Spreading the Gospel

After Eastern domination through the 1920s, volleyball finally got on the move. The sport’s power base shifted to the Midwest and Texas before landing in Southern California after World War II.

UPI/Bettmann
A volleyball and net were part of regular issue in World War II. Thousands of soldiers picked up the game during the war, and many of them eventually settled in California.

“City of big shoulders.” Chicago. Carl Sandburg’s famous paean to the Midwestern metropolis gave an apt description of the booming city. In 1929, big business and magnificent architecture presented America with a city to do battle with New York and still maintain a Midwestern hospitality and friendliness. That same year in Chicago showed the underbelly of city life as well: A gangster from Brooklyn with a large razor scar on his cheek had spent years erecting an empire based on illegal booze, which reportedly was making him $20 million a year. When that salary was threatened in 1929, Al Capone arranged for some of his henchmen to dress up as cops and waste seven of his competitors in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The Roaring ‘20s was as frothy as the illegal beer found in the speakeasies. The nation was now a world power; a new white collar class had rejected pre-war values; flappers not only voted but danced at bathtub-gin parties. A certain new music was wild and suspect, and Chicago was the first city where jazz took hold; “King” Joe Oliver, soon followed by Louis Armstrong, brought the sound up from New Orleans. To counter the pleasure-seeking impulses of the generation, Billy Sunday, a former Chicago White Stocking baseball pro, preached with such fervor that he used acrobatics on stage to reach thousands of sinners.

But if evangelists were trying to win converts in America in the late ‘20s, so were sports. In 1927, volleyball saw its first YMCA National Championship team that wasn’t from the East Coast—Hyde Park YMCA of Chicago. The first USVBA nationals held in 1928 returned preeminence to the East Coast and the Germantown Y of Philadelphia. It didn’t last long. The following year, Hyde Park Y captured the USVBA title against another Chicago team: Division Street Y. Chicago, by then, had the largest playing base in the nation, surpassing even Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In the early ‘20s, a successful businessman, Charles Robbins, moved from Buffalo to Chicago for health reasons. He immediately got involved with volleyball at Hyde Park and helped build the program into a national power. Under the great setting of Jake Rashkin and spiking of Andy Anderson, the Hyde Park six pleased its resident fans by taking the title from its crosstown rival in 1929. That year’s victory was no fluke. In 1930, Hyde Park won it again.

By 1930, the sport had extended all the way to the other coast. There, as everywhere, the indoor game was almost exclusively limited to YMCAs. Yet during the same era, it was seen that the minimal space requirement and lack of equipment made for a good outdoor recreational game. Parks and some school playgrounds fostered play, however unexciting the brand. In Los Angeles, the private beach clubs continued to host six-man competitions on weekends, but for those hardcore players who preferred exercise to lazing in the sun during the week, there was an ongoing problem: not enough players. After a few summers of hoping guys would come down for lunch or after work, one day in 1930, Paul Johnson and three cronies got tired of waiting. “Come on,” entreated Johnson. “Let’s play.”

“Play what?” The other three sat incredulously in their rattan beach chairs. In fact, four-man games had occasionally been tried, but two against two? Johnson, being the tallest, took the shortest of the three—a trio of short setters, he remembers. “I was the only one who could hit.” After using only one-quarter of the court, they saw that Johnson with his height and hitting had an insurmountable advantage. Since they were reduced to shooting the ball, it was decided to try half the court. The little guys fared better with more area, but still … so they went full court. Finally, the setters’ speed and ball-handling skills were able to neutralize Johnson’s spiking. They were sweating profusely as well. “Hey, this is great.”

Soon, the game spread to nearby clubs—rules and style of play evolved. The net was set at 7’10” to compensate for the soft sand. Serves were taken overhand as in the gym, and although a few guys like Johnson attacked the ball from time to time, the third hit was normally a shoot to any open spot. The shoot could be placed without facing the direction of the set and loosely handled. The guys on the other side were allowed to do almost anything to keep it alive—take it overhand, use one arm digs or “scoop” the ball with two open hands.

