BILLY HOLZRICHTERUSATT Hall of Fame Inductee (1980)
by USATT Historian Tim Boggan - © 1999
Billy Holzrichter, born New Year's Day, 1922, began playing at the Larabee Y in Chicago in 1934. Two years later, in the Illinois Open, he had a sensational win over Ralph Muchow (MUCK-ow), U.S. #9 for the '36-37 season. This prompted Yoshio Fushimi, Coleman Clark's exhibition partner and one of the mainstays of Chicago table tennis, to invite Billy to the popular Stay and Play Club. Billy accepted, arrived in overalls--and was promptly nicknamed "The Overalls Kid."
After staying and playing, and so adding more touch to his already steady strokes, Holzrichter moved to Moline, IL and from there to St. Louis, where he and his brother Gus lived in a place with the storybook name of "Mother Lippert's Boarding House." Years later, Billy would emphasize how important it was for him to have had the opportunity to compete in league matches and tournaments against such strong St. Louis players as Bud Blattner, Garrett Nash, Bill Price, and George Hendry. The 1938-39 season "really molded my game," he said.
In the first Chicago Metro Open, held at the Washington Park Fieldhouse about the time Holzrichter turned 17, Billy defeated one of his arch-rivals in those early days, Bob Anderson, in what Topics described as "one of the most bitterly fought matches ever witnessed in Illinois tournaments." But, since the -16, 10, 10, 18 scores accompanying the short write-up certainly don't appear to highlight a mutually shared relentless determination, perhaps we're to understand that the players, if only for this moment in time, had a mutual animosity for one another? Or was the writer merely mouthing that word "bitterly" without a clue?
This was one of two back-to-back Chicago tournaments where the Muchow brothers, Ralph and Gordon, were eliminated in the Singles semi's. In this Metro, though, they won the Men's Doubles--over Holzrichter and Anderson. That Doubles match, presumably played before the climactic, "bitterly fought" Singles final, provoked some ill feeling between the losing pair? But in that case why wouldn't the writer elaborate with a detail or two? Because the divisiveness wasn't nice to mention? Or couldn't be justly mentioned in a mere paragraph report on the tournament? Such speculations allow one to conclude nothing more than what is already known--how easy it is to risk reading too much "History" into a relatively idle line.
One of the most startling results in the Mar., 1939 Toledo U.S. Open was Holzrichter's defeat of the #1 seed--Philadelphia defensive star, Izzy Bellis. Billy, who'd been up, up, up after his win over U.S. #4 Garrett Nash in the Jan. Burlington Tri-State, but down, down, down after his loss to Roger Downs in the semi's of the mid-Feb. Michigan Open, was said to have showed poise and maturity as he waited patiently through 4 games for the right ball to begin again and again the sustained attack that would upset Bellis.
Billy then scored another good win over U.S. #8 Johnny Abrahams before being stopped cold in the quarter's by the often underrated Doug Cartland. Perhaps after two fine wins Billy had a letdown, or, more likely, he just couldn't find a way to combat Doug's technique--a combination of unwavering concentration with super-steady forehand control.
Of course Holzrichter, at U.S. #10, played for Chicago at the Dec., '39 Philadelphia Intercities--but he compiled only a fair 7-4 record. He did -15, 24, 9 survive to give 1935 and 1936 U.S. #1 Abe Berenbaum (4-1), who'd not been playing much, his only loss. However, this time Billy was beaten by Bellis on Izzy's Arcade Club home turf.
"Holzrichter's ability to counter-drive is exceeded only by his uncanny judgment as to when to do it," said one observer who saw him win the Jan. 13-14 Tri-State for the third consecutive year. There he (-14, 23, 7, 19) beat a scrappy Nash ("tricky fellow, tricky serves"), who back in Philly had presented the Intercities with a dubious first. The Referee'd had to cancel his match with Bellis, for the two of them had gotten into "scenes reminiscent of a wrestling match."
Two weeks later, at the Indiana Open (call it also the St. Joe Valley?) in South Bend, Billy lost, 19 in the 4th, to Don MacCrossen and his "terrific powerhouse forehand." But in another two weeks he beat Don and Ralph Muchow to take the Michigan Open.
Then, in a trade-off, he lost the Illinois Open to Anderson--who had "a juicy forehand chop" Billy had learned to respect on being beaten by him earlier in the Western's--but afterwards got the better of "Andy," 24-22 in the 4th, to win the Mar. Lake Cities.
Nothing dramatic for Holzrichter at this year's National's, though--he went down to Hazi in the 8th's, and in the Mixed with Marge Koolery could do no better than the semi's where they lost to the runner-ups, Anderson and Mayo Rae Rolph.
That 1940 summer, U.S. #5 Anderson and #7 Holzrichter, along with #2 Ruthe Brewer (who'd been runner-up in the National's to young Sally Green) and #4 Mildred Wilkinson Shipman were given an unusual opportunity. The Japanese TTA had requested that the U.S. send an available Team for a 21-day stay, all expenses paid while they were the Association's guests in Japan. So, joined by Capt. Bill Gunn and his wife Mae, off they went to San Francisco to set sail on the Tatsutamaru--the only serious complication being that the recently married Shipman found out on her way to the West Coast she was pregnant and decided to stay home. Mayo Rae Rolph, now about to turn 21, and who as a teenager had lacked the funds to go to the 1937 World Championships she'd qualified for, and so couldn't be part of the winning U.S. Corbillon Cup Team in Baden, took Millie's place, left independently from Seattle on the Heian Maru, and, after suffering some ill effects from a shipboard vaccination, joined the others in Osaka.
Years later, describing her teammates, Mayo pointed out that because the name Holzrichter was of German origin--Japan was more and more about to use conquered Manchuria as a vast arsenal (the Heian Maru had been loaded down with scrap iron)--his passport wouldn't allow them to go on a side trip to Shanghai. Mayo thought Billy "outgoing, with a big smile, friendly and sensitive." Anderson, "who had diabetes, didn't take care of himself, and so would die early," she deemed "pleasant, handsome, quietly retiring." But Brewer, whom Mayo had lost to in the Apr. National's, was, at least with her, "distant and aloof" (though by Sept. she was married to a fellow she'd met aboard ship coming back).
