USA Table Tennis

Coincidentally, while the U.S. Team went to England for the 1948 World’s, Pauline Robinson made her first tournament appearance in Topics—at the Feb. Pennsylvania Open. She’d emigrated to the U.S. from England, for her family had “lived in Wembley until the early ‘40’s. Grandfather was Manager and Secretary of Wrexham Football team; Father was a Bisley crack.” So it was in Pauline’s genes to be sports-competitive. Here of course she lost decisively to Ruth Millington, former Pennsylvania Open Champion.

However, at the April National’s Pauline promptly wins her first U.S. trophy—she’s Consolation runner-up to Mona Buell. Pauline credited Herwald Lawrence (he “could be the nicest person around, or he could be impossible”) for teaching her to play correctly. Pauline later wrote in Topics (Mar.-Apr., 1975): 

“I had been playing in Central Park in a playground with my friends and one of them said, ‘Hey, there’s a club up on Broadway with a lot of tables.’ So we went and we were hooked, especially me. Lawrence watched us, and for one reason or another, decided I had talent and offered me a free lesson every day.” 

Wow, Pauline must have played every day too, for by Sept., at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament in Toronto, she was able to pair with Miles to come runner-up in the Mixed by downing two of the country’s best players, Marty Reisman/Leah Thall Neuberger.

At the Nov. 20th New England Open at the Bridgeport Y, Pauline participated in a mixed male/female Junior event and was indirectly criticized for it—but, what the hell, she came to play, and though she didn’t beat Charlie Post, the winner, she did take out young Patty McLinn, a future U.S. World Team member.

Credit Pauline with persuading 1949 N.Y. National’s Control Desk Director Herwald Lawrence to have the first U.S. Open Junior Miss (Under 18) event. This drew 4 round-robin entries and was won by Joan Gummels, said to be “very attractive in her CBS Television broadcast.” Lona Flam was 2nd, Robinson 3rd, and Helen Marcus 4th

Pauline didn’t travel to St. Louis for the 1950 U.S. Open. But since the CNE wasn’t held this year, she did go to Montreal for the Canadian Open, and though she lost to Millie Shahian in the semi’s, she had a gutsy 19-in-the-5th win over Flam.

Good player that Pauline’s already come to be, she’s not merely that. As we’ll see more and more, she intends to involve herself in the action in other ways. She becomes a V.P. in the New York TTA, and will more and more enjoy writing for Topics. Meanwhile, she makes the 4-woman East Team, gives herself a chance to be picked for the U.S. Team to the ’51 World’s. However, in the 1950 East-West Matches she can do no better than 2-2 break even, and so is not selected for the U.S. Team to Vienna.

Pauline probably would have won the Mar., 1951 N.Y. Open if Peggy McLean Folke hadn’t shown up again to beat her in the final. Then at the U.S. Open, after eliminating Junior Miss Champ Sherry Koehnke, Pauline lost to Millie Shahian, 3-0 (the last two games embarrassingly, at 9 and 5).

Defeats didn’t stop Pauline of course, for she was encouraged by enough good wins, like at the Philly Summer Open, where in round robin play she finished 2nd to Neuberger and won the Mixed with Johnny Somael over Leah and Tibor Hazi. Still, there were always some defeats that hurt more than others, as when the now relatively inactive Ruthe Brewer Crist beat her in a June White Plains, N.Y. tourney.

Ah, Robinson’s first big success. At the Aug., 1951 N.Y. Summer Open, held at the familiar Broadway Courts, though she almost lost in round robin play to Jean Gere, and did lose to Flam, she beat Leah, 19 in the 3rd. Since Leah got the better of Lona, all three had 5-1 records. In the play-off, Pauline distinguished herself, not only by 19-in-the-3rd avenging her earlier loss to Flam, but by defeating Leah again. Some day, huh!

Then, oh, oh, back to losing again—this time at the CNE to Sherry Koehnke, 24-22 in the 4th. In Nov. Pauline barely made the 4-player East Team that would meet the West women in Philadelphia, and there, though she had a good win over Ichkoff, she could do no better than 3-4 to finish 6th. But as the 1952 World’s were in Bombay, and the U.S. wasn’t sending a Team, it meant next to nothing to be on the International Team Squad.

In the Feb., 1952 Topics, Lt. Jack Carr asked, Why was Leah Neuberger better than all the rest of the U.S. Women? In the following issue Robinson responded—said that Leah was one of the best players in the world, and that Robinson, Flam, and McLinn hadn’t been playing long enough, on the average only five years, to be sufficiently seasoned. She also said that if Chotras, Monness, Clouther, and McLean were playing, “they would win tournaments.” People didn’t realize how long Leah paid her dues before she was able to win the first of her nine U.S. Opens.

At the Jan., 1952 Westchester Open at White Plains, Pauline, the Defending Champion, was beaten in the semi’s by Lona Flam who then gave Neuberger her first loss of the season.

