EMILY FULLERUSATT Hall of Fame Inductee (1979)
by USATT Historian Tim Boggan - © 1999
Emily Fuller first surfaced as a player with high hopes when she beat Chicago star Helen Ovenden in straight games in the Rainbow Room of the Hotel Carter in the quarter's of the 1934 Cleveland APPA National's. She'd had no chance in the semi's against the emerging superstar Ruth Aarons, but--give her time--she'd eventually succeed Ruth as the USTTA's Women's Singles Champion.
Emily was from Bethlehem (or as was sometimes precisely stated East Bethlehem), Pennsylvania, had been educated at the "Moravian Seminary" there, and had then gone on to "Briarcliff Manor." She was rumored to be both the granddaughter of the proverbial Fuller Brush Man and the daughter of the head of Bethlehem Steel. She'd "played her first [table tennis] tournament in 1933 on a boat to California" where she was going to take "tennis lessons." After winning that tournament, she "felt so good about it" that when she was in Hollywood and "the manager of the country club where she had been playing tennis suggested she take part in a table tennis tournament"--one in which celebrities "Ginger Rogers, Fay Wray, [and] Alice Marble...were competing"--she couldn't resist. The rest, as they say, or will say after Emily's been coached by New Yorker Sam Silberman, is History.
At the Dec., 1934 American Zone Qualifier, played at New York City's downtown Athletic Club--this was the tournament where the winner of the Men's Singles (but not the Women's) would get an all-expenses-paid trip to the upcoming '35 London World Championships)--Fuller of course lost to APPA National Champion Aarons. But in the semi's she again beat the ubiquitous Ovenden, who'd be going at her own expense (our first women's entry) to these World's, and whose month-by-month see-saw play with Flo Basler would, in just a matter of days, allow her to hold high the Chicago District Championship.
You could tell Emily was improving--her early California game, she'd later say dryly, "consisted of a backhand push shot"--for, at the '35 Chicago National's, she was up 2-1 in the semi's against the very experienced, gutsy Purves before losing in 5.
Fuller, U.S. #3 that season, was thus a real possibility to partner Aarons to the '36 Prague World's. Ranking Chair Hammond said he'd like to see Emily make the trip to the World's, but, he added, "her means are such [that is, she's well off--has already contributed the relatively large sum of $25 to the "Fighting Fund"] that there is no sense in considering her for any help from the USTTA as the small amount we could give her, if we wanted to, would only be a fraction of her expense."
Hammond also mentions a new and unknown woman player. She's a 21-year-old Salem, Massachusetts American citizen studying piano in Vienna, and she's been recommended by Dr. Richard Pick, the German Language Secretary of the ITTF, who's been impressed by her play in an international meet in Hungary. Since influential Topics Editor Sidney Biddell thinks that a U.S. Women's Team could win the Corbillon Cup and that Aarons could win the World Women's Singles title, it's imperative that Ruth and the best U.S. women be available to play in Prague.
However, it's not clear to Biddell if Fuller is willing to go abroad. She's told him she's "taking a course in dramatics here in New York which would interfere with such an extended stay-away-from-New York trip."
Nor is it clear to me just what Fuller's status at this point is with the NY State TTA (NYSTTA) and the USTTA, or how she's getting along with Biddell who is now on the USTTA Executive Committee. Back in Apr., 1935, at a meeting of the NYSTTA, Biddell made a motion to suspend Fuller until Mar. 1, 1936 and it was carried unanimously. Further, the NYSTTA had asked USTTA organizations to recognize that the suspension be "effective throughout the USTTA." Fuller's offense? In an "Eastern Ping-Pong Tournament" in Boston--sic, stop right there: she was playing in a "Ping-Pong" tournament? That's offense enough for USTTA officials. Turns out Emily had defaulted her final match in the Women's Singles, and this was thought the more reprehensible because she'd earlier demanded that an opponent be compelled to default to her on a technicality, "thereby depriving her [this opponent] of an opportunity to advance in the tournament, and precipitating a controversy which ultimately resulted in the suspension of another player by this Association."
This other player, known for his "fighting spirit," was 1933 NYTTA National Champion and 1935 USTTA Mixed Doubles Champion Sydney Heitner. He was suspended until Jan. 1, 1936, but with the proviso that he could play in the "Round Robin Tournament"--that is, the New York Metro TTA Tournament or League Play that took place during most of the season. Perhaps it was this suspension, or the fact that the USTTA was coming down hard on defenders, or some other outside-table-tennis reason that precipitated Heitner's retirement from the sport.
Warned but not suspended along with Fuller and Heitner was Emily's coach and mixed doubles partner, Sam Silberman, NYSTTA Education Committee Chair, who had "questioned the authority of the Boston tournament committee" and had "participated in several unsanctioned exhibitions."