Our Team, and a weaker Australian one, was welcomed, Gunn said, with "extra courteous consideration" as we played matches in various cities, including Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Hiroshima. Accommodations were often luxurious--Mayo particularly remembers the famous Imperial Hotel that Frank Lloyd Wright built to withstand earthquakes.
Gunn speaks of the "astounding" interest in table tennis shown by the Japanese:
"...Everywhere we played there was never less than 1500 spectators present, and in many cases it jumped to four or five thousand. The only two T.T. parlors we saw in Japan were superior to any we have seen in the U.S. At one industrial plant in Nagoya there were at least 500 tables, used during the day as working tables, but filled to capacity with table tennis players at lunch time or after working hours.
...[We] could not help but feel that many of...[the Japanese Association's] important t.t. activities were handled so much better than ours back home."
Sometimes the U.S. won the match of the moment, more often they did not. But of course on a trip like this it was as important to be diplomatic as to play well:
"We had the privilege and rare honor of playing before royalty. The first night at Tokyo [June 12] we performed before two of the Emperor's brothers, Princes Chichibu and Mahasa. We all bowed our respect before and after each match and as they entered and left the hall. Our willingness to abide by this traditional etiquette brought us rounds of applause from the many spectators."
The Japanese would not send a Team to the World Championships until their auspicious debut in Bombay in 1952 when they'd introduce the new sponge rubber racket that would change the face of the Sport. But Gunn (echoing what the Hungarian world-class players Szabados and Kelen had said of their 1938 matches in Japan) tells us that they already have "very fine players":
...They invariably use cork surfaced bats [two years before, said Kelen, they used just plain wood] which they grip in pen-holder style. All of them are fine forehand hitters although they do not drive except on a sure kill chance. Their main weakness, we discovered, was their disregard or lack of a chop defense. Effective strategy, we learned, was to feed them a chop and then counter drive their return. Holzrichter applied this technique...and it was cold-blooded murder. The rest of us, however, could not seem to put the theory into practice, mostly because of the peculiar bounce the balls took on those soft-top tables."
Holzrichter said that the tables the U.S. practiced on were slick (the ball would slide), but that the tables the international matches were played on were vastly different: they had a chalky, rough surface, and though you put heavy chop on the ball it would pop straight up and be hit away. On one such table Billy remembers losing a match, 23-21 in the 5th, to one of Japan's best players, Takashi Kon (who'd also beaten Kelen in their initial encounter).
If the Japanese had a motive other than "Friendship Matches" in hosting this U.S. Team, it certainly wasn't clear to our players. Gunn said the Team received so many gifts that "shipping them home became quite a problem." Rolph particularly liked "a box of oriental make up cream and a pair of exquisitely carved wooden shoes." As Holzrichter, who'd be rescued from his downed B-24 in the War, said years later, "As long as I wasn't a prisoner of war, the Japanese couldn't have been nicer." In retrospect, however, a remark made by a Japanese liaison to the Team that summer of 1940 proved startling. Billy had happened to say, "We'll be going home in a week or so," and Machita San had replied, "You may be our guest longer than you think."
Still, the July 2 letter JTTA President Usagawa sent to our USTTA President Clouther would seem straightforward enough:
"...we have to mention that good-will between U.S.A. and Japan, promoted by means of the table tennis matches, is a most valuable result of the scheme. With this aim in view, let us hope for the continuation of the Pan Pacific table tennis matches and also the exchange of players for the sheer purpose of developing amity between the two nations."
On returning to Chicago for the 1940-41 season, Holzrichter split finals with Anderson--won the Minneapolis Aquatennial (after going 5 with Harry Lund) but lost the Chicago District.
As the Dec. Topics was getting ready to go to press with the news that Nazi bombs had destroyed the Official Headquarters of the English TTA, U.S. Champion Lou Pagliaro, nicknamed "Little Dynamite," continued at the Dec. St. Louis Intercities his blitz of opponent after opponent--now having played 22 "consecutive tournaments" without a loss. One of his 3-game victims was Holzrichter, whom Topics recorded as having a very respectable 10-2 record, with a 2-1 loss also to Eddie Pinner in the N.Y. (5)--Chicago (2) tie--a match more than half a century later Billy strongly doubts he played.
In the months prior to the upcoming National's, Holzrichter, as expected, competed in a number of tournaments.
Topics says he was the winner of the Jan. 4-5 Michigan Open over, first, "Charley Bernstein" in a perilous -19, -17, 20, 12, 16 semi's match, and then Max Hersh, 3-zip, in the final. Billy, however, says he beat Bernstein in the final, easily, and that it was Hersh who gave him trouble in the semi's.
Definitely Holzrichter went through this Charley Bernstein, or, as he was coming to be known, "Chuck Burns," 3-0, in the final of the '41 Western Open. Burns, who'd won the Dec., '40 Michigan Closed over Hersh and V. Lee Webb, was a smart player, but, since Chuck's backhand was heavily loaded, and he had a good flick from that side, Billy played ball after ball to his forehand. Since Holzrichter and Anderson were regular doubles partners, they were invariably the favored team at Midwest tournaments, but at this Western's, after leading 2-0, they fell in 5 to Hersh and Webb.
Having rallied to win the Jan. St. Joe Valley final in 5 over U.S. Junior Champion Chuck Tichenor, Holzrichter was also able to outlast both Hendry and McClure at the Feb. St. Louis Ozark Open. He also won both the Middle States Open, over Garrett Nash, and the Lake City Open, getting by Nash 22-20 in the 5th. However, anybody who keeps playing 5-game matches isn't going to win them all, and Billy was no exception. He lost, deuce in the 5th, in the semi's of the Mar. Illinois State to Bill Price. "You needed plenty of patience to play Price," Holzrichter said, "and I didn't always have that."
At the Apr. 2-4, '41 National's, Holzrichter, seeded 3rd, again lost to Hazi, though down 2-0 he forced the match into the 5th. Then he and his partner Anderson were beaten in the semi's of the Men's Doubles in 5 by Defending Champs McClure and Schiff.
