Chapter X: 1935 World Championships (Schiff Wins Men’s Consolation). 1935 National’s: Berenbaum Joins Aarons as U.S. Champion--But "Chiseling" Matches a Problem.
1935: Pagliaro Coming of Age. 1935: The Approaching Winds of Change, of Controversy.
Accompanying 4-time World Champion Victor Barna on the liner Lafayette to the Feb., 1935 18-nation London World Championships was American Zone winner Jimmy McClure, whom Barna thought the most promising U.S. player (TTT, Mar., 1935, 6). Sailing on another ship, the S.S. Manhattan, were three other Americans. One was USTTA President Bill Stewart, who years later, in a Jan. 31, 1958 letter to Elmer Cinnater, recalled that "McClure refused to come on the same boat with the rest of us." Perhaps traveling with Barna as his sole companion--and, well, it couldn’t be helped, incurring as a result "somewhat excessive" expenses reluctantly paid for by the American Zone sponsor, the NYTTA--made Jimmy feel more like a potential world champion? He had a long way to go...didn’t he? "Don’t expect me to win," he’d told his father before leaving...."Why not?" said his father, a former semi-pro baseball player in the 3I League (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa)...."Because," said Jimmy, "these are the best players in the world."..."So," said his father, "do they use more than one paddle?"
Accompanying Stewart were Zone runner-up Sol Schiff, who, thanks to President Zeisberg and the NYTTA’s Charles Funk and Leo Schein, had been the recipient of a special $150 fund-raising campaign, and Chicago's "flaxen-haired, slim...lithe," and more or less game for anything Helen Ovenden, who back in 1931-Chicago had been described as a "former English star" (YFS I, 7).
Ever mindful that she couldn't participate in the Corbillon Cup Women's Team matches without another U.S. woman player, Ovenden became aware from a chance newspaper pic that Babe Ruth's step-daughter Julia was in London and had been playing recreational ping-pong at her hotel. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
"The Babe," Coleman Clark had written in his 1933 book, "trains on ping-pong in the early spring" (72). It was only February, but maybe his daughter was already into her serious warm-ups? Ovenden and President Stewart met this Julia, and she very obligingly agreed to join the U.S. Team.
Of course it didn't matter that, as it turned out, Julia (in her debut performance she lost 21-4, 21-5) wasn't much of a player , so long as she had the guts to pair with Helen through 10 Corbillon Cup ties. Who cared whether they lost them all--just the name "Ruth" had to provide some great publicity for the USSTA, the more so because it was thought The Babe himself might arrive one night to catch the action (though he never did.). Ovenden got to play quite a bit and, regardless of her 1-10 record, really didn’t do so badly--proving herself in the Team’s to be a threat to both Carmen Delarue, the French #1, and Margaret Osborne, the English Champion, and in the Singles by downing Birute Nasvytyte, the strongest of the Lithuanians, before falling to Mrs. E. F. Davis, the Welsh Champion.
Less than a month before the U.S. Team was to set sail for these World’s, Editor Zeisberg, President Stewart’s take-charge aide de camp, you might say, was writing to Stewart wondering where, in addition to McClure and Schiff, a third U.S. Swaythling Cup player was to come from. If necessary, he said--and could this suggestion have been to President/Player Stewart’s liking?--the English TTA would no doubt be able to "get somebody and disguise him as an American in order to enable us to have a team."
As it turned out, joining McClure, Schiff, and Stewart on the U.S. Men's Swaythling Cup Team was Portland, Oregon’s Gilbert Marshall, reportedly among the top 10 players in London, where, though a U.S. citizen, he was conveniently living. Although he was thought by Sol to be no better than players ranked #15-20 in the U.S., and by Jimmy as a wild, red-headed swinger who spent half his table-time falling all over the court, History, I think, will consider his youthful teammates’ judgments of him a little harsh. Seattle’s Nathan R. Meadows of the American Legation in Berne, said to be #6 in Switzerland (where, as an American citizen, he had his home), was not a participating member of this Team--though repeatedly reported in Topics as being so.
Although it's highly unlikely that our U.S. Swaythling Cup players worked out, as did some of their European competitors "with rowing machine, Indian clubs, and...[punching] bag" (TTT, Apr., 1935, 6), they were "the first first-year team to finish better than last." In fact, led by teenagers Schiff and McClure, who played every tie, they did rather well: Schiff was 11-8, McClure 9-10; Marshall 3-7; and President Stewart (who played as many ties as Marshall, a much superior player) 0-9. They beat Yugoslavia 5-4, the Irish Free State, 5-3, and Belgium 5-2; and they lost to Hungary 0-5, Lithuania 0-5, France 1-5, Latvia 3-5, and Austria 4-5. Moreover, Schiff, McClure, and Marshall had led the very strong Austrian Team 4-2 but couldn’t score the clincher. "In the 3rd game of the final match McClure, trailing [Karl] Schediwy 16-20, pulled up to 19-20 only to bang a set-up against the net cord and just off the table’s edge" (TTT, Apr., 1935, 3).
