The Aug. 31, 128-entry Cleveland Great Lakes Open that started the USTTA's '34-35 season marked the first appearance in Topics of Robert "Bud" Blattner (who'd come east that summer with two of his teenage St. Louis buddies, Garrett Nash and Bill Price, players also destined for table tennis stardom).
This Great Lakes tournament was unique in that it was held outside, before 1,000 spectators, on 40-50 tables set up at the Euclid Beach Amusement park. Ervin Brody, a Hungarian who'd soon be befriending our U.S. Teams abroad, tells us of the famous open-air Pollak table tennis parlor in Budapest where the world-class Hungarians of the '20's and '30's played. And our one and only World Singles Champion Ruth Aarons will write why two of those great players--Barna and Bellak--stress the advantages of outdoor play. "It teaches you ball control and though at times it may be very funny and difficult to play in the wind, there is no better training for a player. It teaches quick change of strokes and gives training not possible in any other way." Uh, perhaps.
Anyway, if his posted losing scores to 1935 U.S. Team member Sol Schiff are (-19, -29, -19) correct, young Blattner already had a keen sense for which way the wind would blow. This Bud would blossom. In less than two years, his photo, his name in headlines, would be on the cover of Topicsas World Doubles Champion with Jimmy McClure.
At 13, Blattner had been sneaking into a place called John's Pool Hall in St. Louis. There his "older baseball-playing friends had taught him how to play table tennis on a wooden board on top of a pool table"--which in the basement of my home in Dayton, Ohio, playing with my father in the late 1930's, is how I myself learned to play.
Soon, though, Blattner was in the midst of a cluster of center-court players smacking balls in at the 8-table St. Louis Association Headquarters Club on Olive St.--managed by R.G. Blattner, Buddy's father--where $1.25 a month allowed you unlimited playing time.
Of course the famous Coleman Clark "Circus"--a Dec. 28, 1934-Jan. 24, 1935 barnstorming Tour of 20 U.S. cities featuring the fabled World Champion Victor Barna and his former World Champion Doubles partner Sandor Glancz--committed to a stop in St. Louis. Barna would rate the players there--Mark Schlude, Dick Tindall, Blattner, Bill Price, Ernie Trobaugh, Edwin Woody, and Leonard Radunsky (runner-up to Robert Bonney in the first U.S. Intercollegiate Championship, held in Chicago in Dec., '34)--as being superior to the Chicago stars. This was an historic appraisal since heretofore only the New Yorkers as a group were considered superior to those in the Windy City.
Blattner excited the "Circus" crowd by winning a "one-game exhibition match" from Glancz. Buddy "took an early lead at 9-3...[by] playing a 'soft' game": that is, during one rally, "both players hit the ball back and forth so cautiously and so long that the crowd became amused and roared when Blattner's patience wore out and he slammed a wild shot."
The in-depth quality of play among the many near-equal St. Louis players can be seen from the late Jan., 1935 Missouri State Championships held in Kansas City. Defensive star Mark Schlude, loser of an earlier St. Louis tournament to attacker Dick Tindall who'd be on our 1936 U.S. Team to the Prague World's, had successfully defended his Missouri title by beating Tindall in 4 in the final--but only after 16, 19, -28, 18 struggling with Jack Nix, and then just 14, -17, -9, 26, 12 getting by World Doubles Champion-to-be Blattner. During one point in that Schlude-Blattner semi's, the ball was said to have crossed the net "419" times (though who, I wonder, point after point, could be counting?). Bud would later suggest, as an expedite rule, that, after the ball had "crossed the net 25 times, play [should] be stopped and each player awarded a point." This of course was not the modification that the USTTA would finally adopt.
So strong were the St. Louis players that all five members of their Mar., 1935 Intercity Team--Schlude (#4), Tindall (#5), Blattner (#6), Price (#8), and Nix (#9)--would be ranked in the U.S. Top 10 for the '34-35 season. However, thanks to Abe Berenbaum's three wins and Sol Schiff's gutsy play, New York was able to beat St. Louis, 5-3, for the newly offered William R. Stewart Intercity Trophy. Sol not only came from 19-18 down in the 3rd to eke out a win over Schlude, but against the 15-year-old hard-hitting Blattner he rallied from down 1-0 and 20-17 in the 2nd to stave off 5 match points, then in the 3rd saved 3 more for a remarkably gritty win.