There's no record of Fuller playing in the first half of the 1935-36 season--but apparently Biddell and others think, practice or no practice, tournament play or no tournament play, Emily should be encouraged to compete not in the U.S. but in Czechoslovakia, especially if she can pay her own way. I don't know what Emily herself thinks of all this (her suspension until Mar. 1, 1936 has been waived?)--but after it looks like she is going to the World's at her own expense, she then decides not to go. (Her straight-game semi's loss to U.S. #5 Anne Sigman in the Jan. 30-Feb. 1 American Zone Qualifier is a contributing factor?)
It certainly didn't further Emily's table tennis career to have given up going to the World's. In the '36 Philadelphia National's, she lost (-22, 14, -15, -13 ) in the quarter's to Purves, who following her proven play in Prague the month before, perhaps had more of a confident image of herself than did Fuller. Emily, partnered with Jay, also lost the Woman's Doubles final, 19 in the 5th, to Aarons and Anne Sigman that, had she won, might have given her a better image of herself as a Champion. As it was, partnered with Silberman, she did well in the semi's of the Mixed to (-19, 11, -12, -15) extend the overwhelming favorites, Aarons and Victor Barna.
However committed to the sport Fuller was at this time, there was no doubt that she wanted to be on the '37 U.S. Team to the World's. And, for the first time, all the women who wanted to be considered, save exempted World Champion Aarons, would have to play in a selected round robin at the Jan. 1-3, 1937 Intercities to prove who was best qualified. Since many players, including '36 U.S. National's finalist Anne Sigman, and '36 U.S. World Team member Corinne Migneco, either couldn't, or wouldn't, come out to Chicago at their own expense, they could not be on the Team.
The favorites, then, were U.S. #3 Purves, U.S. #4 Fuller, U.S. #5 Dolores Probert-Kuenz from St. Louis, and U.S. #6 Mildred Wilkinson from Chicago. Also expected to pose a threat was the 17-year-old penholder from Oregon, Mayo Rae Rolph, whose reportedly disconcerting game had not yet been seen by the Easterners.
Where you lived, the competition that was there (or not there) to help you improve, the money you had or could raise to go to major tournaments, and the opportunities presented to you there in the Draws--these were all fateful factors in whether a would-be Champion could acquire the needed confidence and staying power to have a successful table tennis career.
Case in point, Rolph. She lost two crushing matches--the first (15, -19, -16 ) to top (9-0) finisher Kuenz that forced Mayo into a play-off, and the second, in that play-off for the third and last funded place on the Team (22, -21, -16) to Purves. Since an unfunded 4th place was still open, Mayo, who, in Aarons' absence, finished 3rd here over Wilkinson, hoped that her father might somehow be able to finance the trip to Baden, but when he couldn't, 5th-place finisher Fuller was able to take her place. Emily had the money to go to Baden--in fact she'd paid the way (she flew, they drove) of the N.Y. Men's Team to these Intercities. Perhaps her night club act with Sam Silberman had in some way affected her tournament play, or perhaps she just wasn't good enough yet, but she was a loser not only to the top four but to Omaha's Anita Carrey, U.S. #25. So, Fuller, not Rolph, would be a part of that '37 meet with the world's elite...and I think for both young women's stature in U.S. table tennis it made a striking difference.
There were nine women's teams in the Corbillon Cup, and from the scores of our eight round robin ties--five 3-0's and three 3-1's--it would seem the U.S. was never pressed in winning this historic Championship. But after our Feb. 1st 3-0 morning-exercise opener against France--in which Fuller, partnered by the recently married Dolores Probert-Kuenz, got to play and win her one and only match in the Cup--they had some very doubtful moments, most notably against Germany when Aarons and Purves made a thrilling comeback from 20-15 match-point down in the 3rd.
In the Singles, Fuller drew the 1933 and 1935 Czech World Singles Champion Marie Kettnerova in the first round and went out 14, 13, 19. She thus played exactly one singles match here in Baden, and that against an opponent she had no chance to beat.
In Women's Doubles, Fuller and Kuenz drew the eventual winners Votrubcova and Depetrisova in the first round--and so enough said. But in the Mixed, Emily and Abe Berenbaum had a marvelous 1st-round -11, -15, 5, 19, 15 upset win over Miroslav Hamr and Traute Kleinova, the Defending Champions, before losing to this year's Champions, the other Czech team of Bo Vana and Vera Votrubcova.
So, though Emily played only a few matches, it had to have been great fun for her to have been in on all the action, and to have rallied like that against world-class players.
