Chapter XXXI. 1938 Vana Tour. 1938-39: Popularity of Nation-wide League and Inter-city Play. 1938-39: U.S. Intercollegiate/Interscholastic Play--Princeton Wins 1939 U.S. Intercollegiate Team Championship.
The Nov. 13-Dec. 12 Vana Tour itinerary called for exhibitions in roughly 20 cities--with the second week to see the Circus move as far west as it would go, Topeka (TTT, Nov., 1938, 8). The later Kansas Open would be held here and it was said the tournament had a good spectator following because of this earlier Tour stop.
On Nov. 22, at the Minneapolis Raddison Hotel, the turnout for the Circus was so great that spectators had to be turned away. And yet Topics wouldn’t have a word to say about World Champion Vana’s play here, or even, since there must have been plenty of ice in Nov. in this Land of 10,000 Lakes, about whether the 18-year-old Champ ever got to see--what reporter Grant Whitney indicated Bo would very much like to have seen--a hockey game (TTT, Nov., 1938, 8). Readers learned only that at both the University of Minnesota Student Union and the Minneapolis Athletic Club additional matches were played and that local star Ed Litman lost in straight games to 1938 U.S. World Team Member Bernie Grimes of N.Y. (who apparently was traveling with the Circus).
A post-Minneapolis stop was Ithaca, N.Y., where R. D. Ackerman had arranged for the Club’s 14 members and hopefully a good many others to watch the show. According to newspaper sketch artist/cartoonist Bob Coyne, who did some drawings of Vana, Bo had come to the U.S. "on a special permit from the Czech War Department." And reporter Whitney had described the teenager in part as a correspondent for a Czech paper. But Bo might as well have been touring the Ionian Islands for all we’d know of what he said or wrote. And, again, neither Glancz or Ackerman or their friend Jimmy O’Connor or anyone else seemed interested in telling Topics something about the World Champion’s matches.
The new D.C. President, George H. Foster, couldn’t work out an Exhibition in Washington--which seems strange--but Zeisberg was able to help Gene Smolens put on a very successful one in Philadelphia. And yet who talked about Vana?
Topics columnist Reba Kirson pointed out that pretty teenager Dorothy Halliday proved such an attraction that "candid camera fans"--as if taking a deja vu cue from the attention given Ruth Aarons at the Boston Arena last April--"held up her match with Glancz for some time." Did any of these adoring fans go so far as to ask Dorothy for some intimate momento of the occasion or at least the opportunity to photograph same? Reba said that Dot carried "a diminutive paddle in her pocket for good luck" (TTT, Jan., 1939, 9)--perhaps one of those miniature "Lucky" bats the Indiana TTA Executive Secretary D. O. Crites (CRY-tees) was giving away to whoever bought one of his custom-made rackets?
Halliday’s earlier screen test had not led to her being any more of a Hollywood starlet than Aarons--and this was bad luck for Vana who on his trip to the States was hoping to get some autographs of movie stars. But at least Dorothy was soon to get her picture on the cover of Topics. As for Vana--who still played with the same racket he used as a boy six years ago (Walter Sandringham in TTT, Mar., 1939, 1)--could there be a mesmerizing sameness about the brilliant hit-and-drop game of this visiting World Champion, this, as Whitney called him, "Babe Ruth, Man O’ War and...Bobby Jones of table tennis, all rolled into one," that somehow blinded people to his greatness and rendered him invisible? Nobody seems to have a word to say about his play. Had his opposition on the Tour been so mediocre that, compared to Barna or Bellak, he looked so commonplace that nothing much could be said about his game?
Vana’s last Tour stops at Springfield, Worcester, and Boston were deemed "highly successful." But for the 2,000 who watched the Lloyd Shepherdson arranged matches in Boston "Jimmy McClure was the big favorite with the fans." And at Boston’s "luxurious University Club...before 500 of its members and friends...Larry Smith, 1936 New England Champion, was the hit of the evening" (TTT, Jan., 1939, 10).
