Chapter XIX. 1937: First Women’s U.S. Team Tryouts. 1936-37: Lack of USTTA Membership in Men’s Intercity Qualifying Prompts a Frustrated Zeisberg to Action. 1937: Men’s Intercity and Selection of U.S. Men’s Team.
"Like a housewife wielding a clean broom," the Topics write-up began, "a bride swept through the U.S. Corbillon Cup team tryouts that were a colorful adjunct to the Intercity" (Feb., 1937, 1). One of the bride's wedding presents, as it were, was a nice clean broom? To keep her, and it, in her closeted space? The adjunct competitors that 21-year-old Dolores Probert Kuenz "swept away" (like so much...what?) in the course of her 9-0 round robin win did not include the World's Women's Singles Champion, the only exempt player, Ruth Aarons. Nor did they include Ruth’s final opponent in the '36 U.S. National's, Anne Sigman, at first eager to try to qualify for the '37 Baden (near Vienna) World's but then (I'd hoped you'd exempt me too) unwilling to give up her conflicting Washington, D.C. Shoreham Hotel night club engagement.
Mildred Wilkinson, herself a contender for the Team, worked hard to bring together the best geographically representative 10-player field she could. So many women in the Chicago area wanted to compete for just the one or two spots allotted them--including veteran players Flossie Basler and Virginia Booth--that Wilkinson was ready to give up her automatic place in the field and join them in a local tryout. Whether there was such a preliminary tryout, and whether unranked Helen Ovenden, who six weeks later in the Illinois Open would beat Wilkinson 3-0, played in it, I can’t say. (Perhaps Helen was not only persona non gratis with Hammond but with Tournament Chair Kittermaster as well?)
Out-of-towners willing to pay their own traveling expenses to this Team Tryout (hospitality in part provided) were: Ohio invitees (both of whom qualified over Toledo’s Mrs. Mary Mason?) Miami Valley titleholder Mrs. Glee (for Glema?) Shade of the Cleveland suburb of Lorain, last season’s Ohio #12; Mrs. Clara Harrison who’d soon be the Ohio Open Champ; Ruth Forsythe, the Kansas City representative; and Omaha’s fashion-conscious (she played in a beret) Anita Currey, who’d recently been succeeded as USTTA Women’s Chair by Mrs. Lloyd Shepherdson of Newton, Massachusetts.
The strong Massachusetts players were among those prominently absent. Corinne Migneco, World # 12 in Hammond’s unofficial ranking, had decided at the last minute not to come--though apparently she was back in the States, for she would later win the New England Championships.* Barbara Shields and Lucia Farrington, six weeks away from being the winner and runner-up at the Cambridge Colonial Open, also stayed home. As did Mae Clouther who, after playing competitively less than a year, had upset the Provincetown twosome of Jane Stahl and Mrs. Paul Smith at that February Colonial tournament.
Absent, too (perhaps they’d not been encouraged to come?), were the 15-year-old Maryland Champ Dorothy Halliday and the young midwesterners Sally Green and Betty Henry, both already beginning to make table tennis names for themselves. Also, both Pennsylvania State Champ Ruth Wilson and Matilda Rauscher, who’d beaten Ruth in a match in the Philadelphia Women’s League that Mrs. Violet Smolens had initially organized so well, were not among the entries. Nor of course was Mrs. Ethel Baer Schneider, U. S. #7 last year, who this fall had suddenly died of blood poisoning. Nor Mae Spannaus, New York State Champ over Helen Germaine.
Though Germaine played table tennis in the winter and thought it "unbeatable for developing court tactics and generally alert thinking," her first love, even when in table tennis she’d reached the final of the 1934 U.S. National’s, was tennis--and by 1936 as a self-taught, very experienced 24-year-old, she’d won the National Public Parks Women’s Tennis Championship year after year. Successful though she’d been in both sports after leaving high school at 14, she hadn’t been able to progress to her potential, for like most players she’d had to work for a living. One sympathizes with her when (in 1934?) she says to Lester Bromberg of the N.Y. Post, "A boss just doesn’t care how your backhand is going and if you want to leave early for the courts you’re docked so much money. The pep isn’t there either" (GSSI, 119).