Pauline enjoyed writing about the players, the tournaments. When two tournaments fostering international play between the U.S. and Canada were held simultaneously in Montreal and Niagara Falls the1952 Easter weekend, Pauline lamented, “Since we [New Yorkers] all like to go to Canada, won’t you get together and space your tournaments (and not too close together) so it won’t strain our pocketbooks too much?”

Reporting on the Quebec tournament, Pauline said that much goodwill was evidenced, for the “Canadian officials were consistently charming and helpful to the Americans.” Umpires, with a balancing nod to the visitors, called the scores alternately in English and French. “The marble floors and a single 400 watt bulb over each table [bounce a bit different from U.S. tables] favored offenses. Deep defenses were at some disadvantage.” However, the one-table set-up for the finals (watched by about 500 spectators) offered better lighting. After play was over, all the New Yorkers attended the tournament party and “enjoyed a buffet supper and dancing” (TTT, Oct., 1952, p. 7).

The March 28-30 National’s had to be fun for Pauline too. She beat Ohio’s Joanne Kaylor in 5, then 19, 26, 19 firmly prevented the #4 seed Millie Shahian (whom she’d lost to badly last year) from getting back into the match, then in the semi’s, by winning the 4th at 19, forced the eventual winner Neuberger into the 5th. In Women’s Doubles, she and Singles runner-up Flam did o.k.—before losing to Neuberger and Shahian (Millie’s 7th straight final in this event), they ousted Peggy Ichkoff/Carolyn Bast.

At the Philadelphia Summer Open, Pauline, now U.S. #4, had a bad loss to Jean Gere, U.S. #14. Perhaps, though, it was some consolation to her that the Men’s winner was Johnny Somael. That Sept. at the CNE, Pauline made the final by 8, 7, 14 annihilating Gere, then lost to U.S. Champ Neuberger, with whom she won the Women’s Doubles. Leah and Sol, as expected, took the Mixed, but perhaps it was something of a surprise that Sharon Koehnke/Bernie Bukiet, from down 2-0, were able to beat Pauline and Johnny (who’d recently lost 25 pounds), and then extend the winners to 5. Apparently Bernie could keep his mind on the game, since Sherry wasn’t wearing one of those provocative playing outfits she’d showed during her recent trip to England.

The Women’s East/West Matches that had determined the U.S. Corbillon Cup Team in the past wouldn’t this year—not with the 1953 World’s being held behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Bucharest. So Pauline’s (5-2) 2nd-place finish to Leah (7-0) might have been thought “wasted” had she not won the “Outstanding Player Award.” Also, at times Pauline thought it entertaining to watch the Men’s Matches. “It was really hilarious,” she said, “to see the ludicrous expression on some of his [“Sponge Man” Rich Puls’s] opponents’ faces as they tried to return the ball.” Sobering up quickly, however, she added, “I think that the sponge bat spoils the game and a lot of the fun.”

Perhaps Pauline was more susceptive to varying facial expressions than most, for, after graduating from New York City’s Theatrical Professional Children’s School, she was now an aspiring actress and secretary to Maria Riva, Marlene Dietrich’s daughter. And what, I wonder, was Jean Gere’s expression (sad? resigned?) on losing to Pauline at both the Dec. 27-28 Westchester Open and the Jan. 10-11 Atlantic States?

In the semi’s of the Feb. 14-15 Eastern’s, Pauline was limited to a 3-game total of a mere 39 points—no, not by Leah, but by hard-hitting Lona Flam who then –14, -9, 16, 22, -21 almost knocked off Leah in the final. (In the Quebec Open that followed, she did beat Leah—with a thunderous attack.) Partnered by Men’s winner Miles, Leah also took the Mixed at this Eastern’s—though not without a 5-game fight from Johnny and Pauline.

At the March 7th New England Open, it was Robinson’s turn to flim-flam Lona. However, in the final, Peggy McLean Folke, returning from momentary retirement to 9, 10, 16 traumatize Neuberger, gave up only that 19 first game in her final with Pauline.

At the 1953 Kansas City National’s, #3 seed Pauline flip-flopped back to 1951, and again wasn’t in the match with Shahian, who then lost to Sally Green Prouty, who then was zipped in the final by Neuberger. Prouty and Peggy Ichkoff eliminated Pauline and Lona in the semi’s of the Women’s Doubles, and Leah and Tibor Hazi downed Pauline and Johnny in the semi’s of the Mixed. Three years running Leah had managed the hat-trick: 9 for 9 of the U.S. Championships available to her—an impressive feat.

With the USTTA in financial difficulty, Topics is about to be pared down to 8 pages, curtailing news. But since Pauline has officially been made Eastern Associate Editor, that means the Membership will hear about New York players, be privy to some of the action at Lawrence’s. Of the USTTA ranked Men players, almost half (13 out of 30) are clustered in New York, so it’s good we finally have an Editor that’s conversant with them.

Here’s a hot start to such news. The intense 95-degree temperature at the Aug. 29-30 New York State Open discouraged play—so much so that with only two entries in the Women’s Robinson won rather easily over Helen Fowler. “I don’t think women’s events should be cancelled for small entries”—that was Pauline’s credo from the beginning.

