Chapter XX. 1937: U.S. Men Win Swaythling Cup for First and Only Time. 1937: U.S. Women Win Corbillon Cup for First Time.
On Jan. 13, only 10 days after their Intercity triumph in Chicago, New Yorkers Schiff and Berenbaum, preceding the other members of the Team, sailed for Europe on the liner "Washington." As President/Editor Zeisberg's Topics put it, they had a special mission: "to buy Austrian railway tickets for the team in Paris" (TTT, Feb., 1937, 1). This translates to: they would meet the other Team members in Paris and, the train tickets having been purchased, they would all go to Budapest as guests of Dr. Geza Bodor's Duna (Danube) Sport Club for friendly U.S.-Hungary matches before continuing on to Baden (near Vienna) for the World Championships.* Actually, though, as Sol would later tell me, he and Abe had refused to join the rest of the Team leaving New York on the 16th because, being Jewish, they didn't want to travel on the German liner, the "Bremen." Ruth Aarons, however, who was accompanied by her recently widowed mother, had no such compunction, and in fact had returned from the '36 World's on the "Deutschland." (Zeisberg was partial to German liner bookings?)
The "dead tired" U.S. Team's Jan. 23-24 warm-up matches against Capt. Andor Wilczek's Hungarian Team was both encouraging and discouraging. The U.S. women won 4-1, the U.S. men lost 11-0. Aarons beat Ida Ferenczy, 2-0, and Magda Gal, 2-1; Kuenz got the better of Ferenczy, 2-1, but lost to Gal, 1-2; and Aarons and Purves had a very good 2-1 win over Maria Mednyanszky and Anna Sipos, reigning World Women's Doubles Champions from 1930-35.
None of our men, however, could take any of the 9 singles and 2 doubles matches against Barna, Bellak, Soos, and Szabados. Were the Americans still partly intimidated by the Hungarians' past supremacy, still somewhat in awe of the Hungarian "elan" that Istvan "Stefan" Kelen once long shared in but at this World's end will say no longer exists?**
Capt. Elmer Cinnater, writing from the Royal Grand Hotel (Nagyszauoda) on Jan. 26, 1937 at 4:30 a.m., was wide-eyed in praise of the Budapest media and his marvelous hosts:
"...We made big columns in every paper in Budapest. The first day we all were swamped by reporters and photographers....
The first night Ruth broadcast and it was translated over the air. I was presented a pennant by Dr. Gaspar Geist, president of the Hungarian TTA.
The second night a news reel was taken. After the matches we had dinner at Dr. Geist's home; a wonderful meal and a very big, beautiful home. He has a picture collection which is priceless.
In the morning a sightseeing tour. Saw the guard at the Royal Palace change. Monday practice and dinner at a coffee house.
Tomorrow we place a wreath on the tomb of Hungary's Unknown Soldier, practice in the afternoon and banquet in the evening. [These repeated practices, McClure would say later, were a big help to the U.S. players.]
All of Europe has lots of respect for the team and our Association. They think we are doing swell. (So do I.)
Sunday evening each of us received a pin, with a Hungarian shield, from Andor Wilcsek. Also each one got a plaque from the city of Budapest, a very high honor, given only on rare occasion. Today we all got D.S.C. [Duna Sport Club] pins. By the end of the week we may have the city...."
And after that not just the city but the country. For in Baden the unprecedented, and ever after the unreplicated, happened.
U.S. Men Win Swaythling Cup
Starting strong in round robin play against the 13-team field (15 teams or more, as in '36, though then Egypt didn't show, would have called for two round robins with a final between the two winners), but then faltering before, then in a dramatic play-off beating, that same Hungarian Team that had blanked them on their arrival in friendly Budapest, they did what in the six decades following no U.S. Men's Team has ever been able to do again.
