Chapter VIII: 1934: Emergence of "New Wave" of St. Louis Players. 1934: McClure Wins 2nd American Zone Qualifier for World’s.
With the 1934-35 season underway, the Dec. Topics showed that, in addition to President Stewart, Treasurer Cinnater, Recording Secretary Frank B. Nusbaum (an Indianapolis attorney), Executive Secretary Clark, and Editor Zeisberg, the reorganized USTTA now had 18 Vice Presidents, each representing the following State Associations: California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington/Oregon/Idaho, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (2).
Some Midwest players and officials on the scene at this time were: Bernie Hock, later famous for making custom bats for the hard-rubber stars, now just starting his career out of New Albany, Indiana as local ‘34 Falls Cities Champ (the three Falls Cities were Louisville, KY and New Albany and Jeffersonville, IN); Lester Adams, who in Feb., ‘35 (in the absence of McClure) would rally from two games down to defeat Joel Inman in the final of the Indiana Open; ‘34 Milwaukee Champ Willard Batzle; Minnesota’s best, Ed Sirmai; Eddie Robinson, ‘34 Mississippi Valley Champion; Irl Marshall, President of the Wisconsin Association, who’d be succeeded by another well known bat-maker, C. B. MacCrossen; Cleveland’s Harry S. Wahle, who in June of ‘35 would replace Coleman Clark as Executive Secretary of the USTTA; and, with three years of APPA ranking experience already behind him, Reginald G. Hammond, who was just beginning his tenure as USTTA Ranking Chairman.
The Eastern PPA, with its well-organized Westchester clubs, held off defecting from the APPA for a few months at the beginning of the ‘34-35 season, but by mid-Dec., after Ruth Aarons, Jimmy Jacobson, and others had joined the USTTA, resistance dissipated. Indeed, as early as June of ‘34, Schiff and Berenbaum had been welcomed at a YMHA tournament in Mt. Vernon--formerly an APPA stronghold--where, after downing Jack Hartigan in the semi’s, Sol again beat Abe in the final.
Eastern PPA players dominated the Aug. 4 Provincetown, Massachusetts Quiniela --with the annual Silver Cod trophy for the men going to Sam Silberman and the Bronze Dolphin for the women going to Chicago’s visiting Helen Ovenden. Perhaps it’s this summer in Provincetown that Jimmy Jacobson, collegiate-like, is "towing a six-foot shark around behind his Ford--towing it with legitimate fisherman’s pride at first, and with growing consternation as he was faced with the problem of disposing of it" (TTT, Oct., 1938, 10).
Emergence of Strong, Young St. Louis Players
The Aug. 31, 128-entry Cleveland Great Lakes Open that started the USTTA’s ‘34-35 season was significant for two reasons. It was the first of a series of pre-American Zone tourneys won not by Sol Schiff but by Abe Berenbaum, and it marked the first appearance in Topics of three of the great St. Louis players of that era: Robert "Buddy" Blattner, Bill Price, and Garrett Nash.
This Great Lakes tournament was also unique in that it was held outside, before 1,000 spectators, on 40-50 tables set up at the Euclid Beach Amusement Park. Though it may surprise some, Ervin Brody, whom we’ll see later befriending U.S. teams abroad, tells, in an article he sent to me in June of ‘91, of the famous open-air Pollak table tennis parlor in Budapest where the world-class Hungarians of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s played. And Ruth Aarons will write why two of those great players--Barna and Bellak--stress the advantages of outdoor play. It "teaches you ball control and though at times it may be very funny and difficult to play in the wind, there is no better training for a player. It teaches quick change of strokes and gives training not possible in any other way" (TTT, Nov., 1937, 7).
Here by Euclid Beach’s windy waters Schiff said that the players played with the heavier Parker ball. "But even so," he said, "there was so much wind that sometimes I’d hit the ball and it’d go 20 feet off the table." Sol, who just a year ago last June had won an open-air West New York City Playgrounds tournament, was beaten in the quarter’s by Chicago’s Morty Ladin who earlier had rallied from being 2-0 down to one of Milwaukee’s best, Duane Maule.
New York Metro Doubles Champs Schiff and Solomon (Seymour would succeed Bernie Joel as Executive Secretary of the NYTTA) were upset by "two surprising kids" from St. Louis--Price and Nash. Blattner, another kid, was a felt force too--losing in close (19, 29, 19) games to Schiff in an early round. In less than two years Blattner’s picture, his name in headlines, would be on the cover of Topics as World Doubles Champion with Jimmy McClure.
Price, while a student at Central High, began playing table tennis at the local Y and thereafter taught others an all-around game there. Blattner at 13 was sneaking into a place called John’s Pool Hall where his "older baseball-playing friends taught him how to play table tennis on a wooden board on top of a pool table"*--which in the basement of my home in Dayton, Ohio, playing with my father in the late 1930’s, is how I myself learned the game.
