USA Table Tennis

The 1938 World Championships would be played in London, at Wembley, and, since all four members of last year’s winning U.S. Corbillon Cup Women’s Team--Ruth Aarons, Dolores Kuenz, Jay Purves, and Emily Fuller--were not interested in representing the U.S. this year, especially since they’d have to pay all, or at least most, of their own way, the USTTA Selection Committee, in the absence of any Tryout, began going down the Ranking list to see who might be available. Turns out U.S. #3 Mrs. Margaret Wilkinson (widowed at an early age, she preferred to be called "Miss"), and U.S. #13 Mrs. Clara Harrison, accepted. Next in line? The young Indianapolis teenager, U.S. #14 Sally Green.

In a July 27, 1937 letter to Indianapolis Ranking Committeeman Henry Spaulding who’d spoken highly of Sally, Ranking Chairman Reg Hammond says "COLOR" is what we need at Women’s Team Tryouts--"and if Sally Green can give it [as Spaulding said she energetically could], she’s as good as selected for a place right now. I was sorry we had to decline her last year." No problem then that Sally’s quite young to be going abroad, Hammond’s predisposed toward her, and she is #14 on the Ranking list. So, chaperoned or not, can she go to London?

Alas, no--"school work" and piano lessons (she was said to practice "three hours daily") were reasons enough to prevent her from accepting. Instead, her place was taken by U.S. #16, 15-year-old Betty Henry, Sally’s arch-rival from South Bend, who, on being the recipient of an extremely fortunate draw at Wembley, would advance all the way to the Women’s semi’s.

However, it was not Henry who’d go on to greatness (she’d retire in her teens, marry, then in her early twenties suffer a fatal illness), but the zippy, fidgety Green (later Prouty) who, as we’ll see in Part II, will totally dominate the U.S. Women’s game in the coming War years. How, for her, did it all start?

Reportedly "frail and ill as a child, Sally ‘snapped out of it’ when she was 8." Six years later, this vibrant teenager had already won more than 30 trophies--swimming/diving trophies--and so, having begun "playing table tennis at 13 [early in 1936] to loosen up a back she had sprained while diving," was poised for the inevitable meeting with ever-flexible Fame.

Her "springboard"? The three table tennis tournaments--with the help of her father/coach Fred (briefly an Indiana TTA President)--she’d won in the 1936-37 season. These were: the Dec. 19-20 Indiana State Championship at Kokomo, over Henry; the Feb. 6-7 Northern Indiana Open at Huntingdon, over Mrs. Mary Mason (at this tournament last year Sally’d won what was her first ever title, the Mixed with Jerry Jacobs, a title they did not successfully defend); and the Feb. 13-14 Missouri Valley Open at Kansas City, over Mrs. W.L. (Helen) Van Dusen, about to be the Nebraska Open Champ. In between, at the Jan. 30-31 Ohio Open at Columbus, she lost in the semi’s to the winner Clara Harrison.

Three out-of-town tournaments, from late Jan. to mid-Feb., in three weeks--obviously Sally was very serious about improving. Already she was starting to develop "an aggressive, masculine-type game"--characterized by a hard-driving forehand. The Mar. 20-21 Lake Cities Open in Toledo, where, attacking, she beat Henry in the final, was another tournament close enough to go to--but the National’s in Newark, N.J., that was just too far away.

The ‘37-38 season saw fashion-conscious Wilkinson down Green in the Nov. 19-20 Northern Indiana at Gary, then Harrison gain "an easy victory" over her in the Indiana Open at Muncie. However, Sally did beat Henry at Indianapolis, did beat Nebraska’s Dorothy Glasson at Omaha (where she also won the Mixed with Garrett Nash). So midway into the season Green found herself leading the Wilkinson Cup, a new participation competition in which the more important the tournament was, the more points for advancing in it one would get.

Sally’s parents had to be giving her great support, for come Saturday or Sunday she was usually away at an out-of-town tournament. In fact, that February she didn’t miss a weekend. At the Feb. 5-6 Ohio Open at Columbus, she defeated Cleveland’s Jean Everling and won the Mixed with Nash. Then three weekends in a row--at the Central States Open at Huntingdon, the Illinois Open at Evanston, and the Western’s at Kansas City--she beat the Chicago veteran Helen Ovenden, who in 1935 had been the first woman to represent the U.S. at a World Championship. This last match with Helen at Kansas City, however, was a semi’s, and in the final Green would fall to Kuenz who, paired with Blattner, would also win the Mixed over Sally and her then regular partner Nash.