On opening day, Feb. 1, our men remained undefeated through three ties. With Sol sitting out, they beat France, 5-1 (McClure having been fastened to a 3-game loss by the eccentric hammer-grip of the French Champion Haguenauer); then with Abe on the sidelines, they beat Lithuania, 5-1 (Blattner losing two straight to Victor Variakojis); and finally with Bud giving his forehand a rest, they beat Yugoslavia, 5-1 (Berenbaum losing in straight games to Laci Hexner). In this Yugoslav tie, the blocker Max Marinko, though losing 17, 21 to Schiff, was able to get Sol's fingerspin and/or knucklespin serves back because of his cork bat--and thereafter, as McClure would enjoy recalling, every time someone had to play Sol he came frantically running up to Marinko on the sidelines wanting to borrow this bat.
In our morning tie on Feb. 2, though, with Schiff again sitting out (Cinnater said Sol hadn't looked good in practice; Sol said he didn't care about practice), we suffered what appeared to be a disastrous 5-4 loss to Hungary. Bud did his bit--beat Bellak 2-1 and Soos 2-0; Abe, though downing Laci, fell, with victory so 13, -20, -22 near, to Soos (he was just overanxious, Cinnater said); and Jimmy, though stopping a sweep by Barna, also lost a critical end-game battle to Soos, -7, 19, -19, then couldn’t take the tie-deciding match against Bellak.
Ah, if only our "red fish" had played--that's what Bellak said the Hungarians called Sol because of the color of his hair. Fish? Schiff of course was no "fish," no easy mark, and with his wily spin serves (he used them sparingly, when he most needed to?) and powerful follow-up forehands, he was, as Bellak and the other Hungarians well knew, a feared opponent. Lucky for us, Bellak was to write in his Table Tennis, that Schiff didn’t play this tie, for he "had developed an almost unreturnable finger spin service" (81-82).***
Of course we fought on...into the night: blitzed Egypt, Germany, and Belgium...and, through the next day, held Romania and England scoreless (though Schiff, down 1-0 and at deuce in the 2nd, barely got by Farcas Paneth, the Romanian who in the last World's had played that infamously long first point against the inimitable Pole "Alex" Ehrlich)....And finally we were rewarded.
The turning point came on the evening of Feb. 3 when we avoided a calamitous second loss--5-4 outplayed Czechoslovakia (5-1 loser to Hungary, but 5-l conqueror of Defending Champion Austria). Sol was the hero: downed Bo Vana ("VON-yuh"), just turned 17****and only a year away from being World Champion, 2-1, Miroslav Hamr, 2-0, and (in the 9th match) Adolph Slar, 2-1. Bud and Jimmy helped just enough by knocking off Hamr (and maybe his hair net?) in straight games. Despite his losses to the U.S., Hamr's 10-4 record was quite good. Still, why hadn't the Czechs played Standa Kolar, their current World Champion, in this or any other tie? Answer: because he wasn't as good as his teammates?
On the afternoon and evening of Feb. 4, the U.S. completed their round robin play with 5-2 wins over Austria and Poland--both non-contenders now and fortunately non "spoilers" as well (Poland had come through with a 5-4 win over Austria but had lost 5-3 to both the Czechs and Hungarians).
Austria with their two losses couldn't have been too motivated to play us, for they had no chance of winning the title and no particular rivalry going against the Americans as they had against Hungary. But our Jimmy must have played magnificently: 15, 9, over Alfred Liebster, and 16, 10 over Richard Bergmann who before tournament's end would be the new World Men's Singles Champion. Sol also, though pressed to duplicate Jimmy's wins over these strong players, rose to the occasion--won out 20, -17, 9 over Liebster and 19, 20 over Bergmann. Bud with a 3-game victory over Helmuth Goebel contributed too.
Later, in the 8th's of the Singles, this Goebel (who'd beaten Bellak 19 in the 5th) and his opponent Paneth were both disqualified after their two-games-each match had exceeded the new, experimental (for these Championships only) ITTF time limit rule: 1 hour for a 2/3 match; l hour and 45 minutes for a 3/5 match (see Reid’s Victor Barna, 56).
