History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan

Chapter XV. 1936: Ruth Aarons Wins World Women’s Singles Championship. 1936: McClure and Blattner Win World Men’s Doubles Championship. 1936: U.S. Team Captain Biddell Becomes USTTA President, then Quickly Resigns, and is Replaced by Zeisberg. 1936: Zeisberg’s Demand for Help, and his Shifting 1936-37 E.C.

Since the U.S. Women’s Team had been a formidable contender for the Corbillon Cup, players and spectators alike understood that not only was Aarons one of the favorites to win the Women’s Singles title but that both Purves and Migneco were capable of upsets. In the first round of the Singles, however, Jay couldn’t hold a 2-0 lead and lost in 5 to Germany's Anita Felguth. Migneco did better, though she too exited early: after a nice 5-game win over the Hungarian Ida Ferenczy, she was beaten in the third round, 3-0, by the German #1, Astrid Krebsbach.

Aarons, however, as expected, straight-game swept through into her climactic semi's with Defending World Champion Kettnerova. Here’s how Topics described the match:

"...Played in the afternoon, the Aarons-Kettner [Kettnerova] match might well have been the final from the quality of play, the huge gallery, and the reasoning that the winner would become the new champion. Facing the only player she had ever lost to [sic], Ruth began shakily. Kettner capitalized on this by her forcing play, driving deep to her opponent's forehand, then sharply angling the next drive to the opposite corner. As the defender of the title, playing magnificently, drew away to take the first game the continued roaring of the volatile spectators shook Ruth still further..." (May, 1936, 2).

Aarons may well have remembered the "perfect poise" she acknowledged Kettnerova had shown earlier in their Corbillon Cup match when, before rallying, the World Champion was down 1-0 and 17-11 in the 2nd. Now, in this all-important Singles match, Ruth had to fight to calm her own nerves: "I lost the first game and nearly went to pieces,"she later told reporter Tom Reilly, "but then I just managed to forget the importance of the match, and everything went along smoothly."

Do you believe her? That she could put the importance of this match out of her mind? Tom Hoctor probably did. In interviewing Ruth back in March of 1934 for the New Rochelle, N.Y. Standard-Star--this was a month or so before she was to win her first (APPA) U.S. Championship--he wrote: "She has the ideal competitive temperament because she forgets the roar of the crowd and the importance of the match in the heat of battle."*

But as for "everything going along smoothly," Topics readers would have their doubts:

"...The U.S. champion was having difficulty because of interference from the encroaching sideline seats in returning the Czech girl's deep drives, and after she had won the second game by an amazingly deep defense, a protest was lodged with the officials that the playing conditions could be improved by moving the spectators back, to which Kettner, realizing the fairness of the request, added her wish. This was refused at the end of a fifteen minute debate. Despite this handicap to her game, the American girl resumed play.

The third game found Ruth leading 15-10, with Kettner beginning to feel the strain of seeing her best shots returned. Here for a moment the challenger took the attack away from the champion only to lose five points. Both were tiring from the fast pace. The gallery sensed that this game might decide the match and for once grew grimly quiet. 16-16, 17- 17, 18,-18 went the score. Ruth braced and grimly took the next two. Kettner risked all with a furious driving attack that brought the crowd to its feet. Finally she hit a kill so hard it seemed impossible of return and wheeled in relief from the table, to have Ruth from deep court do the impossible and get it back with her opponent completely out of position. Even the Czechs went wild at the shot. Ruth's game, 21-18.

The champion never quite regained her confidence. Though she still played with all she had, mixing a short game with heavy drives and introducing a hard flick which scorched well, she seemed to anticipate her defeat. The U.S. star never relaxed her splendid game and although Kettner drew from 16-18 to tie at 18-all she lost the last three points and her two-year title. The throng was stunned at her loss..." (May, 1936, 9).

Afterwards, Ruth said that at 20-18 match point she was "wondering how Kettner felt at that moment"; she was sure her own heart "wasn't even beating." Then, she said, "I hit one to her backhand and she returned it into the net!" (TTT, Dec., 1936, 2). A heady realization--to know that she had just beaten the World Champion, and was now only one match away from replacing her.