Moreover, there was still more competition for the U.S. players. And Fuller made the most of it. In the English Open, played in London's Paddington Baths venue, she outdid herself--beat the English #2 Wendy Woodhead in straight games. And then at an Anglo-American meet in Birmingham, she scored a 2-1 victory over another English player, Lillian Hutchings, who'd just gotten to the quarter's of the World's and had gone 5 with Aarons at the English Open.
So with these unprecedented successes imaging themselves again and again in her pretty head, no wonder it'll soon be turned to thoughts of succeeding Aarons as our National Champion.
Emily made further progress toward stardom at the '37 Newark, N.J. National's where Ranking Chair Hammond had "fixed" the Women's Draw. By deliberately seeding the recently inactive and about to quit the Sport Sigman #4 into Aarons's half (Anne, emphasizing that with all the exhibitions she'd been playing, she'd just lost her desire to be competitive), he was able to bunch Kuenz, Purves, and Fuller together so as to let them fight it out for the chance to lose to Aarons in the final and thus better establish their ranking for the season.
In the semi's, Fuller made a great advance by showing she had the strength to (18, 13, -20, -15, 19) stop one of Purves's patented comebacks. This brought her to her first U.S. Women's Singles final.
And then to her first National title, the Women's Doubles, when she and Kuenz (27, 19, 15) held firm against the Defending Aarons/Sigman team.
Following the usual season-ending National's, the Rankings were held up to include a couple of tournaments, most notably the Trenton, N.J. Eastern's. With Aarons interested now only in entertaining, not competing, Fuller had no trouble winning the Women's, beating Mae Spannaus, who the week before had rallied to win the New York State Championship over National Public Park Tennis Champion Helen Germaine.
With the beginning of the '37-38 season there was of course much talk about sending U.S. Teams to London to defend their world titles. Hammond implied that Aarons ought to be loyal and return to competitive play to keep the U.S. women on top. Purves, however, he wouldn't miss, for her play had become "disgusting" to him because in order to win she'd resorted to chiseling or, as he and some of his contemporaries called it, "pooping." Clearly, though, Aarons and Purves had retired, and Mrs. Kuenz wasn't interested in going abroad any more, and in fact had become semi-retired, for she intended to play mostly locally and raise a family. As for Fuller, the fourth member of the winning '37 World Team, London wasn't in her plans either.
As Emily had become more interested in table tennis, she'd taken up residence with her mother in New York, in a penthouse atop the Essex House on Central Park West. Paul Whiteman, the famous band leader, lived in this building too. Emily's primary reason for coming to the Big City was not merely to get better at table tennis but to "study singing." Her ambition, she said, was "to develop a really good voice, whether I ever use it professionally or not." According to her voice teacher, she was "one of the great potential sopranos in the country." It thus appeared, for better or worse, that neither her table tennis or her singing would get her undivided attention.
Still, neither the veteran players not the more challenging, on-the-rise young players could beat her. In the Feb. 12-13 Middle Atlantic States at Baltimore, Emily defeated both Swathmore high school student Ruth Wilson (winner of the Philadelphia Club for Women and Penn State Open Jan. tournaments) and then Baltimore's own, beauteous Dorothy Halliday. More a blot than a dot in the private writ of Fuller's game-plan, Halliday, in going 5, showed Fuller she'd better get to playing more seriously if in just five weeks she wanted to be National Champ.
The end-of-Feb. Eastern's at Washington, D.C. proved more routine for Emily. She took the Women's by beating "titian-haired" Mae Clouther who, earlier, after losing in the New England Closed to Jane Stahl, had won the Massachusetts Closed over Barbara Shields.
For the '38 Philadelphia National's, Ranking Chairman Hammond wanted an East vs. West Draw in both the Men's and Women's, so seeded the players accordingly. In the quarter's, Emily drew the Sport's next woman superstar, the 8th-seeded Sally Green from Indianapolis, and (10, 17, -19, -9, 10) had to go 5 to beat her. That Fuller's family had bucks enough to allow her to have a N. Y. taxi wait outside for her, say, a full two hours while she went into a table tennis club to practice was undoubtedly a comfort to her. But she was not "soft," and when she had to win that 5th game against the fierce drive of this destined-for-greatness teenager Green, she did.
One could understand Emily's later realization, though, about "how much more I still have to learn before I am half-way satisfied with my game.
The semi's matches weren't much contested. Fuller lost the first game to 16-year-old Ruth Wilson, who in the 2nd round had knocked out Kuenz, but again so steadied that thereafter it was like a 10-point game. Halliday, the 13th seed who'd gotten by hard-hitting Helen Germaine, allowed Clouther a mere 35 points.
In the 12, 14, -19, 9 final, when Fuller was leading 12-5 in the 4th, and "Baltimore's ultra-glamorous, ultra-defensive Dorothy Halliday [had] checked Emily's hiutting by lefthanded push shots to Emily's backhand," the Expedite Rule was applied..."and the duel of brunettes ended as a hitting contest."