In the Men's Singles, Schiff beat Baron, England’s strong junior in straight games, then lost in 5 to lefthander Mordecai Finberg of Latvia, World #8, whom he'd beaten earlier in the Team's. Perhaps Sol ought not to feel too badly though because in the Team’s the great Barna himself "had lost his first singles match in three years" to this same Finberg. Despite his unusual U.S. "training" for this World Championship, Barna--he of course of the incomparable backhand from the far forehand side--again won the Men’s Singles. In the historic 19-in-the-5th final, Barna defeated fellow Hungarian Miklos "Mike" Szabados, who'd taken the title from him in '31, and who in an earlier round had been (12, 20, 22) extended by McClure.
This, Barna’s fifth and last, World Singles final was a special one to remember--and both Reid in his Victor Barna (37) and Bellak in his Table Tennis: How A New Sport Was Born (66) speak of it. Although the fast-tiring Champion had suffered a hand cramp in the end-game 5th that forced him to drop his racket and stop play while his friend and teammate Bellak massaged that hand, he then came back to win the last three points in an unusual way--by quickly and courageously hitting in his little-used forehand. That same forehand about which Schiff would one day perversely say, "If I spent an hour with a beginner, he’d have a better forehand than Barna."
As for the Men's Doubles, since the suave Glancz had decided he liked it in the States and didn't want to get deathly sea-sick going back across the Atlantic, McClure, at Barna’s suggestion, took his place--partnered another famous Hungarian player, the 1932 World quarterfinalist and "1934" (actually, Dec., '33) and 1938 World semifinalist, Tibor Hazi.
As we’ll see, half a dozen years later, Tibor, accompanied by his wife Magda Gal Hazi, Women’s Singles runner-up at this ‘35 World’s to Marie Kettnerova of Czechoslovakia, would move to the U.S. and continue his long and distinguished career. Remarkably, more than 25 years after this World’s, in 1961, Tibor would still be the #8-ranked player in the country. Partnered with Glancz, Hazi had gotten to the final of the Doubles in the last World’s--but because they didn’t win perhaps Tibor thought that Sandor had let him down in that final match? Later Hazi would say that Glancz, surely one of the world’s best players in the late ‘20’s and early ‘30’s, really didn’t have the competitive spirit.*
Here at this London World’s, considering that Jimmy ("the only English word Hazi knew") and Tibor were total strangers to one another, they did as well as could be expected: they lost in 4 to the defending Champions Barna and Szabados who would go on to successfully retain their title.
McClure, partnered with Helen Ovenden in the Mixed, had what some, though not Jimmy, might call another "good" loss--to the eventual winners, Barna and Anna Sipos, World Women’s Singles Champion at the two previous World’s. "I could never figure out a good excuse for losing," Jimmy was to say later, "so I tried harder to win." No solace for him then in losing to the likes of Barna, Szabados, Sipos.
In the brief spotlight brightly, however, was our Sol Schiff. So much so that, as Max M. Taub, writing in the 92nd St. Y’s Mar. 15 Bulletin tells us, on Sol’s return trip home, before the S.S. Majestic liner had reached New York from London (four days late because of heavy storms), the ship’s Chief Steward had given him a special dinner--to which Sol got to invite, among others, Vernon "Lefty" Grove, the colorful New York Yankees pitcher. What prompted so generous a gesture on this Chief Steward’s part? The fact that Schiff (like Hazi before him) had won the World Men's Singles Consolation. This was no mean feat, for, since there were no extensive Rankings in those days, and no Seedings, the draws were not done with in-depth care and there were always very good players who were ousted early. Actually, had McClure not lost to Oldrich Blecha, Czech 3-time World Team member, in the quarter's of this Consolation, he and Schiff (who’d beat this Czech) would have met in the semi's.
Although play in every event up to the final day had been held at the Imperial Institute/London University’s Great Hall in Kensington, Sol's Consolation final against Alec D. Brook of England was played on Finals Night at Wembley's (indoor) Empire Pool and Sport Arena adjacent to the famous (outdoor) stadium. Play in this 10,000-seat Arena, offering every spectator clear viewing, was on a special floor covering the Championship swimming pool/ice rink underneath.
According to Barna, before the thousands of packed-house spectators were all abuzz over his Men’s final with Szabados to follow, they were roaring with laughter as Schiff’s opponent Brook "put Sol’s [knucklespin/fingerspin] services everywhere except on the table."** For his straight-game victory, Sol said he received a silver medal and the first trophy ever awarded to an American for winning a World Championship event--an exact though naturally smaller 12-inch Sheffield silver replica of the prestigious Singles Cup given to Barna. Moreover, if it was any consolation, any encouragement to Sol, Ivor Montagu, in speaking of Schiff and McClure’s results at this ‘35 World’s in a Feb. 26, 1935 letter to Stewart, could say that "without prejudging any spin services we’ve not yet seen--those we have so far seen are not yet so severe as to endanger first class players or spoil results that might be expected from all-round skills."