Vana was said to be writing a book on table tennis. In that case he should have been touring not with Glancz but with Coleman Clark. He might have picked up some helpful pointers. After all, Cokey’s picture had been on the Dec., ‘37 cover of Topics, and now, a year later, ads for his new book Table Tennis were starting to appear ("The Tricks That Win For Champions" was certainly an eye-catching headline).*
But would Clark have traded his current partner Mark Stevens for Vana? Hardly. Mark Stevens--that’s Mark Schlude, who, in the 1935 National’s, lost that booed, 2 and 1/2-hour (push-push-push) 5-game final to Abe Berenbaum. One of the "leading young golfers of St. Louis" (said a Jan. 8-9, 1938 newspaper article on him), who’d then "dropped his athletic activities to pursue a career in ballet dancing." However, as if unable to resist the challenge of Clark’s put away forehands, he’d returned to table tennis--though only to exhibition play. (Later, McClure would tell me, Mark smoothly stepped this way and that, courtly managed an Arthur Murray studio or two.) Clark and Schlude/Stevens were doing just fine that ‘38-39 season at the San Francisco Cow Palace and maybe would do even better at the Coconut Grove nite-club in L.A.’s swank Ambassador Hotel where perhaps movie stars and other celebrities would enjoy exchanging autographed pictures with Cokey.
Vana of course would leave the U.S. to go on Tour elsewhere--doubtless where he was more appreciated--and after playing in tournaments in England would end up at Cairo, losing in the semi’s of the ‘39 World Championships to Bergmann a week before Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
There would be no U.S. Teams in Cairo. The most important reason for this was because, even before the beginning of the ‘38-’39 season, the USTTA, irritated that there’d been a Fighting Fund deficit for the ‘38 World’s, made it clear that there’d be no such Fund set up to send a U.S. Team to the ‘39 World’s.
But by ‘38-’39 mid-season--despite the squib in Topics about some members of a table tennis club in England who’d suddenly found their club turned into a gas mask fitting center (TTT, Nov., 1938, 23)--the USTTA decided they wanted to send U.S. Teams to the 1940 World’s. And as if to show their intent was real, they urged everyone to buy the "eight-page folder of the Laws of Table Tennis" that sold for $.10. "The entire proceeds," they said, would be "credited to a separate 1940 Team account." The idea was to buy in bulk--100 copies at $.05 each. Thus "associations, leagues or clubs" could purchase "several hundred copies...for [10 cent] sale at tournaments, exhibitions and make a little money for themselves" (TTT, Jan., 1939, 6). And so--think big--that would be $50 a 1,000 less for the Team?
In the May, ‘39 Topics, Editor Zeisberg now says it’s the "duty" of the USTTA to send teams "to Europe" for the 1940 World’s. "The heavy expense is more than justified," he says, especially because of the discovery made in 1938. "We discovered," he says, "that if the players can be selected two months ahead of sailing time they can raise most, if not all their own expenses" (2 and 12).
In the June, ‘39 Topics, three months before the Germans invaded Poland, and France and England’s subsequent declaration of war on Germany, the 1940 World’s are tentatively set for Paris--but then, one year later, in June, 1940 with French resistance broken, Paris is about to be occupied by the Germans.
Thus the last pre-War World’s the U.S. could have entered was the March,‘39 one. But that was out of the question, even for Bernie Grimes (who had friends in shipping and could have gotten free passage for himself and possibly McClure to Cairo). The USTTA wouldn’t let them go because, by the first of the year, the date for the World Championships was Mar. 6-11 and, from the very opening of the ‘38-’39 season, the U.S.National’s had been scheduled for March. So after three successive Doubles wins, Jimmy would have no World title this year and would have to content himself with playing in the U.S. Open at Toledo.
Though the German advance was already beginning to constrict table tennis abroad, here in the U.S. players appeared to be sprouting up everywhere. You could see this not in any increased USTTA membership, for there didn’t seem to be any any, but in the enlarged Topics that was giving more and more round-the-country coverage to local and inter-city leagues, interscholastic and intercollegiate play, and open and closed tournaments.
Popularity of Nation-wide League and Inter-city Play
In the Northwest, in Portland, OR, leagues had become increasingly popular, and by 1939 had "progressed to a peak of around 250 players" (Bob Viducich, editor of the Dec. 6-7, 1980 Pacific Northwest Open Program).
Coleman Clark, who’d contracted to do an exhibition in Salt Lake City, was "amazed to find T.T. so well established, with hundreds of tables in town" (TTT, May, 1939, 15). He and how many others probably had no idea two leagues had been operating there. And what would he have said about the 6-team league in Boise, Idaho? Would he have wanted to play for real Idaho’s best, Carl Abbott?