Still later, in the semi's of the Austrian Open (where ITTF rule be damned--knucklespins and fingerspins were barred), Goebel and his opponent Bergmann (they'd be Doubles Champs there and World Doubles finalists here in Baden) had engaged in such a pooping match that they were consigned (Austria got this idea from the U.S.?) to a little room reserved for pushers--from which Bergmann would emerge victorious and go on to win the Championship (TTT, May, 1937, 22).
The last tie of the evening was a very distracting one for the U.S. for, nearby, undefeated Hungary was 1-2-3-4-5 in the process of being unexpectedly annihilated by Austria. After Barna lost to Liebster, deuce-in-the-3rd in the opening match, Cinnater asked him if Bellak could pull out the next match against Goebel. Victor, downcast, replied, "He always loses when I lose" (TTT, May, 1939, 14). The whole Hungarian team was so demoralized by Barna’s loss to Liebster that it was soon a certainty, if the U.S. beat Poland, two teams would have 11-1 round robin records, and that there would be a U.S.-Hungary play-off for the title.
In our tie with Poland, McClure opened for us against Simcha Finkelstein and prevailed in 3. Blattner then had no trouble with Schiff--that is, Sam Schiff (Schieff, Szieff, or Sziff are variant spellings)--and later won two big swing matches against Finkelstein, 19 in the 3rd, and Ehrlich, deuce in the 3rd. Schiff also beat the redoubtable Alex. "Ehrlich had a fair high defense," said Sol. "He hit a lot, but for a wind-up swinger he had the slowest moving ball I’ve ever seen--I only had to go back two feet to return it." However, Sol then lost his first and last Cup match to...well, the Schiff of your choice, for in losing -20, 15, -23 after 18 consecutive wins Sol certainly allowed himself to be distracted by the Hungary-Austria tie he was often closely following. It may also not be too fanciful to suggest that Ehrlich--last year's World Men's Singles runner-up, and, as would happen, this year's as well--who was blatantly rooting for Austria to beat Hungary, may not quite have had heart and soul into winning his matches against the U.S., the only team that could possibly stop Hungary from winning still another Swaythling Cup.
For the Championship play-off, held on the evening of Feb. 6, Capt. Cinnater would again go with McClure, Blattner, and Schiff. Berenbaum, because of his "run-down condition," had been given what had evolved into a long 4-tie rest. Surely, though, regardless of how well he'd played before, or how well he felt now, it was no time to switch a winning line-up. Besides, who would our Capt. sit out?
Blattner? With hindsight perhaps: in the first U.S.-Hungary tie he'd won two; this time he lost all three (though each time in three games). However, going into the 8th match both McClure and Schiff had been undefeated--Jimmy with wins over Barna and Bellak, and Sol with wins over Bellak and Soos (the latter, because of the young Hungarian’s "marvelous chop defense and occasional [telling] flicks," a real 8, -20, 24 squeaker).*****
In the 8th match, McClure had lost a 19 game to go into the 3rd with Soos, but nobody on the U.S. side seemed too concerned that the hour time limit for a 2/3 match might be exceeded. Though were Jimmy to win this game, the Championship would be ours, he agreed his corner gave him sound advice: "Look, if you can win it, win it, but if the game’s close, chisel." When Jimmy was up 11-10, the match was stopped and, since this was Team play not Singles, both the American and Hungarian players were awarded 1/2 point. This meant at the very least we were assured of a 4 and 1/2-4 and 1/2 tie.
Moreover, in the 9th match, Barna vs. Schiff (not, as Bellak in his Table Tennis, 83) would have it, Barna vs. Blattner), Schiff was considered to have more than an even chance against Barna, might even have been considered by some to be a lock over him. (Some lock: he won 22 and 18.) Why was that? Because, as could be seen in their initial match in Budapest, Victor, though he won, could not return Sol's (kept in reserve, used sparingly?) fingerspins--"knucklespins" Ervin Brody of the Duna Club who’d kindly befriended our Team in Budapest and Baden called them.