Ah, but even if History at this moment were inclined to agree, it certainly soon could not continue to do so.
Shortly after returning home from London, Schiff, whom 55 years later Hazi, for one, felt had been a stronger, steadier player than the more fervidlly brilliant McClure, was on the move again--this time with other New Yorkers out to St. Louis for the 7-team National Intercities, a get-to-know-the-competition-better warm-up for the upcoming Chicago National's.
The in-depth quality of play among the many near equal St. Louis players can be seen from the late-January Missouri State Championships held in Kansas City ("this city’s first taste of ‘big league’ table tennis"). 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 Buddy 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?). Runner-up Tindall, after 21, -22, 25, 24 surviving Vernon Tietjin, had still to down Edwin Woody who’d gotten to the semi’s with a 5-game win over future USTTA Hall of Famer Garrett Nash.
So strong were the St. Louis players that all 5 members of their Intercity Team--Schlude (#4), Tindall (#5), Blattner (#6), Bill Price (#8), and Jack Nix (#9)--would be ranked in the U.S. Top 10 for the '34-'35 season. Proof-positive for the Cluster Theory: that very good players can't help but beget other very good players--and not just in dominant New York but anywhere.
Schiff told me that, on returning from the ‘35 World’s, he felt like playing more, felt that the Sport would one day be appreciated in the U.S. No surprise then that his upbeat presence was key to New York’s 5-3 victory over St. Louis. 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. So, never mind that Jimmy Jacobson would lose all three of his contested matches to Tindall, Schlude, and Blattner, the N.Y. Team would prevail when Abe Berenbaum knocked off all opposition in straight games. Berenbaum thus became one of the three favorites to win the now imminent U.S. Men's Singles Championship. Not only had Abe been beating Sol regularly, he had lost only one match all season--the American Zone qualifier he'd dropped to McClure, who, given the use of Barna's apartment after the World’s, had opted for a vacation in Paris rather than join his Indianapolis Intercity Team (hapless without him).
1935 USTTA National Championships (and "Chiseling" Problem)
The 1935 National's--played in the banked-seat, bowl-like grand ballroom of the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, under the direction of (please, players, an eyeshade's O.K. but no hats or caps) Dougall Kittermaster, Reginald Hammond, and Ed Meltzer among others--was the first National's that would see the "Table Tennis" Champions--Schussheim (1932), Heitner (1933), and Schiff (1934) vie with the USTTA-recognized-as-co-equal "Ping-Pong" Champions--Clark (1932), Jacobson (1933), and McClure (1934)--in one unified competition.
Sounds all harmonious, does it? Except that, as was happening more and more the playing world over (at Wembley, Haguenauer of France and Kohn of Austria had taken 20 minutes to play just one point), too many of the over 250 entries for this National's were producing some very long and very dull matches--the most talked about of which was the 2 and 1/2 hour push-push-push Men's final won by Berenbaum over Schlude. This 5-gamer, in which only the 1st was close, ended at 2:30 Monday morning and drew from the audience that remained not just applause but boos. Did WMAQ, which was said, perhaps erroneously, to have broadcast "2 and 1/2 hours" of the matches, send that mixed spectator reaction out over the airwaves? (TTT, May, 1935, 3).
Both of the 5-game Men's semi's, though, had some match-changing moments. Schlude 16, -15, -19, 21, 14 rallied to down fellow St. Louis star Blattner (after Buddy, "unheard of in national competition a year ago," had a 12, 13, 10 stunningly easy time with Defending Champion Schiff). Even more striking was Berenbaum's -9, -20, 18, 20, 17 comeback against McClure.
Four months earlier, in writing about the American Zone Qualifier, a reporter for the Hudson Dispatch had noted that in the Schiff-McClure final Sol had "made the fatal mistake of not continuing his forcing game," and so had allowed McClure to become the aggressor. Thus Jimmy’s victory, another reporter had said, "ably demonstrated that a consistent and accurate driver can always defeat the consistent chop-stroke artist." Yeah? Two months later another newspaperman in a long profile of McClure pointed out what a "clever tactician" he was. But, he added, Jimmy’s "aggressiveness and daring," his "outstanding characteristics...are at once his strength and weakness. His willingness to take chances scores points for him that would not be won by cautious tactics but his eagerness to kill the ball when there is no opening betrays him into many errors that the conservative player would not commit." Yeah? Maybe McClure didn’t read the articles about him in the press--thought they might confuse him? Anyhow, here in the National’s against Berenbaum, Jimmy, up 2-0, made what he would always consider an historic misjudgment--changed his winning attack for an uninspired, plodding defense. Still, perhaps some Monday morning hindsight is involved in such a lasting and regretful assessment. After all, Jimmy just barely won that 2nd game attacking and then just barely lost that 4th game by not attacking. Had he won the 4th and the Championship, his conservative strategy might not have seemed so bad--if not to the audience, at least to him.