Since with the close of this National's Emily was now not only the U.S. Women's Singles Champion but also the Women's Doubles Champion (with Kuenz) and the Mixed Doubles Champion (with Johnny Abrahams), the focus was all on her. "Being tall and dark and pretty," she was a natural successor to the much admired Aarons. As reporters had so often described the old Champion, now in much the same way were they describing the new one. "Miss Fuller is grace personified. The rhythm of motion as she races from side to side to send over the net her sweeping strokes make[s] you think in terms of ballet dancers rather than athletes."
Now, too, there was a Warner Brothers' Clem McCarthy table tennis movie short, "Table Manners," starring Eddie Foy and his strong supporting cast of Aarons, Fuller, Halliday, Laszlo Bellak, Sandor Glancz, and Lou Pagliaro, which was thought to have been seen by maybe 30,000,000 moviegoers.
Fuller's early 1938-39 play showed she was taking the new season seriously enough. She won the Oct., '38 Southern New England Open over lefty teenager Ruthe Brewer, whose proud father proclaimed her "the next national champion." It was clear from the outset that neither Fuller nor any other U.S. player would be sent to the '39 Cairo World's (the necessarily poorly attended last Championships until after the War). So there were no Team Trials for men or women. A 4-team Women's Eastern Intercities held at Philadelphia produced no surprises, for, as expected, it was won by New York (Fuller, Brewer, Mae Spannaus, and Annabelle Slenker).
New Yorker's Fuller and Brewer played in the final of the Feb. 4-5, '39 Eastern's (after Brewer had won a deuce-in-the-5th thriller from Halliday). But likely even Ruthe's father might be having a few doubts as to whether Ruthe was going to be U.S. Champion this year. For winning these Eastern's Fuller was awarded a nice cup and tray set--but without the four cups (the committee person in charge forgot to bring them).
At the '39 Toledo National's, new Ranking Chair Elmer Cinnater, following the lead of his predecessor Hammond, had a "fixed" East vs. West Women's Draw. Though entries were "limited to 32" players, that didn't mean that after 32 entries were accepted, no more players could get in--it only meant that, since 43 players were entered, some had to play preliminary matches. What the rationale (if any) was for deciding who played these additional matches is not clear to me, for even three of the eight seeds, including the #2 seed Brewer, were asked to play them. Since there were no byes, any player unfortunate enough to meet a seed in her first match likely wouldn't have a fighting chance. And, as there wasn't a Women's Consolation (as there was for the Men), could making the trip here to play one quick single elimination match one had no choice of winning be very satisfying?
The four women semifinalists were Fuller vs. Halliday, and Magda Gal Hazi vs. Sally Green (who'd rallied from down 2-0 to beat Brewer).
Dot had her moments, but Fuller, as she had been in their 4-game final last year, was just too 13, -16, 18, 15 savvy and played perhaps too "masculine" a game for her younger, less experienced opponent. Hall of Famer Doug Cartland remembers how Fuller, accompanied by her mother, would arrive at the N.Y. Club to practice for a couple of hours with the best male available. No surprise then that Emily herself said that against men "I find myself hitting harder, chopping deeper and playing faster."
Magda Gal Hazi had arrived in this country with her husband Tibor only a few days before the tournament. Born into a banking family, well-educated, and quick to learn English, Magda had been an exceptional sportswoman in her native Hungary. From 1929-34 she was a 5-time World Singles semifinalist, in '35 a finalist, and, in addition, was a 5-time World Women's or Mixed Doubles finalist. But she would not add this or any U.S. Open to her many European titles. Here, in the twilight of her career, she was attacked and beaten in 4 by Green, whose forehand Schiff and Cartland in Sol's Table Tennis Comes of Age (1939) characterized as "a quick and vicious stroke, patterned after some of the best among the men's players'."
But although Reba Kirson (later Monness) praises Sally as being "the trickiest player, she could not take a game from Fuller in the final, for Emily's backhand chop prevented Sally from mounting any all-out assault. Schiff and Cartland said that not only did Emily have "an excellent defense," 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, Reginald 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."
However, Green did get some measure of revenge against Fuller--for Sally and Mildred Wilkinson won the Women's Doubles from Emily and Magda Hazi in straight games.
Though perhaps Fuller herself hadn't quite realized it yet, she was about to retire from competition, pursue her singing career. That is, as soon as she finished her table tennis duties. She still had to be crowned Queen at the annual Banquet of Champions at the Masonic Temple in her hometown Bethlehem--a late April affair that was sponsored by the local Boys' Club Fraternity, an organization she'd had ties with for years. Six hundred people attended, among them many of the town's leading citizens. Would that so many have come on occasion to watch her play.
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