No other wins for Pauline for a while—but she did (with a 9-1 record) easily make the East Team with Neuberger (10-0), Flam (8-2), and a reappearing Tybie Thall Sommer (7-3) who beat out Jean Gere (6-4). At the East-West Matches, however, Neuberger, Flam, and Sommer didn’t show. Leah  was a lock to be selected for the U.S. Team to the ’54 World’s, so her absence at St. Louis didn’t matter. Joining her on the U.S. Corbillon Cup Team were “Outstanding Player Award” winner Millie Shahian (7-0) and Pauline (6-1).

Of course it would be months yet before the U.S. Team went overseas. Pauline, though, was ready now. The Feb., 1954 Eastern’s saw Robinson beat Flam in the semi’s, Neuberger in the final. Leah and Peggy Folke won the Women’s Doubles from Pauline and Lona in 5. At the National’s that followed, Robinson eliminated South Bend’s Carolee Liechty, who’d upset Shahian at the South Bend St. Joe Valley Open, but then Pauline lost to Millie. No disgrace in that of course, for, after Prouty had upset Neuberger, Millie, rather heavy-set for a top player, wearing a lengthy dress-skirt, and favoring an-up-to-the table block and push game, defeated Sally to win her first Singles Championship.

Sally’d wanted the Singles title of course, but said she’d come to this Open “only to play Mixed Doubles with Sol Schiff.” And this event she won, defeating the now engaged Somael/Robinson duo in a spirited –18, 20, 19, 13 semi’s, and Miles/Shahian in the final. Shahian/Neuberger took the Women’s Doubles 8, 10, 7 from (an increasingly spiritless?) Flam/Robinson.

 O.K.—time now for the much-anticipated Wembley World’s. In the 25-team Corbillon Cup play, the U.S. opened by beating lowly Switzerland, then of course lost to Japan who’d go on to win the Championship. We were upset by Egypt, 3-2, when both Robinson and Neuberger (Leah, not at her best, lost one match 19 in the 3rd, won the other deuce in the 3rd) split matches, but dropped the doubles 19 in the 3rd. Looking almost like beginners, the U.S. then lost to Austria, but zonked Denmark and knocked off Belgium 3-1. We finished by beating Saarland (Germany) and losing 3-2 to Yugoslavia when both Pauline and Leah each won a match but lost the doubles in 3. Our (4-4) record tied us for 5th-6th with Yugoslavia (who beat us head to head).

This poor showing, when it was felt we should have finished 6-2, didn’t sit well with former Hungarian star, Team Captain Tibor Hazi (nor, no doubt, with our Cup players). Tibor’s Report to President Jimmy Shrout on our women would not be favorable: 

“…I never would blame anyone for losing, or not playing as well as expected, but unfortunately our ladies in the team lack every [sic: for the idiomatic all] team spirit. All their efforts is petty chivalry between each of them [sic: he means they have petty jealousies]. They cannot overcome these, even during the team matches. [After the World’s, during, I believe, a one-game exhibition, Leah notes that because (losing?) she insisted on changing ends when the score reached 10, Millie, at game’s end, refused to shake hands with her.]

I do not wish to make any disciplinary action against any of them, though they were giving quite a bad time for me. I will, however, in a short time give you my personal opinion of the girls, and some suggestions which you can use in any way you wish. [These, if they were ever sent, I’ve no record of.]” 

In the Individuals our women did not do as well as they’d hoped—but here their losses were understandable. Leah, though leading England’s Kathy Best, 2-0, lost 19 in the 5th (which no doubt made her the more testy). Best then went on to best Scotland’s 1949 and ’50 World Women’s Doubles Champion Helen Elliot, as well as France’s Rougagnou, before falling in the quarter’s to Japan’s Tanaka. Shahian won her 1st match from England’s Yvonne Baker in 5, then lost in 4 to the current French Champion Christiane Watel who’d afterward eliminate former World Champion Trude Pritzi. Robinson right away drew Japan’s Eguchi who’d be World Champion in ’57.

In Women’s Doubles, Robinson/Shahian had no chance against Koczian/Simon, and in the Mixed Pauline and Johnny were beaten in the 1st round by the Indian team of Thackersey/Parande.

Pauline returned home, and I’m going to end Part I here, to write in her Topics column how much we’ve fallen behind the world competition. In the matter of service, for example (with the ITTF’s new service wording, players needn’t throw the ball up “vertically”), we Americans tend to initially “feel out” our opponent, start slow. The Japanese, on the other hand, “serve hard, fast, and deadly from the first point,” and are immediately ready to belt the ball, for they know it’s “impossible to return a good many of their serves,” or, anyway, return them well. Worse for us, too, that on the English tables chop didn’t take.

Her assessment of the Europeans is exactly the same as Marcus Schussheim’s on his visit to the World’s 20 years earlier. Pauline says, “[They] play the game so that every single ball has a purpose and the ball is never just returned—its is always going somewhere and doing something as it goes.”