Chapter XVII. 1936: Haydon’s Eccentric Grip, and Zeisberg’s RIP Obituary to "The Penholder." 1936: Barna and Berenbaum, McClure/Blattner, Aarons and Sigman Dominate National’s. 1936: Aarons/Glancz and Fields/Sigman Form Swank Night Club Acts.
Barna and the English #l, Haydon, had to interrupt their just begun U. S. Tour (during which, to one columnist’s delight--see RAS, 27--Barna will supposedly learn from Haydon, "how to dribble a ping-pong ball with his toe"), for of course they were the main attractions among the over 200 entries in Tournament Chair Frank R. Veale, Jr.'s Apr. 2-4 Philadelphia National’s played in the grand ballroom of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.
Barna we already know something about, but his slightly older contemporary Haydon, what kind of game did he have? Ivor Montagu in his (1936) Table Tennis had the following pertinent remarks to make about this 26-year-old veteran attacker who, ever on the move to cover his crushing forehand, had beaten McClure so decisively at Paddington Baths just before the World's:
"...the players most to be feared in match-play are first-class players with eccentric grips. First-class players with classic styles may owe their position to their style, the variety and sparkle of their strokes. They may well be nervous, temperamental. But the player of eccentric style, if he be good, must owe his ranking to his intelligence, resolution, or the absolute reliability of the repertoire he does possess. An example is A. A. Haydon, the leading English player of the day, who (left-handed) grips the racket with almost three fingers on the blade....This curious grip, a sort of all-forehand exaggerated to the nth degree, enables him to strike any ball, however low, and with whatever spin or drag it may come to him, with forehand topspin" (30-31).
Montagu goes on to say how Haydon's "massed fingers behind the blade prevent him from executing properly any stroke except the forehand one," for, "on the backhand, an awkward overweight of hand in front of the blade prevents the thumb from executing efficiently its backhand guiding role" (62).
Montagu also notes another intrinsic weakness of this English Champion:
"Haydon's peculiar style, stooping to impart an exaggerated lift to every drive, is not subdued by underspin as an ordinary drive is. But the very reason why Haydon does not mind a low-bouncing ball, the fact that he hits it at the crest of its bounce, makes awkward for him a really high-bouncing ball. Since he waits for the crest, and is short in build, his whole arm movement is cramped by his necessity to get on top of a really high bounce. Opposed to Haydon, the Austrian, Liebster, stands well away from the table and ties him up by returning the drives with slow, high topspin. The ordinary attacking player, who does not have to wait for the crest of the bounce, will nip such a ball in the bud by flicking it as soon as it has risen to a useful height and before its upward leap has been completed. But it is worth noting that, if a ball rise above shoulder height...it is by no means easy to smash back. This is because the hand playing it is already so high that it has no margin for the upward movement necessary for topspin. For such high balls a rarely seen freak stroke, a sort of chop-kill, relatively plain-hit, is sometimes used, but this is not controllable with certainty" (91-93).
Haydon's success with his forehand-favoring grip, and his vulnerability to a high topspin defense, or offense, anticipates both the coming dominance of the Asian penholders in the '50's and ‘60’s, and the high topspin lob of, say, the great crowd-pleasing French Champion Jacques Secretin in the '70's.
From the history-repeats-itself perspective of the 1990's it's ironically instructive to see the rise and fall of the various grips favored by the world's greatest players. "RIP"--that was Zeisberg's 1936 tombstone-cartoon pronouncement to "Mr. Penholder." Here's part of the
"The argument is over. Our old friend penholder is no more. He tried hard to live but he simply couldn't....
And what a blessing it is! Death is no joke but, after all, it's often a blessing. For years we were not quite sure whether to vote for Mr. Pen-holder or Herr Tennisgrip.
Now we know. The tennis grip is in and in to stay. There is no high ranking player in the world who uses the penholder [How about two-time World semifinalist Haydon? His no-backhand shovel grip is even worse?] and the greatest players all go so far as to say no one can ever be a real top-notcher with it. You simply can't execute in the right way the various shots that are necessary to play a splendid all-around game....
So let's face the facts, boys and girls, and all switch over to the only grip, the tennis grip, and let's preach it to the youngsters so that they may look forward in the future to lifting the Swaythling Cup, emblematic of world team supremacy, from the Europeans..." (
, Mar., 1936, 6).