The warm-up tournament for the upcoming National’s--though it seemed like a National’s itself with a mammmoth entry of 350 players and $500 in trophies--was the Mar. 12-13 Lake Cities Open, and as Nash, playing in tournament after tournament, was keeping up the same non-stop pace as Green--Sally would win the women’s Wilkinson Cup this season, Garrett the counterpart men’s Hammond Cup--it was a certainty he’d be going to Toledo. But enroute from St. Louis, Nash and George Hendry were stranded, so put in a call to the Greens for help. Then they caught a bus and after arriving in Indianapolis at 4 a.m., "hiked two miles with grips in hand to the Greens, woke them up, and piled into their car." Fortunately for Garrett and Sally, though they didn’t win any Doubles, they did win the Singles--Garrett over George, Sally over Henry.

Ten days later, at the 1938 Philadelphia National’s, Green--in showing as one observer said, "the best drive in the country"--had the distinction of playing the most exciting quarter’s match, though in a losing -10, -17, 19, 9, -10 effort against the eventual Champion Fuller. So, keep your fingers crossed, Sally, maybe next year. Actually, it was around this time that right-handed Sally did, literally, begin the habit as she played of keeping "the first and second fingers of her left hand crossed." She tried to break herself of it, but the effort "threw her off her game," so, what the hell, she’d be eccentric.

Although the season-ending National’s marked the end of the Wilkinson Cup race, Sally, now U.S. #6, followed up by playing in two back-to-back nearby Ohio tournaments--winning both from Norma Hieronymus (later Studer). The first of these, the Apr. 23-24 Miami Valley Open at Cincinnati, was historically memorable, not because of Green but because of Topics’ first mention of another winner...of the Women’s Consolation--one, Leah Thall (later Neuberger, World Mixed Doubles Champion).

With the beginning of the1938-39 season, Green picked up where she’d left off--

swept through Ohio TTA Secretary Hieronymus in the Oct. 22-23 Miami Valley Open at Hamilton. Then, less than two months later, in the Southern Open at Louisville, Sally, the Women’s winner, began to establish a very successful Mixed Doubles partnership with young Roger Downs of Indianapolis, the Men’s winner.

At the Dec. 3-4 Indiana Open, played at Jimmy McClure’s TTC in Indianapolis, Green wiped out Wilkinson, and Sally and Roger won the Mixed, as they would later at the Central States over John Varga and Henry. John had no doubt taken Betty under his authoritarian wing at the South Bend Y and perhaps had given her some coaching tips on how to play Sally, for at the Jan. 7-8 St. Joe Valley Henry got the better of Green, 19 in the 4th.

There was talk in South Bend that Betty might win the Apr. U.S. Open, especially after she again beat Green in the Feb. 7th Huntington, Indiana Central States Open. But then Sally came back the next weekend to win the Michigan Open from Henry, 19 in the 4th. Moreover, as it would turn out, Betty would be the only player from South Bend competing in these nearby Toledo National’s. So was there anyone really close to her (Varga excepted, or not excepted?) to give her the friendship and support even a Champion needs?

Henry, seeded 8th, drew the #1 seed, Defending Champion Fuller in the quarter’s and never had a chance--averaged only 12 points a game. Green, seeded #4, drew the #1 foreign seed, the Hungarian superstar of the early 1930’s and 1935 World Singles runner-up, Magda Gal Hazi, who, with her husband Tibor, also a superstar, had arrived in the U.S. only two days before the start of the tournament. Already in the twilight of her career, she couldn’t have been at her best after all that traveling and fell in 4 to Sally’s aggressive play.

Coming out to meet Green in the semi’s was Ruthe Brewer, friend to Sol Schiff and Doug Cartland, who when traveling with them certainly improved her play. Ranking Chair Hammond spoke of her "New York" game, and Sol and Doug in their 1939 book Table Tennis Comes of Age affirms that she’s "practiced with various men and picked up a man’s game." But of course so had Green. It did look like Ruthe was well on her way to making Papa Brewer’s National Championship hopes for her come true--but, after being up 2-0 on Sally, she lost in 5.

Schiff and Cartland in their book speak of Green’s forehand as "a quick and vicious stroke," patterned after some of the best men players. (Sally played for the league-leading Riviera Club in the Indianapolis Men’s League.) But although Topics columnist Reba Kirson (later Monness) praises Sally as being "the trickiest player" at the U.S. Open, she still could not take a game in the final from Fuller, who, as Schiff and Cartland say, not only has "an excellent defense" [Sally had problems hitting Emily’s backhand chop], but forehand and backhand drives [that] are very sound and capable of making many points even against masculine opposition." And though Sally was from nearby Indianapolis, Hammond wrote, "Never before has a crowd been for the defending champion playing against a younger girl from the spectators’ section of the country--an unusual compliment to the poise and charm of the Easterner."