The final, played "on center court the last night," against Krebsbach, was a mere 16, 14, 11 formality for Ruth. The German "played her heart out to win, but her dreaded backhand was too unsteady to do other than force Ruth to play her best game."

Naturally it was a great thrill, and meant great acclaim not just in the U.S. but in Europe, for 17-year-old Ruth to be World Champion. "Europeans don't kid the game," she'd later say to an American reporter. "Over there it's a national sport, like baseball. I autographed hundreds of balls --which, incidentally, is pretty hard. Just try to sign your name on one of them when there are already two or three other signatures" (RAS, 9).

For more than 60 years now Ruth’s name, along with those of other greats in our little sphere of Sport, has been handed down, generation after generation, decade after decade. No wonder then that many an aficionado/collector, so fond of old Time’s signature, would love to have young Ruth’s. The more so because, wherever those hundreds of balls she signed eventually bounced to, in our Association’s Hall of Fame her name is writ special, alone--Ruth Aarons: our one and only World Singles Champion.

A Champion of course we’re going to read much more about.

Considering the Corbillon Cup results, our women's doubles play, no doubt in part because Ruth, Jay, and Corinne had had so little practice together, was nothing to write home about. But in the Women's Doubles, Aarons and Purves did have a decent 19 in the 4th quarter's win over the Czechs Traute Kleinova and Jindra Holoubkova-Juarez before losing a feisty -16, -24, 19, -18 semi's match to the eventual winners Kettnerova and Smidova.

In the Mixed, Blattner and Purves had to play a preliminary round and lost it 19 in the 5th. Well, if they couldn't even beat another preliminary-round team how far could they have gone, huh? Except that the Czechs Milos Hamr and Traute Kleinova whom they lost to were--after an unprecedented postponement of the final (it still hadn't been played in October!)--the eventual Mixed Doubles winners. Tindall and Migneco were eliminated early, but McClure and Aarons got to the 1/4's before being beaten in 4 by the Hungarians Istvan "Stefan" Kelen and Maria Mednyanszky.

And how did our men do in their Singles and Doubles?

Unfortunately, in the very first round of Singles, McClure drew young Bergmann, already showing signs of the greatness that next year would make him World Champion, and lost 3-0. Blattner, too, went down right away, in 4, to Hungary's Tibor Sarossy. But Tindall at least did away with an Austrian second-stringer, Geza Erdely, before losing to Hungary's veteran 2-time World Mixed Doubles Champ Kelen.

The expatriate Marshall made the best showing. A scrambling, spirited 16, 19, -19, -25, 18 win over the Czech Alois Kresina, followed by an 18, -22, 19, -21, 20 more of the same over Hungary's Istvan "Stefan" Boros, allowed him to make the quarter's before losing first a coin flip and then the -9, -19, -22 match to Poland's Ehrlich. A coin flip? Marshall's a hitter, said Ehrlich, so I prefer, and if necessary will flip for, the slowest table possible. He got it, won the toss. Of course, besides being crafty, the tall, gangly Ehrlich was an extremely good player. Primarily because of his great defense--"probably [at this time] the finest in the game"--he was the winner over Haguenauer in the just-played English Open, and in 1936, ‘37, and ‘39 he would be the World Men's Singles runner-up.

I don’t want to forget U.S. Team Captain Biddell--he was too old: he played and lost.

Among the most talked about Men's Singles matches at these World's was of course the 19-in-the-5th final, won by the attacking Czech Standa Kolar over Ehrlich. But also: Mauritz's first round victory over 3-time World Champion (and, just this last year, World runner-up)"Mike" Szabados; Franz Zdarsky's default to his teammate Bohumil Vana (ordered by the Czech Team Capt. when Zdarsky--Don't take it personally, Franz, it's just that the kid has a better chance of advancing than you do--was leading 20-16 in the 5th!); Vana's easy win over Dubouille--remembered only because before the match the Frenchman's bat had...disappeared (these Czechs did want the home court advantage, eh?); Kolar's 5-game eighth’s win over Kelen; and Marin Goldberger of Rumania's 11, -16, 4, [5-all?] coin-toss win over France's Haguenauer (the match had finally been stopped...after at least 7 hours of play...and when officials ordered the match to be continued and completed in 20 minutes, or both players would be disqualified, play hopelessly resumed for 2 points, then the French and Rumanian Team Captains threw up their hands and a coin!).

