USA Table Tennis

Margaret “Peggy” McLean Folke first comes to our notice as a 13-year-old from Hollis, Long Island, N.Y. participating in the 1940 Eastern’s held in Reading, Pennsylvania. When she next catches our eye, it’s a year later, Wednesday, Feb. 12, and she’s playing in the one-day New York Open. Obviously she’s been practicing, for she makes the semi’s of the Women’s before losing to N.J.’s Alice O’Connor. Reportedly, as a child Peggy was a “weakling.” So since her doctor advised “exercise,” her father, Vincent, “coaxed her” into playing table tennis on their “home-made table.” Having a natural aptitude for the Sport, she graduated to high school and Lawrence’s where she began to be coached by a number of obliging players.

In a Sept., 1941 Brooklyn tournament, Peggy came 3rd behind winner Edna Sheinhart and runner-up Bernice Charney. After that I don’t know how much Peggy was playing, I’ve no record of her until the 1943 Eastern’s, but she had to be improving. At the Washington, D.C. Columbia Courts, she had commendable wins over St. Joe Valley winner Barbara Cannon in the quarter’s and Davida Hawthorn in 5 in the semi’s. But understandably she wasn’t good enough yet to give that year’s U.S. Open finalist Mae Clouther a tough fight.

Not so many tournaments because of the War, but both at the Nov., 1943 N.Y. Metro Open and the Jan.,1944 N.Y. State Open Peggy lost to Charney, the State title being a particularly nasty one to miss out on, for she was leading Bernice in the final 2-0.

But she was getting better, and when a month later, in the final of the Eastern’s, she met Defending Champion Clouther (who hadn’t been playing much because she was “captain of the Junior Hostesses of the Boston Stage Door Canteen” and was assisting “in other war work and relief agencies”), she beat her quite easily—a confidence builder.

Peggy didn’t go out to the St. Louis National’s, so we next see her at the Dec. 8-9, 1944 New York City Open where she won a splendid 5-game final from Charney. By March, 1945, she seemed to have raised her game a whole level, for in the semi’s she annihilated Hawthorn, 12, 8, 8, and in the final beat Charney 3-0. As a beginner, McLean may have been coached by Herwald Lawrence and others, but Reba Monness said that for four years now Peggy’s been taking lessons from Pagliaro.

In the quarter’s of the 1945 Detroit National’s, Sally Green, who’d won the Women’s Championship in 1940 and every year thereafter, 5 straight in all, was upset by N.Y.’s Davida Hawthorn, 23-21 in the 5th. Then in the semi’s, against Reba Monness, Davida, after losing the 3rd game 25-23 to go down 2-1, rallied to reach the final. McLean, meanwhile, in her semi’s against Leah Thall, on winning the 1st at deuce and the match in 5, also advanced to the final. Here’s the Topicsreporter writing about the match for the title:

“…The finals, between Davida and Peggy McLean, was highlighted only by the Sally-Davida match. Peggy went down in the fifth game by the score of 22-20, fighting every point of the way, and in a way that made you stand up and cheer! With Davida favoring her defense, Peggy drove forehand and backhand. Beautifully, steadily, to attack…attack…and attack. With the score 20-18 against her in the fifth, Peggy drove her way to deuce before losing out.”

Said the covering Detroit Times reporter, “Miss McLean [a ‘3-1 favorite’] had the more polished strokes. Tenacity and better control saved Miss Hawthorn.” Not only had Davida never beaten Peggy (in fact, this may have been the only time she beat her), she had a history of losing close games not only to Peggy but to others. So all the more to her credit had been her semi’s win over Reba….” Davida also got to the final of the Mixed with Somael before losing to Don Lasater/Dolores Kuenz.

That fall, at the New York City Open, Peggy was upset again—by Millie Shahian, who then fell 3-0 in the final to Charney. But at the Mar., ’46 Eastern’s, Peggy was back winning again—the final over Shahian, and the (19, 7, -19, 11) semi’s over a Bernice Charney whose generally placid demeanor belied the inner emotional swings that made her either want to charge (as in her quarter’s rally to down Mae Clouther in 5) or wimpily give up (as in those –7, -11 losses to Peggy). Paired with Schiff, McLean also won the Mixed over Laszlo Bellak and Boston WAVE Corinne Delery in the semi’s, and Cartland/Shahian in the final.

