Chapter XXII. 1937: English Open--McClure is Runner-up to Barna, Aarons Wins Women’s, and U.S. Has Two Doubles Triumphs.
All these international titles were triumphs enough for the U.S. Team, you might think. But it wasn't time for our players to go home yet. Immediately following the World Championships they were off to London for the Feb. 10-13, 328-entry English Open. Only the World’s was considered a more prestigious tournament, and soon 8,000 spectators, about a sixth of England's registered players,* would be watching the finals at Wembley Stadium.
In the meantime, all the matches before finals night were held at the Paddington Baths venue. In the Men’s, Berenbaum lost in 5 to Hungarian Istvan "Steve" Boros who, after winning the World's Consolation at Baden, had upset the English #1 Haydon in straight games here. Blattner was eliminated by Bellak in 4 after losing a 22-20 swing second game. And Schiff was beaten by Barna--perhaps because Victor had finally gotten used to or didn't have to suffer Sol's dreaded spin serves.
McClure, however, advanced to the semi's with a -14, 14, 24, 18 win over Defending Champ Ehrlich. Then, while Barna, down 2-1 and at 19-all in the 4th, managed to slip by his lifelong friend Boros, a "grim" Jimmy was turning back Bellak. One English reporter said that again and again Laci netted "straightforward shots"--as if he might have done better at times to play with the sole of his shoe? "Straightforward shots"? The wording has to be somewhat ambiguous. Are such shots being hit by Laci or by his opponent? Surely the writer must mean that the ball was coming to Bellak with routine, easy-to-read spin, for when did Laci, unquestionably the most entertaining and spectacularly deceptive stroke-artist in the Game, and one sure to cause, as Cinnater said, a "sensation" on his upcoming Feb.-Mar. Tour of the U.S. with Kolar, ever hit a "straightforward" shot?
The Barna-McClure final, televised it was said with surprising clarity by the General Electric Company to select viewers, was written up in Table Tennis Activity (Mar., 1937, 2-3). This was the high-quality English table tennis magazine of the day--and one so "independent" of the English Table Tennis Association and its official Table Tennis organ that neither of its editors could get even one of the 100 Press tickets for Wembley the Association was giving out. An excerpt from TTA’s write-up of that final follows:
"McClure's policy seemed to be not to wait for Barna's attack, but to take the initiative himself. At first not too accurate, he lost the opening game, but the second, with amazing footwork and that characteristic low, raking, sweeping drive, he took at 21-17. [Elsewhere in the magazine, another or perhaps this same unidentified writer spoke of how Jimmy's just-skim-the-net drive too often hit the net and so cost him lots of points.] Easing up, he [McClure] lost the third, but in the fourth his fire returned, and Barna looked troubled. Found out of position by some of the American boy's unexpected returns of the ‘unreturnable,’ he had to fight every step of the way. Then McClure made some mistakes. Some ‘sitters’ were netted--Barna got his flick home twice, and at 21-18 the ex- champion came into his own again."
Ruth Aarons, the most where-it's-at of the American "It" girls, as at least one English tabloid called them (RAS, 51), was naturally the center of attention from the time she first arrived at Paddington Baths wearing a short cape and slacks. Since she said she was "very keen" on dress designing, it didn't take long for a reporter to elicit Ruth's opinion that in America "girls of moderate means can buy up-to-the-moment clothes which look chic" but that in London girls need "a lot of money to look real smart." Then, as if something more politic were called for, she spoke of how "gallant" English men were and how "nice" everyone was in London, her favorite European city. "People here seem happier," she said, "and there's no tension in the atmosphere" (RAS, 58).
Yes, it was true, she acknowledged in reply to another inquiry, that she'd asked the ETTA's permission, as she'd already secured the USTTA's, to let her stage table tennis performances, acts, here in London after the English Open. In fact, she had already signed contracts to do so.
Oh? comes the response. Won’t that cause a problem? The ETTA isn’t likely to give their consent, are they? Won’t they say that "the game is a sport and must not be commercialized"? Ruth replies that she hopes everything will work out. She feels that "everything should be harmonious. I shall do nothing to spoil what has been a marvellous trip" (RAS, 67).
Aware that a reporter notices her tinkling bracelet, Ruth asks, "Like it? I do. It's so modern. I like everything to be modern....Things that are old-fashioned drive me batty. And old-fashioned ideas too." In an era where women have been used to playing table tennis in near ankle-length dresses, and are slow to change, she’s gone modern, she says--has appeared in slacks, first in the U.S. and then abroad. Women ought to have more freedom in sports, she proclaims, and in her best ambassadorial manner insists that there's "no place like America for feminine freedom" (RAS, 64).
