The Aug. 31, 1934 Cleveland Great Lakes Open--played before maybe 1,000 spectators on 40-50 tables set up outdoors at the windy Euclid Beach Amusement Park--was clearly unique. It was also significant in that it provided us with the first mention in Topics of three great St. Louis players--Robert "Bud" Blattner, Garrett Nash...and the somewhat older Bill Price.
Adventurous young men they were, not intimidated, not a bit fearful. In the Singles, Blattner’s forehands must have reared up, gusted, and point after point blown National Champ Schiff backward, for Sol just did (19, 29, 19) manage to right himself. And in the Doubles, N.Y. Metro Champs Schiff and Seymour Solomon were beaten--unexpectedly upset by those two "surprising kids," Nash and Price.
Actually, Bill, born in St. Louis in Sept., 1915, the youngest of five children (three brothers, one sister), was almost 20 years old when he and his vacation-minded friends turned up (how’d they get there?) at this Amusement Park far from home, so he was hardly a "kid." He’d graduated from Central High, where he’d earned letters in track and baseball. In his third year at Central he’d joined the Y and began playing and perhaps after a time coaching table tennis there. Inevitably, he must also have found his way over to the 8-table St. Louis Headquarters Club on Olive St.--R.G. Blattner, Manager (that’s Bud’s father)--where $1.25 a month allowed you unlimited playing time.
What a grouping of center-court players St. Louis had in the mid-1930’s. In addition to Price, Nash and Blattner who, with Jimmy McClure, would be the 1936 and ‘37 World Doubles Champion, there were 1935 U.S. Open runner-up Mark Schlude, 1935 U.S. World Team member Dick Tindall, 1935 U.S. Boys’ Champ George Hendry, and more than a few others--including the Tietjin brothers, Carl and Vernon; Leonard Radunsky; Jack Nix; Edwin Woody; and nearby Kansas City’s Ernie Trobaugh, Jr.--capable on any given day of beating these Champions.
So good were so many that at the ‘35 Intercities all five members of the St. Louis Team--Schlude (#4), Tindall (#5), Blattner (#6), Price (#8), and Nix (#9)--would be ranked in the U.S. Top 10 for the 1934-’35 season. And though, because of Sol Schiff’s heroics, St. Louis still couldn’t win the Championship (Price, 8-0, didn’t play the climactic tie against New York) their players sure were proof-positive of the Cluster Theory: that very good players can’t help but beget other very good players, and not just in dominant New York but anywhere.
Before the ‘35 National’s, "Long, lean, straw-thatched" Price had won the Mar. 3 Omaha Missouri Valley Men’s (over John Tatom) and Mixed (with Ethel Baer Schneider). But at the Chicago National’s, played Apr. 5-7 in the Grand Ballroom of the Stevens Hotel, he was beaten decisively in the eighth’s by defensive star Harry Cook who the next month, partnered with Melvin Rose, would win the N.Y. State Doubles Championship.
At the 1936 Chicago Intercities, New York and St. Louis again played the decisive tie, and again Schiff was the hero, beating all three St. Louis players, including the now 21-year-old Price, in 3--Sol’s 19-in-the-3rd win over Blattner and his deuce-in-the-3rd win over Tindall being all-deciding. Three weeks before, Bud had been playing well, had beaten Bill in the final of the St. Louis District, but here, probably in part because he’d suffered from Friday-night food poisoning, he (like Bill) had four losses.
After the Intercities, Blattner won the Missouri State Singles over Tindall. As for the Doubles, Price who’d teamed with Nash at the Dec. St. Louis District, here at the Jan. Missouri State paired with Hendry, but again lost the final. However, he and Mrs. Schneider again won the Mixed (as they would later at the Western’s). A strange happening here in Price’s semi’s Singles match with Tindall, though. Bill, primarily a defensive player, was disqualified in the 5th for "pushing." Why? Because the USTTA had recently decided that any player who persistently refused to attack when given the opportunity to do so was guilty of poor sportsmanship, of conduct "considered to be a detriment to the game." Price guilty of unbecoming conduct? Considering his ongoing reputation as a sportsman, a gentleman, as opposed to, say, the flamboyant Nash, that certainly had to be ironic.
Since Bill had no chance to make the U.S. Team to the Prague World’s, he didn’t enter the Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 1936 American Zone Qualifier in Washington, D.C. But he did successfully defend his Missouri Valley titles--Men’s Singles and Mixed (possibly his last with his regular partner Schneider who that fall would abruptly die of blood poisoning)--and even completed the "hat trick" by taking the Men’s Doubles (with Singles runner-up Woody).