At these National's, USTTA President Jim Clouther--his wife, Mae, was the table tennis player, he a member of the Minute Men Sportsmen's Club and the National Rifle Association--was stricken with the beginnings of appendicitis, and as he'd earlier urged every member of his ship of state to function like "the crew of a submarine," it was natural that USTTA Executive Secretary Victor Rupp succeed him at the start of a new season.
In the same Dec., '41 issue of Topics that stressed that veteran Tournament Chair Dougall Kittermaster had all in readiness for the upcoming Chicago Intercities--play Christmas weekend would be on four tables in the Bal Tabarin room of the Sherman Hotel and limited as usual to seven teams--Hungarian official Ervin Brody, who'd befriended our winning 1937 U.S. Teams abroad, was making the following point:
"Expert opinion is unanimous here [in Hungary] that after the war the USA will take over the lead in T.T....[for it] is being played and sponsored in your country unhindered by the war while the game in other countries suffers considerably if not totally from its effects."
Although there was a sameness about these Intercities in that New York was again undefeated and had been since 1935, the Dec. 7 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor would change the lives of many of these players--some sooner rather than later. Popular Yoshio Fushimi, who'd emigrated to the U.S. in 1925 from Shizuoka, Japan, promptly resigned his Captaincy of the Chicago Team, as if anticipating lines from a poem that would appear in the Feb., '42 Topics:"This is God's country, great and clean/With liberty he blessed it/And if some Jap tries to get in/I'll scalp the slant-eyed buzzard." Since so many players were about to be called into the Service, table tennis equipment harder and harder to get, and rationing curtailing travel, it would be 1946 before this annual Intercity play would be renewed.
New York (Pagliaro, Tibor Hazi, and 17-year-old Dick Miles) had an unusually shaky time of it here in Chicago--Boston's Les Lowry "blasted through their whole team," Indianapolis's McClure beat Pagliaro and Hazi, Detroit's Burns downed Pagliaro and Miles to make the tie 4-4 before Paggy was much too steady for Nash (the "Casanova of T.T.") who'd married "lovely Marie Van Loon, sweet, soft-spoken deb of the Motor City" and moved to Detroit.
The final match-up pitted the two undefeated teams, New York and Chicago--and when in the opening match former Princeton star Dan Kreer (he sold Holzrichter insurance) had Pagliaro down 1-0 and at deuce in the 2nd, the Gothamites looked grim. Though Lou came through, Anderson beat Hazi from 19-all in the 3rd, and Holzrichter won his 12th straight match of the tournament from young Miles, who, since he already had five losses, players "were wondering how he had made third place on the New York team."
But when Hazi topped Kreer, and Holzrichter split, beating Hazi but losing to Pagliaro ("a fantastic defense" said Billy), Miles surprised everyone with never-in-doubt wins over Anderson and Kreer. So, another victory for the New Yorkers--but the Outstanding Player Award to Holzrichter (13-1).
Prior to the National's, Billy, now U.S. #5, had other successes. He won the Chicago District, the St. Joe Valley, the Ohio Open, the Illinois State, and the ("all proceeds to the Red Cross") Chicago North Town War Relief tournament. He lost only the Omaha Western's to Price in 5.
Then he was off hopefully to win his first National Championship. The "Chrysler Tank Arsenal, the new huge Ford Bomber plant, the Hudson Naval Arsenal"--these were all in Detroit; where in the patriotic spirit of friendly competition, the '42 U.S. National's, four months after Pearl Harbor, would be played, specifically in "The Arsenal of Democracy" in the General Motors Building.
In the Singles, Billy again lost in the quarter's in 5--this time to Pinner, who had a good defense and a potent forehand. Eddie would lose in the semi's to Burns, who in turn would lose to Pagliaro. But Pinner and Cy Sussman would successfully defend their Doubles title, while Holzrichter and partner Bill Ablin (since Anderson was on Tour with Coleman Clark) were beaten in the quarter's. In the Mixed, however, paired with Leah Thall, Billy captured his first National Championship--deuce in the 5th over Women's Singles finalist and Doubles winner Mae Clouther and her partner Les Lowry ("as graceful as the best ballet dancer").
Because of Holzrichter's great tournament season--he said he won 19 out of 21 tournaments he entered--he was ranked U.S. #2 behind Pagliaro, the automatic #1 as National Champion. Billy was also #2 behind Paggy in the Hammond Cup race (where points were awarded based on the importance of the tournaments one entered and how one did in them).
At the beginning of the '42-'43 season, Holzrichter won the Illinois Membership tournament over Ablin, but lost a later Chicago District Closed to the visiting Harry Cook who, with Cartland, was on Tour and permitted to play in this Closed only by joining the Illinois TTA. It was one of those matches where Billy, up 2-1 and with a lead in the 4th, became "a little overconfident and was missing the corners," and so perhaps lost patience. Topics said "Cook did not hit a ball throughout the match" and that "his defense was marvelous."
In Oct. of '42 Billy had enlisted in the Naval Reserve and had gone, like McClure before him, to the Great Lakes, Illinois Naval Training Station. Still conveniently able to play in a number of tournaments, he defeated Kreer in the Feb., '43 Cook County Closed, and the following week, "Holzrichter, U.S. Navy, now streamlined" (Billy would later, on regaining his normal 200-pounds playing weight, say he always regretted someone not forcing him to take off, and keep off, 25 pounds), he won the Toledo Western's over Allan Levy, still a Junior. Then in two weeks, just before the National's, he followed with an easy victory over John Varga in the Illinois Open.
Because of his "work in a defense plant," Pagliaro, who'd won the last three Championships, couldn't defend his title at the Mar. 26-28, '43 St. Louis National's, and other very good players now in Service--McClure, Pinner, Sussman, Johnny Somael, Hendry, and Anderson--couldn't attend either. However, Petty Officer Holzrichter would find the competition from the quarter's on classy enough and their results far from inconsequential: Bellak beat Lowry, and Burns beat Miles, both deuce in the 4th, and Hazi downed Levy in 5, then rallied from 2-0 down to keep Burns from advancing to his second straight U.S. Open final.