A month later, however, at the Chicago National's, Blattner had a stunningly easy (12, 13, 10) time with Defending Champion Schiff. After which Buddy barely escaped Ohio's best, Jack Boksenbom, deuce in the 5th, then in another (-16, 15, 19, -21, -14) nail-biter, dropped a tense semi's match to Schlude, who would go on to lose an interminable 5-game final and the title to Berenbaum. Partnered with Nix in the Men's Doubles, Buddy would again come up with nichts on being beaten in another unhappy semi's match, 23-21 in the 5th, by the surprising team of Tindall and Coleman Clark.
The two most important tournaments Reginald Hammond's Ranking Committee would consider in picking the U.S. Men's Team to the Mar., '36 Prague World's were the Chicago Intercities the first week of January and the American Zone Qualifier in Washington, D.C. four weeks later.
Unfortunately, at the Intercities Bud got off to a bad start, for at a Friday night dinner at former USTTA President Bill Stewart's house, he suffered food poisoning. He was still feeling the effects of that when he was upset (19, -21, -15) by Chicago's Herbert "Chubby" Aronson, who often enjoyed hitting the ball with two hands on the racket.
The wildly exciting final between the undefeated New York and St. Louis teams (New York listeners could hear at least some of this tie broadcast over WEAF by sports announcer Hal Totten) began with Buddy, up 1-0 but down 17-8 in the second to Lou Pagliaro, then rallying to win at deuce two straight.
With St. Louis leading 2-1, a turning point in the tie came when Schiff just got by Blattner, 19 in the 3rd. This swing match contributed greatly to New York's eventual 5-3 victory. George "Gus" Sempeles, '36 Maryland Champ, told me this was one of those rare times when Sol was able to get the better of fellow attacker Blattner. Ordinarily Sol couldn't take the offense, for Bud's shorter strokes allowed him to keep the table. Though this was Blattner's fourth loss at this for him ptomaine tournament, he had been playing well--had won the St. Louis District over Tindall and Price--and would continue playing well, would win the Missouri State over Tindall. So, were he to distinguish himself in the upcoming American Zone tournament, the Ranking Committee would be inclined to consider that poor Bud had been somewhat indisposed, not quite himself here in Chicago, and was still very much in the running for a spot on the U.S. World Team.
Indeed, when a month later, McClure, Schiff, Tindall, and Blattner were the semifinalists at the American Zone, Ranking Chair Hammond could have declared, as he was soon about to, that there could be "no other candidates" for the U.S. Men's Team.
The winner of this Zonal Qualifier (one didn't have to be a U.S. citizen to play, just a U.S. resident) would be designated by the USTTA as this season's "U.S. [Closed] Champion," while the winner of the National's--open supposedly for the first time in Melting Pot History to "foreigners" (though had any U.S. residency requirement ever been established or enforced in any U.S. Open before?)--would be called the U.S. [Open] International Champion."
Again, poor bruised Blattner (9, -16, 20, -20, -19) lost his high-wire, end-of-the-show balance--this time to McClure, who on being bested by Schiff in the final wasn't able to take advantage of this unique chance to be National Champion in a year the U.S. Open would be played elsewhere.
On Feb. 26, 1936 the U.S. Team left for the Prague World's--but without a stunned Schiff who at the last minute had been suspended by President Zeisberg for signing a contract with Parker Brothers.
Observing a pre-World's warm-up match against the English at Paddington Baths, London--which the U.S. lost 6-3--English table tennis aficionado M. A. Symons said that Blattner's "forehand was a treat to watch," especially "his final hit to the backhand corner." But Hyman Lurie's backhand was just too strong and Bud lost to him in 3. However, two of the three U.S. points were scored by Blattner and his partner in doubles. Bud won with Tindall, and with Jessie "Jay" Purves in a Mixed match. And perhaps this augured well for his Doubles play at the upcoming World's.
After Paddington, there followed on Mar. 5, 6, 7 three matches, all U.S. wins, with the French--in Paris (5-4), in Bruay-en-Artois (7-2), and in Mulhouse (6-1). The most dramatic of these, "before a packed house of over 1,200," including half a dozen dignitaries, was the one the U.S. men won over France's Swaythling Cup Team, 5-4. Here's Team Captain Sidney Biddell's Topics write-up:
"McClure and Blattner decisively beat [Michel] Haguenauer, French Champion, who, in the English [Open] championships last month, had given Barna his first defeat in more than two years....[Tindall, too, almost beat Haguenauer, lost 17, -20, -21].
