USA Table Tennis

At an historic 1937 meeting in Kokomo, a number of players and officials forever important to Indiana table tennis gathered together to reorganize the State Association and to elect South Bend’s W. B. Hester (the W. stood for Weldon) as their President. A selected Who’s Who at this meeting would include, among others, Hester, Bob Green, Bernie Hock, Bill Hornyak, Harry Kitselman, Jimmy McClure, and newly arrived on the scene...Hungary’s John Varga, destined to become a South Bend legend.

John, born John Varga Brewer in 1912 in Barcs (a town in southern Hungary on the Croatian border, nearer Zagreb than Budapest), was a contemporary of Barna and Bellak, both of whom were born in 1911. In 1922, on his 10th birthday, John, now living in his uncle’s home in Budapest, reportedly received the present of a London-made Slazenger paddle--presumably the same kind ("the humidity warped the plywood [blade], so players needed to add "a varnish as a waterproof protection") that Barna and Bellak would own when as 13-year-olds they started playing in Budapest and became obsessed with the game.

When John was quite young, his mother left Hungary to come to the U.S. to be with her father, who was ill; and in 1916 his father died fighting the Russians. Perhaps John’s interest in, and yet distance from, children came in part from the fact that he himself was "orphaned" at such an early age? On being raised by relatives, and after attending schools in five different European countries, he "studied Mechanical Engineering in Paris and Switzerland" and got "a Master’s degree in Karlsuhe, Germany." Thus, though he’d been singled out with that special paddle, as if perhaps he were to do great things in the Sport, his life would take a different turn from Barna’s and Bellak’s.

By the time Varga was 25 he’d served a year in the Hungarian Army, was a Lieutenant in the Reserve, and finally was able to bribe his way out of Hungary and so could come that summer of ‘37 to the U.S., to South Bend, where his mother, who’d remarried, was living. John immediately began working for the Bendix Aviation Corporation.

It was probably only coincidental, however, that Walter J. Buettner was a Vice President at Bendix. That winter of ‘37 Buettner had been elected "Honorary Vice President" of the USTTA, so not only had he been the local official in charge of the 1935 and ‘36 Coleman Clark "Circus" stops (featuring Victor Barna and Sandor Glancz) at the South Bend Y, but presumably any thereafter. Likely it was he who’d seen to it that Bendix sent girls in beautiful dresses to act as ushers and that tournament officials were dressed formally. However, since shortly after his arrival in South Bend, Varga didn’t know where to go to play table tennis, likely he’d not had any contact with Buettner who as it happened wasn’t a table tennis but a badminton and lawn tennis player.

Buettner’s Bendix wasn’t interested in Varga’s plans to organize table tennis there. Perhaps they didn’t quite know what to make of him, for it may be that, even in those early days, before they stopped him, he was roller-skating around from one Department to another--whizzing by, all six feet, 200 pounds of him--and though they found that inventive, they also found it unbecoming. So, he’d have to look elsewhere to pursue his table tennis "hobby."

Though John couldn’t speak English very well, he and Hester talked the same language. Their working agreement was that Varga would become the Coach at the South Bend Y and Hester would be the organizer and promoter. Membership was limited to 16 players--with Betty Henry at first being the only girl in this all-boys Table Tennis Club. "John wanted to teach me to play [too]," Hester would write to Brad Balmer, who, more than half a century and how many Directors later, would succeed him, "but I said ‘No’--I had too much to do and T.T. was just one phase of my job."

In the very beginning, while John was making a career for himself as an engineer at Bendix--and we’ll see later how he made important contributions to their "Universal Joint and Axle Division" during the War--he probably really didn’t have a lot of time for that which a decade later would make him so well known--playing and coaching table tennis. The first nationally-ranked South Bend players that Varga influenced to some extent were 1938 World Singles semifinalist Betty Henry--she would partner him in at least two Mixed Doubles finals that fall, one at Muncie, another at Chicago--and, then, Mary Baumbach, the Indiana #3 behind Sally Green and Henry. Both were young, single women, both would leave the Sport at the peak of their careers, and both, shortly thereafter, would marry.