Bill also traded off spring tournaments with Hendry. George, who, like Bill, was more comfortable playing defense, drew first blood--won the Mar. 8 Western Open final at St. Louis, 18 in the 5th. No threat of disqualification for Price this time though, for Chair Elmer Cinnater’s assessment was "A swell bunch in this tournament, both as players and sports. No pushing, no complaints." Then, two weeks later, at the Michigan Open in Detroit, Bill, after winning the Doubles with George, beat him in the Singles final, 19 in the 5th.
Another two weeks and Price would be playing in the Apr. 2-4 Philadelphia National’s. He said he’d hitchhiked all the way from St. Louis--"800 miles" with "just $9.00" in his pocket. He wasn’t there long before everyone was talking about the early match of the tournament--Price’s 33-31 in the 5th victory (his topspin setting up "winning flat strokes") over Illinois’ Dan Mabee. Bill then went on to defeat Head Referee Gene Smolens before losing badly to former World semifinalist Adrian Haydon, the visiting Englishman (father of future Wimbledon winner Ann Haydon Jones), who had an eccentric grip and an overpowering forehand.
For the 1936-37 season, the USTTA passed a "Close Law" that reduced the height of the net from 6 and 3/4 inches to 6 inches. This, it was hoped, would further encourage players to attack. At the Dec. 11-13 Missouri State, Blattner certainly took advantage of the lower net to blast through Price (and Hendry). Since three weeks later Bill had only a mediocre 4-3 record at the Chicago Intercities, no doubt he’d have some quick adjusting to do if he hoped to keep anything like his U.S. #5 ranking.
But, ah forget winning, forget what would eventually be his U.S. #21 ranking for the season, Bill had been invited by exhibitionist non-pareil Coleman "Cokey" Clark to be his supper club/theater partner. Coleman, with his friend Yoshio Fushimi as his foil, had started giving shows at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman’s College Inn on Christmas Day, 1936, and Bill had come in as Cokey’s 35-week record-breaking engagement was winding down. Clark, ever the professional, (he’d even "receive royalties from the Cambridge Rubber Co. for a Coleman Clark shoe"), would then go on to sign a 5-year exhibition contract with Music Corporation of America, and in the spring of ‘38 would open at the Ford Theatre in Detroit with Price as his partner. Later, Cokey and Bill would be "featured at Earl Carroll’s Restaurant in Los Angeles," and Bill would say, "I liked California so much that I thought it would be a nice place to stay if bookings ever got scarce."
Cokey would go on for years, sometimes with other St. Louis players--Schlude (later Stevens), Hendry, Allan Levy--to play exhibitions all over the country. Bill, though, was back in St. Louis for the 1938-39 tournament season. His return to competitive play seemed none the worse after months of setting up forehands for Cokey to gloriously put away. In the Nov. 26-27 St. Louis District, Price beat Nash in the semi’s and U.S. #27 Bill Diller in the final.
But Hendry too was back--after a summer of tennis in which he’d successfully defended his St. Louis Municipal Junior Singles Championship and won the Missouri State High School Championship. At the early-Dec. Missouri State, he warmed up by 7, 6, 9 destroying Nash, then rallied to defeat Price in the final, after Bill’s steady floating defense proved too strong for an out of practice Blattner.
The Jan. Illinois Open was won by Ralph Muchow over a strong field--Nash, 19 in the 5th, Bob Anderson, and in the final (after Bill had eliminated Holzrichter), Price, whom Muchow drove "bullet-like smashes through." This final was "the most applauded feature of the Sportsmen’s Show" that an estimated 17,000 people watched at Chicago’s International Amphitheater.
A week before the Western’s, Omaha’s Brandeis Department Store had a "clever table tennis window display" with stylish mannikin players, cups, statuettes, a miniature table top, and varying circle motifs to spotlight the tournament. Price and Wilkinson showed up to win the Mixed. Then, since Hendry was absent, it was no surprise that Price and Nash battled it out in the Men’s final. "Nash was at the top of his form" and triumphed in 5 over "the ash blond boy with the classic profile."
Nash was also in great form at the Mar. 5 Missouri Valley Open at St. Louis, where, having made the final and waiting for the Price-Hendry semi’s match to conclude, he "nonchalantly flopped himself down on a convenient couch and, staring at the ceiling, began to amuse himself...by calling the shot, who was doing the hitting, the score and the position of the player by the sound of the ball!" And an incredible, seeming to never end deuce in the 5th match it was--with both players smashing and dropping, and making unbelievable gets. Bad luck for Hendry, though, for first his bat caught the edge of the table and was so damaged he had to stop to try to repair it or get another, and then later, when he was ad down, the ball caught the edge to give Price an exhausting, eked out win. The results of this tournament reflected the Missouri rankings for the ‘38-39 season--Nash #1, Price #2, and Hendry #3.
