When Leah Thall Neuberger died at her home in Manhattan around Christmas of 1992, it was quite a shock to many a New York player in particular. To Tony Gegelys, for example, Leah, over the years...day-in, day-out...was a familiar figure at Lawrence’s Broadway Courts...or Reisman’s...or Gusikoff’s, ever ready with her all-consuming love of the sport to picture herself on or off the table with any international champion or local enthusiast. "I feel really sad," said Tony. "A part of my life, a part of the world we lived in and enjoyed so much has gone with Leah. It’s a different world now."
How far away it seems...that Columbus, Ohio Y.W.C.A. she went to in the 1930’s--and not just to me who as a boy lost matches at my own Dayton, Ohio Y, but to all enthusiasts recalling when and where they originally learned to play with passion.
In her first U.S. Open at Toledo, Leah didn’t win so much as a game in any of the three events she entered--Women’s Singles, Women’s and Mixed Doubles. Her ranking that first season? Ohio #5. But she’d caught the fever, burned to play.
The next year, 1940, she won the Ohio Open, then lost a tough deuce-in-the-5th match in the quarter’s of the National’s. She was suddenly U.S. #8.
In 1941--so soon--she won the first of her 12 U.S. Open Women’s Doubles titles--and had jumped to U.S. #3.
The following season, partnered with U.S. Men’s Champion-to-be, Chicago’s young Billy Holzrichter, she won the first of her 8 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles titles. Later, she would partner Doug Cartland, Tibor Hazi, and, repeatedly, Sol Schiff. "Unlike most women players, who had to push balls," said Sol, "Leah had a heavy, close-to-the-table chop that slowed play and so provided opportunities for her partner to hit and for Leah to follow with sharply-angled corner balls or her own put-away forehand."
But even a Champion who’d advanced in such determined fashion as Leah needed to pay her dues. Only after 1941-46 losses to Magda Gal Hazi, Carolyn Wilson, Mae Clouther, Sally Green Prouty, Peggy McLean Folke, and Bernice Charney Chotras was Leah able to win the first of her 9 U.S. Singles Championships.
Astonishingly, 26 years after her first appearance in a U.S. Open, she almost won her 10th Championship when, in the final, leading San Diego’s 13-year-old Patty Martinez 20-15 match point in the 5th, she suffered one of the most startling defeats of her extraordinary career.
Whether it be in the old Hard Bat or new Sponge era, only Insook Bhushan would win more U.S. Singles Championships. "Ah," said an ever-ready-to-reminisce Schiff, "what a pick-hit defensive match Leah and Insook would have played had they not been table tennis worlds apart.
Modern players examining Leah’s record would see that, even in her prime, she lost many more matches--to Reba Kirson Monness, Lona Flam Rubenstein, Sally Green Prouty, Millie Shahian, and Pauline Robinson Somael, all U.S. Internationalists--than Insook ever did. But Leah was forever so intensely absorbed in the sport that, in the ‘51-’52 season, for example, when someone kept a record, it turned out that the "Most Active Tournament Participant" in the entire U.S. was National Champion Leah.
Certainly she was not one to rest on her laurels (clean and polish though she might her hundreds of carefully cabineted trophies). Twice she’d been U.S. Singles runner-up, but in 1947 she finally won that first big confidence builder--and, having served her long apprenticeship, was now ready to make her presence known, literally for decades, on the real table tennis scene of international play.
She would soon begin her conquest of Canada: 41 titles, she later claimed. And, just as she had been a good bookkeeper back in those beginning days in Columbus, she later prided herself--like her long-time friend and National Table Tennis Historian counterpart in Canada, Marge Walden--on the accuracy of her records. "Still haven’t caught up on my sleep," she wrote me after we’d returned from the ‘75 Calcutta World Championships. "Every time I wake up, I drink tea and work on my TT records."
In 1947, in Paris, at her first World Championships, Leah almost won what might have been the match of her life. In the second round of the Women’s Singles she played the eventual winner, Hungary’s Gizi Farkas, and was up 16-9, 17-13 in the 5th but couldn’t hold on to win.
In 1948, at Wembley, though overshadowed by sister Thelma "Tybie" Thall and her World Mixed Doubles title with Dick Miles, Leah didn’t do too badly herself. She got to the quarter’s of the Singles before losing to Farkas again who successfully defended her title (and who for seven straight years would be a Singles finalist). Then Leah and Tybie had an excellent 5-game Women’s Doubles win over former World Champion Trude Pritzi of Austria and future 6-time (6 times in a row) World Champion Angelica Roseanu of Romania, before falling in the semi’s to the English winners Peggy Franks and Vera Dace Thomas.