With the score 4-4, amid wild demonstrations from the crowd, who sensed in our play the chance for an upset, Blattner played magnificently to beat France's No. 2, the colored [Charles] Dubouille, who starred for France, 2 straight, with a blazing attack that never faltered from its set purpose of blasting his opponent off the table. I was so darn excited I nearly exploded. What a real boy Bud is!"
The Prague World Championships were played at the Lucerna Palace--a 4,000-seat, underground, "bomb-proof" Concert Hall, with "three balconies completely surrounding the playing floor." This was "ideal for center court (one table) play." But "the matches not held in the evening, when an eight-table layout was used, brought about conditions unparalleled in world championship play." Topics describes the chaos:
"Unruly crowds at times swarmed onto the playing floor, interrupting matches at will, and soft tables and poor equipment, together with the intense national temperament of the Czech spectators, who cared not how but only that their favorites win, placed a heavy burden on their opponents."
In the 14-team Swaythling Cup ties, the U.S. had a 4-2 record in their round-robin bracket, losing to both Czechoslovakia and Austria, the eventual winner, 5-1. On the first day of play, though, when we beat Yugoslavia and England, everyone took notice of our Team and especially Blattner. Bud had confidence builders right off the bat--held firm against the Yugoslavs Weissbacher (-10, 15, 19) and Marinko (-20, 15, 22). Then knocked off the entire English team--Bergl, Haydon, and Lurie. Also, enroute to a very respectable 9-5 showing, Bud, with his hopping sidespin/topspin, beat Austria's Kohn, and, though losing 25-23 in the 3rd to the 1934 German Champion Deisler, had a win over his teammate Ulrich.
In the Singles, however, Blattner went down right away, in 4, to Hungary's Sarossy. And in the Mixed Doubles, though he and Jay Purves didn't even make the 1st round, they played memorably, were beaten in a preliminary match, 19 in the 5th, by...the eventual Czech winners, Milos Hamr and Traute Kleinova!
As for the Men's Doubles, Bud was all set to team with St. Louis teammate Tindall whose game he knew so well. But just before play was to begin, Team Captain Biddell got Jury approval to pair Blattner with McClure. And this combination clicked, for on beating Hungarians Kelen and Bellak in 5, they found themselves in the semi's. As it turned out, this, the most climactic match of the event, was played on center court the last night of the tournament. Down 2-1 and 19-11 in the 4th against the Hungarian Champion Tibor Hazi and the cocky young partner he was mentor to, Ferenc Soos, Bud and Jimmy seemed to have no chance, but then--with Hazi urging Soos to hit, and Soos refusing to--the steady topspinning Americans won 8 in a row! Then:
"...With the score 19-19, the crowd, rooting for the U.S., went mad. Hazy [sic]-Soos scored the next point. Bud and Jimmy deuced the game and a flick from Jimmy nicked the corner to get game point. Soos deuced with a scorcher. Hazy angled a drop shot off the table and Bud put away game point.
The deciding game was a battle royal. With the score 17-18 [sic: but really 18-17] McClure's service came up. Hungary had won the first game with finger spin, and now America retaliated. Bud missed a drive to make it 18-18 but put away the sitter that Jimmy's next serve brought. Jimmy's next two serves brought clean misses and the U.S. was in the final."
That final--bringing teenagers McClure and Blattner the 1936 World's Men's Doubles Championship--was 11, 7, 9 absurdly anticlimactic.
Back home, the Men's Singles winner in the Apr. 2-4, 1936 Philadelphia National's--who would be called not the U.S. [Closed] Champion but the U.S. International Champion--was, as expected, Victor Barna, here on another Tour, this time with the English #1 Adrian Haydon.
Haydon, who used an eccentric shovel-grip, and played an all-forehand style, could not get through Abe Berenbaum's stiff-chop defense and afterwards complained about the glossiness of the tables:
"[They] have a shiny surface and with 'chop' the resultant skid of the ball makes it hard to time or hit correctly. After one or two such returns the spin on the ball is terrific and in the end one is compelled to play safe. [He also felt that the tables hadn't a heavy enough under-carriage, and that were the tables firmer the ball would bounce higher.]"
Perhaps Blattner would agree, for, after downing Johnny Abrahams, 19 in the 4th, and Glancz in the quarter's in straight games, he, too, though up 2-1, couldn't find a way through Berenbaum to the final.
