Playing for South Korea in the 1958 Asian Games was one, Lee Dal-Joon. He posted a 3-9 record in the Team ties, and in the Singles lost a 19 in the 5th match to Hong Kong’s Lau Suk Fong, a veteran of the ’56 World’s. Not too impressive, nothing to write home about. Nor was Lee on the Korean Team at the ’59 Dortmund World’s.

Where had he come from?…Gone to? What would become of him?

Douglas S. Looney in the Mar. 18, 1972 National Observer tells us of Lee’s background as a boy. In South Korea his parents were once wealthy—they ran a hotel and restaurant. Then the Korean War burst into their lives. Lee’s father, brother, and a sister were victims of political assassination. “A bomb reduced the once proud family business to ashes”—and the land wasn’t worth anything. In the streets of Seoul, 10-year-old Dal-Joon peddled sweet potatoes for a few pennies—which he’d spend on rice. Somehow, as he began to come of age, he found table tennis, or it found him.

By the start of the 1960’s, Japan’s Ichiro Ogimura had won multiple World Singles titles—in Men’s Singles, Men’s and Mixed Doubles—so we’d all heard of him. However, only now being mentioned in anything an American aficionado might read was Ogimura’s final opponent in the 1960 Asian Games in Bombay—that same penhold attacker Lee Dal-Joon who’d been rather anonymous as a teenager two years earlier. This season Lee will share a joint World #23 to #28 ranking (largely because in those Asian Games he’d beaten Ogimura in the Team’s and other well known Japanese players Hoshino and Murakami in the Singles). Lee of course is also that same “D-J” who will later immigrate to the U.S.

Lee, I note—and by this time he’s reportedly the perennial South Korean Champion—also turns up at the Asian Championships in Feb., 1963 in Manila, where his South Korean team comes 3rd after Japan and the Republic of China. In Singles he’ll lose in the 8th’s to Vietnam’s Pham-Gia-Anh, ranked 7th in Asia for ‘63/’64 behind #1 Hiroshi Takahashi, #2 Keiichi Miki, winner of the 1962 Asian Games in Indonesia; #3 Jung-Kil (or Gil) Park, Lee’s teammate (who in the Singles eliminated Ogimura 25-23 in the 5th); and #4 Manji Fukushima. Park will move to the States and in the 1970’s will play in a number of U.S. Opens.

By 1965, D-J is touring North America with 4-time World Champion Richard Bergmann (at the Jan. moment they’re en route to the “frozen north, 30 below zero”) and Richard has written Rufford Harrison to see if he can intercede with Graham Steenhoven to arrange for Lee to play in the upcoming Detroit U.S. Open. Rufford relays the appearance offer Bergmann has requested and says, “My guess is that his [Lee’s publicity] value definitely is enough to warrant the cost.” Bergmann then replies: 

“…This is just another effort to convince ‘Lee Dal-Joon’ that I did try to get him into the U.S. Open Championships as a participant, and not stand in his way. Believe me, as far as I am concerned, it only means a lot of trouble getting Mr. Abe Saperstein to approve this. And then arranging for another opponent to replace ‘Dal-Joon’ for those three days. Anyway, for Lee Dal-Joon’s sake, I hope the U.S.T.T.A. will agree to these new very reasonable terms.” 

For whatever reason, Lee does not play in the 1965 U.S. Open.

He does, however, while giving exhibitions in the States with Bergmann for the Harlem Globetrotters, show up at the Feb, 1966 Rubber City Open in Akron, Ohio. There, though he drops a game to Bernie Bukiet in the semi’s, he easily beats U.S. #2 and the Defending Champion, Marty Doss, in the final. Marty, said the Topics covering reporter, “played extremely well” but  “was simply overwhelmed [14, 12, 15] by the quick Korean’s deadly accurate, deceptive drives and smashing attacks.”