The ITTF would soon take a swing at these pushers, but in Prague, for the moment, decisions seemed sometimes to be based on Chance.

McClure and Blattner Win the World’s Men’s Doubles

In the Men's Doubles, it would seem that our two St. Louis players, Blattner and Tindall, so familiar with one another's games, ought to partner one another. But "Five minutes before play started, the U.S. captain requested the ITTF jury to permit him to team Blattner and McClure, placing Marshall with Tindall" (TTT, May, 1936, 7).

Why not?

Whereupon Marshall and Tindall, after advancing to the 2nd round, were beaten in 5 by the eventual finalists (and--strange draw--first-round Men’s Singles opponents) the Czechs Kolar and J. Okter Petricek. Blattner and McClure, however, cruised on into the quarter's where they met Kelen and Bellak and, down 2-1, rallied to win in 5. So far, so good.

Bud and Jimmy’s semi’s, against the Hungarian Champion Tibor Hazi (who in just a few years would immigrate, like Bellak before him, to the U.S.) and the "cocky" young man with the "quick half-volley defense and a lot of confidence" Tibor was mentor to, Ferenc Soos (pronounced "SHO-sss"), was played on center court the last night of the tournament. Down 2-1 and 19-11 in the 4th, Bud and Jimmy seemed to have little chance, but then--with Hazi urging Soos to hit, and Soos refusing to--the steady, topspinning Americans won 8 in a row! Then:

"...With the score 19-19, the crowd, rooting for the U.S.,went mad. Hazy [sic]-Soos scored the next point. Bud and Jimmy deuced the game and a flick from Jimmy nicked the corner to get game point. Soos deuced with a scorcher. Hazy angled a drop shot off the table and Bud put away game point.

The deciding game was a battle royal. With the score 17-18 [sic: 18-17] McClure's service came up. Hungary had won the first game with finger spin, and now America retaliated. Bud missed a drive to make it 18-18 but put away the sitter that Jimmy's next serve brought. Jimmy's next two serves brought clean misses and the U.S. was in the final..." (TTT, May, 1936, 7)

That final--bringing teenagers McClure/Blattner the World's Men's Doubles Championship--was 11, 7, 9 absurdly anticlimactic.

Biddell, USTTA President, Resigns; Zeisberg Succeeds Him

Of course Biddell and his U.S. Team, especially our three World Champions, came back to the States in great triumph. As Herbert Allan put it:

"...Bouquets were presented to Miss Aarons, publicity men were on hand to introduce the erstwhile parlor athletes to the press and there was much talk of physical condition, training and the strain of competition--just as if the subjects of discussion were a stable of wrestlers."

Biddell himself--to jump ahead a bit--for his "incalculable" service to the USTTA this ‘35-’36 season, was publicly praised in Topics by Zeisberg--and, after Dougall Kittermaster, because of the "pressure of business," was forced to decline the Presidency of the Association, former Recording Secretary Biddell, in an acceptable "slate," switched E.C. roles with Zeisberg and accepted the Presidential office. Accepted, that is, with two provisos--one, that the USTTA Executive Committee "accord him 100% cooperation" (what else would they do?), and, two, that if a business opportunity should materialize he would have to step down. As it happened, with the end of summer he "assumed charge of Grand National Films' story and talent departments" and moved to Hollywood. Later--see TTT, Oct., 1947, 6--he was said to be "producing pictures for Paramount."

Zeisberg’s Demand For Help! His 1936-37 Shifting E.C.