Billy himself, however, was never really threatened as he went through Price, Laszlo "Laci" Bellak, and Bellak's winning Doubles partner, Hazi, dropping only one game in the final to Tibor. Billy said as long as he could keep control of the play against Bellak, get him on defense, Laci was in trouble. The same with Hazi, whose backhand (hopping topspin or flat hit) was as good as his forehand....What's this? Still another match to be played? Young Levy--he's not yet out of the Junior's--comes up, says to Champ Billy, "Let's play for a couple of hundred, O.K.?"
Allowances, you've got to make them, Holzrichter maybe thought. Kid wants to try to take away the satisfying moment? Make that two satisfying moments, for Billy and Leah Thall had earlier repeated their Mixed Doubles win--over Bellak and t.t. prodigy Helene "Tiny" Moss in the semi's and Hazi and Clouther in 4 in the final.
Yes, it was a very good tournament for Billy--one to savor for a while.
The same Midwest tournaments were being offered in the '43-'44 season as before, but U.S. Champion Holzrichter didn't get to bask under their table lights. No sign of Billy in Topics until the season-ending '44 St. Louis National's. By this time he was in Aviation Radar School in Corpus Christi, Texas where he'd shortly be part of a B-24 squadron crew seeing action overseas.
For the moment, though, out of practice as he was (or say, rather, he wasn't "tournament tough," for he seldom practiced), he'd still court quite a bit of action in St. Louis. In the Singles, he lost his Championship to Somael in 5 in the quarter's. (This is the U.S. Open Somael would go to win--from Lowry, after being down 20-14 in the 5th). The Mixed with Leah? Holzrichter lost that Championship, too, 26-24 in the 5th in the semi's, to Lowry and perennial Women's Champ Sally Green, when, down match point, Billy juiced a chop return low over the net...and Sally pulverized it past an astonished Leah. "Give her 10 more tries and she couldn't do it again," said Billy. "It was the shot of the match."
Levy wanted to bet? Better not. Al was in the Men's Doubles final with his St. Louis partner Mel Nichols, but facing them was Holzrichter...and Bellak. "Laci was a fabulous doubles player," said Billy. "He could receive with his backhand and shove the ball all over the place." Final score: Holzrichter/Bellak: 12, 10, 18.
Until the War was over, that was his final match, said Billy (who was somehow ranked U.S. #3 for the season, though playing so little).
In the same Mar., '45 issue of Topics in which "Detroit invites you to the fifteenth United States Open Table Tennis Championship," there was an excerpt from a letter written by Holzrichter, courtesy of Will Schnur of P. Becker & Co (the players would be using the Becker Wembley ball in Detroit) that said in part:
"I'm living [in the Philippines] five men in a tent with a raised wooden floor and electric lights. We have open air showers. The grub isn't bad either, but incomplete....I was just made a Seaman 1/c in December and feel quite good about it. It also means more $$ and that's not hard to take. I'm feeling fine and that's all a guy can ask for out here....Enclosed find my money for renewal of membership for 45-46-47...."
Some months later in '45, Billy's in Hawaii playing and winning a friendly match, Davis Cup-style, with tennis star Bobby Riggs ("a soft, defensive game") against Hawaiian Open winner Cy Sussman and Indiana's Joe Kolady. This, I gather, is after the Japanese surrender.
But during his stay in the Pacific Holzrichter's seen action in the Mariana Islands--in Tinian and Saipan--and has experienced his B-24 being shot down in a belly flop, then being rescued and flown back to Manila. Later he was discharged from the Navy, just in time to play, not in the Jan., '46 Philippine Army Championships in Saipan (won by Lowry and Lowry's team managed by Bobby's brother, John Riggs), but in the Feb., '46 Central States Open in Chicago. There Billy defeated old foe Price in 5 in the semi's and old friend Anderson in straight games in the final. Then, two weeks before the late-Mar. New York St. Nicholas Arena National's, he won the Wisconsin Open over Kreer."I just had natural strokes," he said. "It didn't take me long to come back."
Nor McClure either, who was pictured on the Jan., '46 cover of Topics, in sailor cap and with Honolulu discharge papers in hand. "What a live wire Jimmy was," said Billy. "He could tell jokes all day long." No joke, though, that Jimmy beat Billy in the 8th's at that St. Nick Arena, or that Schiff and Peggy McLean stopped Holzrichter and Leah Thall from winning their third Mixed Doubles title.
Billy had paid his $2 to the USTTA (McClure too) to be a registered Exhibition player, but Price--he'd been one of Coleman Clark's varied Tour partners in Cokey's now 10-year fabulous stage career--had not. In the fall of '44 he'd written to Clark:
"...I was hit by a fragment of a German 120 mm mortar shell, the fragment lodging in my right ankle where it is going to stay. An operation to remove it would endanger the tendon so we're letting well enough alone. I don't know if I'll go back in show business or not, a lot depends on how my ankle reacts."
Let well enough alone, indeed. Price not only won the '46 Western's, which Holzrichter did not play in, but--as if to enforce the fact that at season's end Price would be U.S. #6, Holzrichter # 7--he beat Billy, 19 in the 4th, in the post-National's Chicago Cook County Closed. Actually, returning serviceman after serviceman seemed to be quickly getting his game back--Allan Levy, for example, "playing in his initial tourney since returning from service in the Merchant Marine," defeated Price in 5 to win the Missouri State title.
Holzrichter started the '46-47 season in normal fashion, winning the summer's Western States over Eddie Ray and the fall's Illinois Membership over Bob Anderson. Since the U.S. would be sending a Team to the Feb., '47 Paris World Championships (the first for the U.S. since Wembley in '38 and the first for the ITTF since Cairo in '39), the Men's Intercities (they hadn't been held since 1941) and the Women's East-West matches were of prime importance, for they would greatly influence the selection of that Team.
At the Nov. 30-Dec. 1 Detroit Intercities, Chicago, Captained by Jim Shrout, was able to get by Boston 5-4...though Lowry, back now from the ETO and the Pacific and a Boston University student, won his three--over Holzrichter (the only match Billy lost), Billy Condy, and Dan Kreer, who was also beaten by Frank Dwelly. That squeaked-out win, however, gave them only second place.
