USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan

Chapter XIV. 1936: U.S. Team’s Pre-World’s Warm-Up Matches vs. English and French. 1936: U.S. Ties for Second in Prague Corbillon Cup Play. 1936: U.S. Men Beaten by Austrians and Czechs in Swaythling Cup.

Why?

"Why are we going to Europe?

Why do we anxiously flee?

Out of the land of our fathers?

Far from the home of the free?

Will we be students in Paris?

Or gaily go waltzing in Venice?

Blame it on youth, or believe it's the truth:

We are going to play Table Tennis!"

On Feb. 25, 1936, the same day that 18-year-old Sol Schiff received formal notice of his suspension from the USTTA, an exuberant, 17-year-old Ruth Aarons wrote the above poem.

On Feb. 26, the U.S. Team left for the Prague World's with warm-up matches scheduled against both the English and the French. Don't anybody worry--the players will do just fine: Topics assured everyone at home that the good ship Manhattan was "large enough to insure against the effects of the rough weather," and that an "official table and balls identical with those to be used at Prague will be on the boat for practice" (Mar., 1936, 6). Oh, alright, so maybe they didn't have a Jaques World Championship table, anyone want to ask Ruth how much difference that made?

"...We had our table set up on the promenade deck and every afternoon we practiced, though the rolling of the boat and the salt breeze that whipped merrily around the corners, would send the ball over the net at angles more weird than any finger spin serve yet devised. We passed the hours by watching the motion pictures, eating gumdrops, dancing during the evenings, or playing monopoly..." (TTT, Nov., 1936, 3)

Monopoly? Better not tell President Zeisberg that--he might want to make a scapegoat of Ruth, too...for playing the Parker Brothers game.

But speaking of Manhattan life, what had Ruth been doing in the big city before she set sail--that is, when she wasn't playing table tennis? Perhaps she was interested in...cooking? Hardly. The "only thing I have ever learned to cook is peanut brittle," she said, "and I must have my recipe in front of me to do that" (RAS, 13). ..."She’s an artist," her proud father in his best show biz manner told a New York Sun reporter (Feb. 13, 1936). "And she designs gorgeous gowns." Or, as another less subjectively involved put it, she's "attending the Traphagen Art School, from which she hopes to emerge as a competent dress designer."

No surprise then that, though this 17-year-old was accompanied abroad by her grandmother, Mrs. Martha Hughes, once they were in England for the warm-up matches with the English Team, Ruth--caught up in her designer fashion-passion to collect "bellboys' buttons"--"had to chase one boy through...[her hotel] lobby in London at 3 a.m" (RAS, 11)....Was that boy caught? Will his popped button turn up among others on a studded belt, or on one of the "different colored slacks" she'd wear for her matches? That "powder blue" one with the "silver buttons" (RAS, 18)--she’d made that one herself; it had already been and perhaps would be again evening wear at court on Finals Night.

The British, Ruth would soon discover, really took their table tennis seriously. There must be a "l,000 [table tennis] clubs" in London, she'd say.

So on Mar. 5 at Paddington Baths we lost to the English 6-3 because we weren't in shape, weren't prepared? Maybe still had our sea legs?

Before a "distinguished gathering of 500...including Lady Swaythling [Ivor Montagu's mother] and Mr. Fraser, American Consul General," Jay Purves started us off--bowed to Wendy Woodhead, 19 in the 3rd. Said English aficionado M. A. Symons, "Purves impressed as a player of considerable pluck and tenacity who is at present a little lacking in stroke playing technique" (TTT, Nov., 1936, 5). Which doesn't say much for Wendy Woodhead either?

Dick Tindall couldn't handle Maurice Bergl's topspins, said Symons--or his "drop shots" said another. Bergl, ranked among the top three in England and called "a potential world champion" by one of his repeated victims, Gilbert Marshall, beat Tindall easily, 10 and 11. This would be young Tindall’s first and only World’s, for he would soon retire to enter West Point (his father was a career officer), and from then on he would seldom play in a tournament even for fun. Ten years after these 1936 Championships, on Feb. 9, 1945, Dick Tindall, now 26-year-old Major Tindall, was killed in action in Italy (TTT, Apr., 1945, 6).