In his “Bukiet—A Remembrance,” Indianapolis’s Tom Aldridge describes his moments of delight in watching the 47-year-old Bukiet take on the much younger Korean who with his “penholder grip (and a diminutive square racket covered only on one side)…was a master of topspin”: 

“…D-J started the match spinning his way past Bernie, but by the second game Bernie’s blocks were forcing some of Lee’s smashes to overshoot. Dick Hicks (whom I had traveled to Akron with) yelled, ‘Use your forehand, Bernie.” And, by God, he did just that, especially in the third game, countering Lee’s topspin. It was the fastest exchange at the highest level of play I had seen up to then. And Bernie was scoring points with his offense—enough to win the third game [23-21]. The gallery exploded; no one was expected to take even a game off Lee (and for the next several years few American players did in USTTA open play). In the end of course Lee prevailed….” 

Bukiet shared even more of the tournament glory, for he and Lee won the Doubles from Doss/Dell Sweeris, and he and Ann Evans took the Mixed from Lee/Laverne Von Willer.

D-J also turned up on Tour with Bergmann in Pasadena, CA where, before 200 spectators, he and Richard played and won matches against Darryl Flann, Jack Howard, and Shonie Aki. In a Mixed match, Bergmann (who lost a 5-gamer to Dave Froehlich) paired with Heather Angelinetta to defeat D-J/Pauline Walker. Lee and Bergmann were then said to be off “to San Francisco, the Caribbean, New York, and Asia.” I’d read, too, that, before going to the West Indies, Lee/Bergmann played in a Seattle tournament, and that, though as expected Bobby Fields lost to D-J, he beat Richard in the semi’s.

Returning from his Tour (reportedly he’d been 2 and ½ years with Bergman through 58 countries), Lee had to make a living of a different sort—he began to sell wigs. Looney tells us he was doing that when he met Linda. “The first time I saw him,” she said—it was Jan., 1967—“all of us in the office made fun of him.” Why? Because he had this habit of saying ‘Hello’ four or five times before giving the other party a chance to speak. Linda eventually did speak…said plenty—they’d marry in Aug., 1967.

Of course Lee continued to play table tennis. He entered the Feb. 3-5, 1967 Eastern Open held in Hempstead, Long Island—and with 130 entries in the Men’s Singles alone and 600 spectators for the Sunday night finals, it was quite successful. As expected (Who’s there to beat him?), D-J, coming into each of his put away shots like a discus thrower giving an all out final heave, won the Men’s—beating Jack Howard in the quarter’s, Dell Sweeris in the semi’s, and Marty Reisman in the final. D-J lost only one game (the first of their match) to Howard (“What?” says Jack, rounding the table as if to shake hands. “What! We play more than one game?”).

The Mar., 1967 Topics had as its cover an action photo of D-J. An editorial by Fred Rohm began by praising Reisman for looking good (though struggling into the 5th with Lem Kuusk, Marty beat both Dan Pecora and Marty Doss in 4). But, said Rohm, the “old style American game as played by Reisman [“60% chop”] will certainly make the player a decided 7 point underdog….Reisman can hit and when he does he can make any world competitor work for a point. But every time he pushes or chops the topspin player loops and hits. Exit Reisman.” Rohm adds that “Reisman, playing at his best, probably will never beat Dal Joon. For that matter, neither will any other American player with the possible exception of Sweeris” (6).

Rufford Harrison, writing for the Apr., 1967 issue of Tennis magazine, spoke of the former globetrotting Lee’s “command of angles,” then emphasized that, “Making up with spin for the slight lack of speed, overcoming the somewhat one-sided penholder game with acrobatic agility [“somewhat” because D-J does have a backhand], Lee showed what modern table tennis is all about” (34).

Surprisingly, in the Men’s Doubles, Lee and Sweeris were down 2-0 in the quarter’s to Jeff Swersky/Harvey Gutman before winning comfortably in 5, then going on without incident to win the title over Pecora/Blommer. In both the Women’s Singles and the Mixed final (in which she played with Lee), Leah Neuberger cramped badly and had to default.