Well, enough politicing and prosyletizing, better right now that Aarons avoid anything controversial and concentrate on winning matches.
She opened of course with a win--over last year's English Open runner-up, Connie Wheaton.
In the second round, Ruth met Astrid Krebsbach-Hobohm who'd last minute dashed here from the German Championships where she was again runner-up to Hilde Bussmann. My husband, she said, "has agreed to let me play through this last season....But after these championships I go home and settle down" (RAS 60). (Settling down, however, will include playing, at least in her home country, through the War years, so that, remarkably, as late as 1949 Bussmann and Hobohm will still be 1-2 in Germany.)**
Hobohm is wearing "a workman-like dark blue dress with trousered [sic] skirt" (RAS, 60). (Ah, when would European fashions change? Feminists, take heart, next season, in an English Counties Championship, Dora Emdin, who lost badly to Purves here, will cause a sensation by wearing trousers. Maybe it was the "American influence," too, that inspired her to make England’s ‘38 Corbillon Cup Team?)
Ruth, however, unlike her "It-girl" teammates, seemed to have had laundry problems. She was sorry, she said--not to her opponent Hobohm, but to her teammates--but at the moment she had no suitable blue-matching Team shirt to wear. So to "dive swallow-like to the corner of the ‘court’" after one of Hobohm's wicked drives, Ruth wore a "Middy suit of her own design--R.A.F. blue trousers with chromium buttons and a crushed strawberry shirt" (RAS, 58-60).*** Presumably before she went out to play she took off her jacket. Anyway, she won comfortably.
Which is not what she did in the quarter’s--there unexpectedly she was forced to go 5 to take out England's Corbillon Cup reject, Lillian Hutchings, who in Baden had surprised everyone by being a quarterfinalist in both the Women's Singles and the Mixed, and a semifinalist in the Women’s Doubles.
After a 3-0 breather in the semi's against England's Doris Jordan, Ruth had to face the only world-class competitor she'd ever lost to, Marie Kettnerova.
No danger of this being a chiseling match--a "no contest" final. The experimental time-limit rule that was put into effect only for the ITTF’s World Championships was replaced here in the ETTA’s English Open by a more subtle one: "The committee reserve the right to disqualify competitors guilty of deliberate unenterprising play."
Ruth guilty of being unenterprising? Not bloody likely--and certainly not in London. Colorful, even flamboyant she might well have been viewed in her orange playing shirt and blue serge trousers. Her Czech opponent might have seemed the more formidable for being dressed in somber contrast. Kettnerova wore "wide-cut plus-fours [long, loose knickers] that offered more freedom than (and looked better than?) a dress." She also wore "a dark, short-sleeved blouse" with "a white Eton collar and white piping and three white buttons that relieved the severity" (RAS, 71).
Would that Ruth herself initially have had relief from this two-time World Champion's unsparing attack, for she found herself 2-0 down and down 18-14 in the 3rd. But as Table Tennis Activity (Mar., 1937, 5) wrote:
"Kettnerova had had to fight hard for those two games [she'd won them 18 and 19]. Her famous angled forehand drive had been returned over and over again, and she was compelled to try and hit harder. Aarons commenced to chop hard, and Kettnerova began to find the net."
When the Czech didn't win the 19 third game, it was she who was in trouble. No doubt she recalled all too well that she’d had a 2-1 lead against Ruth at the World’s but couldn’t get more than 13 a game thereafter.
"Slowly but surely Aarons took the edge off the Czech girl's attack." She won the 4th, and, to the "Atta girl, Ruth" encouragement of the Americans (RAS, 60), was up 11-9 in the 5th when, as one London paper, mirroring other accounts, put it:
"Miss Kettnerova almost collapsed and cried: 'Oh, I can't go on! I can't go on!' She appealed to the umpire for a rest, which was refused....
Miss Aarons supported the appeal, but it was against the rules and they had to continue play" (RAS, 61).
Arm-weary Miss Kettnerova undoubtedly was, and her "plight" may have been "pitiable" to some, but it was not true that she'd cried out, "I can't go on!" Table Tennis Activity (Mar., 1937, 2), pointing out that in the final-game-excitement the players had not changed ends when they were supposed to, made this important correction: that "in the middle of the third game [sic] she [Kettnerova] called out: ‘I can hit no more’"--whereupon Ruth, in a great show of sportsmanship, asked for a break.
Kettnerova did play on, but lost--lost, as a front-page article in the London Sunday Express said--to Miss Aarons' "sheer pluck and consistency" (RAS, 65). And Ruth herself said, "It was the hardest match I ever played in my life" (RAS, 64).