To preach, to pronounce a USTTA no-dissent togetherness--that's always the patriarchal Herr Zeisberg's table tennis raison detre.
As might be expected, joining Barna and Haydon in the quarter's of the Men's were the World Doubles Champions McClure and Blattner; Defending National Champion Abe Berenbaum; and the 1933 World Doubles Co-Champion with Barna, Sandor Glancz. Also advancing were the former APPA Champion Jimmy Jacobson, and the current Eastern Open Champion Charlie Schmidt, a "24-year-old dental supply salesman," who, as reporter Louis Kursman said, won that Mar. Worcester, MA tournament over Sam Silberman "with steadiness and a deadly forehand" (GSSII, 49 and 89).
Richard Tindall, the other U.S.-based member of our Swaythling Cup Team, was the victim of an early upset by New York City's young YMHA player Tommy Sylvester, who then went on to beat Northern Indiana Champion Ned Steele before losing to Jacobson. Following this loss, Tindall, pursuing his Army career, seldom played seriously--once winning the Kansas State Championship, but in a Missouri Valley tournament losing a close match to Garrett Nash, and in a Washington, D. C. tournament losing to Stan Fields (formerly Feitelson).
Other prominent players with identifying numbers on their backs failed to reach the round of 32 at these National’s. Garrett Nash and Edwin Woody, a strong doubles team here didn’t advance, nor did Harry Cook, whom
reported had been seeded #1 in the Eastern's two weeks before but who hadn't shown (apparently without suffering any penalty). It was only three days before these Eastern’s that Zeisberg had written that letter inviting Cook (along with Feitelson, Drapkin and Goldman) to play in the National’s (under the Sawyer Expedite Rule), and perhaps, though his Eastern entry had been accepted, Cook wasn’t sure whether he could really play or not. Perhaps the Rule was in effect in the Eastern’s too, and, on finding that out, he just didn’t want to deal with it. Moreover, though it’s clear Cook played doubles in the National’s, it’s not clear from the completed singles draw sheets whether (in not advancing to the second round) he actually played his first round match. However, if he didn’t play these back-to-back major tournaments after entering them, surely he was faced with some repercussions?
Definitely three active Chicago District players didn't enter--Dan Kreer, Ralph Muchow, whom Kreer had lost the January Chicago Suburban Championship to, and Herbert "Chubby" Aronson, who'd recently won the five weekday-long, always noon-scheduled Marshall Field Department Store Invitational (that offered merchandise prizes). Sol Schiff in his
Table Tennis Comes of Age
, speaks of Aronson's "peculiar game": "He plays with both hands on the racket, one gripping the handle and the other the top of the blade. When he wants to drive, he puts the bat into the hand nearest the ball and drives, forehand only. When he doesn't drive, he blocks the ball with both hands on the bat" (137). Nor did tricky serve and follow Kansas City Champion V. Lee Webb and runner-up Heart of America TTA President Dr. Herman Mercer enter. Nor did 17-year-old Connecticut Champ Fran Delaney, or Central States winner Jack Boksenbaum.
Also missing were (1) last year's USTTA National 40 and Over winner, Herman Freundlich, replaced this year by the Over 35 winner, Carlton Drake, and (2) young George Hendry, who, "under the tutelage" of fellow St. Louisian Bill Price, had improved his game enough to win last year’s first USTTA Boys' Under 15 Championship and with it a contract to endorse Wheaties, the "Breakfast of Champions." Replacing Hendry (now 15) this year as Champion was a George Schein NYC YMHA protege, 13-year-old (?) Benjamin Franklin High School student Samuel "Cy" Sussman who beat 10-year-old Cub Scout Roy Weissman in the semi's and then Roy’s older brother Gene in the final. Both Weissmans were Schein-coached teammates of Sussman at that famous Manhattan Y where George had helped young Sol Schiff hone his game.*
Perhaps the most talked about early match in these 1936 National's was Price's 33-31 in the 5th victory (his topspin stting up "winning flat strokes") over Villa Park, Illinois' Dan Mabee. Bill then went on to defeat the tournament's Head Referee, Gene Smolens, before losing badly to Haydon's overpowering forehand. Smolens had recently been runner-up to Izzy Bellis in the 126-entry Philadelphia Sportsman's Show City Championship where players had "acted as [a] vigilante committee," fingering whatever chiseling matches might be in the making, with the result that an avenging Referee, literally Furey by name, disqualified two players and warned several others...including Zeisberg!