McClure would later make the point that just the continuous threat of using these spin serves offered such a psychological advantage that many an opponent might be unnerved to where he’s anticipating the worst from, and so fearfully following the motion of, any serve.
In his book Twenty-One Up, Bergmann, after speaking of the nervous strain on Barna, writes that when it became apparent that Victor "could not return four out of five of these devilish [Schiff] services, A. Wilcsek, the non-playing Hungarian captain collapsed and was taken to hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown" (31). But this account is suspect, for Philip Reid in his Barna biography says that Wilcsek at some unspecified time in the Championships suffered a "heart attack" (54).
Barna himself, in his Table Tennis Today, would write that Sol and the other Americans who used these serves so effectively "made the game the laughing stock of the world" (110). But Reid emphasized that these spins, though a "menace," were "perfectly legitimate," for, unlike the USTTA, the ITTF had not banned them (53).
The Federation--see the ITTF Handbook, 1936-37, 17 and 21--had ruled only that the server couldn’t deform the ball or rub the ball against the racket while serving. Thus the server could vigorously throw the ball into the racket, giving it whatever fingerspin or, with the help of the thumb, knucklespin he (she) wanted. If you were as adept as Barna says Schiff was, you could increase the deception by turning your back to your opponent as you readied to serve--as if already disdaining his pitiful attempt at a return--or by first pretending to collapse, going into a squat, then peeking up from under the table (Ready?) to rise and taunt him with your serve face to face.
Years later, in a "Reflections of the Thirties" article, Sol would write that with the "type of hard rubber used in those days, fingerspin was not really effective and if a player made more than 2 or 3 points a game on it, that was considered a lot" (TTT, June-July, 1988, 28). Sol would go even further--would on occasion stubbornly deny that he'd used fingerspins at the World's. Perhaps at times his (too scrupulous?) conscience bothered him?
Gilbert Marshall, who’d been Sol’s teammate at the Wembley World’s in 1935 but wasn’t playing for the U.S. at Baden--indeed, despite being a Singles quarterfinalist in ‘36, wasn’t even entered this year--felt that Fingerspin was a legitimate branch of the game that had to be mastered. And English International Ken Hyde, who’d played against Schiff in the U.S. vs. England tie, wrote that the Americans "made tremendous use of these [spin] serves" at the ‘37 World’s, but added, "I don’t blame them. They were quite within the rules." ******
However, although Sol was within his legal rights, he did take advantage of other players. Perhaps falling back on these serves when he felt he had to was bothersome to him because, as he wrote in that same "Thirties" article, "Players who were best during the fingerspin era were still the best after it was barred," and part of him felt that he should have been able to prove that he could beat anyone without using these trick serves that he’d taken the trouble to master.
I might add one ironic note. Future U.S. star Dick Miles told me he once played Schiff a 2/3 game match in which Sol could use fingerspins but had to serve all the time. Dick lost the first game, but, by the second, he’d gotten used to even Schiff’s spin repertoire, and by the third Sol was using some other serves. All of which proves...what? Nothing that hasn’t been said about fingerspins by someone before?
At any event, here, first two years after, then 20 years after, this singular Men’s Team Championship, are Capt. Cinnater's reflections.
"...It’s true Jimmy McClure’s and Sol’s knucklespin services, which were then still legal, gave us a big advantage. But Blattner and Berenbaum seldom used spins and Sol won many of his points with his ordinary but puzzling service. We didn’t win the Swaythling Cup with spin serves. No, sir, it took the never-say-die spirit, and all of our boys had all of it that was required" (TTT, May, 1939, 4).