What a geographical center St. Louis had quickly become. Last season Bill Stewart had only just met Elmer Cinnater, and now Bill was the USTTA President and Elmer, "whose table tennis career [had] started over a kitchen table with a twenty-five cent set" that included a sandpaper racket,** was the USTTA Treasurer and soon-to-be World Champion U.S. Team Captain. More than twenty years later, Cinnater, in his Feb. 9, 1958 letter to Stewart, recalled how, when they’d first met, Bill and his friends had "stopped the St. Louis newspapers from covering the St. Louis District at the Jefferson Hotel right in the middle of the tournament because we [Cinnater, then St. Louis PPA head, and his tournament committee] were using PING PONG and [as] the newspapers were sold on the idea that this was a trade name of Parker Brothers [we were doing harm to the USTTA cause]."
And look at the fast-increasing cluster of center-court St. Louis players! The Tietjin brothers, Trobaugh, Radunsky, Schlude, Tindall, Nash, Price, Blattner...and 1935 U.S. Boys Champ George Hendry about to show from out the wings (55 years later, in 1990, George would be the World Over 70 Champion). These St. Louis players won’t be coming all the way to New York City for the Dec. American Zone Qualifier, but they’ll be in Chicago for the Apr. National’s. So, want to see what they’re all like close up in practice? Maybe hit a few balls yourself? (I’m sure Nash would give you a game.) Come on up to the 8-table St. Louis Headquarter’s Club on Olive St.--R.G. Blattner, Manager (that’s young Buddy’s father): $1.25 a month allows you unlimited playing time (TTT, Nov., 1934, 8).
Back East two weeks after his win in Singles and (with Rudy Rubin) doubles at Cleveland, Berenbaum defeated Schiff in a Rutherford, N.J. Invitational Tournament. For whatever reason, Sol did not seem to be at his best, having just gotten by Abe Krakauer in the semi’s, deuce in the 5th. In the quarter’s Abe had downed Pennsylvania Champ Ray Lipschutz, and in the semi’s he’d beaten Harry Cook, conqueror of both Sydney Heitner and Sam Silberman who couldn’t backhand-flick his way through the young defender.
Again, in October, in Brooklyn, Abe defeated Sol. "Berenbaum had the best backhand chop I’ve ever seen" Schiff would say after a lifetime of watching defensive greats. And this despite something of an unconventional grip--Abe’s fore and middle fingers formed a modified "V" on the back of the blade. The semi’s here in Brooklyn were wild: Schiff was extended to 26-24 in the 5th by Goldman, and Berenbaum to 19 in the 5th by Cook, who in the quarter’s had escaped Jacobson in 5. Cook, partnered by Melvin Rose, also did well to win the doubles.
Only after joining the ITTF apparently did the U.S. players officially abandon the alternating service (one from the server’s right court to his opponent’s right court, then one from the server’s left court to his opponent’s left court) in favor of the ITTF doubles service rule: "serve 5 from right to right" (from the server’s right court into the opponent’s right court).*** In effect now, too, was the rule: "In deciding game of a match, team that served first 5 has right to alter its order of receiving or that of its opponents as soon as one team scores 10 points" (TTT, Dec., 1934, 4). Not in effect (was it ever?): the odd rule that reportedly asked "the contestants" to "change ends at every odd point after the score reaches 20-all" (TTT, Nov., 1937, 23).
1934 (2nd) American Zone Qualifier
The tournament that everyone in the East had been looking forward to--the 2nd annual American Zone Qualifier that offered the Men’s (but not the Women’s) Singles winner an all-expenses-paid trip to the London World’s--was held Dec. 12-15 at New York City’s Downtown Athletic Club. Fiery Jimmy McClure, having switched from sandpaper to a rubber racket ("Oh," he’d say later, "what a change it was to go to rubber!"), deserved to claim the unusual prize, for he downed the two best players in the East--Berenbaum, 3-0 in the semi’s, and Schiff 3-1 in the final.
Down 19-17 in the 1st against Berenbaum. Jimmy responded with "four consecutive angled kill shots" that changed the direction of the match and signaled for some the bravura performance against Schiff that was to follow (TTT, Jan., 1935, 1). Still, this McClure fellow was not easy to figure. Earlier, he could hardly handle an unsung local player’s chop, then he goes on "to smash through Berenbaum as though he had no defense at all" (TTT, Nov., 1941, 19). Of the 35 tournament matches Abe was to play all ‘34-35 season long, this one to McClure would be his only loss.
