Valleri  Bellini

When Valleri Green (later Smith for a short time and later Bellini for 48 years) appeared on the California tournament scene, it was clear from her position in the Jan 28-29, 1956 Golden State Open draw that not much was expected of her. Up against the eventual winner, Sharon Acton, in the 1st round, she must have surprised many when she led Sharon 2-1 before succumbing. By the April L.A. County Open you can bet the draw-makers were more careful—and with good reason: Acton barely edged Green, 24-22 in the 5th. That July, in another L.A. tourney, in which Acton didn’t enter, Val, continuing to show great promise, came 1st in round-robin Women’s play.

Sharon, you couldn’t help but notice, did play in the Oct. Golden State—and won out over Green 19, 22, 17. In the semi’s, Val had defeated—hello—Corinne (nee Migneco) Mayo, 20 years earlier a member of the U.S. Corbillon Cup team to the Prague World’s. Players do resurface, eh?

And marry—Valleri Green (that ‘56 summer?) became Valleri Smith.

For the first time Californians journeyed East to play in the Women’s National Team Championships (NTC’s), held in Chicago, Nov., 1956 at Millie Shahian’s Net and Paddle Club. Millie herself had a fine 16-2 record at this tournament, but her Illinois team wasn’t strong enough to contend. As for the New York trio—multi-time U.S. Champion Leah Neuberger (17-1—loss to Shahian), Jean Gere (8-10), and Marianne Bessinger (6-12)—they weren’t able to win either. Instead, it was the Californians—led by Val with a remarkable (17-1) record, and helped by Acton and Clemmie Ryan (both 8-10)—who went through the 7-team round-robin play undefeated. Though Val lost to Leah, it was decided, since her rise this past year had been phenomenal, and since she was most responsible for California’s win, that she should receive the “Outstanding Player Award.”  

The USTTA had a participation point rule—the more important the tournament, the more points a player got for attending it. Turns out, that, despite picking up 3 points at the NTC’s (only the National’s gave you 4 points), the three Californians on the winning team fell one short of the needed 9 points a season to be considered for the 1957 U.S. World Team to Stockholm. Bummer. The three picked for the U.S. Corbillon Cup Team were Neuberger, Shahian, and the perennial U.S. Junior Miss Champ (with a 14-4 record at the NTC’s), Sherri Krizman.

At the St. Louis National’s following the World’s, Val advanced to the semi’s with an easy  (-19, 13, 6, 8) win over Milwaukee’s Carrol Blank Jaeger. But then she fell in 4 to Shahian, runner-up to Neuberger for the 3rd straight year. Leah and Millie were Defending Doubles Champions, but although the final had seemed to turn in their favor, Acton and Smith rallied for the win and their first National title.

That summer and into the fall both Sharon and Val continued to play in California tournaments, with Sharon more often the victor. The State’s best men players were teenagers who didn’t have the money to make the trip to the NTC’s. But the California women, including Acton, but not for whatever reason(s) Smith, perhaps through Captain Mary McIlwain’s efforts, were on hand in Chicago to defend their title—and with a new and surprising player, the Women’s winner at Long Beach, one, “Susie” Hoshi.

Susie, a Japanese citizen, and a very good player used to practicing table tennis two hours a day in Tokyo, had come on a scholarship to the University of Southern California for her remaining Junior/Senior years as a Phys. Ed. major. At the 1957 NTC’s she’d (19-2) led the Californians to a defense of their title, and, having allowed everyone to see the “Japanese slashing, running type of play,” was named the “Outstanding Player.” Two weeks after this tournament, at the Dec. Pacific Coast Open, she “crushed” all opposition, including Vallerie who came 2nd over Acton.

Hoshi continued her assault—won the 1958 U.S. Open, beating Shahian easily in the semi’s, then Acton 12, 21, 21 in the final, after Sharon had knocked out Defending Champion Neuberger in 5 in the semi’s. Covering reporter Jim Sullivan wrote that “Hoshi played a savage game, but she had to be at her best as Acton made many impossible saves that kept the crowd applauding throughout the match.” Leah had downed Smith in straight games, ultimately ending her hopes with a deuce-in-the-3rd finish. Val, however, then teamed with Sharon to (-19, 12, 19, 20) again take the Women’s Doubles from Neuberger/Shahian.

Smith, a 30-year-old schoolteacher, had made remarkable progress considering she’d come seriously to the Sport so late. If Hoshi had not been on the scene—at the San Gabriel Summer Closed, for example—Val would have won more Championships. She kept sharpening her game, didn’t play just against women—at the Aug. California State tourney she finished 1st in the Class A’s over Ruben Gomez.