Had Germaine and these other absent players I’ve mentioned lived in close proximity to the site of the Tryouts, either the field would have been extended, or some of them would have been chosen over some who played. And no doubt the same could be said for the far West and Northwest players Hammond was having difficulty ranking.
Where you lived, the competition that was there (or not there) to help you improve your game, the money you had or could raise to go to major tournaments, and the opportunities presented to you there in the Draws--these were all fateful factors in whether a would-be Champion could acquire the needed confidence and staying power to have a successful table tennis career.
The established favorites here in Chicago were U.S. #3 Purves, U.S. #4 Fuller, U.S. #5 Probert-Kuenz, and U.S. #6 Wilkinson. Coming in to challenge them was the 17-year-old high school senior from Portland, Oregon with an unconventional name, Mayo Rae Rolph, a grip to match, and an attacking game that the others might fear as being uncomfortably disorienting to play against.
In one sense, Mayo's follow-the-bouncing-ball route to Chicago's Lake Shore Athletic Club was really rather ordinary. In 1932, when she was 13 (Mayo was born June 30, 1919), her parents bought a Christmas ping-pong set and table for basement play in their home. Then the following year Mayo and her father entered a downtown department store tournament and in the Girls’ event she won her first cup. On meeting tournament player Toye Lindblad, Mayo's father suggested Toye coach Mayo--and so she learned her penholder grip from him. Soon she picked up pointers on strategy from another local champion, Dick Jordan. By the time she was 14 she was Portland Girls' Champ and had a "masculine type of driving game." Then she began winning Women's Singles events.
In another sense, Mayo’s far-away trip to Chicago and the attention given her there wasn't ordinary at all. She was interviewed on radio, and Coleman Clark brought her into his table tennis act at the Hotel Sherman's College Inn. Cokey, partnered by Yoshio Fushimi, had just opened a long-term engagement at this well known Loop night club--so well known that when Mayo arrived in slacks, the doorman didn't want to let her in.**
The Women's matches started before the Men's, on Friday, Jan. 1, but the most significant of them were played over the Saturday and Sunday sessions. Rolph scored an important win over Wilkinson, but then couldn't pull out either of the matches against Kuenz and Purves she needed to ensure herself a place on the Team--the 15, -19, -16 swing loss to Kuenz being particularly disappointing. But Purves allowed Rolph a reprieve, lost not only to the undefeated Kuenz but to Wilkinson--which forced a 7-2 three-way play-off for the Team’s third and last expenses-paid position. Wilkinson was never a contender in these late-hour final matches--but again Rolph lost her chance: as approaching midnight’s timing came and went, so, 22, -21, -16, was Mayo’s fortune told.
But...since a fourth woman could be on the Team at her own expense, couldn't Mayo still be another new face at Baden? Or would she be penalized by Zeisberg's directive, "If a state [like the offending Oregon] failed to reach its Fighting Fund quota by Jan. 3, 1937 no player residing therein may be selected" (TTT, Feb., 1937, 8)? It never came to anything so controversial as that, never came to anything debatable at all. "I'm sorry," said her father, who’d paid her way to Chicago and who was always proud of her table tennis achievements, even kept a scrapbook detailing them, "I know how much you want to go, but I’m just a candy store owner. I haven't got the money to send you." Mayo, I can’t resist adding, told me more than half a century later (regretfully? from the remembered perspective of childhood?) that "There was never much candy in the house."
Taking Rolph's place at this historic '37 World's--to play, if not in the Corbillon Cup matches, in the Singles and Doubles--was 5th-place finisher Emily Fuller. She at least had the money to go abroad--in fact, as Doug Cartland well remembered, she’d paid the way (she flew, they drove) of the N.Y. Men’s team to these Intercities. Perhaps her night club act with Sam Silberman had in some way affected her tournament play, or perhaps she just wasn’t good enough yet, but she was a loser not only to the top four but to Omaha's Anita Currey, U.S. #25, who two months later couldn't beat a local player in the Nebraska Open.
With the auld lang syne New Year's celebration over, Mayo would forget table tennis for a while, enroll in Portland’s nearby Linfield College and eventually marry a fellow student there, a Baptist minister's son. Emily would go on to be runner-up to Aarons in the '37 National's, and then, on Ruth's retirement, the '38 and '39 U.S. Champion and eventually a USTTA Hall of Famer.