McClure lost to the English #1, Adrian Haydon, who, after the World's, would be on Tour in the U.S. and playing in our National's. Montagu in his 1936 Table Tennis tells us that the left-handed Haydon "grips the racket with almost three fingers on the blade...[and that this] curious grip, a sort of all forehand exerted to the nth degree, enables him to strike any ball, however low, and with whatever spin...may come to him, with forehand topspin" (32).

Symons said that Jimmy "appears to have speeded up his attack" since the last World's, that the players' exchanges were "almost of machine-gun rapidity," but that Haydon was "inspired...capable, when in such form, of beating almost any player in the world." Another onlooker spoke of Haydon's "terrific drives to [McClure's] backhand" that resulted in the Englishman’s lopsided 11, 11 win. Fast as Jimmy was to cover his forehand, Haydon, who had "no backhand drive and no defense," was even faster and so controlled the table.

Symons spoke of Aarons's "comparatively loose play" in both the Women's Doubles (with Purves--a 2-0 loss to Margaret Osborne and Woodhead) and Mixed Doubles (with McClure--a 2-1 loss to Haydon and Osborne where, as another observer said, the U.S. team was at a disadvantage--"service playing an important part").

Blattner's "forehand drive was a treat to watch," said Symons, especially "his final hit to the backhand corner," but Hyman Lurie's backhand was just too strong and Bud lost in 3. Two of the three U.S. points were scored by Blattner and his partner in doubles--he won with both Purves and Tindall--and perhaps this augured well for Bud’s doubles play at the upcoming World’s.

Symons, though, reserved his unequivocal praise for Aarons:

"Such brilliant defensive footwork by a woman player has not been seen in this country before. Standing coolly behind the center of the table, ready to step backwards either to backhand or forehand position, always on her toes for a drop shot, or to come in with a short whipped drive which troubled Miss Osborne [the English #1] excessively, Miss Aarons was the personification of grace and sang froid--possessing the confidence which only experience gives."

Also, as if not seen in England before, were the "well-cut bags" Aarons wore that "surprised, amused and intrigued" the "press and public" there. Another show of her confidence and sang-froid. Later, too, in Prague, when Aarons and her teammates walked a few blocks outside in their "bags," their slacks playing attire, Ruth said that "a silent, gaping crowd" followed them "gazing at our outfits in amazement" (RAS, 109 and 134).

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), 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 Biddell writing in the Apr., 1936 Topics:

"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 2 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!" (3).

At Bruay-en-Artois, in an exhibition, "McClure downed [Alojzy "Alex"] Ehrlich, of Poland, winner of the recent English [Open] Championship...[and] Blattner beat Haguenauer again." Biddell writes:

"Two in the world's first 10 have lost to us and I know now that we can win over France and England in the Swaythling Cup....[Our players] have gained much confidence after their big win (considered an upset in Paris) over the French. They are all in fine shape, though a little tired from so much traveling. But their morale is great. The French have been most hospitable, putting us up at a good hotel, and are very solicitous about our comfort" (3 and 5).

After the last match, at Mulhouse, Biddell exclaims, "We get up at 5 a.m. and ride all day tomorrow, with 5 changes of trains....Are we tired? And when we get to Prague [two days before the World's begins] are we going to rest!" (5).

U.S. Ties For Second in Prague Corbillon Cup Play

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" (May, 1936, 5).

In the 10-team Corbillon Cup competition, the U.S. opened strong with both Purves and Aarons beating Carmen Delarue, the French Champion. Then Holland was easy. Against Hungary, Migneco's win over Magda Kiraly-Baba, a later Singles quarterfinalist, was the 3-2 decider. With a breather over Lithuania, the U.S. was undefeated.

