Chapter XXI. 1937: Schiff, a Favorite to Win the Singles at the Baden World’s, is Beaten by the Eventual Champion Bergmann. 1937: Defending World Champion Aarons Again Reaches Final, but Title is Declared Vacant when Ruth and Opponent Trude Pritzi Can’t Finish Match Within the Required Time-Limit. 1937: McClure/Blattner Repeat as World Men’s Doubles Champs.
Anything else we can win from the Europeans? Men's Singles? Women's Singles? Only a few years ago such a thought would have been ridiculous, but now Schiff and Aarons were considered by many to be the Singles favorites.
Blattner, after an easy first round, pulled out a 19-in-the-5th win over the Czech star Slar, who after the War would win the World's Men's Doubles with Vana, then battered England's Stanley Proffitt, before losing a fierce -20, 15, 21, -17, -20 match to Soos who certainly at times seemed the strongest of the Hungarians, and who in far-away 1950 would be both the World Men’s Singles runner-up and (with Ferenc Sido) the World Men’s Doubles winner.
Blattner’s fellow competitor from St. Louis, George Hendry, who’d be on the U.S. Team at the ‘38 World’s, told me that "Bud’s forehand was the best he’d ever seen, foreigners included." Which gives impetus to Ervin Brody’s comment about the Blattner-Soos match--that "you could not imagine a finer picture of sustained attack against deep defense." No wonder at the end "a fascinated crowd of some thousand leaped to their feet to cheer not only the somewhat lucky Sos [sic]--who won the deciding game with an edge ball--but Blattner’s fine drives and clever drop-shots as well" (TTT, Dec., 1941, 6).
Berenbaum, in the same half but a different quarter, drew Ehrlich in the second round and though Abe took a game he was clearly outclassed. The clever Pole would then go on to beat Barna in 5, down the seemingly non-competitive Defending Champion Kolar, 3-0, starve into submission the hungry hopes of Hazi and Soos, and so reach the final for the second straight year.
McClure, after a warm-up walkover over Marinko, drew Vana, now more man than boy and so perhaps outfitted in playing shorts rather than the short pants he wore at Wembley in ‘35.* With the nimble Czech ever on the jump with his point-winning forehand, Jimmy could not (nor next year in the Singles could anyone) wrest table control from him.
Our last and best hope, Schiff, opened with two straight wins, then, up 2-1, met determined Destiny in the person of Richard Bergmann--Richard the Lion-Hearted as he would be and might already have been known. Our Solly may have defiantly given this imminent World Champion the finger, but at the 5-game-end it was History who looked with a little twist of a sneer and turned thumbs down on what through the decades has been one of our few chances to wear the Singles crown. Of course, as Barna in his Table Tennis Today made clear, it was not Chance but Bergmann himself who deserved the win:
"Sol Schiff started the hottest favorite in the singles and I am convinced he would have won it but for the great courage of Richard Bergmann. In my opinion Richard played the best game of his life, saving point after point with miraculous recoveries" (110).
Bergmann, on stage in his own Twenty-One Up, goes a rhetorical step or two further:
"His services [that is, Sol's], which I had the extremely doubtful pleasure of tackling, were of a nature I would not wish on my pet enemy. How I managed to return three out of five of these hitherto untakeable inventions of the devil, will forever remain a mystery. I have a vague recollection, that by propelling myself forward like a rocket, somersaulting backwards or alternatively producing high jumps side-ways, my bat made contact with the ball and with a final painful contortion I pushed it in the direction of the opponent's half of the table. Somehow or other it landed there without any spin at all and Schiff smashed it home for all he was worth. By catapulting back to the required side of the table, about eight yards away from it, I imparted some back-spin on the ball myself--that is, when I could get to it--and only then did we really start playing for the point" (33-34).
After acrobatically beating Schiff, Bergmann romped through Hamr and Finkelstein, then showed his great heart in twice coming from behind. First, in the semi's, after being two down (and down 10-5 in the 3rd?), Richard got by Hans Hartinger, Austria #5. What a teammate Hartinger was for Bergmann, for earlier he’d somehow upset Bergmann's drive-and-drop shot "bogey-man," Vana, in 5. Then, in the -19, 23, -19, 19, 12 see-saw final against Ehrlich, Richard was way down (down 1-0 and 20-14 in the second, he says) before sensationally coming back to again and again thrill the spectators.
Exhausted, was he then, after these marathon matches? Oh, alright, tired? But not too tired, for the story soon to go round--see, for example, Bellak’s Table Tennis, 83--was that, on winning this World Championship, he immediately went off to practice.