Intercity Qualifying Frustrates Zeisberg Over USTTA Membership
The 7-team Men's Intercity field from which our representatives to Baden would be selected (there'd be no more American Zone qualifier) was also uncertain for a while, since this year more cities were vying, through qualifying play-offs, to get in. Moreover, though 4 teams--New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis--were automatic entries because of their past showing, players still had to earn their way onto these teams.
Perhaps the most talked about casualty was Jimmy Jacobson. In a July 19, 1937 letter to his Ranking Committee, Hammond lamented how Jacobson's failure to make the winning New York team he'd been on the last two years, "hurt Intercity publicity tremendously," for Jimmy, who’d played in all five previous Intercities, had "always been ‘news’ in Chicago."
One of the players making his first appearance here in Jacobson's stead--and quite an appearance it turned out to be--was Bernie Grimes, whose perfect 12-0 record would win him the Outstanding Player medal. Joining Grimes, and Schiff and Berenbaum, was another newcomer, Doug Cartland, one of the "most improved players in the East" (TTT, Feb., 1937, 3). Cartland's forehand was something like Ruth Aarons', for, just as she made contact with "a stiff wristed" forearm stroke rather than "a wrist flick" (RAS, 11a)--she'd repeatedly insisted she wanted to be a tennis player--so too did Cartland. And while, as Schiff in his Table Tennis Comes Of Age would say, this made him an extremely steady topspinner, "his wrist is locked so firmly for low balls that it is very hard to unlock it in time to take a wallop at high ones." Thus, since point-winning opportunities have to be taken advantage of, this stroke, lacking flexibility, wasn't one Schiff would recommend (35-36). The 22-year-old Cartland, whose great career was just beginning (he'd have the 8th best record of the 28 players here), would go on to have the reputation as "the best player never to win the U.S. National's."
Completing the Men's field were: Kansas City, who'd have little play-off competition with Milwaukee (though Webb lost to teenager Don MacCrossen); Detroit, who'd 9-0 blitzed Cleveland, but had just 5-4 escaped Hamilton, Ohio (and its tenacious defender Cal Fuhrman); and Newark, who'd won out over Trenton, N.J., 5-0, Boston, 5-2, and Philadelphia, 5-4.
Newark, who'd eventually finish 5th behind the Big Four, was lucky to gain its qualifying spot over Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was likely the most organized table tennis city in the U.S. All its leading players were part of a Pennsylvania Exhibition Team, "outfitted in dark blue polo shirts bearing a keystone containing the yellow and blue state colors." This Team would go about, merely for traveling expenses, giving exhibitions "in department stores...[and at] churches, lodges, conventions, etc." Even to be eligible for their Intercity Team one had to enter a preliminary North Philadelphia tournament and all local Friday night tournaments (TTT, Nov., 1936, 5 and 9). Unthinkable then that their #1 player, Izzy Bellis, wouldn't show for that all-important qualifying match against Newark.
When Bellis was immediately suspended for violating By-Law 23-D-6 ("fails to appear for play without sending notification"), it was only fitting that Gene Smolens, who'd valiantly won all three against Newark, succeed him as Philadelphia City Champion. Topics, I might add, for I was surprised by the unexplained connection, reported that the organizers of these Dec. 28-29 Philly City Championships "received a telegram of greeting from [England’s 1929 World Table Tennis and later Wimbledon Tennis Champion] Fred Perry reiterating that t.t. taught him his tennis stroking" (Feb., 1937, 7).
Although Bellis had a reason for not showing--said he had to study for exams--he publicly apologized: "I will not only conduct myself with propriety," he promised, "but will also make all possible attempts to further the aims of the Association" (TTT, Feb., 1937, 6). This was what everyone in the PTTA so wanted to hear that they promptly made Izzy Tournament Chairman.