Now, though, they met the Defending Champions, Czechoslovakia, also undefeated, with their 1934 and 1935 World Women's Singles Champion, 23-year-old Marie Kettnerova, in what very likely would be the deciding tie of the tournament. A "classic" match-up Topics called it:

"Ruth proved too good for Miss [Marie] Smid [actually Smidova]. Migneco, chosen for this match because of her fine showing against Hungary, startled the highly excited gallery by [23, -16, -11] ‘almost upsetting’ Kettner [actually Kettnerova]. Again the U.S. pressed in the doubles to take the first game only to lose the last two before the fierce hitting of the Czech girls. The two champions then faced each other, Ruth heretofore undefeated, her biggest test ahead, knowing she must win to keep the tie alive; Kettner equally tense, fearing if she lost Migneco might upset Smid. The unruly gallery, twenty deep, swarmed to the court so that a tie on the next table had to be halted. Each shot that scored for the Czechs was greeted with a terrifying roar and each deep winning return of Ruth's met with a concerted groan. Kettner endeavored to drive through Ruth's superb defense, but to no avail. Ruth won the first game.

The second was a repetition of the first until the score at 12-17, Kettner, who had seen her fiercest shots returned, with the true qualities of a great champion changed her game in an attempt to outsteady one who now may be called the game's greatest woman star. Slowly Kettner crept up. So tense was the spell that the impact of racket stroking ball at the far end of the hall could be heard. With the score 17-17 and both girls white from the terrific strain, Kettner got a let [sic for net] ball to bring the score to l8-l7. One of the greatest pull-ups of the game had become a fact. Ruth faltered and lost after deucing from 20-18 [down].

The third game was equally hard fought. Ruth getting away to a bad start [down 9- 3]...to take it to 12-12 by brilliant tactics. The effort was too much, however, and Kettner finally pulled away after 18-all to win and end the match. The roar that went over the Lucerna as the final point was scored might well have been heard in Chicago" (May, 1936, 9)

Of course, since, prior to her loss to Kettnerova, Ruth had not been beaten since her first and only loss, in the 1933 NYTTA National's, and never before in such an important match, everyone wondered whether she'd more or less collapse from a severe loss of confidence. They'd soon find out, for next up for our women was undefeated Germany--another key tie.

After Jay Purves was beaten in the opening match by Astrid Krebsbach, the German #1, Ruth, "obviously shaken" by her loss to Kettnerova, dropped the lst game to Hilde Bussmann, the German #2 who’d go on to win the 1939 World Women’s Doubles title with Austria’s Trude Pritzi. Ruth’s collapse looked imminent?...Don’t bet on it:

"Slowly Ruth's game steadied and from the second game on she was again herself.

Germany made it 2-1 with a doubles victory and Ruth...had to beat Krebsbach to keep the tie alive. Faltering before the hardest women's driving game in Europe and after dropping the first game badly, she once more took control and the [tie] score became 2-2. Here Jay Purves showed her courage for after Bussmann had blasted through her 21-9, she refused to wilt and with amazing returns pulled out the second game after trailing 8-12. She again pulled away from 19-19 in the third to complete Germany's first defeat" (TTT, May, 1936, 9).

Ruth was warm in praising Purves--said Jay "showed as great a demonstration of tactics and fighting spirit as I have ever seen" (TTT, Dec., 1936, 2). That’s the kind of thing a partner likes to hear, huh? Particularly when, if Ruth and Jay had been able to win the doubles against the Czechs, their chances of winning the Corbillon Cup would have been much improved. Good vibes are very important. (Heard, felt again no doubt when in 1937 as eventual Corbillon Cup winning teammates Ruth and Jay are down 20-15 in the 3rd in the doubles against Germany and win seven straight!)

Germany would have 3-2 trouble with Austria, but we beat the Austrians 3-0 when Purves quickly disposed of Traute Wildam; Aarons, after losing the first, downed Pritzi; and (since Ruth had not been having any success in doubles) Purves and Migneco teamed for an unlikely 24-22 in-the-3rd win.