However, he did get to the finals of both Doubles, losing the Mixed with Purves to Barna and just crowned World Champion Aarons, but winning the Men's with McClure over Barna and Glancz. This latter match the partisan audience especially enjoyed: "McClure's antics made a hit particularly as he shouted approval [Jimmy would let Bud take the table to hit] or clapped his teammate on the back."
At the 1937 Chicago Intercities, Blattner as attacker figured to have an advantage with the new U.S.-initiated, lower 6-inch net. And, though he was beaten by New Yorker Bernie Grimes (12-0) and by the red-hot Michigan Champion Edward Denges (5-6), he did acquit himself well with victories over both Schiff (10-1) and McClure (9-2). So, with a 9-2 record, he solidified his place on the U.S. Team to the Baden (near Vienna) World's, where the ITTF would continue to mandate use of the 6 and 3/4-inch net.
In Baden, the unprecedented and ever after unreplicated happened--the U.S. men won the Swaythling Cup (as did the U.S. women the Corbillon Cup).
On the second day of play, however, our men had what appeared to be a disastrous 5-4 loss to the Hungarians. Bud did his bit--lost to Barna, but beat Laszlo "Laci" Bellak, 2-1, and Soos, 2-0. It was Soos who killed us, though, with two key wins--over Berenbaum, 24-22 in the 3rd, and over McClure, 19 in the 3rd.
Still, we hung in there--avoided a calamitous second loss to Czechoslovakia (10-2) when Schiff won all three and Bud and Jimmy contributed just enough by knocking off Miroslav Hamr (and maybe his hair net?) to give us a 5-4 victory.
Bud also finished very well in our last round-robin tie against Poland, winning all three: against Schiff (Schieff, Szieff, and Sziff are variant spellings), the player who gave our Schiff his only Swaythling Cup loss, against Finkelstein, 19 in the 3rd, and against Singles runner-up Ehrlich, deuce in the 3rd.
When Austria (9-3) unexpectedly 5-0 annihilated Hungary, a play-off materialized between the U.S. and Hungary. Today, if two teams are tied with 11-1 records, the tie is broken by how the teams fared head-to head. Fortunately for the U.S. the rule was different in 1937.
Though earlier Blattner had won two matches against Hungary, this time he lost all three. But still--thanks to Schiff and McClure--the U.S. won the tie, 5 and 1/2 to 3 and 1/2 (the half points having been awarded to both McClure and Soos when their match was stopped for having exceeded the time limit).
Any other titles the U.S. could take home?
In the Men's Singles, Blattner pulled out a 19-in-the-5th win over the Czech star Adolph Slar, who after the War would win the World's Men's Doubles with Bo Vana. Then he advanced to the quarter's by battering England's Stanley Proffitt. But then he was stopped after a fierce -20, 15, 21, -17, -20 encounter with Soos who certainly at times seemed the strongest of the Hungarians, and who in far-away 1950 would be both the World Men's Singles runner-up and (with Ferenc Sido) the World Men's Doubles Champion.
In the Mixed, Bud surprisingly did not mix well with Ruth Aarons who, on again getting to the Women's final, ran into time pressure against Trude Pritzi, saw the match stopped, and the title declared "Vacant."
But in the Men's Doubles, Bud and Jimmy as Defending Champions had to be taken seriously, right? Except, before they were to play their first-round match, Bud went shopping and got lost, really lost. Since he wasn't in the Hall at match time, he and Jimmy were defaulted--or almost defaulted. "Please give them 15 minutes more," pleaded Captain Elmer Cinnater....But then no Bud. "Please, 15 minutes more"--this time with Barna interceding for them, despite the fact that the Americans' opponents were Kelen and Nyitray, Victor's fellow Hungarians....But still no Bud.
Finally Blattner arrives, too late of course--or is it? Kelen and Nyitray want to play the Americans. Want to practice against these World Champions because after they beat them the Hungarians have what they feel is the more challenging English team of Adrian Haydon and Andy Millar coming up. So, o.k., they play and what happens? Jimmy practices a little fingerspin, and the Hungarians are beaten in 4.
In their remaining four matches Jimmy and Bud couldn't have proven themselves more. Haydon/Millar...Kolar/Vana ('36 and '38 World Singles Champions)...Hamr/Pivetz...all forced our boys to 5. They'd been down 2-1 to the English, and 1-1 and at deuce in the 3rd with the Czechs. But their final, -19, -20, 20, 13, 11 come-from-behind win against Richard Bergmann and Helmuth Goebel was the most satisfying one:
"At deuce [Jimmy later wrote] we sort of looked at each other and said: 'We either do or don't now.'