Only partial success at the 1946 National’s though. In the semi’s of the Singles, Leah beats her 3-0. (“Peggy is 19? A Queens College student? She looks five years younger.”) In the Women’s Doubles, partnered by Hawthorn, the two are up 2-0 against Shahian/Clouther but can’t hold on. However, in the Mixed, paired with Schiff, they cruise all the way—finish by beating Holzrichter/Leah Thall.

In the one tournament played in the East that fall, the New York City Open, Peggy downed Hawthorn in 5. She, along with Davida, also played for the East in the East-West Women’s Matches, and having beaten not Leah Thall, the #1 pick for the U.S. World Team, but the West’s Tybie Thall and Mary Specht, was in line to represent us at the ’47 Paris World’s. Trouble was Hawthorn also beat Tybie and (from 21-all in the deciding 3rd) Mary, and, though Peggy had defeated Davida in the NYC Open, the Selectors, perhaps because Hawthorn had won the ’45 National’s, chose her for the trip to Paris. Bummer for Peggy.

At the Feb., 1947 Eastern’s, Peggy, before losing to Leah in the final, again beat Davida, but the two played almost point for point with Peggy winning 19, 21, -19, 21.

McLean started the 1947-48 season with a win at the prestigious Canadian National Exhibition tournament in Toronto. She beat both the Thall sisters—first Tybie, then Defending Champ Leah in a 19-in-the-4th final. However, though she qualified 1st for the East team, in the final East-West Matches that would decide the U.S. Corbillon Cup Team to the 1948 World’s, she did not play up to strength. When she lost not only to the Thall sisters but to Betty Jane Schaefer, Topicssaid, “Peggy was a disappointment. She looked tired and never got into the game. The others were sharp by comparison.”

Before U.S. Team members left for the World Championships, the Eastern Zone offered just one tournament they might play in—the New England States, held Dec. 13-14 in Springfield, Massachusetts. As expected, only New Englander Mae Clouther showed—and McLean beat her 3-0 in the semi’s. Which, combined with Peggy’s CNE victories over the Thalls, made one wonder the more what had happened to her that day of the East-West finals, and if a case couldn’t have been made for her to be on the U.S. Team to the World’s. But then, in the final, up 2-1, she lost to Shahian, 19 in the 5th. Paired with Cal Skinner, it wasn’t Peggy’s lot to win a close one in the Mixed either. Up 2-1 against Shahian/Les Lowry, they lost 22-20 in the 5th.

While the U.S. Team was abroad, Peggy won the Feb. 7th Pennsylvania Open over Shahian, 3-0 (though two games were deuce). That March you could find her off-court, but with racket in hand, on stage at N.Y.’s Radio City Music Hall. She was part of the Bellak and Elaine act (Elaine, I guess, because who knew how to pronounce McLean?).  Apparently show-biz prepared her the more for acclaim, for now she won the Big One—the 1948 U.S. Open…over Tybie in the semi’s and Reba Monness in 4 in the final after Reba had taken out Defending Champ Leah Thall in the other semi’s.

There followed in Sept. another major—the CNE, in which Peggy successfully defended her title, beat both the Thalls, Leah now, after her summer marriage to Ty, Leah Neuberger. Peggy also won the Mixed with Sol Schiff over, surprise, Miles and Pauline Robinson who’d knocked out Reisman/Leah in the semi’s. No write-ups in Topics of either the Women’s or the Men’s (though Reisman beat Miles in a 5-game final).

For the top Eastern women the Nov. 11-12, 1948 N.Y. City Open was the most important tournament of the fall, for its round robin would determine who would qualify from the East to go to the East-West Matches where likely the U.S. Corbillon Cup Team for the 1949 World’s would be selected. Peggy continued her roll with a perfect 7-0 record. However, she had only one easy match—with Chotras who was back playing this season, and playing well enough to qualify for the East Team with McLean and Shahian.

The Women’s East-West Matches, like the Men’s Intercities, that were held in Topics Editor Bill Haid’s hometown, St. Louis, were given almost no coverage in the magazine. Both McLean (Outstanding Player) and Chotras defeated all three Western women—Betty Jane Schaefer, Tybie Thall, and Peggy Ichkoff (Peggy was leading McLean 18-14 in the 3rd, but couldn’t get another point). Shahian defeated Schaefer and Ichkoff but lost to Thall. McLean also won her two doubles matches, one with Shahian, one with Chotras. Bernice, picked for the Team along with McLean and Shahian, declined to go because she had a 6-month-old daughter to take care of. That left the way open for Tybie Thall, who’d defeated Shahian in St. Louis, and was of course the Defending World Mixed Doubles Champion.

