoslovakia’s Depetrisova who, after being World Women’s Singles runner-up in 1938, would go on to win the Championship in ‘39.
In Singles (as well as in the Cup doubles), Jay had played to her potential, and Ruth too--she would again reach the final where, strangely, her over-the-time-limit match with Austria’s Trude Pritzi would be stopped and the title declared "Vacant."
But in the Women’s Doubles Jay and Ruth just went flat and lost their first match, 3-0, to the Hungarians Magda Gal and Magda Kiraly-Baba. In the Mixed, Jay and Sol Schiff, who’d played sensationally in the Men’s Team’s, caught this year’s winners, Vana and Votrubcova, in the second round, tied the match at one game each, but then lost the third at deuce and with it their momentum.
At the prestigious English Open following these World’s, Jay got to the quarter’s in Singles, which was certainly respectable. But in Doubles, she and Ruth again lost to England’s Margaret Osborne and Wendy Woodhead, 16, -13, -19, -18 (though afterwards at the much less important Anglo-American meet in Birmingham they finally beat this English team).
Six weeks after what she’d surely have to consider very satisfying play abroad, Purves--in what must have been a surprise move to many--played her last major at the Newark, N.J. ‘37 National’s. Fuller she’d been beating--but not this -18, -13, 20, 15, 19 semi’s time. Still, she held fast to the end, refusing to succumb in straight games, almost pulling off another spirited rally.
Although the P. Becker Co. had a Purves racket out, and Jay, even after her post-National’s loss to Wilkinson in the Midwest Open, was said to be interested in coming East to do exhibitions, with the opening of the ‘37-38 season, she would disappear from the scene.
A couple of years later, at the University of Wisconsin, she’d be studying for her Master’s. Her thesis? Reportedly, "The History of Table Tennis." But, more likely, that which would become the instructional Table Tennis (1942) for the Barnes Sports Library. I’m sure she worked at that book with the same tenacity she showed in winning all those close matches. Perhaps, in the last half-century, you’ve had occasion to read it?
According to family member William Purves Russell, Jay retired from teaching in Madison, WI and went to Largo, Fl. Either before or after, she had her name legally changed from "Jessie Lydia Purves" to "Jay L. Purves." She died in Jan., 1979, shortly before she would have been inducted at our first USTTA Hall of Fame Banquet in Las Vegas that December.