The Champions, as expected, were the New Yorkers--though Chicago put up quite a 5-3 fight. Holzrichter had straight game wins over Schiff and Somael, who also lost to Anderson. Astonishingly, then, penholder Condy, who at 16 had been runner-up to McClure in the 1934 and last American Ping-Pong Association National's, and who, after coming out of the Air Force as a major--he flew "fifty missions in B-17's from Eighth Air Force in England and 12th Air Force from North Africa"--was at deuce in the 3rd with National Champion Miles before losing. How could Condy, who would soon take over as President of the Illinois TTA, play so well? "Billy had a terrific forehand," said Holzrichter. "When he got hot, he got unconscious." Primarily for this great match Condy won the Outstanding Player Award.
Making the U.S. Team to the '47 World's then were (for the men) Miles and Pagliaro, both undefeated in Detroit, Schiff, who'd lost only to Holzrichter, and Holzrichter, who'd lost only to Lowry; and (for the women) Leah Thall, Davida Hawthorn, and (paying their own expenses) Reba Kirson Monness and Mae Clouther. Carl Nidy, former President of the USTTA, who'd headed the "Fighting Fund" drive for this Team, was named non-playing Captain.
After a rather rough crossing on the S.S. America which didn't allow for much practicing, the U.S. Team won warm-up matches against the English in Liverpool and London. Ron Craydon, writing in the official English magazine Table Tennis, had this to say on first seeing Holzrichter:
"By contrast, Bill Holzrichter is a carthorse where Miles is a racehorse. Bulky and genial, and employing a repertoire of Bob Hope facial expressions to cover the little eventualities of the game. This courtly squire of the table will amuse and delight many, and surprise a few, but never win a key tournament."
In Swaythling Cup play in Paris, the co-favorites easily prevailed. Czechoslovakia (with its great pre-War World Champion Bo Vana) won the 8-team Group A without losing a match; the U.S. won the 9-team Group B, losing some random matches along the way. Our 5-2 loss in the final, however, was a big disappointment--particularly since Miles, one of the favorites to win the Singles, lost all three of his matches. Holzrichter didn't play this final, in which Pagliaro beat Andreadis and Schiff beat Tereba, but he agreed that the conditions were deplorable. It was very cold in the playing hall ("many of the players donned heavy sweaters or scarves") and the freshly-painted tables quickly turned the ball so green you had difficulty in the poor lighting seeing it. Miles not only had a head cold but head problems. "It was sad watching him play and lose," said Billy, "because he was so much better than what he showed."
In the Singles, Miles lost, 3-0, in the second round to Johnny Leach, who went on to reach the semi's before losing to the eventual Champion Vana. Richard Bergmann did not defend his Singles title here but, in leaflets distributed in six languages, issued a 500-pound challenge to anyone fool enough to play him (and be suspended from his Association for gambling). He said that Miles couldn't be judged yet on just this first appearance at a world-class tournament, because, for one reason, "Cold stadiums like Wembley or [this venue] the Palais des Sports in Paris affect both the players' muscles and the flight and resiliency of the ball."
Schiff, one of the favorites to win the title in '37 and '38, also lost in the second round--in 5 to the massive Hungarian Ferenc Sido, who'd go on to meet Pagliaro in the semi's.
Louie had a succession of good wins that propelled him as far as any American male has ever gotten in the World's. First he beat Barna in 5, then in the 8th's the formidable Frenchman Guy Amouretti in 4, then the wily "Alex" Ehrlich, 3-time World finalist before the War who'd later survive five concentration-camp years at Dachau (the 9-4 first of their three games being played under the ITTF 20-minutes-per-game time rule). But, though he was up 20-16 in the 4th, Paggy could not force a final 5th game from the determined finalist Sido.
Holzrichter won his three opening matches--two against the English veterans Eric Filby and Adrian Haydon (nearly 20 years earlier a World Singles semifinalist and now father of future Wimbledon Champ Ann Haydon Jones), and the third against France's Maurice Bordrez. But then he was stopped in 4 by Hungary's Ferenc Soos who a decade ago had given our winning '37 Swaythling Cup Team serious problems, and who'd been touted recently by fellow countryman Ervin Brody as a stronger player than Sido. Indeed, in the final of the 1950 World's, Soos would be leading Bergmann 2-0 before succumbing. No matter, in '47 Vana, "small, fast and wiry with an explosive forehand," beat the best Hungary had to offer. "That Czech--with the hop he had on the ball, he would have been a good sponge player, a good looper," Billy said years later.
In the Men's Doubles, Holzrichter and Schiff took Sido and Soos to 5 but couldn't win, and Miles and Paggy went down docilely in 4 to runner-ups Leach and his mentor/coach Jack Carrington. The Women's Doubles was a surprise for the U.S., though--for Monness and Clouther, upsetting a Czech pair, got all the way to the final before losing to Austria's Trude Pritzi, '38 World Champion and Hungary's Gizi Farkas, just beginning her 7-year stint as 3-time World Champion and 4-time runner-up to Romania's Angelica Rozeanu.
In the Mixed, Schiff and Thall were cut down by Otto Eckl and Pritzi, but Holzrichter and Hawthorn, beating the very experienced English team of Haydon and Margaret Osborne, made the semi's before losing to Czech doubles specialists Adolph Slar and Vlasta Depetrisova.
So, all in all, a pretty good World's for 25-year-old Billy.
Now back over the high seas to the Windy City U.S. Open. Here in the quarter's Holzrichter took 22, 20, 19 revenge on McClure who'd knocked him out of the National's last year. Then in the semi's against Schiff, Billy, in control of the match, was the victim of a freak occurrence. Coming in for a shot, his racket caught the table edge, shearing off the rubber. A 5-minute recess was called while a player helped out with some fast-drying glue. However, said Billy, "after that, the racket wasn't the same, and when I had to serve I just had no feeling with it, and lost the match. Maybe I just psyched myself out."