That fall, however, at the Golden State Open in Hollywood, though she won the Mixed with Zoltan Farkas, brother of the famous 7-time World finalist Gizi Farkas, she lost the semi’s to Acton who in turn lost to Hoshi. Next tournament for Val, the Long Beach “Closed,” was really an Open—for 69 outsiders attended. It was a “Closed” only because the organizers could then get entries from 25-cent USTTA members, a deception for which an irritated USTTA in effect fined the Southern California TTA $10. Here Smith was beaten by Tiny Moss Eller who’d been taking lessons from Erwin Klein.

Time now for the NTC’s—which presented a problem for U.S. Team Captain Bill Gunn who’d been opposed to having Neuberger and Shahian on the 1956 World Team, and for whom “worthiness” was more important than one’s playing record—“worthiness” as interpreted by him. Bill wanted younger players on the Team—those with worthy promise, with a future in the Sport. Repeatedly he tried to influence those on the Selection Committee to vote for these players (though all the while denying that he was doing so). He assumed and wanted others to assume that the Californians were better than the aging Shahian, Neuberger, and Chotras.

However, granted that at the last, Hoshi-won National’s, Smith had again won the Women’s Doubles with Acton, that Neuberger, who might have beaten Sharon 3-zip, lost to her in 5, and that former U.S. Champion Bernice Chotras had had a bad loss to Milwaukee’s Marion Mueller, Gunn knew that he had better marshal more than a one-tournament argument that the Californians were superior to the New Yorkers (the more so because Leah had beaten Smith 3-0 at those National’s and, before losing to Acton, had won three straight National Championships, not to mention the ‘56 World’s Mixed Doubles).

When Bill found out that the Californians weren’t coming to the NTC’s (perhaps because they didn’t want to finance the trip and/or because Hoshi wasn’t coming), he wrote an 11th hour letter to Si Wasserman urging, indeed almost insisting, that they come. “How are we in the East and Mid-West to know how the California girls are playing with pimpled rubber?” he pleaded. (Sponge play had been banned by the USTTA for the 1958-59 season.) How can we compare their current play with New Yorkers Neuberger and Chotras who are bearing the expense of coming to Chicago? For of course, according to tradition, the NTC is where the U.S. Corbillon Cup Team is selected, precisely by comparing play among the contenders.

In his letter to Si, Bill writes, “It will possibly [sic] be considered unfair” to base the Selection Committee’s opinions on who would be on the U.S. World Team on just the results of the last National’s. Especially, he might have said, since that was 7 months ago. Neuberger and Chotras, says Si, “are entitled to consideration on ability.” Which means he doesn’t consider either of them as fulfilling his first consideration—that of “worthiness”? “These girls,” he says, “are entitled to a crack at the best [sic], to determine their fitness, or lack of it, for the team.”

Wow! This sure seems like a guy who, while talking fairness, has made up his mind that Hoshi, Acton, and Smith should be our 1959 Corbillon Cup players. (Hoshi, yes, of course, especially as, solidifying her status the more, she’ll win the Dec. Pacific Coast over 2nd-place Acton and 3rd-place Smith. Except, as Susie doesn’t meet the two-year residency requirement, she’s not eligible for Cup play. But neither Acton, nor Smith, 17-1 at the last NTC’s where she played with sponge, have to my mind yet proven themselves superior to our experienced super-stars. Even Gunn says, “I, for one, would like to have a little more to go on [than just the National’s].”

At this year’s NTC’s, Californians—Acton, Smith, and Ryan—suffered their first hard blow from Illinois. Shahian won all three of her matches, and though 1957 U.S. Open Girls’ Champ Jackie Koehnke lost as expected to Sharon, when she beat Val, and Mary Jane Schatke surprised Ryan, Illinois moved into contention. New York was also too strong for California—though Smith had a great win over the heretofore undefeated Neuberger. N.Y.’s Chotras was also unbeaten and stayed that way through the tie—downing both U.S. #3 Acton and U.S. #6 Smith. Since Bessinger topped Ryan, New York, like Illinois, stopped California 6-3.

In the deciding tie for the Championship, which N.Y. won 6-3, Shahian gave Chotras her only loss of the weekend, but Neuberger did the same to Millie—so all three finished with 17-1 records, a result that in the past would almost certainly have guaranteed them places on the U.S. World Team.