Aarons Again in Women’s Final, but Title is Declared "Vacant"
In the Women's Singles, Aarons was such a cool favorite that she wouldn't feel any stress? "I never get nervous," she’d later tell Howard Whitman in a Feb. 15, 1937 London Express interview. Excited? Yes. "I get so excited just before a match that you couldn’t make me eat anything even if you held a club over my head. Of course when it’s over I eat anything I want--hamburgers or steak, or hot dogs, or anything" (RAS, 64). As for keeping her cool even before the unpleasant debacle of the upcoming final, she certainly didn’t always do that--in fact, as she indicated in that London interview, she wasn’t sure she liked Austria or the Austrians. Take that small boy who approached her:
"Imagining he wanted her autograph or something of the sort she waited for him to speak. Instead he tried to blow some pepper in her face. Most of it missed its aim luckily. Some of it went into Ruth's mother's eyes."
Poor Mother--her husband, Ruth’s father, had died just two months earlier. Vulnerable as she was, did she need more tears? But Ruth always seemed to play better when Mother was around.
No problems in the beginning, at least through the quarter's--though today we'd certainly think it strange that the Defending Champion didn't receive a first round bye as did quite a few others; but at these World's, though the top players from any one nation were separated into different halves, or if necessary quarters, all the draws were reportedly blind ones.
Fuller, our #4, was in Ruth's half of the draw but in the opposite quarter. She drew Kettnerova in the first round and went out 14, 13, 19. She thus played exactly one singles match in Baden, and that against an opponent she had no chance to beat. Still, what fun to be in on all the action! Her experience at these World’s probably increased her interest in the Sport to the point where next year she was able to succeed Aarons as our National Champion.
Kuenz, too, lost three straight--to Jindra Holoubkova, who then (Captain’s orders?) defaulted to her Czech teammate, the doubles specialist Votrubkova.
Purves drew an Austrian who proved no match at all, then -18, 13, -17, 19, 18 rallied gamely to defeat the 1935 World Singles finalist Magda Gal (about-to-be Hazi) whom Kuenz had lost to in the warm-up U.S.-Hungary matches played so quickly after the Team’s arrival in Budapest. But in the 8th's, after fighting back from two games down, Jay was beaten 23-21 in the 5th by Depetrisova. Would that Cinnater, whom I believe was being admired by 24-year-old Kettnerova,** have found the time to write an account of this exciting match. How much difference really did it make who won? Maybe not much; maybe more than one might think. Purves, for whatever reason, was about to leave the Sport, while Depetrisova, after being World Women's Singles runner-up in 1938, would go on to win the Championship in '39.
So only Ruth made the quarter's--where she beat a far more off than on Kresbach-Hobohm in a (first game give-up?) 3, 14, -20...oh, I'm down 14-5 in the 4th...match, at which point the German withdrew. Hence Schiff's Table Tennis Comes of Age description of Hobohm as hitting "the ball harder off both forehand and backhand than any other woman" and thus being a candidate for World Champion "if she didn't get so disgusted at her first errors and thus make many more" (139).
In the semi's against Kettnerova, Ruth, at least in the beginning, wasn't going to be given anything--but that didn't seem to register with her until she was down two games to one, then, as in the Team's, she had no difficulty in winning.
Aarons' final opponent, Austria's Trude Pritzi, had persevered through a series of 4-game matches--the first being perhaps the most interesting: a -16, 20, 20, 17 victory over Romanian Champ Angelica Adelstein which ran over the 1 hour and 45 minute time limit for a 5-game match but which, as Aarons tells us in a Mar., 1937 article in Table Tennis Activity, officials allowed, "saying that they did not need the table" (15). After this extended eighth's match and wins against Votrubcova and Bussmann, Pritzi was ready to fight to the death against Aarons.
In his Table Tennis Today Barna describes Pritzi's game--the same with which she'd also get to the final in '38 as a winner and '39 as a runner-up:
"Her game was fully defensive. She had a very good chop from both backhand and forehand, long-range defence coupled with perfect footwork, and abundant stamina which allowed her to play for hours and even for days with surprising concentration.
Her weakness was that she found it impossible to hit a ball. Many times I have seen her in practice try an attacking stroke, but strangely she just could not do it. Her stance, grip, or body balance, were not suited for attack, and she had difficulty in hitting the highest of sitters.
It is amazing that a player should have so much talent for a defensive game that she can become world champion, yet no talent at all to make the simplest of aggressive strokes" (116).
Tell it to Zeisberg and the USTTA. Over a year ago, they’d passed a rule that forbade any "purely defensive" player, no matter how good his/her tournament record, to represent the U.S. abroad, so, had she been playing in the States, Pritzi, as we say dismissively in the ‘90’s, would have been "history."