Bud hit a beautiful cross-court forehand in, to give us the advantage.
The next point went back and forth several times before a fairly high one came to my backhand. A lot of things went through my mind before I hit the ball-- and a lot more after I hit it. If you ask Bud, he will probably confess that just as many things went through his mind.
The ball went on, though, to win the game, and it proved to be the turning point in the match."
McClure of course was noted for his point-winning forehand, but the fact that he could hit that backhand in at just the right moment contributed mightily to their Championship--and gave Bud, on turning 17, the nicest "birthday present" he ever had.
At the London (Feb. 10-13) English Open that followed, Blattner was eliminated by Bellak in 4 after losing a 22-20 swing second game. But he and Aarons redeemed their poor showing at the World's by beating McClure and Dolores Kuenz in the final of the Mixed in straight games. To everyone's astonishment, though, Bud and Jimmy were upset by an unheralded English pair--which the eventual winners, Schiff and Berenbaum, took full advantage of.
There remained only the Anglo-American international event at Birmingham before the U.S. players, Aarons excepted, sailed for home. Although the U.S. Team won, 7 matches to 2, the English reserves, Hyman Lurie and Ernie Bubley, thrilled the home crowd of 2,000 by upsetting the two-time World Champions McClure and Blattner, 19 in the 3rd.
Accompanying our players home for a "Circus" Tour of perhaps 40 cities, and a commitment to play in the Apr. 1-4 Newark, N.J. National's, were 1936 World Champion Standa Kolar of Prague and three-time World Singles runner-up "Laci" Bellak of Budapest. Bellak would be the eventual Men's Singles and Doubles Champion (teaming with Kolar to down McClure and Blattner).
Blattner was upset in the quarter's by New York's Lou Pagliaro. By block-returning Bud's serves to his backhand Lou was able to get his powerful forehand going before Bud's--which in this case, USTTA anti-pushing regulations to the contrary, certainly made Louie's trap shot an "offensive" rather than a "defensive" stroke. Blattner, however, paired with Aarons to win the Mixed.
The 1938 Intercities were in Blattner's hometown of St. Louis--but this year Bud didn't play for the St. Louis Team. He'd retired, at least temporarily, supposedly to concentrate on his "schoolwork," but really because he was very disappointed he didn't win the Newark National's.
However, he did enter the Western's, and though partially inactive he might be, he still wasn't going to lose to a top local player Tom Howle. But the grown up 1935 U.S. Boy's Champion, George Hendry, also from St. Louis, who'd gradually attuned his defensive game to the lower net, was too strong here in Kansas City for Bud...and everyone else.
Blattner also played in the '38 Indianapolis National's--primarily, he said, to take his younger sister Marjory there (who that year would earn a National Ranking). In the Singles he reached the quarter's, where he was beaten by Schiff, 3-0. In the Men's Doubles he did better--but was upset when he and Hendry lost an intense -21, 23, -19, -14 semi's match to Chicagoans Ralph Muchow and Al Nordhem. In the Mixed he did better yet--but he and Dolores Kuenz lost a 4-game final, including a pivotal 23-21 3rd game, to Abrahams and Women's winner Emily Fuller.
That December Blattner still cared enough to play in the Missouri State, and was beaten by Bill Price and his steady, floating defense. But by this time the ex-World Doubles Champion wasn't dreaming dreams about table tennis, for he'd already positioned himself as an infielder for the Columbus, Ohio team in the American Association and so was well on his way to making a living as a professional baseball player.
By 1942, before his hitch in the navy, he'd moved on to Sacramento, where he "batted in 95 runs for an average of .295, stole 25 bases, and smashed out 17 homers," and then had signed with Branch Rickey as a rookie second baseman for the Cardinals. After that, he was with the Giants and the Phils.
After his ball-playing days were over--they'd started back at Beaumont High where he'd played not only baseball but basketball and tennis--he teamed with Dizzy Dean to broadcast the St. Louis Browns' games and institute the TV "Game of the Week.". In 1953, when the Browns left St. Louis, he moved to basketball, became the voice of the St. Louis Hawks. Then he was hired by Gene Autry to be a sportscaster for the Angels, and nine years later went to the Kansas City Royals.
After being welcomed into the USTTA Hall of Fame in 1979, he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.