However, did it really count with Gunn that at this NTC’s Leah, Chotras, and Shahian all downed Acton, and that Chotras, Shahian, Koehnke, and Carrol Jaeger all downed Smith? He’d said before this tournament he’d wanted a little more to go on. So, o.k., what has he learned from the Californians’ appearance at the NTC’s? That certainly Smith isn’t so obviously a best choice for the World Team (later in the Greater Santa Monica Closed, Val will lose both to Acton and Tiny Eller), that Acton is perhaps no better on any given day than Neuberger and Chotras whom he says he wants to be fair to, and that, since Neuberger, Chotras, and Shahian all played 18 matches, he doesn’t have to worry about their fitness. But did any of this—or the fact that later Neuberger beats Chotras in the final of the Eastern’s in 5—really matter to him, or to Wasserman, or to USTTA President Rufford Harrison?           

When it turns out that only two, not three, women will have their way paid to the Dortmund, Germany World’s, and that Gunn, Selection Committeeman Wasserman, Acton’s coach; and President Harrison were all pushing for youthful players, Acton is understandably selected, but, m’god, so is 16-year-old Barbara Chaimson after 8 losses at the NTC’s and a –10, -14, -15 loss to Chotras at the Eastern’s!

The method of voting was as follows: “A point is given to a player each time he [or she] is chosen first, two points for a second, and so on, so that the final team could be picked by summing the various votes and starting with those who received least.”

President Harrison wanted the votes to remain secret, but Wasserman had earlier made public his choices. In appraising the eight candidates he’d placed Acton 1st, Chaimson 2nd, Hoshi 3rd, Smith 4th, Koehnke 5th, Neuberger 6th, Julia Rutelionis 7th, and Chotras 8th! Considering that the final tallies were Acton 8, Chaimson 17, Chotras 18, Neuberger 22, and next, among those in the distance, Smith 27, and Hoshi 28, it’s clear that 4 of the 5 selectors assigned a total of 10 points to Chotras and that if Wasserman had even granted her 6th place she would have been on the Team and not Chaimson. If one understood that such a single voter, so at variance with the other four selectors, could have such swing power, the method of voting from the beginning might certainly be called into question.

Though Bukiet was selected to the Men’s Team (he’d be 40 at the Dortmund World’s), Neuberger, never mind her record, was apparently just too old for the selectors—though Wasserman, and others, fully expected that Leah would pay her own way to the World’s, and so would be put on the Team anyway. But they hadn’t counted on Leah’s reaction at being scorned. Si “had the nerve to tell me,” said Leah, quite put out, that if I went “I would be playing every [Cup] match”—only she wouldn’t, because she wanted nothing to do with a Team that was selected so, and would just play in the Individuals and wouldn’t even partner any U.S. Team member in Doubles. Further—and this hadn’t been anticipated either by Wasserman or Harrison, who’d agreed even after the NTC matches that the Californians were better than the New Yorkers—Leah, outraged at being dismissed so given her record, refused, for the first time in 20 years, to go to the National’s (Chotras refused to go too), and, since attendance at that was a criterion for being on the Cup Team, it was clear she wouldn’t, couldn’t, change her mind.

Perhaps after all this Valleri was wondering why, given her age, she’d made the last-minute effort to come to Chicago. At least the National’s would be held in nearby Inglewood, CA. Val, seeded 4th, had little trouble with 5th seed Mary McIlwain, but then in the semi’s had no chance against Defending Champ Hoshi. The final saw Acton (who’d won the Junior Miss from Chaimson) being 12, -15, 21, -17 stubborn but forced to succumb. In the Women’s Doubles final, Val and Sharon had to give up their two-year-held title, 3-0, to Hoshi/Eller. And, if it weren’t for the fact that Reisman suddenly was stricken with the flu and a high temperature, and so with Hoshi had to default the final of the Mixed, Susie might well have completed the hat trick. In the semi’s, they’d knocked out Acton/Bobby Fields, while the winners, Sol Schiff/Eller had beaten Val and Bukiet.

Although Hoshi would be a registered USTTA Exhibition player for the 1959-60 season, she’d abruptly leave the table tennis scene. Why? As reporter Sidney Fields tells us, to get married. The lucky fellow was “American born Henry T. Onodera…31, head of a silk import firm in Los Angeles.” From Henry’s point of view, table tennis was o.k. for fun, but Susie was to forget about playing seriously. She had plenty of other accomplishments for him to admire. “A fine singer, she’s deft on the piano, and expert on the koto. That’s a six-foot long, 13 stringed instrument on which she plays and sings traditional Japanese music.