But play for Austria she did. In the last two games of their match in the Team's, almost a week earlier, Ruth had been able to hit through Pritzi with ease, so it was natural that she should start off this final by trying to win with an attack again. But perhaps if she wasn’t too tense she was just the opposite, too uninhibitedly rushing her shots, for, as she’d go on to describe this match in detail in Table Tennis Activity, "driving every ball," she lost the first game at 12. Then, improving her concentration, she "steadied," waited patiently for an opening, got her attack working, and, nothing to it, just like in the Team's, won the second 21-8. Except, she said, that from the moment it was obvious she'd changed her strategy, "from the second point of the second game...the table was surrounded by noisy officials, and our match was transferred [from the ‘centre table’] to a side table."
Before that long second game was finished, Ruth was informed, as it turned out that Ms. Pritzi had already been before the match, that "a time-limit of one hour and forty [sic] minutes was being placed on the match!" This was news to her--and she felt that she was now at a big disadvantage, for, though she had the technique to win, she didn't have the time to.
I wonder though why Ruth apparently wasn't aware of the time limit that had been in effect the evening before in the McClure-Soos Team match. Didn't she watch them play, or at least hear about how, match for match, that so important men's final tie went? Or, having seen or heard about the drawn-out Adelstein-Pritzi match, did she think the Austrians wouldn't enforce any time-limit rule among the women--despite the fact that everyone knew Pritzi was a notorious pusher? And what about Cinnater? Later, he'd posit a ranking for the men, but not for the women. How often was he watching the women play, giving them advice? Moreoever, if Ruth needed so much time to hit through Pritzi, could she have done that--in a 5-game time-limit match--even if she'd adopted such a strategy from the beginning? Perhaps Pritzi, against a careful attacker, could not win--but, because she relentlessly push-returned balls, she could not lose either, for Time was on her side.
No doubt it was Aarons' showmanship nature to want to hit through Pritzi--as a Champion should. Had not Ruth earlier, back in the U.S., told Joseph Mitchell in an Aug. 10, 1936 article in the N.Y. World-Telegram how much she hated the "chiseler." Had she not called such a player that "disgusting type...who stands up to the table and attempts to keep the ball in play and nothing else" (RAS, 42). So instinctively she began by hitting out, but then winning was too important, she had to adapt--as a Champion should.
But now "time was passing, and every other moment," she said, "the Austrians furnished further distraction by consulting their watches." Pritzi, too, according to Capt. Cinnater, kept looking at her watch. Talk about a bizarre situation, talk about pressure:
"Although I took that [second] game I realised my task was hopeless in the alloted time, but Captain Cinnater and my companions reminded me of the fact that if the match was called a draw, I would still retain my title from the previous year when I had won it at Prague, and advised me to remain patient and keep the ball in play for the remaining time, which I did."
When Ruth, more or less just going through the motions to a foregone conclusion, was down 19-16 in the 3rd, the officials, whose warnings against "stalling" of course had to be ignored, stopped the match, declared it "no contest," and proclaimed the title "vacant." The Jury's decision to enforce the 1 hour and 45 minute time-limit rule, by a 7-5 majority--with the Austrian representative voting not to enforce the rule (TTT, Nov., 1937, 4)--was clearly one not to be repeated. As Montagu himself reportedly said later (see Reid’s Victor Barna, 56):
"I regard the temporary rule as a thoroughly bad one. It offers to an inferior player, without the ability to defeat his superior opponent the means whereby he may, none the less, remove him from the competition."
How irritating it must have been for Ruth to read the Associated Press’s report that "Ruth Hughes Aarons of New York lost the world women’s table tennis singles championship tonight...." Further galling to her, who now had to share her title, was the double-standard knowledge (see Stefan Kelen’s Mar., 1937 article in Table Tennis Activity, 13) that the Bergmann-Ehrlich men's final had exceeded the 5-game time limit but that this had been allowed by the Jury because the players did not "stonewall maliciously" as Aarons and Pritzi did.
Stonewalling--the kind of thing Zeisberg had suspended Al ("Stonewall") Goldman and others for back in the U.S.--that ought to draw a penalty? You could hardly wait for Carl’s feisty, turnabout reply...soon to be forthcoming in his Apr. 30, 1937 letter to Montagu:
"Instead of being penalized in this instance, Miss Aarons deserves the thanks of the ITTF for preventing capture of the world title by a player who never hits the ball. We will continue to publicize Miss Aarons as the undefeated World Champion."
So...2 and 1/2 titles. Anything more to win? Women’s, Mixed, or Men’s Doubles?
In the Women’s Doubles, Kuenz and Fuller drew the eventual winners Votrubcova and Depetrisova in the first round--and so enough said. But Aarons and Purves, surprisingly, could do no better--lost three straight in their first match to the Hungarians Magda Gal and Magda Kiraly.