Undeniably though, the long last 3 games of this match ("People walked out to smoke a cigarette with the score 11-12 and came back many minutes later to find it 13-12"),*** coupled with the seemingly endless back and forth final, were, to some onlookers, even aficionados, just unendurable. Dougall Kittermaster, for example, called them "two agonizing and disgraceful matches" (TTT, Nov., 1935, 1). Granted one had a right to his own playing style, granted the object was to win, still....
And of course, worse for McClure, he didn't win and had to live with it. Schiff would later say that the slow Becker tables favored defenders Berenbaum and Schlude ("No hitter could play," said Sol). But Jimmy didn’t offer any such excuse. Rather, he admitted he'd "played into Berenbaum's hands," had forsaken his own game to play his opponent's. "In your mind," he said, "you think you can always go back to hitting, but you can't. Your rhythm, your confidence--they're gone."
On his way to the final, Schlude had quickly disposed of the USTTA’s first ( this year Over 40; for the rest of the decade and beyond Over 35) Veterans’ winner, Herman Freundlich of Chicago. A few months earlier, Coleman Clark’s advice to USTTA member clubs running tournaments was to have a Veterans’ event:
"Men over 35 don’t like to be knocked off by 8th graders, so have a ‘vet’s’ division for ageing males over 35 years of age. They will fall for it, and most likely do more for your club and association than any other class of players. If you treat the vets right they will be your best friends and greatest boosters" (TTT, Dec., 1934, 7).
But Milwaukee President C.B. MacCrossen--his son Don would lose the first USTTA National Boys’ Under 15 Singles final here to George Hendry--in arguing for a Handicap System, agreed that adult players "didn’t want to be beaten by some kid in short pants," but said that, at least in his club, they "don’t like the ‘senior’ classification or ‘veterans’ division" either--with the result that "we have lost our adult following entirely" (TTT, Jan., 1935, 6).
Given Clark’s influence, a Vet’s’event of the kind the APPA had instituted a year ago for Over 35-year-olds took root, along with a balancing Boys’ event, and thereafter age classifications have always been with us.
Freundlich was one of those very rare players at this time who played in both the Men’s and the Senior’s (the entry fee was the same $2.00 for each event). Of course in the Men’s he drew a tough opponent in Schlude the first round and was beaten in straight games. Schlude himself, however, didn’t have an easy time advancing to the final. He had to rally from down 2-1 to beat Windy City arrival Toye Lindblad (the Oregon #2 behind Portland’s Dick Jordan), who’d knocked off ‘33 Champ Heitner. Then, having made it to the quarter’s, Mark had a -18, 13, 22, 20 fierce struggle of concentration, of will, with another unyielding defender, Cal Fuhrman, who’d gotten the better of recent New England Open winner Sam Silberman.
Blattner in his quarter’s had just escaped deuce-in-the-5th from Jack Boksenbom after the Ohio star had staggered through two marathon three-hour matches--a deuce-in-the-5th upset over Western Champ Mort Ladin, and an avenging 5-gamer with a player he’d lost to in last year’s National’s, Jimmy Jacobson. Earlier, in the 16th’s, Jacobson had been forced into the 5th by Chicago’s Carlton Prouty (later the husband of five-time U.S. Women’s Champ Sally Green of Indianapolis).
Others playing in the Men’s Singles I’d like to mention here are: St. Paul’s Ed Litman who, "changing his grip from left-hand penholder to right-hand tennis" (TTT, Mar., 1935, 7), successfully defended his Twin Cities title against Ed Sirmai; New Jersey titleholder Ed Silverglade who, though beaten in 5 by Chicago’s Herman Leavitt, runner-up to Prouty in the Racine Open, later rebounded to win the Men’s Doubles with Berenbaum; advertising man George Binger, called by some the "Father of Indianapolis table tennis"(TTT, Dec., 1934, 1)--he’d be teaming with McClure to help put on the National’s there in ‘40;**** Earl Coulson, a U.S. Top 10 player in ‘37 and ‘38 but who here lost in 5 to Indiana teammate Ned Steele; current D.C. Champion Elias Schuman and runner-up Philippine emigrant Eduardo Yap, proprietor of one of the earliest (Jan., 1931) commercial ping-pong parlors in Chicago and for a short time in ‘32 Editor of Table Tennis, a local newsletter; Herb Aronson, U.S. #10 in ‘36 and ‘38; 1935 Pontiac, Michigan City Champ Perc Secord, in real life a barber, and so involved in the Sport for 50 years that eventually he’d be named to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame; Kansas City’s V. Lee Webb, who (was he clowning around on court even then?) 19-in-the-5th defeated New Rochelle’s Jimmy O’Connor, said (though I can’t verify it) to be a one-time "California Champ" and later a good friend of Bellak and Glancz; and, lastly, future USTTA Executive Secretary Jack Hartigan who had a gutsy -15, -10, 21 (from 20-15 match point down!), 19, 18 win over Cleveland’s Courtney Bock.