Perhaps the lack of a back-up racket reminded Billy, U.S. #4, he'd better help mind the store--the one that sold the Leyland rubber rackets, the Gus and Bill Holzrichter Pro Sport Shop on Cicero. In fact, wasn't it time to expand? How about a Shop on Devon?
Next season Billy continued winning on weekends--the Oct. Illinois Membership over former Boys' Champ Gordon Barclay, the Dec. Lake State's over Jimmy Shrout, the Jan. St. Joe Valley over Anderson, and the Mar. Chicago District over Don Lasater. But though at the Intercities he gave the fast-rising U.S. Junior and Canadian National Exhibition Champion Marty Reisman his only loss, Billy's own record was not significantly good enough to allow him to be picked for the '48 U.S. World Team.
However, Billy did go to the Apr., '48 Columbus National's. This is the one where Miles beat 18-year-old Reisman in the final, deuce in the 5th. And where Reisman was down 2-1 in the quarter's to Holzrichter. "Marty had a terrific forehand," said Billy. "At the last second he broke his wrist, snapped the ball, and it really came at you hard. He hadn't a killer backhand, but it was good enough"--which reminds me of the line Bellak always liked: "Bergmann hadn't much of a backhand, but I never saw him miss one." Reisman had muscles? Billy remembers that for some reason a waitress was feeling Marty's flexed arm when, even then quick to quip, he said with a grin, "And that's not my best muscle."
In the 54-team Men's Doubles, Holzrichter and his long-time partner Anderson, down 2-0 to Schiff and Pinner in the quarter's, fought back to win the 3rd at 19, but lost the 4th from 26-all.
Billy's ranking for his somewhat abbreviated season? U.S. #8.
Another Oct. Illinois Membership tourney--and, after escaping Ralph Bast in the semi's in 5 (down 2-0), another win for Billy over Don Lasater. In more Midwest play, Billy won the Dec. Lake State over Nash, and two Jan. tournaments--the St. Joe Valley over the authoritarian South Bend Y coach Varga ("When John served, he'd curl up his lip and scowl") and the Central Open over Varga's protege Barclay, for which Billy received a 17-jewel gold watch. But he lost the Illinois Open to the visiting Pagliaro and the Wisconsin Open to the invariably hot or cold Webb. Also at the Intercities his Chicago Team dropped ties to both New York and St. Louis. But that was alright, and alright, too, that Billy--still #4 for the year--didn't play in the Western's or the National's (all-white playing outfit mandatory), because a Holzrichter Sport Shop was opening on Grand.
The '49-50 season--a memorable one for Billy (in 1950 he was also to meet his future wife, Toni, at a YMCA roof-garden dance)--opened with news that England, Korea, and Japan would be sending players to the 1950 St. Louis National's, including World Champion Johnny Leach, the Korean #1, Keun-Hang Choi, and Japan's best, Norikazu Fujii, who, later, in '52 would be World Doubles Champion. Just in case some readers might think that in '52 Japan came from out of nowhere to dominate the table tennis world, here was the hype on them in Topics in the spring of '50:
"...we [officials in the USTTA] do receive copies of the Japanese table tennis magazine and are amazed at their organization. The tournaments are tremendous in size and spectators turn out by the thousands; their clubs are large and well kept, and judging from the pictures, playing conditions are excellent."
Holzrichter himself opened the season with an expected win in the Lake State's--over Levy in the semi's and Price in the final. And Billy and brother Gus opened a table tennis club behind their Devon store (which much to Gus's disgust he would close, for it would not be supported by the players--their cheapness extending to not buying a soda in the place because they could save 5 cents by going elsewhere).
Hooray! Chicago finally won an Intercities--or, call it by its new name, the National Team Championships (NTC's). Though New York--with Miles, Reisman, and Cartland suspended--fielded an uncharacteristically weak Team that was never a factor, Holzrichter, Levy, and Bast were faced not only with a 5-3 challenge by the Burns-led Detroit Team, but very nearly lost their 5-4 tie with St. Louis. Holzrichter, in winning the Outstanding Player Award, beat Price, Hendry, and U.S. Junior Champion Wally Gundlach--but had Levy, down 1-0 and 20-19 in the 2nd to Gundlach, not rallied to win, Chicago would have lost the Championship, the first one they'd won since 1934.
Though a U.S. Team could not be sent through the Iron Curtain drop to the 1950 Budapest World's, U.S. players, through the determined efforts of Captain Jimmy McClure, would be flying to Europe, courtesy of the U.S. Army in exchange for exhibitions in some of our Service Camps over there, and so be able to play in a pre-World's Jan. tournament in Vienna and then in the post-World's English Open, the world's second most prestigious tournament. Holzrichter, McClure, and the two top U.S. Juniors, Gundlach and Barclay, along with Monness, Clouther, and Mildred Shahian made up our Team.
In Vienna, Holzrichter lost to Austria's Heribert Just, '48 World quarterfinalist, but beat Bergmann just before he was to win the World Championships for the fourth time. Billy said he won most of his points because he was able to control the play--he'd repeatedly draw Richard in close where he liked to block, then attack his backhand. "Bergmann," said Billy, "had the kind of game I loved to play against."
However, before Holzrichter had a chance to play in the English Open, Topics reported that he'd received word that his brother Gus was in the hospital and that regarding their Sports Shop business there was lease trouble, so of course he had to quickly leave the Team and come home. Which means he didn't get to see how McClure, before losing to France's Michel Haguenauer, "punched holes in Leach's defence," or how Gundlach took a game from World Champion Bergmann, or how Mildred Shahian won the Women's over England's Diane Rowe in the semi's and teammate Reba Monness in the final--that same Reba, "of the leopard skin slacks and tartan breeks," who " braided her raven-black hair into two plaits which often seemed in danger of being chopped off by her bat as the pace quickened").
Back home for the Mar. 31-Apr. 2, '50 St. Louis National's, U.S. players looked forward to testing World Champion Johnny Leach and his World runner-up Doubles partner Jack Carrington, whose new book, Modern Table Tennis, had just come out. The Japanese, like the English, had planned a U.S. Tour that included the U.S. Open, but a last-minute lack of finances prevented them from showing. The Korean Choi arrived, was beaten by Bast in the 3rd round, and soon would be stranded in the States, experiencing the nightmare loss "of his mother, father, brother, and two-year-old child" when spring skirmishes along the 38th Parallel turned into War and Seoul quickly fell to Northern invaders.