Varga himself, who remained single throughout his lifetime, did not accompany either of these young women to many out-of-town tournaments, at least not to the extent that he would the South Bend boys and girls he would later champion. No doubt the foremost reason was because he himself, from mid-1937 until mid-1941, did not compete that much or as well as he did later when he was in his 30s and 40s and a surrogate father figure. Playing sparingly in ‘37-’38, his first season, he’d be ranked #5 in Indiana; and the following season would beat Will Hornyak for the South Bend City title.

In early Aug., 1939, as part of the Indiana Team at the South Bend Midwest Intercities, he defeated two nationally-ranked Detroit players--Harvey Davis and the mercurial V. Lee Webb (whom he’d later lose to, 3-0, at the early-Apr., 1940 Philadelphia National’s).

In the spring, Fort Wayne hosted the Indiana Closed, and John was runner-up to U.S. #31 Roger Downs. But Downs was not ranked #1 in Indiana that year, and John did not make the Top 5. Obviously, then, playing in tournaments at this time was not a high priority for him.

However, during the 1941-42 season, Varga, who earlier had been 3rd V.P. in the Indiana TTA, started to become more involved. At the Oct. 25-26 Indianapolis Open, he attacked U.S. #36 Cal Fuhrman’s meticulous defense and, though losing (-21, 19, -19, 16, -23), must have put on a great crowd-pleaser of a match. Two months later, at the Dec. 13-14, 1941 Indianapolis Central States, John, up 2-0, lost to another strong Ohio player, Dayton’s Mark Neff, 19 in the 5th.

That November Varga made the Indiana Intercity Team and played Christmas weekend at Chicago. Not there, but somewhere, he had to have scored some wins, since at season’s end he would be ranked U.S. #22, and #2 in Indiana behind McClure.

In the Jan., 1943 Topics, Varga, now 1st V.P. of the Indiana TTA, indicates he wants to raise the Boys’ Singles to include those "17 years and under." However, once a boy won that event at the U.S. Open, he could not, regardless of his age, play in a U.S. Open Boys’ event again. And if he were a runner-up in the Open, or a winner of the Eastern’s or Western’s, the only Boys’ Singles he could play in again, regardless of his age, was the National Championship one. And as if that weren’t fanciful enough, he suggests that a boy couldn’t win more than 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 U.S. Open Boys’ Singles, or more than 1-2-3 U.S. Open Men’s Singles (though, if he hadn’t won the Boys’ title yet, he could, if his age permitted, still try for that.)

John’s reasoning was (1) that this would "give the youngsters a better chance to ripen into outstanding men players" (traditionally up to this time, either youngsters couldn’t play in, or at least it wasn’t seemly for them to, both the Boys’ and the Men’s events), and (2) would "cause less players to fall out of the game at an early age" (because "boy wonders" wouldn’t be able to dominate the Championship for years, and so others--how many?--would be given hope that they too could be a U.S. Champion).

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin TTA, to stimulate interest in high school play, had introduced, on their own, a 16-20 age division, and permitted "boy wonders" to compete against adults.

Naturally John played in the Feb. 27-28 St. Joe Valley Open at South Bend. And to his great credit, he not only ran the tournament, he won it--thoughTopics erred in saying he "retained his title." Bill Holzrichter, now in the Navy, did not defend, and, as John beat South Bend’s Hershey Miller in straight games in the final, the competition was relatively weak.

Varga did get to play Holzrichter--in the final of the Mar. 20-21 Illinois Open. Since Bill was stationed at Great Lakes, he was able to enter many area tournaments, including, on the following weekend, the St. Louis National’s, which he would win. Before losing to Holzrichter, 3-0, Varga defeated the #5 seed Berne Abelew, 19 in the 5th in the quarter’s, and the #2 seed Ralph Muchow, now an Army Captain, 3-0, in the semi’s. As expected, Holzrichter/Muchow beat Varga and South Bend partner Jack Foster in the Doubles final.