In 1951, at Vienna, after defeating former World Champion Trude Pritzi of Austria and the English Rowe twins in the Team’s to post an 8-1 record, Leah advanced to the semi’s in the Singles. Down 2-0 in the quarter’s to England’s Rosalind Rowe, she rallied to win in 5. Then lost to Farkas in a well-played 20, 17, 19 semi’s. This earned her a World #3 ranking. No native-born American, other than Ruth Aarons, has ever done better.
"Leah never knew how good she was," Dick Miles told me. "She really didn’t have a tremendous ago. Often she’d say that she was lucky to win this or that tournament, and she really meant it." So it wasn’t any surprise when, after what would have been a consecutive streak of five U.S. Championships for her was broken by a loss to Reba Monness, the Topics reporter covering that National’s called Leah "one of the finest sportswomen to ever touch a racket."
Although in 1954 in the German Open at Kiel, Leah was a disappointed runner-up to Scotland’s 3-time World quarterfinalist Helen Elliott, perhaps her all-time toughest (21, 19, -16, -19, -20) loss was to the Japanese Champion Tomie Okawa at the 1957 Stockholm World’s.
Her greatest triumph? That of course was at Tokyo in 1956 when she and teenager Erwin Klein, whose play she later described as "fabulous," won the World’s Mixed Doubles from 14-10 down in the 5th over Ivan Andreadis and Ann Haydon, both World Singles runner-ups. U.S. Team Captain Bill Gunn reported back to those at home:
"Miss Neuberger deserves an accolade for her stalwart play throughout
the final match. Her defense was rock-ribbed, and she seldom made a weak or
poorly placed return. She made her opponents earn every point, and time after
time, when they needed a point badly, she stepped in and cracked a well-angled
forehand through both Haydon and Andreadis."
Her rise to such heights after preferring Ping-Pong to being initially fearful of diving into that Y.W.C.A. pool back in Columbus, was understandable, for this was a woman who would say that Table Tennis was "not only a way of life but life itself for me." From the time she married Ty Neuberger in 1948 and moved to New York City, scarcely a day went by that she didn’t play at a Club that was as famous as she herself was.
"She’d play anybody," said Doug Cartland--"but of course always for money. Even to a junior who’d come looking for a game, she’d say, ‘Well, sonny, I’ll play you, but you know we have to gamble.’" The good-humored irony, not immediately apparent, was intentional. Since she obviously was a denizen of the place, of the often early afternoon, still-dark courts, some young innocent, accustomed to the USATT’s uptightness about gambling, might momentarily be thrown into a panic. But, with or without a spot, her stakes in this or that dreaded New York Club of iniquity were always the same--a penny a point.
Marty Reisman tells the story that, after she’d met and of course soon began playing Ty day after day, he owed her so much money that she figured the only way to collect would be to marry him. Both Reisman and Schiff emphasize Leah’s friendliness and upbeat personality. "She could hardly be accused of ‘hustling,’" says Sol, "because player after player, regardless of ability, wanted to be on court with her." Marty makes the point, though, "that--8 cents here, 12 cents there--no penny ever got away from her, even if she had to change a $10 bill." For Leah, says Marty, the small wager provided "the necessary tension" for her to play well, and, he adds, he wouldn’t be surprised if all those pennies she won didn’t add up to help her finance her trips as first a player and then a spectator to all those World Championships.
After suffering a hiatus hernia stomach condition and later glaucoma that eventually ended her playing days, she early on, after she was no longer competitive, developed the unique persona of "Miss Ping"--and, fingering her "See, I’ve met Chou En-lai" lapel-pin-pic, was often fond of telling anyone who would listen, or anyone who wouldn’t, that (in traveling with the Canadians) she was "the first American into China" on that 1971 "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" trip.
"Mrs. Neuberger’s Paddle Is Her Passport" the New York Times once so aptly put it, and, as the exuberantly popular U.S. Swaythling Club International representative, she was very well known and liked by the most respected players and officials throughout Europe and Asia. The Japanese in particular always looked forward to a "Good Morning" ("O Hayo"..."Ohio") and a renewal of old friendships with her....Some, I’m sure, still do.