And again in 1957:
"Two major factors helped win the World titles for us; one, the lowering of the net to six inches by the U.S.T.T.A. in 1936. The Europeans were still using the 6 [and] 3/4" net and it is my belief that our players had learned how to smash the ball faster and harder with the low net. They were able to adapt this smash type game to the higher net. The other factor, and probably the most important, was finger-spin serves, which we had already abolished here, but which was permissable in international play. With a little practice training with the great Hungarian stars--God bless them--our boys regained their efficiency which far outclassed the others. [Is Cinnater talking about fingerspin practice? If so, I can well understand why, bless them, the Hungarians would want at least ‘a little practice training.’] Sol Schiff had the best spin serve, which he called his ‘naked serve,’ denying he used finger spin. [And what of his knucklespin serves? Did he use them too?] All I know is that Sol won 21 of his 22 Swaythling Cup matches! I'm sure Barna never believed Sol's claim" (TTT, Jan., 1958, 6).
So, with the U.S. winning their first and only Swaythling Cup World Championship, what credence do we give the following argument, so familiar to us today, written before the '37 World's?
"...the Americans have not had the experience of playing with other nations. Their geographical position isolates them from the rest of the international T.T. community. It is unfortunate for them, but without experience they can never hope to enter the top flight" (Table Tennis Activity, Mar., 1937, 1).
Ironically, it seems to be precisely because they were isolated--had brought both the unfamiliar hard-driving low ball (ITTF President Montagu had called us "simpletons" for lowering the net) and strange super-efficient fingerspin to the unprepared European arena--that our men not only were able to compete against the best teams but were able, just this once, to actually win the Swaythling Cup.
U.S. Women Win First Corbillon Cup
There were 9 women's teams in the Corbillon Cup, and from the scores of our 8 round robin ties--five 3-0's and three 3-1's --it would seem we were never pressed. But after our Feb. l 3-0 morning-exercise opener against France--in which Ruth Aarons and Jay Purves convincingly won their singles, and Emily Fuller (partnered by the recently married Dolores Probert Kuenz in the doubles) got to play and win her one and only match in the Cup--we went on to face our first test.
We blanked Austria 3-0, but each match had some tension. Aarons played a not easy to assess -19, 8, 10 three games with Trude Pritzi, World #5. Before her months-long night club circuit act with Glancz, Ruth was in the habit of playing seriously from one to three hours a day, always with men. Does that -19 first game against Pritzi reflect Ruth's lack of tournament competition? And yet, given that -19, 8, 10 result, were these two to play again in the Singles, which woman would apparently have learned more how to play her opponent and so would seem a solid favorite?
Kuenz in her first Corbillon Cup singles try did well to beat the experienced Traute Wildam, 2-0--for had Dolores lost that 24-22 second game, would she have had the confidence to win the third? And Aarons and Purves, our doubles combination for all the remaining matches, struck just the right beginning note for their harmonious partnership with a come from behind 19-in-the-3rd win.
Our next match on Feb. 2 was against England who fielded the same team--Margaret Osborne and Wendy Woodhead--they'd beat us with last year. Though Ruth and Jay again lost the doubles, in, ohhh, three deuce games, Dolores did what Corinne Migneco couldn't do the year before, she defeated Woodhead, 20, -19, 12--and, with Ruth winning her two singles as expected, we escaped with a 3-1 win that had to be another character builder for Kuenz.
Hungary went down to us 3-0--with undefeated Kuenz continuing to match wins with Aarons as she finally overpowered 1932 and '33 World Women's Singles Champion Anna Sipos, 17 in the 3rd. That was a good win, for later in the Singles Sipos, "has been" or no "has been," would beat the veteran English International Margaret Osborne, World #6.
Our evening match with the '33 Paris World's Corbillon Cup winners, Germany, threatened to darken our psyches. After losing the first game to Ruth, Astrid Krebsbach, or rather now the doctor's wife, Astrid Hobohm, rallied to take the second at deuce, but then could do no more. With Kuenz playing so well, it had not seemed reasonable to select Purves for this tie--though last year Jay had scored that very gutsy 19-in-the-3rd win over Hilde Bussmann, now the German Champion. So Dolores played, but since she could not contest either game with Bussmann we were in trouble. Big trouble. For in the doubles that followed, in the match that quite likely meant not just the tie but the Cup itself, against a pair that had been undefeated in Cup play last year, Aarons and Purves were down 20-15 match point in the 3rd. And won 7 straight!