On beating Varga, Gundlach, and Price, Holzrichter reached the final of the Singles. There he wasn't sure whom he'd meet, for in the semi's McClure again seemed to have Leach's number--had just won the second at deuce to go 2-0 up. Topics Editor Price said he'd heard that Carrington had told Leach at the start of the 3rd to "keep his defense a little shorter," and that McClure, after he'd lost that 3rd game, said his hitting arm "felt like a damp rag." Carrington himself would later write, "[In the 3rd,] Johnny pulled back those sudden passing hits to the wide backhand," then in the 4th "held on when McClure had match point at 21-20," and won the match that would give him the title.
Holzrichter of course was hoping that Jimmy would win. Still, in an Exhibition in England against Leach, after they'd agreed to split the first two games, then play the third for real, Billy had won. But in the 11, 18, 20 final here in St. Louis, umpired by the well-known Chuck Medick, blind since infancy, Billy had to say, "I just didn't play my best against Leach." And, reminiscing, would add, "Of all the matches I've played, this was the most disappointing." Should he have gotten into an Expedite Match as he did with Price in the semi's? "No," said Billy, who on strategically relinquishing some of the offense was up 20-18 in the 3rd, "Leach's ball was always hittable."
Holzrichter could not only hit from both wings, he had a good defense too--one that Leach, if allowed to attack, couldn't get through. Here's Bill Price commenting on Billy's "tricky" returns: "First a heavily chopped ball will come over the net, then when it is driven back to Billy his return will look almost the same as his last one. However, this ball may have little or no spin on it, and if it's not watched closely can cause your next drive to go up into the balcony."
Another disappointment for Billy in the Men's Doubles final in that he and Levy were beaten so convincingly by Leach and Carrington. Leach also won the Mixed with Sally Green Prouty, "fragile, high-stepping beauty," who "rests from singles now, on doctor's orders." And speaking of doctor's orders in 1950, Topics columnist Helene Cinnater, USTTA President Elmer Cinnater's wife, couldn't help but point out that "The Tobacco Co's ought to give dividends to the USTTA during these Nat'ls. Everyone smokes so much (cigarettes, I mean) they almost eat them!"
Another August, another Chicago tournament, another Holzrichter (now U.S. #1 again) victory. This time he beat Levy in 5 in the semi's, then Jim Tancill in 4 in the final, after the U.S. Junior Champion had knocked out Jimmy Shrout in the semi's. Shrout, who next season would become the USTTA President, had been a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and now ran his own advertising business. One of Billy's favorite stories had as its setting not a table tennis court but a country-club golf course--Medina, in Chicago, where Shrout was a member.
Levy, dressed as usual quite dapperly, had a four-stroke lead on Holzrichter at the turn, but as the course was difficult, Billy accepted a bet that he could still beat Al. As Holzrichter tells it, "The 17th was key--a 167-yard peninsula hole, water all around. I hit a shot two feet from the stick. It wasn't clear from the tee whether Al put his ball into the water, so he hit a provisional...in fact, three provisionals, all water-bound.
On coming up to the green, Al asks a kid nearby if he'd seen Al's first ball. And...a lucky break, there it was, partially submerged, but the top of it visible and so playable. Al gamely takes off his shoes and socks, rolls up his still finely-creased slacks, and blasts out beautifully three feet from the pin. A remarkable shot. And remarkable, too, Al's appearance. He was covered with rotten leaves--quite a comic sight, for he was always so impeccably attired. On coming up to the green and looking over our putts, I asked Al what ball he was playing. Oh, oh! A sick look came over his face. It wasn't his ball! A turn of events that caused Shrout, playing with us, to go into paroxysms of laughter. I must have ended up beating Allan by 10 strokes that day."
Chicago was a repeat Champion at the '50 National Team's, for New York's celebrated '49 English Open Champion Reisman couldn't score a single win. In fact, he couldn't even get to Columbus with Cartland and Somael because he was stranded in a blizzard outside Pittsburgh. Actually, the two-man New York Team, though always having to give every team a 3-0 spot, still almost won the event. Doug, perhaps "the most compact of all the good hitters," went through all 11 of his opponents, including, in the final tie, the entire Chicago team. Though Holzrichter had won the Central Open from Cartland just three weeks before, he had to confess that "Doug was one of the few players to keep me in the hole. Usually I couldn't take the offense from him." But Somael, always tenacious, after outlasting Kreer 20, -21, 21, couldn't win a tiring 3rd against either Levy or Holzrichter.
After taking his usual share of other Midwest tournaments--the St. Joe over Bill Meszaros, the Illinois Open over Kreer, and the Ohio Open over Levy--Billy arrived in St. Louis, knowing that--with the reinstatement of Miles (Billy had lost to him in the Wisconsin Open), Reisman, and Cartland (Doug had just beaten Vana in Swaythling Cup play at the World's)--getting to this year's final would be far more difficult than it was last year.
And, sure, enough, there in the '51 final were Miles and Reisman--with Marty 2-0 up on Dick...and 16-9 up in the 5th, only to lose it at 18. Semifinalists were Cartland, who, though falling to Reisman in 5, would win the Mixed with Leah Neuberger over Miles and Sally Green Prouty in 5, and the aging Hazi, who, though now playing in, and winning, the Senior's, was still able to beat Holzrichter in 4.
A bright spot for Billy, though--for in the final of the Men's Doubles, he and Reisman came from 2-1 down to defeat Miles and Cartland. "I always got along well with the New York players," Billy would say later. "I didn't have any financial dealings with them."
Not much early play for Holzrichter this upcoming '51-'52 season. He won the Jan. St. Joe Valley over Meszaros, and, closely following that, the Illinois Open over Price, now an Over 35 Senior, but still playing well enough to win the Western's, which, like the NTC's, Billy didn't enter.
At Sanford Gross's '52 Cleveland National's, which featured the most "lavish display of trophies and awards" ever seen in such competition, including a Sportsmanship Award to 12-year-old Erwin Klein of Los Angeles, Holzrichter was involved in some mighty matches.