At the Mar. 17-19, 1939 National’s, Price, "our most graceful player," must have felt he was playing a ball-throwing robot when in the eighth’s he lost 12 ,17, 9 to New Yorker Doug Cartland’s "incessant topspin." But Bill would have his day in Men’s Doubles. He and Hendry upset current World Champions McClure and Schiff in the semi’s--with much credit going to Price, who repeatedly "nullified the champions’ fierce driving by miraculous returns." In the final, however, the world-class Hungarian stars of the ‘30’s, Laszlo "Laci" Bellak and Tibor Hazi, were easy winners. One commentator said that Hendry and Price made a big mistake by playing an almost entirely defensive game against them. But their reply to that would surely be, "What choice did we have?" Since Bellak and Hazi couldn’t be ranked (Tibor and his wife Magda had only initially arrived in the U.S. two days before the tournament), Price (U.S. #7) and Hendry (U.S. #8) would be given the #1 Doubles ranking for the season.
Back in 1935 Hendry had won the U.S. Under 15 Boys’ Championship over Milwaukee’s Don MacCrossen, son of C.B. MacCrossen, the well-known maker of "Pro" bats and former President of the Milwaukee TTA. At 14, Don had shown a liking for "flashy hard drives off the corners," and as he matured had become known as "the wild wampus from Wisconsin." His best win was at the ‘38 National’s where, before losing to the eventual winner Bellak in the quarter’s, he’d upset U.S. World Team member Bernie Grimes. Though he’d said he wanted to be a golf pro and move to California, here he was, at midpoint in the 1939-40 season, in the Midwest, pummeling away at Price.
But Bill was very steady, very solid. In the final of the Nov. 4-5 St. Louis District, he’d beaten the St. Louis #3 for the season, Herman Brodski, and now at both the Dec. 3 and Jan. 6 St. Louis tournaments, though forced into the 5th, he was able to withstand MacCrossen’s attack.
At the Feb. 3-4 Western’s, Price won both the Men’s Doubles (with Nash) and the Mixed Doubles (with Kuenz). In the Singles, he advanced with an encouraging 19 in the 4th win over U.S. Junior Champion Chuck Tichenor in the quarter’s, then was faced with Ralph Muchow, who’d survived a 5-game slugfest with MacCrossen. Trying to beat Muchow--now, after graduating from Northwestern, a practicing dentist--had to be like pulling teeth for Price, for Ralph had beaten Bill "every time they met in the last four years. But this time he met a driving, changed Price, determined to hit--and boy! he did." In the final, though, Bill couldn’t stand up to Bob Anderson’s relentless assault and lost in straight games. (Anderson’s win at the Western’s--in the quarter’s he’d rallied in the end-game 5th to beat Holzrichter, then knocked out Defending Champion Nash--doubtless played an important part in this "mannerly and reserved" young man being selected for the U.S. Team that would tour Japan that summer.)
Price would finish up the season as U.S. #10. At the Apr. 5-7, 1940 Indianapolis National’s, he struggled--had to go 5 with Chicago’s Bill Ablin, then got by Indiana’s #1 Earl Coulson, winning the 3rd and 4th at deuce, before succumbing docilely in the quarter’s to Pagliaro, the new U.S. Champion. In the Doubles, Price and "wild wampus" MacCrossen might have beaded a succession of matches to the final if, back in the eighth’s, their 25, 23 loss to Dan Klepak and Paul Capelle had been reversed, for, after seven years of trying, runner-up Capelle finally had a trophy to show for his efforts. Pagliaro’s distaff counterpart, Sally Green of Indianapolis, just starting her own domination of the National’s, was said to have received helpful coaching tips from Price. Lose interest in playing Bill might, but never in coaching.
Paggy and his N.Y. Team won the 1940 St. Louis Intercities. So? What else is new? This: that N.Y. beat St. Louis in the climactic tie 5-4 because N.Y.’s Pinner won a 7th round robin match over Henry, 19 in the 3rd, a match that (what kind of positioning is this, saving Paggy for last?) allowed Lou to play and beat Nash in the 9th match. Price had a commendable 11-4 record, including a gutsy 19 in the 3rd victory over Whitey Sheraga to tie the N.Y. tie at 4-all. Three weeks earlier at the St. Louis District, Nash, on losing to Price, was described in Topics as having "a world of natural ability and a minimum of thinking ability"--which perhaps sums up his (6-7) record at these Intercities.
