Johnny Somael first appears in Topics as an entrant in the 1941 Eastern’s, played Feb. 1-2 at Heurich’s Gym, 26th and D Streets, in Washington, D.C. His contemporary, Freddie Borges, tells me he “discovered” Johnny playing table tennis in a Brooklyn playground and (“Hey, kid, you oughta be playing in tournaments”) urged him to come to Lawrence’s Broadway courts. Which he did—and as a result won the Men’s Consolation at this Eastern’s in the deciding 3rd over D.C.’s Bobby Bensinger, National Indoor Junior Tennis Champion. At the N.Y. National’s that year, Johnny almost beat the Northwest’s much touted Ray Pearson, and though it hardly seems possible, within three years, he would be the U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion.
That he was serious couldn’t be doubted when he traveled from New York out to Detroit for the 1942 National’s. And how quickly he was improving could be seen when he beat, both in 5, Minnesota Closed Champ Harry Lund and Detroit’s V. Lee Webb. Which brought him to the 8th’s and Defending Champ Lou Pagliaro. Amazingly he was leading Louie 18-17 in the 5th…when, as N.Y.’s John Kauderer told J.P. Allen of the N.Y. Sun, Johnny became “self conscious,” his heretofore “sure hitting” failed him, and he “hit into the net and off the table,” letting Paggy escape…to go on and win his 3rd straight National Championship. Nevertheless, in just this one season, Johnny had moved from #40 in the USTTA Rankings to #13.
But now it was War-time, and Johnny had a Duty to perform. He must have gotten leave to play in the 1943 Eastern’s though, for he and Sol Schiff (also on leave) took the Doubles with a 5-game semi’s win over Tibor Hazi/Charlie Schmidt and a final over Paggy/Dick Miles who, despite knowing one another’s moves, didn’t seem to play that well together. Private Somael managed one more tourney that year: at the Nov. N.Y. Metro Open, in the play-for-free Servicemen’s Singles, he beat Private Gus Rehberger who perhaps even now was producing the beginnings of a portfolio of action drawings of table tennis players that would be much acclaimed.
The 1944 St. Louis National’s would be talked about into the next millennium—and at the heart of any discussion was Johnny Somael. He knocked off Sgt. Laszlo Bellak in 5 in the quarter’s, then ousted Navy P.O. 1/c Billy Holzrichter also in 5 in the semi’s. Coming out to meet Johnny in the final, with wins over Sol Schiff and Allan Levy, was Les Lowry. “If you had to name someone who had a good-looking game,” said Freddie Borges, a U.S. Top 25 player, “the first person you’d pick would be Les Lowry.”
Into the 5th these two—Somael and Lowry—went, and afterwards here’s Topics’ description of the end of the match:
“…Lowry’s drives were burning the corners and Somael’s returns were beautiful. The counter-driving of both players brought the crowd to their feet. John could do nothing about the score as it now was 20-14 in favor of Lowry and everyone, except Somael, thought the match was over. Slowly, with fine driving and beautiful returns, John finally brought the score to 20-20. Then the impossible was done and complete—Somael took the next two points and with them the Championship” (Apr., 1944, p. 6).
I assume Topics Editor Wes Bishop, who lost in the 1st round to Somael, wrote this rather subdued account, for Associate Editor Berne Abelew had a by-lined article in the same issue in which he said that “Somael’s fine all around game, his deadly steadiness, topped off by a never wavering courage in the face of seemingly certain defeat—combined to produce…‘the little miracle of 1944.’”
Although covering St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporter Bud Thies said Somael came back from 20-14 (Monday, Apr. 3, 1944, 1C), Leah Neuberger, later the USTTA Historian, who was also very prominently at the tournament, wrote that the score in the 5th game was actually 20-13. Pauline Robinson Somael, Johnny’s wife, in a Nov., 1970 letter to Topics, purportedly written by her young daughter Katie, likewise gives 20-13 as the score (p. 9). Freddie Borges also agrees—and 45 years later he described to me what happened from 20-13:
“Lowry had been playing carefully, would get into long points. But leading 20-13 he tried quick smashes—wanted to end the match with a bang. At 20-16 Somael got a net. At 20-17 Somael got an edge. Then Lowry choked.”
The only problem with this rendition, told to me so definitively, was that, unlike Editors Bishop and Abelew, Borges wasn’t at the tournament. Millie Shahian, then a New England neighbor of Lowry and later to win both the English and U.S. Opens, wasn’t at the tournament either. But Millie said, in a 1983 letter to Somael’s wife, Pauline, shortly before Pauline died July 31 of a heart attack, that Les, whom she considered “a very sweet guy, told me that he did not choke at 20-13 but that John outplayed him each and every point—and this despite the fact that Sally [nee Green] Prouty had put a four-leaf clover under each leg of the table. I mentioned to John that Les had not played since the national’s, and he said sincerely, ‘If I knew he’d feel that bad, I would have let him win’—and I believed it.” (See “Tribute to John and Pauline Somael” in Timmy’s—Sept.-Oct., 1983, p. 25.)