Denver had a strong league--two divisions, 12 teams--with every player a USTTA member. Equal opportunity Omaha was supporting two men’s and two women’s leagues. No Davis Cup format for Topeka in its league play: a women’s match and a mixed doubles match were mandatory. Kansas City, Leagues Chair Stan Morest’s bastion, had 24 teams, 100 strong, playing Davis Cup style, with every participant an Association member. On the K.C. League’s Advisory Board was C.A. Schildeknecht whose ambitious aim was to keep a card index of every league in the country (TTT, May, 1939, 21), among them the three in Des Moines, and the five-man commercial teams of his southern neighbor, San Antonio.
St. Louis? Four leagues of 38 teams (25 men’s teams, 13 women’s teams). And an 8-team 6-man High School League in afternoon play (TTT, Nov., 1938, 19) that might have included the young Billy Holzrichter. George Hendry’s Silver Seals won the Men’s as Hendry himself went undefeated; and Mrs. Margaret Hendry Weidner’s team (Margaret’s one of George’s twin sisters) won the Women’s.
Up in Minneapolis President Don Larson had five leagues going (TTT, Jan., 1939, 11). And over in the Chicago area you could read about Yoshio Fushimi’s North Town League in the "North Town Table Tennis News" that he edited. W. B. Hester’s South Bend had four 6-team Y-sponsored leagues, for which, during the course of 17 weeks, maybe 180 card-carrying USTTA members played. Indianapolis? Well, if Saginaw, Michigan and Utica, N.Y. had leagues, then you could be sure Indianapolis did too. And of course Washington, D.C. had a Federal League.
Pennsylvania had the most USTTA members of any state because it had urged, demanded really, its many league players to join the Association. Butler, not far from Pittsburgh, had a league, and, across the state, so did York and Lancaster. Philadelphia’s Financial & Industrial League had a successful 6th season--five divisions, 26 men’s teams, 5 women’s teams (TTT, June, 1939, 26). And could anyone ignore Izzy Bellis’s Men’s Team in the Philadelphia"A" League or Reba Kirson’s in the Women’s? Or see anyone in the Philadelphia High School League coming up to replace them?
There were leagues in New Jersey--in Camden, Trenton, and Newark, and 15 teams in two divisions in the Monmouth County League, now in its 8th year, and 100 players in the Passaic County leagues. In New York City Kauderer was hoping not this season but next to bring together in a great show of unity as many factions as he could--the Bankers Athletic League, Brokers League, Department Store League, the Downtown League, the Staten Island League.
The Greater Boston T.T. League would complete its 7th season--it had three divisions, 9 teams in each. The Boston Securities Traders Association had a 12-team league, and to Izzy Rodensky, proprietor of the Towne Club, a Boston Business League looked promising.
In addition to all this nation-wide league play, there were also local inter-city matches--sometimes between men’s teams and sometimes between women’s teams.
In Jan., ‘39, the first Pacific Coast inter-cities was held--with teams from Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and Portland. The undefeated round robin winner was hometown favorite Seattle (with Ray Pearson, Walter Judd, and Elwood Martin). Pearson was 9-0 and Portland’s Hal Philan was 8-1.
A team from Glen Ullin, N.D.--that’s on the main highway west of Bismarck--played a friendly match with a team from Fort Yates down near the South Dakota border (TTT, Mar., 1939, 29). But that apparently was a mistake, for when it came time for Frank Baumstark’s Glen Ullin Club to hold its 2nd annual tournament, nobody but Glen Ullin players entered--word had gotten around that they were just too good.
At Indiana President Hester’s South Bend base, the resident team won the state YMCA title over teams from Newcastle, Muncie, Kokomo, LaPorte, Anderson, and Gary--with John Varga defeating fellow South Bend Club member Willie Hornyak for the singles title.
St. Louis, led by the Hendry brothers, George and Don, and Bud’s sister Marjorie Blattner who in a few years would marry a Hendry cousin, won the Missouri Valley Intercity for Men and Women over teams from Topeka, Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri.
The season’s best combination of both league and inter-city play among the men was the 6-team "Eastern Inter-city League" under D.C. President George Foster and Secretary Manny Moskowitz (TTT, Oct., 1938, 19). In traveling round robin play, Philadelphia defeated teams (wearing color-coordinated shirts) from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Newark, Reading, and Harrisburg. The match between Reading and Harrisburg, the two teams that finished with the worst records, was said to have drawn 500 spectators.