If we could take all the rest of our matches, and Germany could beat Czechoslovakia, we would then be in a 3-way play-off for the Championship. (Today, however, the 3-way tie would have been broken by the matches won/lost among just the three tied teams--and in that case the U.S. would have finished a poor 4-5.)

Belgium and Lithuania would later offer no difficulty. But against England, who would lose 4 ties, Migneco could not get the better of either Woodhead or Osborne (the latter would split matches with Kettnerova--a win in the Team's, a loss in the Singles), and, with the doubles all important, when Capt. Biddell understandably couldn't bring himself to try the shaky though victorious Purves/Migneco combination again, we lost, 3-1.

Czechoslovakia beat Germany 3-2 in the final (Smidova got by Bussmann and Kettnerova won two), so both the U.S. and Germany were second (though by today's tie-breaker rules the U.S., having beaten Germany, would retain sole possession of second).

A disappointing result?...Perhaps. But what an improvement over the Helen Ovendon/Julia Ruth showing of last year.

Swaythling Cup Play

And our men in the 14-team Swaythling Cup matches, how'd they do?

Well, to begin with, all the teams took notice of them, for on the first day they beat Yugoslavia 5-1 and England 5-2. The score with Yugoslavia doesn’t tell the story, though, for match after match was close and almost every single one went our way.

Against Yugoslavia's blockers, Marshall beat Max Marinko, -21, 17, 19, but lost to Laci Hexner and his large wooden bat, 19, -19, -18 (Hexner, by the way, was said to have been the first player in international matches to wear playing shorts as opposed to trousers)*; Blattner beat Weisbacher -10, 15, 19 and Marinko -20, 15, 22; and McClure downed Hexner 19, 13 and Weisbacher 18, 24. Turn just a few of those games around and our teenagers might have been a little intimidated?

As it was, against England, one McClure win (over Bergl) was all we needed. For Blattner smashed with abandon, winning all 3, including an 18, 4 annihilation of Haydon who, forehand-favoring shovel grip at the ready, couldn't fast-gun outdraw and outshoot Bud. Another surprise was Tindall's 19-in-the-3rd win over Bergl who'd beaten him so badly at Paddington Baths and whom Marshall wisely avoided by sitting out this tie.

On the second day any hopes the U.S. might have had about winning the Cup were quickly squelched with 5-1 losses to both Austria and Czechoslovakia. Marshall, who earlier in the season had recorded a win over Alfred Liebster, the Austrian #1, never got to play him in this tie, for, after Blattner with his hopping sidespin/topspin had beaten Erwin Kohn, McClure, ending it all, fell to Liebster, 19 in the 3rd. In the Czech tie though, Jimmy scored a very satisfying 22-20 in-the-3rd win over Miroslav Hamr.

The U.S. then won by default over Egypt, outplayed Germany 5-3, and scored an easy 5-1 victory over Belgium.

Against Germany we zig-zagged on and off the mark--ultimately to an on-course win. Dieter Mauritz, the 1936, ‘37, ‘47 and ‘49 German National Champion who had an unusual half-volley game, destroyed Tindall 3 and 9. Which brings to mind Wolfgang Lencer’s commentary that appeared some 30 years later and, though quite fanciful in its appreciation of Mauritz’s game, is still worthy of note:

"...[Mauritz,] standing very close to the table...drove everybody crazy....He did not win the World Championship title only because the World Table Tennis Federation in 1935 [sic: it was 1938] lowered the height of the net. It was simply pure lunacy to attack Mauritz constantly. The balls rebounded so terribly fast off his bat, that the attacker often did not even have the time to raise his bat for the next stroke" (TTT, May, 1965, 4).

But though Tindall looked the fool against Mauritz, he won a big 22-20 in-the-3rd match against Erich Deisler, the 1934 German Champion. Blattner lost a 25-23 in-the-3rd mirror match to Deisler, but he’d come through earlier with a win over Helmut Ulrich. Topics pointed out how "McClure won three matches, terrorizing Mauritz, the German #1, with his finger spins." Although it was Deisler Jimmy beat 9 and 5, and Mauritz he was going into the 3rd with, it could well be that Jimmy had saved his fingerspins for this 21-6 3rd-game occasion.** At any event, we won the tie--and ultimately 3rd place in our Group. (Today, there would be play-offs between Groups to determine final team placings.)