True-grit matches in the Men’s Doubles often seemed the rule rather than the exception. One half of the Draw saw McClure and Joel Inman get by Schiff/Silberman in 5 before losing in 5 in the semi’s to Berenbaum and Silverglade. In the other half of the Draw, the about-to-retire Heitner and the already at least semi-retired Schussheim showed that these former Champions still had the right stuff, for they hung in there with a second-round -20, -20, 15, 8, 22 win over Ohio’s Fuhrman/Arens, then won another 5-gamer from the Chicago team of Aronson/Leavitt, before going down, again in 5, to Coleman Clark/Dick Tindall. Perhaps touring with Barna and Glancz had improved Cokey’s play? It would seem so, for he and young Tindall, with tenacious wins in the eighth’s, quarter’s and semi’s--19, -12, 25, 20, 18 over the Ohio pair of Bock/George Sturgiss; 14, -19, 14, -17, 15 over Heitner/Schussheim; and 18, -20, -17, 18, 21 over Blattner/Nix--survived all the way to the final.
As for the stylish sex, 16-year-old Ruth Aarons ("the most coached player in the game"), had no difficulty dominating the 44-entry ("greatest field...ever assembled") Women's Singles. Runner-up Jay Purves though, after losing games to Top 10 players Dolores Probert and Anne Sigman, had to come from 2-1 down in the semi's to beat East Bethlehem, PA's Emily Fuller, rumored to be both the granddaughter of the proverbial Fuller Brush Man and the daughter of the head of Bethlehem Steel. Before losing in the other semi's to Aarons (described as having "the grace of a fencer"), St. Louis's Ethel Baer Schneider, 5-game Western Open runner-up to Purves, had a very satisfying win over newspaper woman (London, Havana, Chicago) Helen Ovenden who’d recently taken both the Indiana and Racine Opens.
"The fine play of the Women...saved the late rounds of the National['s] from a complete walkout of spectators" was the perhaps overstated way Topics put it (June, 1935, 3). But, regardless, there were interesting early-round matches as well--Wisconsin Open titleholder Anne Gibovik scored an unexpected win over U.S. #7 and future USTTA Hall of Famer Mildred Wilkinson (later Shipman), -19, 17, 12; Virginia Booth (Barrington, IL), U.S. #8 for ‘35 and ‘36, beat perennial Detroit Open winner Ruby Abeline (later Davis), -15, 19, 17; and Marion Jacoby who, in winning the March Illinois State Championship at Evanston, had wept on upsetting Jay Purves, her high school teacher (TTT, Apr., 1935, 7), shed nary a tear in eliminating Toledo’s Deal Cannon.
Why, by the way, with 44 entries, wasn’t a Women’s Doubles initiated? Because there wasn’t a woman official on the sponsoring Illinois TTA and so no one to argue for the event? No wonder this summer Ruth Aarons would begin trying to play tennis seriously. She’d admit to reading "the famed Mercer Beasley book on tennis tactics" and to "using these tactics to win on a table" Maybe she would get more recognition, more attention, on and off the larger court? Maybe she could be U.S. Champion with a different racquet? Tennis, she said, was her "favorite sport."*****
At least the 20-team Mixed Doubles involved the women in some exciting matches. McClure and Trudie Schnur, after just getting by Jack Nix/Ruth Anderson, 19 in the deciding 3rd, lost to Heitner/Aarons, 23-21 in the 5th in the semi’s; while Schiff/Anne Sigman, after just getting by Jacobson/Enola Stevenson, 19 in the deciding 3rd, lost to Heitner/Aarons in 5 in the final after being up, ohhh, 2-0 and 20-17 match point in the 3rd. Sol chivalrously took a large part of the blame for this loss. It had never happened to him before, he said--but he became so flustered. Why? Because, from the beginning, Anne, so pretty and shapely, had promised him that if they won she would give him a "reward"--at the very least "a big kiss." So in the end-game 3rd, he couldn’t concentrate...just wilted.
Active women players absent from this National's were: Amelia McClure, Jimmy's 18-months-older sister, who was soon to lose interest in even limited tournament play; Mae Spannaus, who every year from 1936 through 1940 would be ranked among the Top 10; and the already irrepressible Reba Kirson (later Monness), current D.C. (and Middle Atlantic Lawn Tennis) Champion, who after 15 years of on and off tournament play would be our 1950 U.S. Champion.
Some young men players of note who for whatever reasons missed this National's were: 15-year-old Izzy Bellis ("co-holder of National boys'...[tennis] title"), who only two months after learning how to play table tennis had beaten Gene Smolens to become the Philadelphia City Champion; Hall of Famer Doug Cartland (at this point though, he couldn't even win, or, well, didn't win, the Chapel Hill University of North Carolina title); Arthur "Buddy" Drapkin (later Draper), next season’s first Atlantic Coast Champion; and young teenager Lou Pagliaro, who, though 5 years away yet from winning his first of three successive U.S. Championships, had showed how formidable a "mighty mite" he'd already become.