Though it’s human nature to want to exaggerate and so mythologize the more Somael’s amazing comeback, there does seem to be more evidence that the score was 20-13 rather than 20-14 when Johnny began his rally. In the Nov., 1945 Topics, p. 3, an article by “Oldtimer” also says the score was 20-13….As for Les not playing after what had to be a traumatic loss, there weren’t any tournaments for him to play in. New England wasn’t holding any, and by the time N.Y. got round to having their first of the season, the Dec. 8-9 N.Y. Open, Les was already in the Service.
I might also mention that in both the Men’s and Mixed Doubles Somael got to the semi’s—in the Men’s with Schiff (before being beaten by the winners Laszlo Bellak and Billy Holzrichter) and in the Mixed with Davida Hawthorn (before being beaten by the runner-ups Bellak and Barbara Cannon).
Then it was up to Cornell for Johnny—for “a special army course for medical students.”
At the 1945 Detroit National’s, Defending Champ Somael made his uneventful way to the semi’s where, 1-1 with Max Hersh, formerly U.S. #3, he won the key deuce 3rd game and moved on to the final, there to meet Dick Miles. Johnny, Dick knew, was a very tenacious player, and “would never make the match easy for me.” But though on occasion he’d beaten Dick, he was invariably at least a 3-point underdog. “Johnny was strictly a chiseler,” said Dick. “He had a little backhand flick, but no forehand at all. He had a backhand grip on his forehand that more or less forced him to smother the ball completely.”
Miles has to remember this Detroit National’s as the one where he finally arrived—could claim the first of his record-setting 10 U.S. Opens. In recalling his final with Somael, Dick said, “Johnny was a clean-cut, good-looking kid, Polish not Jewish, who the year before, in winning the Championship from 20-14 down, had proven himself to have a great heart. I was playing in my first National final, was a skinny 111 pounds, and had a big nose. There must have been 3,500 spectators there, and the crowd was so much for Somael that the first point of the match, when Johnny scored a net ball, there was great applause. This irritated me, and though Johnny threw up his hands to me and said, in effect, ‘I didn’t applaud,’ I made no attempt to conceal my irritation, for I thought the audience showed very poor sportsmanship. I was always conscious of such things, since I myself always wanted to be a good sportsman and believe that I was.”
Johnny lost that Singles final to Dick, and also lost the Mixed final with Davida Hawthorn to Don Lasater and Dolores Kuenz. However, he did not lose the Men’s Doubles. He and Max Hersh were 5-game pressed only by Toledo teenagers Bob Harlow and Bob Wisniewski before downing the St. Louis team of Lasater/Mel Nichols in the final.
Following this National’s, Somael and Schiff (now Sergeant Schiff), promoting a “type of athletic ability” that hopefully “has a real value in the war effort,” made a European Theater of Operations Tour of France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. In their troupe were “George Lott, tennis star; Billy Conn, former heavyweight contender; [and] golfer Horton Smith.”
That fall, on their return, Somael (now Sergeant Somael) plays in the New York City Open, and is ousted by Eddie Pinner who’s participating in his first tournament in two years. But Johnny and Sol did win the Doubles from Miles and Cartland. And win the Doubles they did at the Mar., 1946 Western’s in Columbus, Ohio. I presume they must have been touring, just dropped in there, for neither were up, or available, for Singles play.
No Singles final, as in the last two years, for Somael at the 1946 National’s—but that doesn’t mean he went home without a trophy. In the quarter’s of the Doubles, he and Schiff were down 2-1 and at 23-all with Marty Reisman/Bill Cross, but survived. Then, after being up 2-0 and at 23-all in the 3rd against Lou Pagliaro/Jimmy McClure, they almost let the match slip away but just hung on to win the 5th at deuce (Jimmy said that at match point Paggy had fly-swatted a putaway ball that floated out and away on him). In the final though, they fell 18-in-the-4th victim to Pinner and Sussman who’d picked up right where they’d left off in ’41 and ’42—won their 3rd National Championship.
Pinner and his forehand seemed to have Somael’s number, for in Nov. of ’46 at the New York City Open he killed Johnny—seemed, on leading Miles 2-0 and at deuce in the 3rd, to be playing better than maybe anyone else in the country (though as it turned out he didn’t beat Dick that match).
At the 1947 National’s, Johnny, seeded #7, was upset early by Allan Levy. How in Men’s Doubles, Johnny paired with Chicago’s Bob Anderson, I don’t know (perhaps they did some Touring together?), but, with a win over Tibor Hazi/Cy Sussman they made the semi’s before being ousted by the eventual winners, Doug Cartland/Arnold Fetbrod.
At the Tryouts for the 1947 New York Intercity Team, Johnny did not do well—had a poor 2-5 record (though one of his wins was over Reisman, deuce in the 3rd). He shows up next in Topics at the 1948 Western Open in St. Louis—plays there because he’s Touring with Schiff who’ll win the Men’s and also the Men’s Doubles with Somael. In the Singles, Johnny gets by George Hendry 25-23 in the 5th before losing to Nash in the semi’s.
No U.S. Open final for Johnny in 1948 in Columbus—he loses to Bill Holzrichter in 4 in the 8th’s. But he and Hazi take the Men’s Doubles—over Defending Champs Cartland/Fetbrod in the semi’s, deuce in the 5th, and then over Reisman/Lowry in the final, 18 in the 5th.