One of the best matches of the tournament was McClure’s deuce in the 4th win over Bellis in the eighth’s. Not so dizzy Izzy hadn't been beaten all season. The 30 straight matches he'd won on those Philly league tables with the "home-made slate tops from discarded billiard tables" (RAS, 14) had prepared him for as fast a game as McClure could play against his stiff, shoulder-high forehand chop. One observer noted that "Bellis had a tough break in the last game when, after he had drawn up even from 14-19, McClure captured a long rally," skidding one off the back edge. Bellis would go on to win the Pennsylvania State Championship over Norristown's Bill Canning who'd played Jacobson a threatening 15, -22, -24, -13 match here.
Bill's brother, Ham Canning, 24-22 in the 4th escaped Cleveland's Al Findlay, then got by U.S. Team Captain Sid Biddell in 5. (Watching the great players at the World’s had inspired Sid? Surely this must have been the best match he ever played.) But Ham could not do what Sandor Glancz in the eighth’s could--turn back little Lou Pagliaro.
After beating Canada's Desjardins in 4, Johnny Abrahams (by building up his backhand topspin until he got a forehand putaway?), knocked out Joe Blatt, 19 in the 4th, then played Blattner a -16, -19, 18, -19 combative though losing match in the eighth's.
Abrahams was later suspended for three months because of unsportsmanlike conduct at this National's. He'd upset Montreal's Desjardins "by repeatedly catching Desjardins' services, asking what the score was, and arguing about the score" (
, Oct., 1936, 12). John later publicly apologized in
, said he'd "acted like a hot headed impetuous kid, said he realized now what "irreparable harm" such scenes as he'd made cause, said it wouldn't happen again, and expressed his apologies to officials whose authority he never wanted to "flaunt" (Dec., 1936, 4). There--wasn’t that remorse enough to satisfy even Zeisberg?...At least until Johnny would have to be suspended again.
In the quarter's, Barna, who'd not yet dropped a game, had only to go through the motions with Jacobson, while Blattner predictably got through Glancz, 19, 12, -12, 18, and McClure through Schmidt, -18, -13, 23, -12. But Haydon, despite a decade of world-class experience, couldn't handle Berenbaum's heavy chop. In fact, despite Montagu’s line about Haydon "not [being] subdued by underspin," the # 1 Englishman had earlier played (could it have been for real?) the retired defender Schussheim a deuce game in a 3-0 win. Later, in an article in
, Haydon objected to 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 feels that the tables haven't a heavy enough under-carriage, and that were the tables firmer the ball would bounce higher]" (Oct., 1936, 3).
Perhaps Blattner would agree, for in his semi he couldn't -18, 19, -19, -13 find a way through Berenbaum to the final--to Barna, who in the other semi was still too 4-game good for McClure.
For the second straight year, then, Abe was playing for the Championship and, what's more, he'd improved his game. After he'd scented victory and doggedly left a poopy trail home in last year's final against Jimmy, someone congratulated him, told him he was glad that he, Abe, had won. "But what a way to win!" Berenbaum had replied, as if his chiseling had smelled to high heaven. "And," he said, "I meant it. I was disgusted and thought of giving up the game" (
, Jan, 1937, 3).
But instead he developed a passable attack (though one in which he "wouldn’t hit two balls in a row"). His aggressive play was noticeable this season not only back in February when he "won the [New York City] Metropolitan title for the 3rd straight year" by "taking the attack" from Schmidt then topsinning through "scoop" retriever Cook, but also when he beat defender Feitelson in straight games in the eighth’s here in Philadelphia. Attack or defend, though, it just wasn’t in the cards for 22-year-old, poker-faced Abe to do more than take a game from Barna.