Green did get some measure of revenge against Fuller, though. After two uncertain matches--a -15, 18, 17 quarter’s win over Helen Germaine/Reba Kirson and a -19, 7, 17, -14, 14 semi’s win over Brewer/Matilda Plaskow--Sally and Mildred Wilkinson won the Women’s Doubles from Emily and Magda Hazi in straight games. "Sally is inspiring for she is a fighter and a hitter," said Mildred. "She is a perfect partner. Her strokes are quick and she moves like lightning." A view corroborated no doubt by Sally’s early swimming and diving prowess. When she’d hurt her back diving that seemingly unmomentous day, her father, Fred, a tennis player after whom she fashioned her much admired forehand, said that table tennis would loosen her up. It sure did.

Women umpires at this National’s were such "a pleasing novelty" that "some spectators watched them, not the matches." The more understandable then that, to further the looked-forward-to compatibility of the "Mixed Splash Party" and "Midnight Buffet" Sat. evening from 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., the Sat. Mixed Doubles event drew 70 players. In the eighth’s, Green and Downs stayed in contention by unsteadily rising above the steady Cartland/Plaskow duo. Then, about to play the quarter’s, did they know that Bellak had earlier said to his partner Kirson, "We win the Mixed or I kill you"? Well, Bellak/Kirson didn’t win ‘cause Sally and Roger crossed them up. And, regardless of whether Laci so much as laid a hand on her, Reba said she couldn’t play afterwards for a month. Another close match--a 5-game win over Muchow and Henry--and the Indianapolis teenagers were in the final against Wilkinson and Al Nordheim. Now, though, with "both pairs using the same tactics--topspinning or driving whenever possible and otherwise placing the ball back to the body of the person who hit it"--the Chicago team won in three close games. Al "can play doubles like an inspired fiend," Mildred enthused. He "can hit shots that are absolutely uncanny."

So, three 1939 U.S. Open finals for Green...plus the Wilkinson Cup for the second year in a row. Future’s lookin’ good--especially since ‘38 and ‘39 Champion Fuller’s retiring to pursue a singing career. Sally, thought now to be Emily’s at-the-ready successor, sings too--with an all-girl orchestra. Disguised, she’ll be out in Colorado this summer--in a dude ranch costume. But no one will try to keep her name a secret. On her return, ask around the pool at the Riviera Country Club what people think of Sally Green, what her limitations are, what promise she has. Chances are they’ll point to the sky.

Sally opened the ‘39-40 season with two Oct. wins--at the Hamilton, Ohio Miami Valley and the Indianapolis Central Indiana. In both she didn’t have to do much more than go through the motions to beat U.S. #15 Norma Hieronymus Studer. However, Norma’s Columbus, Ohio clubmate, Leah Thall (later Neuberger), whom Sally likewise was having little trouble with in Singles and Doubles matches, would soon be a far more formidable opponent. U.S. #21 last season, U.S. #8 by this season’s end.

Another local-area opponent Sally would routinely beat this season, at least when she played and won in Louisville--at the Southern Open, the Falls Cities, and the Miami Valley--was U.S. # 25 Martha Kiefer, Kentucky’s best. Helen Baldwin, U.S. #11, in real life a publishing-house stenographer from Des Moines,was tougher--at the Jan. 13-14 Tri-State (Illinois, Iowa, Missouri) Open at Burlington, Sally dropped a game to her. This tournament was smoothly run by Elks Club members who--helped by one of their own, a magician who made table tennis balls disappear--"entertained players and guests at the Burlington Country Club and in their homes so that those who had to remain because of snow-blocked roads actually enjoyed their enforced stay of 36 hours."

From the beginning of the season, all the women players, Sally included, had been looking forward to, as USTTA Women’s Chair Violet Smolens put it, "the biggest women’s event in table tennis history"--an East vs. West intersectional for a trophy donated by retired U.S. Champion Fuller. No more "many and loud squawks about national rankings, due mainly to bad breaks in the draw at the Nationals," said Smolens. (The National’s always did count for too much in the Rankings.) No more "insufficient data" problems in trying to "compare the records of Eastern and Western girls." No more a somewhat arbitrary selection for the "women’s Corbillon Cup team." (That is, when and if the World Championships resume, for the War has canceled them.)

The 10 best Eastern women were to be selected to play a round robin among themselves (at Philadelphia, Nov. 12); likewise the 10 best Western women (at Indianapolis, Nov. 11-12). Those 5 from the East and those 5 from the West with the best records would then come together (at Cleveland, Feb. 17-18) to play a complete round robin, the winner of which would keep the Fuller traveling trophy for a year.