We don’t read about Johnny until the next U.S. Open at N.Y.’s St. Nick’s Arena. There, as #8 seed, after shakily going 5 with Milwaukee’s Dick Peregrine, he was beaten in the quarter’s (allowed only 40 points total) by Miles who’d go on to win his 5th straight Men’s Championship.
Johnny, whatever else he’s doing, continues to show up at tournaments. In this year’s CNE he advances to the semi’s before being stopped by Schiff. At the Feb., 1950 Pennsylvania Open, however, he defeats Sol, deuce in the 4th, in the final, and together the two win the Doubles.
In the fall of 1950, Johnny goes to the Canadian Open in Montreal, a tournament that takes the place of the CNE, but loses in the semi’s to Wally Gundlach who did to Johnny what he’d done in the quarter’s to Eddie Pinner, came from 2-1 down on the strength of powerful drives and artful drops. Then, in the Oct. Connecticut Open, Pinner, after downing Reisman deuce in the 5th in the semi’s, gives Johnny a straight-game loss in the final.
Of course Johnny keeps steadily advancing in these tournaments, and for the 1950 Columbus Intercities, along with Doug Cartland, keeps ahead of a storm that snowbounds Reisman, the 3rd man on their N. Y. Team. Although in each tie, Doug and Johnny have to forfeit Marty’s three matches, they almost win the Championship anyway—losing only in the final to Chicago, and 5-4 at that. Undefeated Cartland annihilated all the Chicago players and earned a place on the U.S. Team to the ’51 World’s. Somael, always tenacious, though outlasting Dan Kreer, 20, -21, 20 (after being up—shades of Les Lowry!—20-14), likely felt the strain of 15 matches, and lost to Levy, 19 in the 3rd, and to Holzrichter, 17 in the 3rd. Still, Johnny’s 13-2 record put him on the U.S. Team to Vienna too.
A warm-up tournament for Somael’s play abroad was the Jan. 6-7 Capitol Open in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately for Johnny, who ousted Stan Fields and Defending Champ Tibor Hazi, it was also a warm-up for teammate Doug who beat Johnny in the final. The following week, at the Atlantic States Open, Johnny was upset by Harry Hirschkowitz in 5. Then before flying off to Europe, Cartland downed Somael and everyone else to win the Eastern’s, and teamed with Reisman to take the Doubles from Schiff and Johnny.
Prior to play in Vienna, the U.S. Team met Bernie Bukiet who fancied himself, from 1947-51, the best player in Germany (Leah Neuberger said she saw Somael beat him in a practice match). In Vienna, in the Men’s Singles, Somael had the best U.S. results. Clearly he took advantage of a 1st-round walkover over English Open winner Alex Ehrlich. Earlier, Alex had been coaching in Austria, but now couldn’t obtain a visa to Vienna from France where he was living. In succession Johnny beat Iran’s Ehteshamzadeh, India’s Kalyan Jayant, 19 in the 4th, and England’s English Open runner-up Brian Kennedy, before losing in the 8th’s in 4 to 1947 World runner-up Ferenc “Feri” Sido.
In Men’s Doubles, Johnny and Reisman advanced to the 3rd round over weak teams, then could put up no resistance against Leach/Carrington. In the Mixed, Johnny played with the aging defensive star, Trudi Pritzi, who 14 years earlier, along with our Ruth Aarons, had been disqualified in the World’s Women’s final for insufficiently aggressive play, only to win the title the following year. They beat the U.S. team of Cartland/McLinn then lost to Leach/Diane Rowe.
On returning home just in time for the National’s, #4 seed Johnny drew Miles in the quarter’s, and had no chance. Nor a few months later at the Philadelphia Summer Open final could he beat Dick. But he did pair with Pauline Robinson to upset Hazi/Neuberger and take the Mixed. In the Men’s Doubles, he and Harry Hirschkowitz (who’d win the follow-up June White Plains tournament), after knocking off Hazi/Moniek Buki, were upset by George Ferris/Fran Delaney. Buki had this habit after hitting a good shot of turning and looking at the audience. On one occasion only Miles and Somael happened to be watching his match, and every time he hit in a shot, they quickly turned to one another and pretended to be engrossed in conversation, otherwise when he missed they’d always be looking at him.
Johnny didn’t make the 1951 N.Y. Intercity team—came 5th in the Tryouts. Marv Shaffer, Executive Secretary of the NYTTA, spoke of Johnny as he among the top N.Y. players who had “to work hardest for his wins because of his doggedly determined defensive style which he never abandons.”
Nor will we abandon Johnny—though Part I of his Profile will stop now with his near win over Billy Holzrichter at the 1952 National’s. Pauline Robinson, later to marry Somael, had emphasized in a Topics article that Johnny was never a purely defensive player, and though his backhand flick might not have been as good as it used to be (it’d been 8 years since he was U.S. Champion), he could still mount an attack. With a 2-0 lead against Billy, Johnny looked to be a winner, but then he couldn’t find the clincher and the match slipped away….