Before Biddell left, however, Zeisberg, complaining that "the vast amount of work connected with [the] operation of the association was imposing an intolerable burden on USTTA officials (who serve without pay)," introduced a Sept. 4, 1936 resolution "to disband the association"! Why he did this is not clear to me. Perhaps he wanted to dramatically indicate that with Biddell's resignation the Association would lose an invaluable man and that unless the other E.C. members rallied round the only suitable Presidential substitute--he, Zeisberg himself--gave him real help, the work load he'd again be undertaking was just going to be too much? Of course whatever they privately thought of what appears to me to be at least something of an (I want a show of support) ego trip on Zeisberg's part, all the others on the E.C. voted not to disband. On Sept. 28 the following resolution, sponsored jointly by Biddell and Zeisberg, was passed unanimously: "Because of Sidney M. Biddell's resignation as President of the USTTA and John H. Weinheimer's resignation as 2nd Vice President, that Carl Zeisberg be elected President, that Mr. Biddell be appointed 2nd Vice President [though he’d soon be replaced by Morris B. Bassford], and that Membership Chair Edwin F. ("Frank") Berna be appointed [as a replacement for Zeisberg] Recording Secretary [Berna, too, would shortly be replaced--by Kansas City’s Dr. F. Stanley Morest]." Kittermaster remained 1st Vice President; newly elected Frank H. Trolle took up his duties as 3rd Vice President; Cinnater, who'd been re-elected, was again Treasurer; and Wahle continued on as Executive Secretary.

At the beginning of last year’s 1935-36 season, when Topics editor Zeisberg had succeeded Bill Stewart as President, Biddell had replaced Carl as Topics editor (though Zeisberg was surely writing some of the unsigned editorials and articles as he sniped away at his favorite targets). Now, with the start of the ‘36-’37 season, Edwin "Frank" Berna replaced Biddell as editor. However, Frank Berna edited only two issues, and by December his name was nowhere to be found in Topics--not as editor, Recording Secretary, or even Membership Chair. Perhaps at this time he takes a job with Zeisberg’s paper, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. It’s unlikely he suffered any falling out with Carl, for Frank’s three table tennis-minded brothers had positions in Zeisberg’s administration--and two of them went on to make the Berna name well known.

James Berna, the one least active, replaced Frank as Membership Chair. Joe Berna, who in Oct., 1936 had become Circulation Manager for Topics, advanced in Dec. to Business Manager...then Manager...then General Secretary, a position he would hold until June of ‘39 when in the early hours of the morning he lost control of his car, crashed into a stone wall and pole, and died instantly. From Mar., 1937 through May of 1938 Joe was also editor of Topics. Thomas Berna, known as "Bob," replaced Joe as Circulation Manager for Topics, and after Joe’s death succeeded him as the USTTA’s General Secretary.

President Zeisberg, meanwhile, after Biddell’s retirement and the appointment of several editors during the next three seasons, himself edited at least half a dozen issues of the magazine, returning even after he was no longer President to put out the three spring issues of the 1938-39 season. After all, who else was there, who else had there ever been, to do it better?

Zeisberg then in Sept., 1936 was a man who wanted to quit, to disband the Association? C'mon. Can there be any doubt that the USTTA--every aspect of which for years he wanted to direct, to control--sustained his psychic life?

Carl was a man with a table tennis mission--it was a personal challenge to him to try to organize the USTTA. He wanted to be fair and democratic, and light-cartoon-like humorous he undoubtedly often was--but he also had this Prof. Knowes A. Lott side that ("The class will come to order and anyone caught talking out of turn will be kept after school") smacked more of totalitarian-like rigidity than self-deprecating whimsy. Similarly, with another of his Topics personas, The Old Timer ("[ USTTA] Officials and members who do not cooperate in strict enforcement of all regulations...should be thrown out"), he always remained sure of his authority and sure of its autocratic, punishing weight.

In short, he was a strong leader, and, because he was an obssessed one, he was sometimes right and sometimes wrong, sometimes liked and sometimes not.


*In mid-game Ruth was surely focused on her play, but in between games her attention was sometimes elsewhere? Joseph Mitchell in an Aug. 10, 1936 N.Y. World-Telegram article (RAS, 42) says that while playing Kettnerova at the ‘36 World’s "Ruth startled European fans by changing her costumes two or three times." Would this have been in the Team’s, or the Singles? After matches, or during them? Off court, away from all, or most, of those rowdy Czechs, or behind a makeshift screen at the table? To calm her nerves, take her mind off the importance of the match? To present to self and those watching her the idealized image of self as a professional--in dress, bearing, self-control?