In the semi’s of the Men's Doubles, however, Berenbaum, partnered with Abrahams, extended Barna, partnered with Glancz, into the 5th. But it would be Aarons, not Barna, who'd accomplish the "hat trick" of winning all three events, for in the Men's Doubles final Barna and Glancz could not defeat Bud and Jimmy, our new World Champions. The partisan audience really enjoyed this match. Said covering reporter Herb Jaspan, "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." Years later Sol Schiff, who in 1938 would win the World’s Men’s Doubles Championship with McClure, said that "Jimmy was fiery on the table, but not so fiery off it." Should he have been? It’s as if Sol is expressing some reservation, is mildly critical. Perhaps he felt there was some deception in Jimmy’s show of psyching himself up--as if Jimmy were out of character doing that, as if at heart Jimmy was far more rational than emotional?
McClure and Blattner had hoped to begin a Tour of "35 western and southern cities" in May, but, since Bud’s father couldn’t come through with the bookings, Jimmy wasted no time in joining a 17-week Tilden tennis troupe that included Ethel B. Arnold, Bruce Barnes, and Al Chapin. Back in 1931 Jimmy had been Indianapolis Boys’ Champion, in ‘35 Junior Champion, and later, from 1949-51, he’d be Men’s Champion. No problem--he was always able to play the two sports interchangeably.
In his farewell message at the National's, Barna spoke of the feedback he'd received from American audiences. Here, from local
Evening Public Ledger
reporter Jaspan, is part of what he said:
"Table tennis has become a living, breathing thing here. It was proved by the shouting of the fans in the United States finals. They seemed to enjoy themselves, and the asides of your youth had the humorous touch which lends color to your baseball games.
And what a crowd! It was almost unbelievable. Table tennis certainly has caught on. Unquestionably it is a game which appeals to all. When rich and poor mix in friendly camaraderie; when lawyers, judges and doctors cheer as enthusiastically as the youngsters and when fans show no hesitancy in offering money to help the fighting fund for next year's trip [to the World Championship], there can be no doubt that the United States soon will become the table tennis mecca of the world" (RAS, 22).
Ah, what a hopeful farewell it was--but neither Barna, World Champion nonpareil, or Haydon would ever compete in the United States again.
Although Barna did not win the Men's Doubles, he did win the Mixed--his appropriate partner being this National's taken-for-granted Women's titleholder, Ruth Aarons. Perhaps our one and only World Singles Champion had been wearing round her neck, as she had that fateful March 18 night in Prague, the symbol of worldly success--the "little gold paddle and chain" the Pennsylvania TTA had earlier honored her with?
In one of his Chicago
columns, Coleman Clark, who’d donated the permanent National Women’s Singles trophy that was won for the first time this year, had made the following plea:
"We strongly urge women who take the game seriously to avoid high-heeled shoes and tight-fitting clothes. Further, we plead with them to cast aside bashfulness and enter the tournaments" (RHS, 81).
But only 26 women entered this U.S. Open.
In the best of the early-round matches, Mrs. Paul Smith advanced to the round of 16 by outlasting Mildred Krafft, 27-25 in the 5th, and Dolores Probert advanced to the quarter’s with wins over Jane Stahl (-15, 13, 18, 20) and Mae Spannaus (-20, -14, 15, 16, 18). In the Mar. Eastern’s, Anne Sigman, "hitting with severity, her darting angled strokes flying low but with precision, turned in a smart performance in defeating Miss Fuller"--that was Worcester, MA
writer Louis Kursman’s version of a final in which Anne was down 2-1 to Emily. Here, after Purves beat Fuller, it wasn’t any easier for Anne--she had to go 5 to get by Jay too. Of course against Aarons all struggles just seemed to stop. Ruth 8, 6, 8 annihilated Probert in the semi's, and 13, 13, 13 overwhelmed Sigman, her winning Women's Doubles partner, in the final.
Mayer Brandschain, commenting on the final for the Philadelphia
, said that "the bespectacled girl [that’s Ruth--to correct her near-sightedness, she also wore glasses when reading] played attacking tennis [sic], forcing hard for the openings with sweeping swings that almost threw her off balance." Another on seeing her play said, "She reminds me of a marionette." But others found her more agile. In her "gyrations to execute her strokes," said one spectator, she has "the perfect abandon of the classic dancer going through an intricate maneuver." Another spoke of her showing "the color, poise and grace of a finished fencer."