Of course any local tournament D-J played in he would win—the March Ohio Closed, for example. Here his victims were: Dick Evans (19 in the 4th!), John Tannehill, and Don Lyons in the final. He also took the Doubles with Esch over Lyons/Chris Tetzlaff.

Following the April 11-21, 1967 World Championships, which D-J did not play in, Montreal held Expo ‘67—and on Apr. 28-29 some of the world’s great players participated (1st Prize: $450, 2nd Prize: $250, 3rd Prize: $125): West Germany’s Eberhard Schoeler, Sweden’s Kjell Johansson, Czechoslovakia’s Jaroslav Stanek, England’s Denis Neale, and Japan’s Hiroshi Takahashi and Manji Fukushima of Japan. Originally Fukushima, who, like Takahashi, had a “front” job in Tokyo for the Citizen Watch Co., was going to be merely Takahashi’s “coach” in Montreal, but he was allowed to play, did well, and then, confusingly, was ruled ineligible for prize money. After Canada had insisted that Erwin Klein represent the U.S. at this Expo, the USTTA E.C. kept voting and re-voting until the CTTA was appeased. Meanwhile, D-J, where was he? Not in Montreal. Reportedly he couldn’t get a visa.

The Japanese, Stanek, and Neale went out to the Canadian Northwest to play, perhaps along the way stopping off in Columbus, Ohio to participate in an exhibition, with D-J. Johansson and Schoeler went to Long Island for an exhibition there. But by May 6-7, Geza Gazdag, owner of the Vanderbilt Athletic Club in NYC’s Grand Terminal Building, had brought these famous Expo players, along with D-J and Reisman, to his own tournament—the first time in history that such a cluster of world-ranked stars were competing against one another in the U.S. Lee of course beat Reisman, but, though taking games from each, lost to both European #1 Johansson, who’d just won the World Doubles title with Hans Alser, and Czech Champion Stanek.

John Hanna’s short Topics write-up of the San Diego U.S. Open, held May 12-14 in Balboa Park’s giant-sized Federal Building, with Alex “Pal” Alvarado as Tournament Chair, said that Fukushima “throttled” D-J in the final (17, 18, 14), but said nothing about Lee’s 19, 13, 19 semi’s victory over Takashima. The Japanese stars easily won the Men’s Doubles over Lee and Kim. In the Mixed final, Lee and Heather Angelinetta had a 2-1 lead over Sweden’s Billie Bergstrand/Patty Martinez, but couldn’t hold it.

Editor Rohm had agreed that I would do the write-up for this U.S. Open, but when I submitted it, he rejected it—didn’t like, much to my anger and disgust, my, shall I say, “energetic” style. Though it never did get into Topics, Graham Steenhoven later printed it in his 1968 U.S. Open Program. Here’s the opening involving D-J: 

“The San Diego Nationals was, if I may say so, something of a disorienting experience. Twenty-five-year-old Manji Fukushima (Japan), ever imperturbable, polite, business-like (Watch. Ready? Watch, please. Comes now spin serve) defeated good-humored, off court casual-capped Dal-Joon Lee (South Korea) in an angled-off, alley-oop, ring-out-rifle-crack, carom-cornered back and forth loop and hit exchange of a match that saw him become the first foreign star to win the MS since England’s Johnny Leach did it in ’50.

Although the fired-up, gum-chewing, anything-but-inscrutable Lee played brilliantly in the semi’s, downing in straight games (“Is he the one who looks like a movie star?”) Hiroshi Takashima (World #4, ’65-66), he appeared, at least to one spectator, to a certain Mr. “Donuts” Kowalsky of N.Y.C. (“Must be a 4-5 point game”), no match for the slender, doll-like Fukushima, semifinal conqueror of wasp-waisted, Asian Games victor Chung-Yong Kim.

Where were who? The shake-hands Americans?… 

O.K., D-J didn’t win this ’67 National’s, but, as we’ll see in Part II, he’ll more than make up for that in the ones to come….