Defending Champion Hungary had won 8 of the 9 World Team Championships held. They'd lost only in 1932, in this same city Prague when, given the political climate of the Czech-Hungarian play-off tie, the tension was so great and chauvinistic tempers so explosive that the matches were accompanied by "ugly shouting and cursing by the spectators." In fact, the partisanship had been so outrageous that Barna, about to go up against a Czech opponent, was actually struck on his way to the table (TTT, Mar., 1937, 5).

This time in Prague the Hungarians were stunned by an early 5-0 loss to Rumania whose players (you had to hit as hard as the Americans to get through them?) simply refused, on these slow tables, to play an aggressive shot. Bellak said that the tables "were repainted" just a few days before the matches were to begin, "and the paint was not yet completely dried, making the surface soft, slow and somewhat spongy" (Table Tennis, 73). In a later tie, more of the same relentless defensive play by France's Haguenauer gave him three wins over the Hungarians, and when Daniel Guerin beat Bellak, and Dubouille downed the now far from invincible Barna, the Hungarians were history.

When Bellak spoke of "spongy" tables he was not trying to make up an excuse for Hungary’s poor showing. His complaint was echoed by Gilbert Marshall who was far more critical:

"Had the foreign players been able to obtain a reasonable use of the only decent table, I might have felt more charitably disposed toward the Czechs; as it was, however, the visitors were in nearly all cases compelled to play on the abominable home- made tables whilst the leading Czech players of both sexes played in a procession on the only table which gave the slightest hope to an attacking player" (Table Tennis Activity, Nov., 1936, 7).

In Group I, Austria was the winner after it had trounced runner-up Czechoslovakia, 5-0 (with Bergmann beating Vana 19 in the 3rd). In Group II, Rumania was first, though losing to Poland because of "Ehrlich's refusal to hit a ball in a two hour rally for the first point of their first match [sic] which so ridiculed Rumania's style of play that their morale was broken" (TTT, May, 1936, 8). Well, broken for the moment. Come the next day's final, Rumania was right back at it:

"Before a capacity crowd of over 7,000 at 9 p.m. the Swaythling final started. At 2:30 a.m. with Rumania still refusing to play other than defensively the score stood Austria 2--Rumania 3. Little 16-year old Bergmann staunchly held his team up and with a scintillating game that combined a terrific forehand, a rarely used but steady backhand and infinite patience, he refused to let Rumania win. The turmoil of the crowd, the exhortations and jeers, had no effect on his cool heady game. [After 5 and 1/2 hours the two teams had completed only five of the nine time-consuming matches that would be needed.] The balance of the tie was then postponed until the final afternoon, when again Bergmann's third win saved Austria, trailing 3-4, and tied the score. Rumania, who had led 4-2, lost heart and Liebster scored the winning point to end the match 5-4. Austria had supplanted Hungary as the world team champions" (TTT, May, 1936, 8).

So, no titles for the U.S. in Team play. But other events--Singles and Doubles--were about to begin. And the buzz was there might be new Champions crowned there too.

SELECTED NOTES.

*Marinko emigrated to Canada in 1952, became their 9-time National Champion, and played for over 20 years in North American tournaments (see Zdenko Uzorinac’s obituary of Marinko in TTT, Sept.-Oct., 1975, 7). For reference to Hexner’s bat, see Schiff’s Table Tennis Comes of Age, 130. (I believe the correct spelling is not, as Sol as it, "Hecksner," but, as the 1936 Prague World Championship Program, has it, "Hexner.") For reference to Hexner’s playing shorts, see his obituary in TTT, Jan.-Feb., 1975, 3.

**I can’t tell the order of play from the records given me. McClure is playing either Deisler or Mauritz in the tie-ending 8th match. But it would seem that Jimmy could have "terrorized" both of them with his serves--and, given his scores with Deisler, likely did.