Sports Psychology is scarcely a new phenomenon. Here, in a 1932 Table Tennis newsletter, edited by Chicago’s Eduardo Yap, are some lines from an article by Mark Lindquist on "mental attitude," the import of which, whether he was conscious of it or not, might explain in part 18-year-old Jimmy’s shifts in play:
"When a player who is nervous tells himself vehemently that he will not allow himself to remain that way, this very attention and concentration only fixes his nervousness more firmly in his mind than ever. This nervousness one sees in the body is only an outward symptom of the emotion, fear, in the mind....To rid the mind of an undesirable emotion one must concentrate on substituting another emotion....
Every individual will have to work out for himself a more suitable emotion than fear; one can do this by becoming a little angry...."
Against an aggressive Schiff, who had him down 1-0 and 8-3 in the 2nd (at this point did McClure hear what some of the New Yorkers on the sidelines were saying: that he was overrated, couldn’t play at all?), Jimmy suddenly grabbed his racket with both hands and as if to wring himself into action shook it at the table; then he did what he was beginning to acquire a reputation for doing, began an attack of his own, got "hot" (TTT, Jan., 1935, 5). McClure," Manny Moskowitz said, "was always hot." Forcing Sol to play defense, and "magnificent defense" at that, McClure rallied to win in 4. Rallied again and again, for, according to one on-the-scene observer, Dick Geiger, "Jimmy cast discretion to the winds...and smashed his way to win" from 20-17 down in the 2nd, 20-16 down in the 3rd, and 19-16 down in the 4th (TTT, Nov., 1941, 19).
Beating Schiff, a hard hitter from both sides, was more of an accomplishment for McClure than beating the attacking Condy in the final of the 1934 APPA National’s, for if Jimmy could push the ball far to Billy’s backhand, Billy, despite his vaunted forehand, would often penhold push back, thus allowing the fast-moving Jimmy to gain forehand control. Against Sol’s backhand, taking the offense was more difficult.
Perhaps McClure was able to seize the moment because, back in the 8th’s, down 2-1 in games, he’d risen to the occasion, had the competitive toughness to score a 5-game win over Brooklyn’s Melvin Rose. Also, it sure didn’t hurt that in both these come-from-behind wins he’d had a special pro-Irish cheering section of Wall Street clerks who practically shouted themselves hoarse for him (RHS, 7).
Of course Schiff had his very vocal followers too--indeed, the umpire had to "caution the spectators against shouting encouragement to the players" (Racquet, Jan., 1935, 9). Like Jimmy, Sol, too, even before the final, had been having his close-game troubles: in the quarter’s, he’d barely been able to hang on against St. Louis defensive stalwart Schlude, 22-20 in the 5th, and then, in the semi’s, losing two deuce games enroute, he’d had to go 5 with Silberman, who earlier had stretched and strained to overcome both Trobaugh and Harry Cook. Back in the 8th’s, after seeing the ball clear the net "462 times"--that was somebody’s count for 1 point (which makes you realize why that person had started to count in the first place)--Schlude had rallied from 19-16 down in the 5th to stagger by Al"Stonewall" Goldman.
Moe Schulman, one of those New York "sleepers" you didn’t hear much about because he wasn’t quite good enough to win tournaments, certainly proved to be a spoiler for Cal Fuhrman and Sydney Heitner, and would have proved the same to Max Rushakoff in their 5-game match had either their 23-21 first game or 21-19 third game been reversed. In another upset, Condy, who in two weeks would successfully defend his Chicago District Championship by beating Rushakoff, couldn’t wing it through Cook’s defense.
In the Women’s, Ruth Aarons, though playing shakehands for the first time in a tournament (TTT, Feb., 1935, 6), had no difficulty with Anne Sigman in the semi’s. Ah, if there had been no rain that afternoon Ruth was to discover her passion for the Sport, how many tournaments might Anne have won? We’ll follow her career, too, till she loses fire. In the other semi’s, Emily Fuller had a straight-game win over Helen Ovenden whose month by month see-saw play with Flo Basler would, in just a matter of days, allow Helen to hold high her new Chicago District Championship. Aarons of course won the final over Fuller. But Emily was improving--her early California game, she’d say dryly, "consisted of a backhand push shot" (TTT, Feb., 1939, 6).
At the end of this 2nd American Zone Tournament--run so successfully at this 3,500-member Downtown Athletic Club by a Committee headed by Herbert W. Allen and including NYTTA officials Henry Randow, future NYTTA President Robert V. Maleeny, and the Schein brothers, George and Leo--Men’s Singles winner McClure was awarded a trophy by Racquet, a magazine owned by Bill O’Brien, "promoter of Bill Tilden’s tennis tours," while the losing finalist Schiff was urged to continue contributing table tennis articles to the magazine (TTT, Jan., 1935, 1 and 5).
*Brian A. Gnatt in USA Today, Aug. 3, 1996, 6C.
**TTT, Feb., 1941, 9, and Aug. 31, 1979 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article.
***See NYTTA Handbook, 1932-33, 6; Clark’s Ping-Pong, 93-94; and TTT, Nov., 1934, 4.