Purves, for one, was in shock:
"Honestly, I can't remember a thing that happened in the last seven points. I was totally in a daze and so scared my mind was a total blank. I was told I was white as a ghost and they had made all preparations on the side lines for my collapse" (TTT, Apr., 1937, 1 and 7).
This comeback was something of a miracle--for Kuenz would have been in great danger of losing to the hard-driving Hobohm, '33 and '36 World Women's Singles finalist. Naturally Ruth quickly finished off a demoralized Bussmann to end the tie.
Against Romania Kuenz had a great win over young Angelica Adelstein (ADD-el-shtein)--later as the married Rozeanu (Rose-e-ANu) one of the most acclaimed players in History, World Champion for six straight years (1950-55). After that, Belgium was easy. So, on the evening of Feb. 3, that left only Czechoslovakia to play for the Cup. The Czechs were up, though, for with just one loss--to Germany--they still had a chance for a 3-way play-off.
Against two-time World Singles Champion Marie Kettnerova, Kuenz did her best--which was -16, -20 good, but not good enough. So again, even if Ruth were to win her two singles, the doubles was key. Kettnerova's World Women's Doubles Co-Champion from last year, Marie Smidova, didn’t come to Baden, but her Corbillon Cup replacement, Vera Votrubcova, whom Aarons beat in the first match of this tie, would go on with her regular partner, Vlasha Depetrisova, to win this year's World's Women's Doubles and then with Vana the Mixed as well. That the two Czechs in this Cup partnership could play well together was evident when Ruth and Jay found themselves down 1-0 and at deuce in the second. But again the Americans won when they had to. And Aarons, again on a high, cheered on by her teammates, beat Kettnerova two straight to end the tie.
So the U.S., with far more difficulty than it would seem to anyone just looking at the scores of the ties, won the Corbillon Cup--and only once more in History, in 1949 (with Jimmy McClure as Captain), would any U.S. team be able to do that. As for any country winning both the Swaythling and Corbillon Cups in the same year--something no European nation has ever done--that wouldn't happen again until Japan first did it in 1954 and China first did it in 1965.
*TTT, Mar., 1937, 5-6. When Cinnater’s group had to clear customs at Cherbourg, Elmer said that "the French spoken by Ruth Aarons and Abe Berenbaum helped us a lot and even Sol Schiff’s German came in handy...[though] I suspect he didn’t know himself what he was saying." When during their 18-hour stay in Paris the Team ordered orange juice for breakfast, Elmer said they were given oranges to squeeze for themselves.
**Kelen was a member of the World Champion Hungarian Team in 1929, ‘30, ‘31, ‘33 (Baden), and ‘35, and twice a World Mixed Doubles winner (ITTF Handbook, 2000-2001, 75 and 80). For Kelen’s use of "elan" see (the English) Table Tennis Activity, Mar., 1937, 13).
***Years later (see TTT, July-Aug., 1970, 9), at the 1970 Detroit U.S. Open, Schiff and Bellak gave an exhibition in which Schiff demonstrated his still marvelous spin serves. Watching these, my eight-year-old son Scott asked, "Is that a trick ball?"
****Vana was born "in Prague on January 21, 1920"--see Zdenko Uzorinac’s Remembrance of Vana in the (ITTF’s) 1990 Table Tennis Year (44).
*****TTT, Oct., 1937, 6--that’s fellow Hungarian Ervin Brody describing Soos’s game.
******See the Marshall and Hyde side-by-side articles in (the English) Table Tennis, Oct., 1937, 9. Fifteen years later, in 1952, Marshall will win the Veterans at the English Open (TTT, Dec., 1952, 5).