Emergence of Pagliaro as a Budding Superstar
"The Terrible Midget"--that was how Robert Lewis Taylor in his justly famous Jan. 31, 1942 Profile (seven pages in The New Yorker) took the liberty of headlining Pagliaro, though Louie, despite what Taylor calls his "arrested development" was then over five feet in height and just an inch or two shorter than, say, Ruth Aarons. Born May 5, 1919, Pagliaro, like Marcus Schussheim, came from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. "His father," Taylor informs us, "was a baker for a biscuit company and had no background of sports...[and] never saw his son play table tennis." When little Louie was eight, he joined, as Schussheim had earlier, the Tompkins Square (Ave. A and 10th St.) Boys’ Club, and this, he tells Taylor, kept him off the streets and away from where some of his friends ended up--jail. In spite of his short stature, during his years at this Boys’ Club Lou not only became promisingly adept at table tennis but enjoyed other games and sports--shot pool, played basketball, though, O.K., often on tiptoe.
Arresting, Louie and his table tennis play doubtless became, but his development as a young player of note was anything but arrested. By 1932 he was the New York City Boys’ Club and Inter-Settlement Champ for his age group. In 1933, from a field of youthful players representing various schools, YMCAs, scout troops, and welfare organizations, in matches played during weekdays after school at Bloomingdale’s Department Store, little Louie celebrated his upcoming 14th birthday, as it were. He defeated the 92nd Y.M.H.A.’s Arthur Spitzer to win the season-ending NYC’s Metro Junior Championship (8-13 Division). Then, being given "some pointers" ("Patience is most essential"?) from Abe Krakauer whose game Lou once said he’d copied his own after, he began winning matches in the annual NYTTA Round Robin. By the end of the ‘33-34 season Pagliaro and his Boys’ Club teammates (Gurrado, Koshak, and Hoffner) had won the NYTTA "B" Division League Championship.
In an interview with Sandor Glancz, Lou said that he and famous prizefighter Rocky Graziano spent some years together at this Boys Club. One day while there--this was sometime in 1935--Louie realized that his jacket was missing. "He told Graziano about it," Sandor says, "and within half an hour Rocky came back with Lou’s jacket and told Lou that if anyone ever took any of his things again, ‘I will bust him in the nose.’ After that, nothing ever was taken from him" (TTT, Nov.-Dec., 1972, 7).
In March prior to the ‘35 National’s, Lou, whose rapid advancement now warranted him a place among the best players in the NYTTA Round Robin, and his new Boys’ Club teammates--Stan Feitelson (soon to become Stan Fields), Al Goldman, and Abe Krakauer--upset the favored 92nd St. YMHA team of Schiff, Berenbaum, Drapkin, and Graetz to win the "AA" Division League Championship. "Hard-hitting" Pagliaro, now 15, beat Schiff and Berenbaum, the favorites, along with McClure, to win the upcoming National Championship!
And, just before the National's, in the N.Y.C. Metropolitan Open, Lou 23, 15, -11, 26 again topspinned away Schiff, then stubbornly took Berenbaum to 5. Said one observer, "Lou’s low height helped him, for he could hit the ball chest high rather than waist high."****** Said another, "So small is he [Pagliaro] that he almost has to jump into the air to...drive [the ball,] and how he can drive!" (TTT, May, 1935, 8).
After the April National's, however, Schiff resumed his winning ways. At the 4th annual N.Y. State Championships (held Apr. 29, 30, and May 1 on Mon., Tues., and Wed. evenings and played, like the others, at the 92nd St. YMHA) Sol, with nothing to spare, triumphed over Berenbaum in a 19 in the 5th final. Sharing the spectators’ attention, though, was Sol’s YMHA teammate Emil "Babe" Graetz who pulled off two spectacular upsets--one over the promising young Pagliaro; the other, a 5-gamer, over visiting 26-year-old Michel "Mickey" Glickman, who in 1931 had interrupted Raymond Verger’s reign as the French Champion. Glickman was in the States to play exhibitions with Glancz whose competitive instincts did seem dulled. Witness Sandor’s position with regard to "chiselers: "They should learn to drive. Rather than disappoint spectators they should lose the match" (TTT, June, 1935, 2).
Berenbaum, affected by the boos he'd heard in winning his National Championship, had vowed to be far less dependent on his heavy-chop defense. "If I can't develop dependable drives within a year," he said, "I'll quit." And, so saying, he proceeded to drive through Sam Silberman in 4 in the semi's (TTT, June, 1935, 2 and 4). Like most U.S. players who learned how to attack in those hard-rubber days, Berenbaum finished his follow-through in a more or less straight-up salute, for an open paddle was necessary to lift, to topspin the heavy backspin the chop defenders were putting on the ball. Pagliaro, in particular, was fast developing a high-arcing forehand that in his 1939 Table Tennis Comes of Age Sol Schiff would call "a stiff topspin loop." Lou came into the ball with "tremendous force" and then followed through by bringing his racket "almost directly up in the air and ‘way over his head" (35). At this 1935 time, according to one observer, only Schiff came swinging through across his body. How different then were the foreheands introduced at the ‘35 World’s by the Americans--the European attackers all played with an elbow-up forehand.