Zeisberg’s USTTA, meanwhile, ever conscious of trying to further its membership, was so disgusted at this Newark, Philly, Boston, Trenton Tryout, where only 3 of the 20 contestants had USTTA membership cards, that, in refusing to detail individual results, it began implementing a new policy--namely, that Topics would not print results of Open tournaments if their sponsors weren’t enforcing the rule that all entries must be USTTA members. Further, if USTTA members played in unsanctioned tournaments, they were "subject to suspension" (TTT, Mar., 1937, 7). Also rankling was the fact that two women who had not joined the Association were inadvertently ranked last season. Be warned then, said Zeisberg and Co., that, should any membership slip occur again and be last minute discovered, the offender's name would be replaced by an unidentifying line (" ") in any tournament results section or ranking list of Topics.
Zeisberg of course, especially in the face of heavy November expirations, continued to pummel home this reasonable be-a-member point in his own hyper fashion: "No club allows outsiders to overrun it. Why should the USTTA allow non-members to do this?" (TTT, Jan., 1937, 7).
Moreover, he argued, even if a person didn't want to play in tournaments, just preferred league play, he/she should still join the USTTA, as did all those in the Philadelphia leagues, for example. It's "no accident that Pennsylvania and New Jersey have the largest memberships," he said. "These are the states with 100% USTTA membership leagues" (TTT, Dec. 1936, 5). It's so black-and-white clear to Zeisberg that for the Association to progress it has to avoid the crippling effect that outsiders, "parasites," are inflicting on it. Can't State officials see this, cooperate? Can't members realize it's in their Association's best interest and therefore their best interest if they don't play in leagues with outsiders, and that those who do have to be suspended?
"To form a 100% membership league is easy. The organizers announce: ‘Rule 1 of this league is that nobody can play in it unless he is a USTTA member. If you fellows don't like it, you can form your own anti-USTTA or non-USTTA league and do your own work.’
What earthly reason can a league player have for not paying the measly dues required to join your association, to boost your State total, to add his strength to the National Association, to help send a U.S. Team to compete with other nations. He is full of excuses (and I know them all) but the main reason in most cases is this: He is a cheapskate. He horns in to get something for nothing, to benefit from your labor and mine without doing his bit to help make the organized game possible. [One well-meaning fellow, trying to do his bit, suggested to Zeisberg that those who had trouble parting with 50 cents for a membership might be offered an incentive. Perhaps stores in city after city could grant a "10% discount to members showing USTTA cards, such stores to be listed in Topics.]" (TTT, Dec., 1936, 5).
Seven of the 19 USTTA-affiliated states--California, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin--weren't complying with the USTTA Constitution, especially in that they weren't cooperating in enforcing rules that would help the USTTA get more members. Irritated that certain "Governors" weren't governing, or helping with the Fighting Fund, or even responding to letters, Zeisberg and his Executive Committee added a By-Law provision: "A member who ignores two requests for information shall be suspended or expelled." They also demoted these seven formerly affiliated states to "provisional groups [in] unorganized states," so as to allow "direct affiliation" with other groups, out of which, it was hoped, might come progress with productive leaders (TTT, Jan., 1937, 6). "Of course," said Zeisberg bluntly but reasonably in a Jan. 22, 1937 letter to his Governors, "no one can justly criticize a man if he does not have time or inclination to serve, but he is open to criticism if he hangs on to his title without functioning, and all of us are foolish if we allow it."
Zeisberg urged any USTTA member aware of any other member’s violation of the USTTA Constitution or By-Laws to report that fact to him and his E.C. That way, if any local or state governing body was hesitant in enforcing discipline, Zeisberg and his men could "take appropriate action to educate the offender" (TTT, Nov., 1936, 4).
With Zeisberg it was always cooperate--or get out. Since the majority of members, he said, wanted rules, and wanted to observe all of them, that majority "should clamp down on the offenders, explain the principles of sportsmanship and invite them to reform or get out" (TTT, Jan., 1937, 5). Indeed, Zeisberg wanted to raise the membership dues, so all the cheapskates would get out, and the Association would become more manageable, more united.
But united with a smaller and smaller membership? Would that be good?