As it turned out, these Zonal Eliminations were hugely successful--the only top player who didn’t show was U.S. #4 Dorothy Halliday, who’d stayed home because of a tonsilectomy.

In the East (where they played best 2/3), U.S. #5 Mae Clouther and U.S. #17 Matilda Plaskow, playing on her home courts, tied with 7-2 records. This forced a play-off, and again Mae got the better of Matilda. Other qualifiers were Spannaus, Brewer (who beat Clouther but lost to Spannaus), and Germaine. Monness had very good wins over Clouther and Spannaus, but finished with a mediocre 5-5 record.

In the West (where they played best 3/5), Betty Henry, though losing a sensational 25-23 in the 5th match to Green, did not lose another, while Sally, playing a number of shaky matches, lost to both Wilkinson, 22-20 in the 4th, and U.S. #13 Marjorie Leary, 9, 17, 9 (sic)--the latter apparently because, as Sally’s father Fred, Chair of the event, said, Sally’s match with Betty finished her, for she tore a muscle in her upper arm. Wilkinson, Baldwin, and Leary were also successful qualifiers.

Unfortunately, Sally, who didn’t enter the Feb. 3-4 Western’s at St. Louis, had to miss another competitive opportunity, for, down with the flu, she couldn’t make the Feb. 17-18 East-West finals at Cleveland, won by Henry. Her absence from these majors might have more repercussions than allowing Brewer to pass her in points and win the Wilkinson Cup, for Women’s Chair Smolens was suggesting that "the girls who played in Cleveland be given extra consideration in national rankings and in seedings for the National championships."

It didn’t help Sally either that, at the Mar. 2-3 Toledo Lake Cities, she was beaten in the semi’s in 5 by Wilkinson, the eventual winner. Her only consolation was that it didn’t help Henry to be upset in 5 in the other semi’s by Mary Baumbach, also John Varga-coached at the South Bend Y and so someone of course who knew Betty’s game well. Later, after the National’s, Baumbach, in Green and Henry’s absence, would be the Indiana Closed Champion.

At the 1940 Indianapolis National’s, Henry, the East-West winner, was seeded #1, and Green, last year’s 3-time finalist, #2. Betty was lucky to survive her deuce-in-the-5th quarter’s match with Thall, after Leah had outlasted Baumbach in 5. The USTTA Close Law against chiseling was not applied in the 5th game of the Henry-Thall match, as called for, "because while it was a pooping match of the worst degree, it violated neither of the requirements of being uninteresting to the spectators, or upsetting the schedule of other matches"--though it did work a "hardship on Miss Thall" (presumably because she was a better attacker than Henry). At any event, Henry then lost in the semi’s to Brewer in straight games...and (World semifinalist, U.S. #3--that was enough) retired.

Green, though she was twice forced to 19 in the quarter’s by Clouther, didn’t drop a game until the final when Brewer, down 2-0, insisted on stubbornly carrying the match into the 4th.

USTTA Public Relations Chair George Koehnke had hyped a "Beauty Queen" photo contest in the pages of Topics for this National’s and a 19-year-old Northwestern co-ed, Mildred Bjone won. "George Petty, the famous creator of the ‘Esquire’ Petty Gal," was the judge. Mildred received train fare, was put up in a hotel suite, and given the use of a private car. In her role as Queen, she wore "earrings, a necklace, and a bracelet made of table tennis balls," and was ‘crowned by Governor Townsend of Indiana." Even better, she was invited by "interested spectator" Guy Lombardo "to make a personal appearance with his ‘Lady Esther’ orchestra at the Lyric Theater, where her beauty drew enthusiastic applause."

Would our 1940 National Champion, also newly crowned and the recipient of a wired bouquet from last year’s retired Champion Fuller, have been tempted to trade places with the unknown, feted Bjone, give up her win, the glorious tournament moment? So Sally wasn’t treated to such niceties--would you expect her to be green with envy? Surely her rewards would be long lasting?

Actually, winning for the first time the U.S. Singles wasn’t Sally’s most satisfying accomplishment at these National’s. Defending her Women’s Doubles title with Mildred Wilkinson was--particularly since, after losing the first two games at deuce, they came back, exhilaratingly, to beat Baldwin and Leary, 23-21 in the 5th. Well, Sally did tell someone she likes "climbing mountains."

She also said--and with this I’ll end Part I--that "Doubles play is more exciting than singles, and in the not too distant future I may forsake singles and play women’s doubles and mixed doubles only."

Yeah? We’ll see....