With Aarons’s unprecedented success at home and abroad, and with her father’s show business connections, it was natural, after her commitment to the Barna Tour was over, that she should exploit the golden opportunity--do something more this summer of ‘36 than study sports clothes designing or try to become good at tennis. With her name and good looks, why not work up a sophisticated floor show act for big-city supper clubs? Especially since she had the perfect partner in Sandor Glancz, whose pedigree (he was European, in the wine business) and professionalism was unquestioned. And as if, with his titles, his Tour experience, he needed any more credibility, Ruth, on coming home from Prague, had insisted that her "ability to cope with the
games of the European girls" was in large measure due to the advice Sandor had given her before she sailed (
, Dec., 1936, 2). "Until I met him," she’d say later in an Apr. 9, 1938 Boston
article, "I used to kill the first shot in a rally, but he has changed my technique so that now I build up slowly for one big kill." A comment of course always applicable to what she’d be doing in her exhibition play.
On July 27, 1936, after an audition arranged by Ruth’s brother Alex, Aarons and Glancz opened in the ultra-exclusive Rainbow Room atop NYC’s Rockefeller Center--did the dinner show at 9, the supper show at 12:30 a.m.
Ruth said she’d never forget their opening night:
"...a scant hour before the show was to start, the table, supposed to come from out of town, had not yet arrived...A desperate phone call to Spauldings [sic] accomplished the impossible, and as all their trucks were out, a taxi was sent dashing up Fifth Avenue through red lights, with a [table] tennis table reclining on top!" (
, Oct., 1938, 17).
An Aug. 12, 1936 Variety House Revue said of their approximately fifteen-minute act that it would "undoubtedly create a new vogue in smart nitery attractions if for no other reason than that it’s an A-1 novelty" (RAS, 38). Novelty at the moment it surely was, but if you couldn’t catch their act right away, don’t feel bad; you’d still be able to see them there, 65 floors up, in the summer of ‘41--that’s how popular they’d continued to be.
The show they put on--critiqued by "Abel" in that Aug. 12 Revue--was very much what you’d expect:
"Play is on a collapsible table and the act carries its own referee-announcer, who heralds the players. They’re both in smart, snug-fitting sports slacks and the 21 point match play is done with realism. Miss Aarons doesn’t always win....That’s of course good showmanship, as is her victory coming from behind after a 1-5 start.
Another good showmanship stunt at the Rainbow Room is the offer of a quart of top-vintage champagne to anybody who can overcome [sic: that is, win with] a 10-point handicap. [The night this reviewer caught the act]...the male opponent from the audience wound up [losing] 21-10, or a love game in other words."
The reception was favorable. Initially Ruth had had a reservation or two: "I hope...I will get through the engagement without popping a ball into someone’s cocktail," she’d told Joseph Mitchell in an Aug. 10, 1936 N.Y.
article. But she needn’t have worried. Patrons--on one particular night they included "Ginger Rogers, Helen Hayes, Robert Montgomery, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr."--enjoyed every minute of it. "They are inclined to let their food get cold and their drinks warm while they take time out to applaud and cheer," wrote reviewer Malcolm Johnson (RAS, 41).
After their Rainbow Room engagement, Ruth and Sandor would be booked into the swank Empire Room in Chicago’s Palmer House where their original 4-week stay would be extended to mid-November, and from there they’d go on to the Detroit Athletic Club. Also touring very successfully was the attractive twosome of Anne Sigman and Stan...Fields ("Fields" was a better name than "Feitelson" for a Jewish headliner?). Anne and Stan played "colorful exhibitions for 5 consecutive weeks at Philadelphia’s finest night club, the Cafe Marguery in [the] Hotel Adelphia," then moved on to bookings at the exclusive Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Club Madrid in Palm Beach, Florida (
, Dec., 1936, 4 and Feb., 1937, 3).
The so-called "Golden Age" of U. S. Table Tennis--which surely History will see as something more than a romantic notion to entertain?--was promisingly upon us.
*At George Schein’s funeral (George died June 17, 1994), Sol, though sincerely expressing his public gratitude for all the help at the 92nd St. YMHA George and Leo Schein had given him, privately told me that George had never really "coached" him--I suppose in the sense of knowing enough to make helpful changes in Sol’s naturally developing game. Cy, who also attended the funeral, said publicly he owed a debt to George, for by encouraging his table tennis play George kept him out of trouble and gave him the strength of character to get out of the Jewish ghetto.