Prior to play in the World’s at Stockholm, the U.S. Team, once in Sweden, split into two units. Miles, Cartland, McLean, and Shahian went to Ljungskile where for their friendly exhibition efforts they received “gifts of glass vases.” Captain Jimmy McClure, Reisman, and Thall played matches in “the little fishing town of Gravarne,” where they were presented with “beautiful leather-fitted cases.” Exhibitions were carried on elsewhere too, for Topics also lists results of matches in Tibro and Halmstad where only a unit of McClure, Miles, McLean and Shahian played.

In Corbillon Cup play, in Group A, England (6-0) reached the final—with Peggy Franks and Pinkie Barnes winning the big 3-2 ties against France (5-1) and Austria (4-2).

In Group B, U.S. Capt. McClure played McLean and Shahian in singles and McLean/Thall in doubles. Most of the ties were 3-0 easy. We defeated Scotland (4-3), 3-1, when Helen Elliot could beat Shahian but not McLean. And downed the Czechs (5-2), 3-1, when McLean won both her matches against Eliska Fuerstova and Kveta Hruskova, and Peggy and Tybie came through with a cramped but all-important deuce-in-the-3rd doubles win. Then against Hungary, when Shahian succumbed as expected to Defending Singles Champion Gizi Farkas, and we dropped the only doubles in the Cup, lost, it would seem, the lucky dice to our game play, Chance handed us another pair, and, lo, Peggy rolled, hurled through Farkas to send the tie into the 5th. Which meant Shahian vs. Rose Karpati.

“My arm was petrified,” Millie later wrote me. “I was scared to death because I would have been a real goat if I lost after the magnificent effort of Peggy.” But Karpati “played with tears streaming down her face because Farkas had lost to McLean.” So “when I managed to win the first game at deuce, the second was easy.”

In the final against England, after Shahian had lost two close games to Franks, Peggy overpowered Barnes, then with Tybie’s crucial help gave us a deuce-in-the-3rd doubles win. After which, up 1-0 on Franks and at deuce in the 2nd, Peggy again held on, as she had against Farkas, to win for the U.S., for the second and last time, the Corbillon Cup.

Peggy gave us a surprise in the Singles—she departed docilely, scored only 44 points, against Hruskova whom she’d beaten 2-0 in the Team’s. Oh well, the loss did allow her to win another World Championship—the Consolation’s over Wales’s Audrey Bates. Hruskova went on to play like, well, a world-beater—she defeated Scotland’s Elliot with ease in the quarter’s, then, ohh, 18-in-the-5th eliminated our Tybie, who’d advanced to the semi’s with a 5-game victory over France’s Jeanne Delay. Millie Shahian, meanwhile, met in the 8th’s the Czech Fuerstova and lost a heartbreaker, 23-21 in the 5th.

Another surprise, and not a pleasant one: Peggy and Tybie, seeded #2, lost in the 1st round of Women’s Doubles—to the Welsh pair of Bates and Nancy Evans, wife of the future long-time ITTF President Roy Evans. In Mixed, though, Peggy, paired with Reisman, beat Ferenc Soos/Karpati to reach the semi’s before being eliminated by the Czech runner-ups, Bo Vana/Hruskova.

At the English Open that followed, the U.S. women were triumphant. From the beginning they got quite a bit of attention and perhaps this made them feel more confident. Their appearance in London prompted Englishwoman Peggy Allen to write an article, “Those American Girls!” (in the Mar.-Apr., 1949 issue of Table Tennis Review) which would introduce them to her readers. Here’s her “take” on McLean:

“…She has a dry sense of humour, an insatiable curiosity regarding English ideas and methods and in order to acquire the correct ‘slant’ on English life perused the London ‘Times’ with great interest during her stay in London.

She is twenty-two but looks sixteen, has a loveable, elfin face and the most beautiful teeth you ever saw—I can’t help feeling that a certain firm of toothpaste manufacturers, well known for their ‘pun’ adverts, missed a wonderful opportunity there—especially in view of her surname! [English aficionado Ron Craydon will actually write her name as McClean]

Hitherto she wore her hair almost straight and shoulder length, but having seen Suzy Barna’s [Victor’s wife’s] new short haircut and having a great desire to ‘look her age,’ we made a special trip to Suzy’s own hair-dresser at Pinner where her locks were shorn, shampooed and set in the new ‘gamin’ hairstyle. When she emerged from the dryer we were enchanted with the result, it really did suit her beautifully, but as for looking older—well, she had only succeeded in making herself look younger and more cuddlesome than ever!” (23).