Next weekend at the 1943 U.S. Open, John lost to Bill Price in straight games in the eighth’s, but in the Doubles Varga/Foster forced the strong St. Louis team of U.S. Boys’ Champ Allan Levy and his partner Mel Nichols, into the 5th before losing. With the sudden increase in the age limit for the "Boys’" event--it abruptly went from Under 15 to Under 18--"Boys" had become threats in the Men’s. Thus, for the ‘42-43 season, Levy was ranked U.S. #4, Nichols U.S. #10. Of course the following year the USTTA decided to bring back the U-15 event and call that "Boys," as well as keep the new U-18 event and call that "Junior Men."

Varga--described now as a "nationally known coach," though we haven’t as yet seen any of his proteges score in any major competition--climaxed his fine U.S. #12 season at the Apr. 17-18 Indiana Closed by winning the Singles, 19 in the 5th, from Dale McColley, runner-up in the Closed Boys’ to Les Leviton. John of course, in his strict, no-nonsense way, had been helping these South Bend kids improve, and they, beginning to repay his efforts, forced the Varga/Foster team to 4 in the Doubles final.

Next season, at the Dec. 12 Chicago District Open, when Varga, accompanied by his South Bend best--Leviton, McColley, and the very promising Bill Early--all did so well, John received an encomium in Topics. Not for his runner-up play in the Men’s against Abelew (who’d had to go 5 to get by Early), or for his Mixed Doubles win with Betty (nee Henry) Link. (Betty’s appearance here was a surprise, for she’d retired after the ‘39-40 season. But if she were considering playing regularly again, it wouldn’t happen--nine months later, on succumbing to a fatal illness, she died at her aunt’s house in South Bend.) It was for his "patient teaching" at his local (corner of Main and Wayne) YMCA that John was praised. "It shows in every one of his players, for their sportsmanship, conduct, and true table tennis ability are exemplary. It has often been said that every city, large and small, needs its own ‘John Varga.’"

"Up there in South Bend," said Indiana’s Charles Dorsey, "we are breeding champions of the eight and nine-year-old variety"--and some day "in the not too distant future"....

A key, I think, to the success we’ll see in Part Two that the very authoritarian-minded Varga will have, to the U.S. Champions he’ll produce out of that Y basement Boys Club ping-pong play Hester started back in 1936, is his own undocumented table tennis background in Hungary. As an exact contemporary of Barna and Bellak, he was the product of an environment that produced them, their World Champion Hungarian Team, and their much beloved Team Captain, Andor Wilczek. In a series of mid-1930’s Topics articles about young players who were learning the game in Budapest, Wilczek puts forward views that Varga will later echo.

Each enthusiastic youngster, Wilczek says, should have "regular practice play...several hours’ serious play almost every day...practice with opponents of varied styles, not minding if there are among them some players a few shades weaker than he is." Since a player "is properly coached only if [in practice] he does not care for points made or missed, but strives to eliminate his faults," he can be helped by practicing with those weaker than he if he can force his practice partner "into a style of play he [the stronger player] needs to play against to complete his game."

In addition to these elements of coaching technique, Varga likely also brought from Budapest Wilczek’s point of view that "Hungarian players are always modest," and that, most importantly, they have a strongly defined relationship with their very serious-minded coach. Consider these comments by Wilczek:

"Players and leaders leave no stone unturned to reach big results. The fanaticism of players is shown in their diligent training, fighting ability in competition and very sporting mood [or mode] of life before great tournaments. Moreover, their respect and obedience toward their leaders is notable. The fanaticism of leaders unfolds itself in material sacrifices in labor and maintaining full harmony with the players.

One never sees a Hungarian player gainsay the referee, even if his decision hurts the player’s most important match. A Hungarian competitor has no desire to question anything in connection with a tournament, but duly follows his leader’s instruction."

Uh, yes. But of course there are exceptions. I’m reminded of the story Laszlo "Laci" Bellak tells about how he and his boyhood friend Sandor Glancz were leading in the semi’s of the 1928 World Doubles Championship when the umpire called a good return by Glancz "out." "Glancz was outraged over the call," said Laci. He began arguing with the umpire, and then, when Laci tried to calm him, he left the court, "stubbornly refused to return," and the two of them were defaulted.

However, as we shall see, Varga’s proteges in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, many of whom were not yet in their teens when he passionately began to coach them, were not expected to question his intimidating, paternal-like authority.