1937 Intercities and U.S. Men’s Team Selection
One thing that the officials, if not all the players, agreed on at this '37 Chicago Intercities was the improvement in play provided by the lower 6-inch net. No longer could Schiff, for instance, perenially complain that on these slow Becker tables the hitter was at a disadvantage. This year powerful attacks were commonplace. "Never before have such interesting and exciting matches been seen in America," said Kittermaster (TTT, Feb., 1937, 4). Ironically, though, in view of the success they were going to have at the '37 World's, both Schiff and McClure were afraid that playing with this new lower net would not be good preparation for the matches on the continued-to-be-used 6 and 3/4 ITTF net in Baden.
Not that Schiff and McClure did so badly in Chicago. Sol (10-1) lost only to Blattner, and Jimmy (9-2) lost only to Schiff and Blattner. Bud, too, with a 9-2 record, solidified his place on the Team--despite being beaten by Grimes, and despite suffering an unexpected loss to the red-hot Michigan Champion, Edward Denges (5-6).
Abe Berenbaum, the other favorite to make the four-player U.S. Men’s Team, had come into these Intercities as the winner of the very strong New York City Metro Championship--a tournament that had made "history" because play "ended at 11 P.M. and the N.Y. Times printed the results" (TTT, Feb., 1937, 4). Not only had Abe beaten Sol in the final, -22, 16, -17, 18, 14, after being down 2-1 and 17-13 in the 4th, he'd also scored an even gutsier -17, -18, 7, 17, 21 victory over Pagliaro in the semi's. So from this and many another Championship everyone admired his fight. And now, here especially, his sportsmanship. Officials were impressed that Abe "would not resort to pushing while losing to McClure"--and, though Kansas City's erratic V. Lee Webb (4-10) blasted him off the table, they were also impressed that, "courageously playing while ill" (he compiled only a 3-3 record), he "stuck out the last 2 points of his match" with Chicago's Jerry Lavan (Luh-VAN). Immediately afterwards he "collapsed on the floor at the players' exit," then "was carried to his room, where Dr. F. Stanley Morest found him suffering from a cold, temperature elevation, and lack of rest. Not until assured a place on the team would he consent to remain in bed" (TTT, Feb., 1937, 4).
Since no guarantee had been given anyone that even a perfect record here would automatically put one on the U.S. World Team, and since Grimes hadn't really compiled much of a record last year or this (in the Metro, he'd lost to Schiff, 3-0, in the semi's), he'd have to prove himself through another full season of play before representing the U.S. in the '38 World's at Wembley.
The New York Team won the William R. Stewart Trophy and its 3rd straight title by defeating the three teams all tied for second--Indianapolis, 5-1 (McClure out-hit Berenbaum); Chicago, 5-2 (Muchow, 8-4, beat Cartland, 5-3, while Lavan, 4-5, literally downed poor Berenbaum); and St. Louis, 5-3 (Blattner spoiled Schiff's perfect tournament, and both Bud and George Hendry, 9-6, proved to Cartland that getting more out of his game was still a puzzle he had to solve).
Chicago thumped St. Louis, 5-3: Blattner, for some reason playing in the 9th position (perhaps, after his early bad loss to Denges, he’s trying to protect against another of the same?) beat Muchow and Lavan; but, given these low nets, defenders Price (4-3) and Hendry could muster only one win between them (Hendry over Lavan).
Chicago, however, could finish with no better than a 4-2 record. After losing as expected to New York, the Windy City team was 5-0 blown about and run right over by Indianapolis.
Indy, having lost to New York, revved up and for a time was in the race against St. Louis but 5-3 flagged out: McClure and Coulson (9-4) lost to Blattner (again positioned for the unplayed 9th match); while neither Coulson (9-4) nor Steele (4-4) could beat Nash (4-4), and Steele wasn’t crossed-swords sharp enough to outduel Hendry's quick-cutting strokes.
Poor Ned--later he never could get the #17 USTTA season ranking due him. Hadn't paid his 50 cent membership dues.
*Migneco would soon disappear from the table tennis scene--only to turn up years later in Los Angeles, where she’ll play some (see TTT, Oct., 1952, 5). In 1956 she’ll reach the semi’s of the California State Open.
**For much of Mayo’s background here and elsewhere, I draw on her Mar. 23 and Apr. 20, 1991 letters to me, and on our 1991 Midland, MI U.S. Open interview. Her father accompanied her on this trip to Chicago, and it was he who explained to the doorman why Mayo was there and dressed in slacks.