One of Nash’s 7 losses at the Hotel DeSoto was to unranked Charles Bernstein (soon Chuck Burns) of Detroit--which wasn’t such a bad loss after all. For at the Feb. 8-9 Detroit Western’s, Bernstein got all the way to the final before losing to Holzrichter. In the quarter’s he defeated Anderson decisively, then in a 30, 10, -13, 20 squeaker beat Price.
Nash’s natural ability prevailed at the Mar. 1-2 Illinois Open, where he downed (an apparently touring) Pagliaro in the semi’s and Price in the final, after Bill had upset Holzrichter, deuce in the 5th. (Holzrichter, however, would later win the Middle States in straight games--over Price, then Nash.) In the semi’s of Men’s Doubles, Nash and Paggy beat Price and his young partner, Allan Levy, whom Bill was tutoring. Allan was about to be ‘41 U.S. Boys’ runner-up to Chicago’s Carl Manley--the first USTTA National "Negro" Champion.
At the Apr. 2-4, 1941 New York City National’s, Price unexpectedly fell in the 16th’s to Parker Brothers’ 1933 APPA Champion Jimmy Jacobson. In the 5th, Bill strove valiantly "to overcome Jimmy’s commanding lead," but came up just short at 19. This loss dropped him to U.S. #15 for the season.
That winter, prepatory to the Dec. 27-28 Chicago Intercities, Price saw another close one get away--at the Missouri State to Hendry, 19 in the 5th. He also lost the Doubles in 5 with young Levy. At Chicago, N.Y. again won the Team Championship when Pagliaro beat Detroit’s Nash (that’s right, Garrett was now living there) in the 9th match of the tie. Without the mercurial Nash, St. Louis finished a dismal 2-4 in the 7-team round robin, and Price’s record was an unexceptional 8-5.
Lose matches Bill does--but it seems he’s always threatening. He rebounded to win the Feb. 14-15 Omaha Western’s over U.S. #5 Holzrichter, and also (as he would later at the weak-field Kansas Open) took the Doubles with Levy. The following week, Allan, destined in 1943 to be the first USTTA Under 18 Champion, was runner-up to Price at the St. Louis County, distinguishing himself with a 19 in the 5th win over Corporal Bellak, furloughed for this tourney.
The Apr. 10-12, 1942 National’s saw the return of Izzy Bellis, who back in the ‘39 U. S. Open had been the #1 seed. He was stopped in the quarter’s by Pagliaro, about to win his third straight Championship, but not before, down 2-0, Izzy had rallied to beat Price in the eighth’s, deuce in the 5th. Bill--back in the Top 10 this season--does keep playing the close ones, doesn’t he?
Reportedly, Price now went out to California, "became acquainted with a tennis crowd," and though he’d "never even thought seriously about enjoying tennis," made a move that would change his life--he joined the Los Angeles Tennis Club and took up that sport, too, in earnest. But more about the intersection of Bill’s tennis and table tennis lives later.
Price didn’t play enough table tennis in the ‘42-43 season to get a ranking. Even if he’d wanted to represent St. Louis at the Intercities, he couldn’t have, because this annual tournament wouldn’t be resumed until after the War. Nor did he feel the need to enter the Mar. 6-7 Toledo Western’s as a warm-up for the U.S. Open. However, the National’s themselves he couldn’t resist entering, for they were in St. Louis. Seeded 6th, he was ousted unashamedly in the quarter’s, for though he lost in straight games, it was to Holzrichter, the eventual Champion. The two Bills played Doubles together, but were beaten in the semi’s by the winners, Hazi, who’d lost the Singles final to Holzrichter, and Bellak, now a Sergeant stationed in San Diego, who’d lost the semi’s to him.
That, for the Part I moment, is the last we’re going to see of Price. He went into the Service, but, strangely, his name wasn’t on the USTTA’s published Honor Roll until fellow St. Louisian Mel Nichols, 1942 U.S. Boys’ Champ, wrote a letter to Topics urging Bill be remembered and his name honored.Topics editor Wes Bishop agreed:
"...Bill with the flying blond hair, returning seemingly ungettable shots with that superb defense. Bill always under the spotlight in the finals. The din and cheers still ring in those bunting-clad ballrooms for us and always will. No one in table tennis will ever think of St. Louis without thinking, too, of modest Bill Price.
Bill, wherever you go, you know your table tennis friends will be with you. Hoping you’re playing whenever you can and hoping this war will be over so we’ll again have the pleasure of seeing you again and seeing you play again. Your excellent sportsmanship has inspired many an aspiring player...players who are better for knowing you and who have profited by your patient coaching. It’s with great pleasure that we add your name on the Honor Roll."