In the quarter's, he met Johnny Somael, still a U.S. Top Five player, though it had been eight years since he was National Champion. In a March letter to Topics, Pauline Robinson, U.S. #6, who was later to marry Somael, emphasized that Johnny was never a purely defensive player, and, though his backhand flick wasn't as good as it used to be, he could still mount an attack. Holzrichter, U.S. #4, had to rally to beat him in 5.
That brought Billy to Miles--and if his most disappointing career loss was to Leach, this match with Dick had to rank a close second. Winning the first two games easily at 13 and 15, he chose to hit Dick's stiffest chop, for paradoxically it was that ball he could best keep on the table. But then Miles started taking off the heavy spin and Billy became tenuous, thinking that if he got the Expedite Rule in, he'd have an even better chance of winning for he could hit better than Miles. A bad mistake--for the Rule did get in but Dick won the next three games, 17, 16, 11. "I beat myself," Billy admitted. (Miles then lost the Expedited final in 5 to his old mentor Pagliaro.)
In the Doubles, Holzrichter paired with a newcomer to the States, Bernard Bukiet, originally from Poland but, after serving time in a concentration camp and then being wounded in the War, a displaced person who'd emigrated from Germany. Although Bernie had considered himself the best player in Germany, he felt rootless and without any identity on just arriving here and lost in the Singles to U.S. #10 George Ferris back in the 16th's. But in the Doubles he and Billy put up a (18, -13, -19, 20, -12) great, though losing, fight against Pagliaro and Somael in the quarter's. Bukiet, about to be based in Chicago, would become Holzrichter's #1 rival in the Midwest and, though already in his early 30's, would have an astonishing Championship career for the next 20 years.
Beginning with the '52-'53 season, Holzrichter's now relatively fewer appearances at tournaments seemed to suggest that his playing days (like the hard bat he was using) were numbered. Still, at the '52 NTC's, where New York prevailed over Chicago, he had a 10-2 record, losing to Somael (whose game's improved--Holzrichter take note--since he's lost 25 pounds) and Pinner (who, along with U.S. #7 Harry Hirschkowitz among others, was upset by the demoralizing "Sponge Man," Dr. Richard Puls, heretofore unranked).
At the '53 St. Joe Valley, perennial winner Holzrichter could not hold a 2-0 lead in the final against Bukiet, but Billy did team with Meszaros to win the Doubles from Bukiet and Levy in 4.
Holzrichter did not attend the Kansas City National's to see Miles beat Somael, and so, except for the 44-45 season in which he was in the Philippines, for the first time since his initial ranking in 1939 he was not in the U.S. Top Ten, had to be given Insufficient Data. Surely it was just a question of time until he retired.
Remarkably, though, he had one more super year left--and still another U.S. Championship to win.
Holzrichter began the '53-54 season at the Illinois Open with a (-17, 19, -18, 20, 16) comeback against the favored Bukiet. Then, when his great play at the NTC's helped Chicago win the title, Billy again received the Outstanding Player Award. His perfect 13-0 record included wins over New Yorkers Gusikoff (the National Junior Champion), Hirschkowitz, and Somael.
Though at the St. Joe Valley in South Bend perennial winner Holzrichter was shocked by his 5-game loss in the quarter's to U.S. #24 and U.S. #2 Junior Dave Krizman, he rebounded well at the Western's--avoided another upset by 28-26 in the 5th just getting by former Minnesota TTA President Harry Lund, and so reached the final, where he extended U.S. Team member Bukiet to 5.
At the '54 Cleveland National's, five weeks after that marathon match with Lund at the Chicago Western's, Billy played him again--beat him 7, 6, 15! Uh, Harry'd staggered out to the court after an all-night poker game? In the quarter's he knocked out Schiff in 4--but Sol, a Doubles specialist in a decades-old continuum all his own, would go on to win the Mixed again with Sally Prouty. Once more then Holzrichter was faced with Miles in the semi's, but on losing the first game at 19 could not contest the match. Billy's last ranking? U.S. #3.
End of story? Not quite. More and more Billy wanted to be at another table now. No, no, he liked to eat alright, but he held pretty much to his playing weight. He also took up bridge...in earnest, and in later years years enjoyed playing tournament bridge, Duplicate (so-called because competing pairs play the same hands).
For old time's sake he occasionally returned to several South Bend St. Joe Valley tournaments. In 1956 he lost in the semi's in 5 to 14-year-old sensation Norbert Van de Walle ('56 U.S. Boys' Champion and runner-up in the Junior's to superstar U.S. #1 Erwin Klein). In 1958 he lost to Hungarian emigrant Emory Lippai in the quarter's, deuce in the 5th. Also in 1958, since the NTC's were in Chicago, he played, and finished with a 10-2 record, 3rd best of all the players. It really was difficult for him to give up the Game, especially locally when with so little practice he could still play so well, that even as late as Feb., 1960 he turned up for the Illinois Closed, where he lost in the final in 4 to Steve Isaacson.
But let's best remember Billy from his last National's in South Bend in 1957. Here he was beaten by Reisman in the 8th's in 4....Only, what? '57 U.S. Team member Van de Walle wants to play Doubles with him? "Norbie," says Bill, "I don't want to hurt your chances. You know I haven't been playing." But Vandy thinks Bill is the best partner he can find. In the quarter's they're scheduled to play Burns and Hazi. But where are Burns and Hazi? Who knows? They're an hour late for the match. But, no, don't default them, says Billy. He doesn't want to hurt their chances either...does he? He and Norbie get by them 18 in the 4th. Now in the semi's, against the one-armed, strong-minded Monasterial and Reisman--'57 U.S. Team members both--Billy and Vandy are down 2-0 and at deuce in the 3rd...but win in 5. Then after Hungarian emigrants Tibor Back and Andreas Gal eliminate the favorites, Bukiet and Klein, they too fall victim in the final to Holzrichter and Van de Walle. Perhaps--though Billy will have one more St. Joe Valley Doubles win with Vandy--the last U.S. Championship was the Grand Slam sweetest?
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