Everyone was very pleased that there weren't any marathon pushing matches in these N.Y. Championships--no spectator, even for free, wanted to watch that. Doomsayers like George Cottrell, Indiana’s V.P., who wanted to "lower the net at least an inch or maybe an inch-and-a-half," were warning that "our game is going to die if we don't give people the slashing two-fisted attack that is possible" (TTT, May, 1935, 6)--and players the country over were beginning to take heed. In the Pennsylvania Open, for example, Izzy Bellis, deuce-in-the-5th loser in the semi's to Cleveland's Al Findlay, was given a special prize for his "drive and drop-shot game...[that] had the crowd wild with excitement" (TTT, June, 1935, 2). Bellis had been ahead 18-12 in all three of the games he lost, but Findlay (who’d lose the final to George Sturgiss) had kept returning Izzy’s best shots. Ironically, according to one analyst, this match may have changed the attacking Bellis into the maddening "pooper" he’d later become."
Winds of Change, of Controversy
Iit would take more than the well-meaning encouragement of a prize now and then to find a solution to the increasingly poopy problem confronting the Sport--"pooping" (as in "We’ve played so long , we’re both pooped, just haven’t control of ourselves anymore"?) being one of the more colorful synonyms of the times for mere pit-pat play or "chiseling."
As the June, 1935 issue of Topics made clear, ideas for change were not wanting.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to lower the net? Organizer Harry Wahle experimented with a 6-inch-high (as opposed to the legal 6 and 3/4-inch high) net in a post-National's tournament in Cleveland and, after Aaron Boksenbom had not unexpectedly won the Men's, Wahle said that the lower net not only speeded-up play "25%," it "permit[ted] angle shots not possible before" (4).
Maybe livelier balls would help? Or a deader, maybe even 10-foot-long (as opposed to the legal 9-foot-long) table? Such tables were actually made by a Philadelphia firm (2).
Maybe, as Buddy Blattner suggested, after the ball had "crossed the net 25 times, play [should] be stopped and each player awarded a point"? (2).
Or perhaps, as Coleman Clark's brother Robert would have it:
"...if a match runs over its alloted time, it [should] be shifted to a special pooper's room out of sight of spectators, where the pingers could push it out under the eyes of a referee while the next scheduled match is put on for spectators. The idea could be extended to the final: if it developed into a marathon, it, too, could be transferred to the poopers' room and [be] replaced by a slashing exhibition finale" (2).
The winds of change were swirling in the Sport whether the playing halls at the moment were still or not. At the next World's in Prague, Philip Reid in his Victor Barna tells us, on tables that "seemed so soft one could press one's finger into them," something so startlingly Kafkaesque would occur as to seem surreal: the Pole Ehrlich and the Rumanian Paneth would play more than two hours...in contesting just the first point of the match! (48). How long could anyone watching have been mesmerized by such "play"? And once having seen it, or part of it, who could want to see it again?
Of course the world of Table Tennis, like any other, has long been filled with that which is contradictory, even outrageous. Here, from the mid-'30's, are a few more thoughts for later-day comparisons.
The ITTF and its member organizations, including the USTTA, were very proud of themselves for allowing both "amateurs" and "professionals" to play in their tournaments. Regarding this thorny issue, Montagu in his Table Tennis (1936) explains the Federation’s position:
"Every country may make exactly what regulations it likes about players within its own borders in respect to expenses and earnings. The only proviso is that in all rules and regulations the words amateur and professional must disappear. In international contests only expenses may be paid, and the various countries accept and recognize whatever visiting players may be endorsed by their respective national association" (117).
No hypocrisy in our Sport, said the ITTF and USTTA. But when it came to making any money from the Game, many players and officials took as a standard the often financially secure amateur and (even as Durabilt sold a "European-type" racket called the "Aristocrat") that amateur's snobbery they professed to deplore. The USTTA, governed by amateurs as per their Articles of Agreement, surely supported the sentiments expressed in this May, 1935 Topics editorial:
"...It should be remembered that the men that pioneered in this game, who spent years of their time for the sheer satisfaction of proving to a skeptical and even hostile public that it was a worth-while sport, did so without any thought of making any money, just bare expenses.
TOPICS therefore condemns the practice of ‘chiseling’ extra money for exhibition matches. It hurts those who do it and the game, too. If table tennis has given pleasure to exhibition players (and it has), it seems they should be more than glad to give their time for the fun and glory" (2).
Understandably, hard-working Topics Editor Carl Zeisberg, now about to acquire more power as the new USTTA President, is thinking of himself here, and all his "spare-time no-pay labor, sweat, one-cent postal cards, and midnight electricity." As for the New York Schussheims and Schiffs who hadn't Carl's no doubt well-deserved and good-paying job on the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, well, what kind of professionals could they hope to be, what kind of money could they ever hope to command? Is that, consciously or unconsciously, part of Zeisberg’s thinking? Did he feel a strong, class-divisive difference between them and, say, the stocks and bonds-polish of Coleman Clark or the aristocratic manner of Sandor Glancz? Was he then indirectly saying, "Let’s not cheapen the Sport," and saying something else besides? Certainly Schiff, for one, thought that Zeisberg, however fair he rationally tried to be, did not really like New Yorkers or Jews.