In the Mixed, more quick disaster. Aarons and Blattner might as well have defaulted for all the struggle they put up against Slar and Depetrisova. McClure and Kuenz lost to Bellak and Sipos, 18-in-the-5th, in the first round. Schiff and Purves, who caught this year’s winners, Vana and Votrubcova, in the second round, tied the match at one game each, but then lost the third at deuce and with it their momentum. Only Berenbaum and Fuller, with a marvelous first round -11, -15, 5, 19, 15 upset of Miroslav Hamr and Traute Kleinova, the Defending Champions, were in a position to challenge for the title before being beaten in the semi’s by the Czech winners.
McClure/Blattner Repeat as Men’s Doubles Champions
In the Men’s Doubles we had two formidable teams: Schiff/Berenbaum and Defending Champions McClure/Blattner. The New Yorkers, so familiar with one another’s games, worked well together to beat Ehrlich and Liebster, the strong Polish players, but in the quarter’s they couldn’t pull out either deuce game and so fell in 4 to Adolph Slar and Vaclav Tereba.
McClure and Blattner, however, almost didn’t get a chance to even start their climb to the Championship. Then, several times up their mountainous ascent they had trouble keeping their footing, once almost fell, but persevered to reach the top--the story of their conquest, as McClure would narrate, a highly unusual one.
Before they were to play their first-round match, Bud went shopping and got lost--really lost. Since he wasn’t in the playing hall at match time, he and Jimmy were defaulted--or almost defaulted. "Please give them 15 minutes more," pleaded Capt. Cinnater....But then no Bud. "Please, 15 minutes more"--this time with Barna interceding for them, despite the fact that the American’s opponents were Kelen and Nyitray, Victor’s fellow Hungarians....But still no Bud.
Finally Blattner arrives, too late of course--or is it? Kelen and Nyitray want to play the Americans. Want to practice against these World Champions because after they beat them the Hungarians have what they feel is the more challenging English team of Adrian Haydon and Andy Millar coming up. So?...O.K.
The match is -17, 15, 19, 3 strongly contested for a while. But the fellow taking McClure’s 3rd-game throw-the-ball-into-the-racket fingerspin serve incurs such wrath from his partner for not being able to handle it that at the start of the 4th the poor victim says, "Look, McClure, please keep serving fingerspins to my partner." Which Jimmy, from the go, obligingly does. Our boys won that deciding game 21-3 as the new victim, helpless, could at last only laugh and turn and shake the old victim’s hand.***
In their remaining four matches Jimmy and Bud couldn’t have proven themselves more. Haydon/Millar...Kolar/Vana...Hamr/Pivetz--all forced our boys to 5. They’d been down 2-1 to the English, and 1-1 and at deuce in the 3rd with the Czechs. But their final, -19, -20, 20, 13, 11 come-from-behind win against Richard Bergmann and Helmuth Goebel was the most satisfying. When others might have looked down and not been able to hold on, they in one dizziness-defying moment called on all their courage and camaraderie:
"At deuce [Jimmy later wrote] we sort of looked at each other and said: ‘We either do or don’t now.’
Bud hit a beautiful cross-court forehand in, to give us the advantage.
The next point went back and forth several times before a fairly high one came to my backhand. A lot of things went through my mind before I hit the ball--and a lot more after I hit it. If you ask Bud, he will probably confess that just as many things went through his mind.
The ball went on, though, to win the game, and it proved to be the turning point in the match."
McClure of course was noted for his point-winning forehand, but the fact that he could hit that backhand in at just the right moment contributed mightily to their Championship--the nicest "birthday present" Bud, on turning 17, ever had (TTT, Apr., 1937, 3).
*See The Memoirs of Roy Evans, 5. When he saw the young teenage Vana in 1935, Evans said that, since all the players were wearing trousers, he couldn’t decide whether Vana was playing in shorts (short pants?) for more freedom of movement or because he was just a boy.
**For Marie Kettnerova’s age see RAS, 73. Schiff in our conversation at the ‘91 World’s said that Kettnerova quite liked Cinnater. That these two kept in touch over the years might well be inferred, for in our Jan., 1995 phone conversation, Elmer (called "Skip"--see Sept. 21, 1994 Sun City, AZ Daily News-Sun, B2) said that only a month or two earlier he’d gotten a letter from Kettnerova. The former Women’s World Champion died "in Prague on 28 February, 1998 at the age of 86 years" (ITTF Bulletin 257, 350). Cinnater also died in the early part of 1998, at the age of 90 (Swaythling Club International News, No. 66, Spring, 1999). In Sept., 1934, when Cinnater headed the St. Louis TTA, he was married to Olive (TTT, Nov., 1934, 8). But on Oct. 18, 1937, six months after he’d returned from the Baden World’s, he married Helene Van Overberghe (TTT, Dec., 1937, 13).
***At the ‘95 U.S. Closed, 79-year-old Jimmy, in response to my impromptu request, went out to a table and, as casually as if he’d just played a match using them, demonstrated, flawlessly, his fingerspin serves of old.