After winning back-to-back U.S. Championships, Susie wanted all the more to play in tournaments. So when her husband-to-be insisted she quit, she said, “We had a terrible quarrel over it. He didn’t see me for a week. I cried every night.” But she relented and accepted her retirement philosophically: “I’m 24,” she said, “and that’s old. No man wants his bride away every other night [playing table tennis]. He wants his supper. And, really, what wife wants to be away from her husband every other night?”

The California National’s ended Mar. 15th, and by Mar. 18th Acton and her Dortmund World’s teammates had left N.Y.’s Idlewild (later Kennedy) Airport for warm-up play in the Belgian Open. Fast days passed. Then, if what President Harrison wrote to his E.C. on his return from Dortmund was true—that Wasserman “tells me that Acton has given up the game”—would Val have been surprised? Saddened? Pleased that two who stood in her way of winning a National Championship were no longer contenders?

No Hoshi, no Acton at the July California Closed. So Val won that—in 4 over U.S. Open Girls’ Champ Charleen Hanson, another protégé of Wasserman’s, who’d eliminated Clemmie Ryan (Clemmie might soon be quitting too?). But then, oh, oh, at the Nov. Long Beach Open, Acton was back again, and—how is it possible?—trounced Val 7, 5, 12! What was going on in Val’s life? Was it her turn now to quit? No California team entered the Women’s NTC’s. But again, in Dec. at Long Beach, Acton defeated Smith.

I guess Sharon wasn’t quitting, or Val either—for both traveled to the National’s at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Missing in the 21-entry Women’s were Shahian, Chotras, the 1956 U.S. World Team member Lona Flam Rubenstein (mother of three now), and all the Canadians.

After the uneventful, straight-game quarter’s matches, there were a couple of surprises. One, that the #3 seed Barbara Chaimson couldn’t make a fight of it with Acton, couldn’t even get 40 points total. And, two, that Smith, after losing the 1st game at deuce to Neuberger, then went on to beat her 3-zip. However, Val’s friend Shonie Aki, a good player himself, speaks of Val’s “tenacious, steady pushing game” and says, “it’s unequaled among women players.” Two-time finalist Acton figured to be a lock over Smith, and though she lost a game to her, was—finally ending it all 21-4. Twice in earlier U.S. Opens Val had been stopped in the semi’s, so, now, getting to the final was an advance for her. Also, though Val and Mike Ralston lost in the quarter’s of the Mixed to Chaimson/Tibor Hazi, Val and Sharon regained their Women’s Doubles title by rather annihilating Leah and Barbara.

Later, at the 4th of July San Jose Open, some happy Independence Day results for Val. Of course she won the Women’s Doubles with Acton over Diane Helfer/Mary Cornwell, and the Mixed with Bob Ashley over Stuffy Singer/Cornwell. Who, by the way, was this Mary Cornwell who apparently, with Ashley and Milla Boczar’s help, was running this tournament? Turns out in 1941, as Mary Baumbach, a protégé of John Varga, she’d won the U.S. Open Women’s Doubles with Neuberger, had then married and retired from competition only to surface briefly in late 1948-’49 playing at her husband’s Montclair, N.J. “Y” Club and helping him to run a tournament there. After Val had beaten Mary in the Singles here, she met Sharon in the final and prevailed deuce in the 5th.

There were more independent results for Val at the Greater Pasadena Closed. It appears that, though she took the Mixed with Chuck Van Sant, there wasn’t any Singles event for the women. So, in lieu of that, she won the A Singles from Junior Champ Dennis Hickerson. Several months later, at the Oct. Anaheim Open, Val was an easy Women’s winner, but the “semi-professional” softball slugger Earlene Ulrich had to 19-in-the-3rd work to beat Betty Scott for runner-up honors.

 Val must be gaining confidence, for at the Dec. Pacific Coast Open in Inglewood Smith again beat Acton, 19 in the 4th. Best Sharon could do was pair with Chuck Zsebik to take the Mixed from Smith/Ralston, 19 in the 3rd. In Jan., at the Southern California Closed, Val, not content with an easy Women’s win, snatched the Class A’s from Shonie Aki.

Both Val and Sharon went to the Apr., 1961 U.S. Open at Detroit—were there for the inauguration: table tennis was the very first sports activity to take place in the 9,000-seat Cobo Hall Arena. There were 41 entries in the Women’s event, but 8-time U.S. Champion Neuberger, whom the press reported as being 43, was not among the top seeds. Aside from 1959, when she was angered and didn’t play, Leah had never been seeded worse than #3 for 20 years. Val, seeded #2, met her in the quarter’s, and perhaps Leah had something to prove—both age-wise (so unlike Leah to tell her real age, as if here and now she was proud of it) and because Val had eliminated her in last year’s National’s. Anyway, when Val couldn’t win the 2ndat deuce, she lost in straight games. After which Leah zipped Shahian, then Acton who’d blitzed Chotras.