After Ruth’s retirement from competition, which she herself perhaps did not yet realize would be so soon in coming, Laci Bellak, while wanting to give "full credit" to Ruth’s "wonderful career in the game," said that "the main reason for her success" was that neither Kettnerova nor any other woman player of Ruth’s time "was physically strong enough to maintain an offensive game for a full match" (TTT, Dec., 1939, 3).
Laci has a point--but perhaps not a totally convincing one. In the Austrian Open that followed, Kettnerova was down 1-0 and 20-16 to the indefatiguable defender Pritzi--but this time she had the strength to keep hitting until she won that Championship (TTT, May-June, 1937, 22).
U.S. Teams Play Well in English Open Doubles
The Mixed Doubles at Wembley was an all U.S. final with Ruth and Bud beating Dolores and Jimmy in straight games.
In the Women’s Doubles though, Ruth and Jay (who'd gotten to the quarter's in Singles) lost to England’s Osborne and Woodhead--again in a match they might have won, 16, -13, -19, -18.
Even more of a crowd-pleaser was the astonishing victory the English pair of Hugh Jones and Leo Baron had over McClure and Blattner--which the eventual winners, Schiff and Berenbaum, took full advantage of.
There remained only the Anglo-American international event at Birmingham on Feb. 15 before the U.S. players, Aarons excepted, sailed for home. This the U.S. Team won, 7 matches to 2. One of the biggest surprises for the 2,000 or so spectators was the 19-in-the-3rd win the English reserves Hyman Lurie and Ernie Bubley posted over McClure and Blattner. Having given their all at Baden, our boys apparently didn't have any more of their reserves to draw on.
Last summer in a tournament in London won by Gilbert Marshall, Bubley, who played with a glove on his racket hand, had a loss to Winnetka, Illinois’ visiting Abbott Nelson, U.S. #28. By next season (such is the power of positive thinking?) Ernie will be #l on the English Swaythling Cup Team. ****
Suddenly coming up with some surprising good wins considering how little she’d played at Baden was Emily Fuller. At Paddington Baths she’d beaten the English #2 Wendy Woodhead in straight games, and now here in Birmingham she scored a 2-1 victory over Lillian Hutchings who had done so well at the World's and had just gone 5 with Aarons at the English Open.
One further surprise might have been the Aarons/Purves victory over Osborne and Woodhead in Women’s Doubles.
What a welcome the tired Team would deserve on their return home--in fact, gold medals were being prepared for them.***** But Ruth was not going back to the States just yet. Such an electric personality was about to generate a current of controversy that would jolt not only the U.S. and English TTAs but--with such strong-willed autocrats as Zeisberg and Montagu at odds--the ITTF itself.
*According to the Howard Whitman article in the Jan. 15, 1937 London Daily Express (RAS 64), the English TTA at this time had "47, 636" registered players.
**See Tischtennis, ‘89 (362). This book is a compendium of table tennis records, particularly German, up until the last decade of the millenium, edited by Manfred Schaefer.
***I gather that, whether they were playing Team or Individual matches, the U.S. women wore, or were expected to wear, matching shirts. But with Ruth’s interest in clothes she sometimes took liberties?
****See Table Tennis Activity, Jan., 1938, 68 and 75 for Bubley’s eccentricity and accomplishments and a pic of him. See TTT, Oct., 1936, 11-12 for Nelson’s ranking and his win. Dr. Stan Morest (in TTT, Nov., 1982, 10) said that "the real reason" Bubley wore gloves "was because of excessive sweating of his hands, called hyperhydrosis. Leather, cork, or rubber grips were of no help." Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. Apparently, C. Corti Woodcock, who, as we’ll see, will be Aarons’ "defense lawyer" at her post-’37 World’s appearance before Montagu, had told Morest about Bubley’s excessive sweating. Morest probably added the "hyperhydrosis." Woodcock also told Morest that Bubley’s favorite gloves were white ones. In a later Chapter, however, we’ll see more of Bubley and hear another explanation as to why he wore a glove on his racket hand.
*****TTT, May-June, 1937, 21. Presumably Ruth would receive a gold medal from the USTTA for being on the winning Corbillon Cup Team, but whether she’d receive another for being, in Zeisberg’s words, "the undefeated World Champion" is perhaps problematic. Certainly, though, neither she nor Trude Pritzi received a medal from the ITTF for their Singles play at Baden. Over half a century later, Australia’s Karoly Javor suggested that the ITTF posthumously award both Ruth and Trude silver medals for having reached that 1937 final (see Butterfly World Report, Sept., 1993, 7). This was not done.