Zeisberg rightly recognized that "Indiscriminate exhibitions by not-so-good players or in not-so-good places [even if they were given for free] definitely harm the game"--so of course his USTTA insisted that exhibitions be sanctioned (TTT, Oct., 1936, 4). But though Carl understood the danger of well-meaning amateurs actually undermining the sport by their poor presentation, he also felt that the best kind of "professionals" were educated and sophisticated and had sources of income other than from table tennis. But wasn't a sports "professional" someone who was entitled to at least try to make a living at a sport he was expert in? Or in Table Tennis, as opposed, say, to Baseball, did that make him a bum?
Barna and Glancz were not only very good exhibition players; they provided an ideal professional "presence"--were seen, listened to, respected. In 1935 these Hungarians were calling any attempt to fool your opponent with sidespin "a waste of time." Sidespin "makes no sense," they said--"only beginners are deceived by such a stroke." Later, of course, in the '70's, when even journeyman professionals really could begin to make a living in the Sport (else there wouldn't be any Sport), when technology had brought about a radical change in the way the Game was played, the world-class Hungarians Joyner and Klampar were causing a sensation with their sidespin curve-around-the-net-post sponge-rubber shots.
Though it may not be generally known, in 1935 there were already controversial sponge-rubber rackets and already a vote taken by the USTTA membership as to whether they should be banned--with 873 members voting to ban them and 733 voting not to. However, as this ban was necessarily cast as a proposed Amendment to the Articles of Agreement, it required a 2/3 majority, and, since this wasn’t obtained, the ban failed. Zeisberg's Apr., 1935 Topics editorial on this subject read as follows:
"Your editor, who personally has a low opinion of sponge-rubber bats, is glad, nevertheless, that the resolution to ban them was defeated. ITTF rules permit use of any kind of bat and this exception would cause complications. These ‘trick’ bats are not widely used by good players and in time they will become as obsolete as bell-bottom pants" (2).
End of one windy season...deja vu beginning of another?
*Likely, Tibor meant a through-the-years, unrelenting and all-sustaining competitive spirit. But I must add that one afternoon--in 1970 or thereabout--on entering Bobby Gusikoff’s N.Y.C. Riverside Plaza Hotel Club I was very surprised to see a red-faced Sandor, in his gentlemanly 60’s, playing a grimly competitive match against the much younger Jamaican National and 1973 U.S. World Team member Fuarnado Roberts. I sensed some antagonism between the two, and can certainly attest to Sandor’s competitive spirit that day at a time when he was much more a spectator than serious player.
**Barna’s (1962) Table Tennis Today, 110. Alec D. Brook was advertised in his (1953) booklet Table Tennis Quiz as "English International. Winner of over 100 tournaments." He lost three World Consolation finals.
***This reporter, Howard Berry, writing in the Apr. 8, 1935 Chicago Tribune, also said of the McClure-Berenbaum semi’s that it was "packed with all the excitement of a tree sitting contest" (GSS II, 33).
****McClure told me that Binger was Advertising Manager for William H. Block Co., the biggest department store in Indianapolis. Jimmy remembered that once when Binger sent the results of a tournament to the Indianapolis Times, they didn’t get printed, and immediately thereafter the Times didn’t get the customary Block ad (presumably it went to a rival paper). Binger would later be a great help in advertising the 1940 U.S. Open. However, in regard to Binger being the "Father of Indianapolis table tennis," reporter Mary E. Bostwick quotes a Mr. Ed Dorey at the 1940 Indianapolis U.S. Open as saying, "Rollin French and I started the first [Indianapolis] city tournament in 1931 and the first state tournament in 1932, and we organized the first table tennis league....We played in basements and the back ends of sporting goods stores" (FDS, 19). Rolly French and his wife lost the 1934 Indianapolis City Mixed Doubles final to Jimmy McClure and his sister Amelia (TTT, Dec., 1934, 7).
*****RAS, 4, 9, and 15. Herb Jasper, writing in the Philadelphia Evening Public-Ledger, says that in the summer of 1935 Ruth was going to try to emulate Fred Perry, 1929 World Table Tennis Champion and afterwards Wimbledon Tennis Champion, and so at Stamford, CT she "took to lawn tennis seriously under the direction of Coach Terrentief, of Cornell" (GSS II, 46).
******This was the opinion of Schiff contemporary, Baltimore’s Gus Sempeles. Gus told me he bought a Slazenger racket, read Coleman Clark’s book, tried to learn the strokes, and used to take a $3 B&O excursion train from Baltimore, get into New York at maybe 5:30 on a Sunday morning, then have all day to play and watch the good players.