Following a Nov./Dec. schedule worked out by Women’s Chair Violet Smolens, teams representing Philadelphia and Baltimore, then Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, played warm-up matches before the Dec. 18, ‘38 Eastern Inter-cities at Philadelphia. Sisterly love--is that what the best of these women, who preferred to play against men, showed in Philly? There were four teams of four players each, and as expected the round robin winner was New York (Emily Fuller, Ruthe Brewer, May Spannaus, and Annabelle Slenker) over Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. U.S. #8 Spannaus had a very good 2-1 win over U.S. #2 Halliday who gave Fuller 3-game trouble.
A few months later, on her Paddle Club home courts in Baltimore, in a Newark-Baltimore-Washington round robin inter-city competition, a warm-up for the National’s, Halliday was again upset--this time by Molly Kareivis, unranked in ‘38, but #14 in ‘39.
Intercollegiate/Interscholastic Play--Princeton Wins U.S. Intercollegiate Team’s
As you’ll see shortly, Halliday, last year’s finalist, did not disgrace herself at the March National’s, but her interest, like that of her married sister, Virginia Stallings, waned. According to an article in Topics, the Blue Book of College Athletics, something a son might have received in the fall of 1938 as a little going-away-to-school gift, points out that "at least 125 colleges had table tennis listed as an intramural sport" (Jan., 1939, 5).** But how many young women, intent on marriage if not a career, would want to work up a sweat playing like jocks? During the ‘38-’39 season, Topics made mention of intramural play between Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois Universities, and of fraternity play at Virginia’s Washington and Lee. Intercollegiate tournaments were held at Washington, D.C.’s American University, Kansas City University, and at Boston’s new 18-table State Courts. But only at the latter, a commercial establishment in Newspaper Row run by John Holden, was there any suggestion of women competing (TTT, Apr., 1939, 16).
And certainly there were no women’s teams at the first nor, as the Topics article by Carl Zeisberg makes clear, at the second National Intercollegiate Championships, played Feb. 21-22 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weightman Hall. There Princeton’s Dan Kreer and Abbott Nelson "clawed their way undefeated" through seven round-robin rivals, including Penn’s Defending Champions Izzy Bellis and Len Sarner. In avenging last season’s loss, Kreer and Nelson "fought as fiercely as the snarling orange Tigers on their black-shirted backs and deserved to win."
Despite Nelson’s 2-1 loss to Sarner, Princeton’s toughest match was not with Penn, for Bellis, "ill with grippe, was not himself." City College of New York’s "bespectacled, stoop-shouldered" Dan Klepak, Consolation winner at the ‘38 National’s, beat both Chicago Tigers Kreer and Nelson, but his teammate, serious-minded student Irving "Whitey" Sheraga, who, because of "lab work," wouldn’t be able to get to next month’s Toledo National’s, just couldn’t contribute the right mix for a CCNY win. The unusual 34-32 first game of the Klepak-Nelson match "may indicate a cautious contest, but it was a slugging match almost throughout." Penn, though losing to Princeton, prevailed 3-0 over CCNY and (though the round robin was not completed) all the other teams they played.
Just as ‘38 U.S. Intercollegiate Team Champions Bellis and Sarner were able to book their Eastern-circuit resort-hotel act, so later, reportedly, would Klepak and a partner be performing at New York’s "Radio City Rainbow Room and Madison Square Garden." Reportedly, too, Klepak would say, "One of my proudest possessions is a 1938 clipping of an ad for the Lido Beach Hotel which bills us on top of Danny Kaye" (TTT, Dec., 1973, 16).
Since Topics lists a number of cities--Kansas City, Kansas, Kansas City, Missouri, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Saginaw, Michigan, and Newark, N.J.--that would hold High School Championships this season, it was only natural that Philadelphia should continue the first year’s practice of holding along with the Intercollegiates an Interscholastic competition. Out of "a field of 18 high and prep school teams," Reading High was the 3-2 victor over Northeast High. "In the deciding match, Don Quarles, a bespectacled Negro," later winning a mention in Topics for his deceptive "change-hands" drop shot (TTT, Nov., 1940, 18), "downed Northeast captain Al Race" (TTT, Mar., 1939, 8).
*A reference to Clark’s book appeared in TTT, Jan., 1939, 6, and was accompanied by a full-page ad, 19. Thereafter, each issue, from Feb., 14, through June, 31, carried at least a small ad for the book.
**Perhaps this isn’t surprising, for the University of Kansas at Lawrence had announced in late Dec., 1933 that "Fifty-one per cent of the men students, whose forefathers considered shooting Indians a sport and shaving effeminate, said ping-pong was their favorite game" (GSS I, 127).