Cuddlesome? Perhaps. And if she’s curious, so are we to note her progress, her new maturity in London. Action she wanted, action she got. She won the Women’s Doubles with Tybie—over England’s Franks and animated Junior Girls Champ Adele Wood. With Reisman in the Mixed, after knocking out Barna/Elliot, she was again a finalist—fell to Miles, partnered by Thall, 23-21 in the 5th. In the Singles, she was unstoppable, though she was helped by circumstances. In the semi’s she met Tybie, who’d been down 2-1 and at 22-all in the 4th with Pinkie Barnes, but who now had a strained foot muscle and was not at her best. Then in the final she “routed” Helen Elliot. But Helen was in no mood to play. Only hours earlier, she’d been informed that Peter Coia, the Scottish TTA President who’d helped advance her career, had died in a plane crash.

Back in the U.S., Peggy, high after her Corbillon Cup and English Open successes, but perhaps more than a little fatigued by her sea-crossing home, found just enough will to win a 23-21-in-the-5th Eastern Open final from Leah Neuberger.

Then unexpectedly—though her protective father Vincent was advertised on the National’s entry blank as a member of the N.Y. Tournament Committee, though her picture was prominently displayed in the Program, and though her role as favorite had been established in pre-tournament publicity—Peggy didn’t defend her U.S. Open Women’s Singles Championship. Her table tennis career, just when the ITTF was judging her to be the #2 seed for the next World’s, abruptly stopped. She married a Swede, Elis Folke, whom she’d met at the ’49 World’s while he was covering the matches for the Christian Science Monitor, and players missing her here couldn’t be sure they’d ever see her at a tournament again. 

USTTA Vice-President John Kauderer of N.Y. had been asked recently by USTTA Nominations Chair Carl Nidy if he couldn’t recommend someone from the East to be on the upcoming USTTA Executive Committee slate. Kauderer suggested among others Vincent McLean. He has “an unusual amount of common sense and business judgment which could be put to good use,” said John. “Furthermore Vincent is able to get around a great deal. He frequently makes business trips [for the Western Electric Co.] that take him through the principal table tennis playing cities.” Not surprisingly, Vincent had no further involvement in table tennis.

It wasn’t long, though, before Peggy was back defending another Championship—the CNE. Only this time she didn’t win; Leah beat her in straight games. So now Peggy would absent herself from play to concentrate on teaching? Also, she’d be expecting in April, 1950.

But she couldn’t stay away—surfaced again for the Mar., 1951 N.Y. State Open, and beat New Jersey’s Jean Gere in the semi’s, and Pauline Robinson in the final. Later, after winter’s come on, we don’t see her in action but hear she’s giving exhibitions not with Bellak but with Pagliaro.  

The Mar. 7th, 1953 New England Open at Stratford—who should show up to win the Women’s, but Peggy (actually, word was that she’d been practicing some at Lawrence’s). Her presence seemed to have traumatized Neuberger, for otherwise how could she lose 9, 10, 16 to her? In the other semi, Robinson may have flim-flamed Lona, but in the final, after winning that 1st game from Peggy at 19, Pauline could win no more.

Surprisingly, at least to me, Peggy went to St. Louis for the U.S. Open, where, after an easy win over Ichkoff, she was beaten in the semi’s in 4 by Sally Prouty. However, she and Neuberger won the Women’s Doubles.

Perhaps Peggy was living in Connecticut, for, as she played in the New England Open at Stratford the previous year, so she played in the Feb., ‘54 Eastern’s held in Brigeport. Here she was beaten by Leah in the semi’s, then won the Women’s Doubles with her over Robinson/Flam in 5. With Pagliaro, however, she lost the Mixed final to Neuberger/Hazi.

Peggy had been taking time out from the Game “to raise a family, and to secure a Master’s degree in Education,” but she played in the ’55 White Plains Eastern’s, and, though she was soundly beaten in the Singles by Neuberger, she was in both Doubles finals. She won the Women’s with Leah over Flam/Robinson and in the Mixed with Paggy she made the final before losing to Neuberger/Hirschkowitz.

One last tournament for Peggy before retiring for good, and I believe going off to live in Sweden. In the last photo I have of her, she, like her Doubles partner Leah, is holding a 1st-place trophy—so, to no one’s surprise, she finished her 22-year career a winner.