Of Leah’s near-30 U.S. Open titles, this would be her last one. Val and Sharon won still another Women’s Doubles, and Sharon and Bobby Gusikoff successfully defended their Mixed Championship. Val and her ace of a partner in the Mixed, Men’s Singles winner Erwin Klein, were somehow upset by Robert L. (for Les) Ferguson and Canada’s Marie Duceppe.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, well table tennis-wise for Val—at least so long as she doesn’t have to play Willie Weatherford in any Class A. At the Aug. Shonie Aki-run Hollywood Cinema Open, she’s the 16-entry Women’s Champ by virtue of a semi’s win over Ulrich and a default over (a, sorry, had-to-work) Acton. She’s also the Women’s Doubles winner with Milla Boczar.

Smith won’t be going to the NTC’s this fall, but the Acton-led California team sure could have used her—especially as she was playing well. In Sept. at the Anaheim California Open, Val figured to take the Women’s, gingerly, from newcomer Brooke Williams—and did. In late Oct., at the Long Beach Open, though Val and Aki lost a tough Mixed match to Ulrich/Ashley, 19 in the 5th on an edge ball, Val in Singles was a tenacious winner over Acton. Austin Finkenbinder, in his Dec., 1961 “Coastscripts” column in Topics, briefs us on their match: 

“Sharon started…in her usual powerhouse fashion, blasting ball after ball through her doubles partner. However, after taking the first game in this fashion, Miss Acton decided to change her game and tried to push and pick her way through Mrs. Smith’s stubborn defense. The result was disastrous. Valleri stepped in, began hitting and unnerved Sharon to the point that she started missing the important shots” (12).

At this tournament U.S. #13 Ulrich was upset. Upsets happen—it’s a big deal, is it? Well, yes—for the upsetter was 9-year-old Patty Martinez, super-star in the making.

On returning from the NTC’s, where her California team finished 3rd behind New York and the runner-up D.C. “A” team, and where she herself had a 22-1 record—lost only to Chotras; beat Neuberger and Chaimson (both 21-2)—Acton, at the 3-star Pacific Coast Open, defeated arch-rival Smith in 4 close games.

They played again in the Feb. Asuza Open, and though Val had Sharon down 2-0 she couldn’t put her away. Sharon and San Diego’s Tina Poland took the Women’s Doubles from Val and Milla Boczar whom everybody thought did an excellent job in her debut as Tournament Director. Six weeks later, at the Arizona Open in Phoenix, Smith burned Club Secretary Joy Carter’s wings, and won the Mixed with Men’s Champ Aki.

Unlike Acton (who had no intention of defending her U.S. Open Women’s and Mixed Doubles titles, and therefore was maybe about to leave the Sport?), Val went cross-country to N.Y.’s St. Nick’s Arena for the 1962 National’s. There, in the 54-entry Women’s, nothing stirred one’s interest through the 8th’s and the quarter’s, except for Val’s 18 in the 5th win over #7 seed Lona Rubenstein. But then, my, in the semi’s, there’s Shahian, who, though she’d just handled Neuberger with uncustomary ease, is down 2-0 and at deuce in the 3rd with Smith. But Val can’t finish her, and Millie rallies to win, 19 in the 5th. In the final, Shahian’s opponent, not yet 20, is Barbara Chaimson, 19-in-the-4th conqueror of Chotras. In a battle of contrasting styles and rackets, Millie represents the old, uses tried and true pippled rubber to up-close block and chop; Barbara represents the new, uses “reversed sandwich rubber for a very effective chop and counter-drive game. Result? Shahian 13, 16, 16 didn’t even let Chaimson into the match. N.Y.Times reporter Robert Lipsyte said, Barbara “seemed affected by stagefright.”

Perhaps that’s because she didn’t have a partner to settle her down? In Doubles play she knew her part perfectly. She won the Mixed Doubles with Bukiet over the perennially strong partnership of Schiff/Neuberger, and the Women’s with Smith.

At this point in her career, then, Valleri had accumulated 5 National titles—4 with Acton, 1 with Chaimson, all in Women’s Doubles. Left with that bitter loss to Shahian, will she have a chance to redeem herself? Will she ever be able to call herself the U.S. Women’s Champion?…