But if you wanted to play this new beach game early on, it was imperative that you had bucks or at least came from a family with them. Nevertheless, there were a few scattered public beaches that got wind of the new activity, and by the early ‘30s a couple of nets were strung up. One was at the famous Santa Monica Pier where a 13-year-old kid showed up in 1935 through happenstance to see a six-man game going on. Following his older brother, Bernie Holtzman had hopped on the Red Car for a nickel at his Hollywood home and got disgorged, like all the other riders, at the Santa Monica Playground. A lot of activity was going on, but what caught the teenager’s fascination was this funny game. Small for his age and scrawny, he had to wait a whole year before someone took pity on him—they were also short a player—and asked him to play.

That same year, a few miles south at Sunset Pier in Venice, a 5’6” young man of 21 years was watching a new game that included a couple of girls. One of them asked Manny Saenz if he would like to play. Saenz was already an accomplished athlete from a Culver City family of distinguished sportsmen. But this was different. A beautiful young woman was something few young men would snub, but to be asked to join in play was doubly pleasing. He accepted. Soon he was playing at Venice’s main beach where he hooked up with former UCLA basketball player, Al Harris, and their reputation eventually got them invited into the private Deauville Club where the best indoor players competed. They also migrated north to the public State Beach, which had developed the most intense game around—spiking included. Saenz and Harris came to rule the infant beach sport before World War II. After the war, the older Saenz would hook up with Holtzman to form history’s first great beach doubles team.

Californians quickly took to that peculiar duo-version of volleyball. Serious players brushed off the day’s sand and put on shoes for night sessions at the local Y. A handful of teams evolved that were “capable of placing among the first 10 in national tournament play (except) due to the fact that meets usually have been held at cities some 3,000 miles distant,” according to the 1938-39 USVBA Guide. Regardless, the regional competition out on the West Coast would surpass even that of Chicago by 1940. Excellent teams formed at the Pasadena Y, Long Beach Y, Hollywood Y, Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC), and the San Diego Athletic Club.

But surprisingly, the decade of the 1930s belonged to the Lone Star State and to the player officially recognized as the greatest in the sport’s first 50 years: Jimmy Wortham. In 1931 and 1932, the San Antonio Y put its brand on the sport, but its heroic herd was soon rustled away by the Houston YMCA, behind the same lead steer, Jimmy Wortham. Other than the ’37 Nationals when Wortham went down with a severe belly ache, Houston won every national title between 1933 and 1939. Houston became a hotbed for the sport; the city also provided the first company-sponsored team to ever enter the Nationals—a phenomenon that wouldn’t recur for many years. And it was an unusual company. A successful tool manufacturer that had been handed down to the founder’s 18-year-old son, Howard Hughes. Hughes Tool was a top finisher in the Nationals throughout the decade. The company itself, and its president, would fare even better in their fortunes. Additionally, the dominance of the Houston teams even sparked a strong interest in local women’s competition.

But women playing volleyball in the era was largely an anomaly. To be sure, the iconoclast Pop Idell had organized not only six-women competition in the late ‘20s but Ladies’ Doubles as well at his Germantown YMCA in Philadelphia. Chicago had an impressive parks’ program for women, but to get a gym and a court in those days was tantamount to a woman landing an executive position at a Fortune 500 company. The first book on the sport smacks of the reigning attitude as well as a subliminal attempt to counter the effeminate image of the game. In 1933, Robert Laveaga published “Volleyball: A Man’s Game.”

Even the official female voice—the committee on Volley Ball for Girls and Women—seemed to lack for feminist crusaders. In 1942, Nan Weed, an educator and women’s official representative to the USVBA Board, described her own gender as being “creatures innately social and not seekers after individual prowess …” In the 1937-38 Guide an article on coed volleyball by another educator, H.D. Edgren, is illuminating. One of his suggestions: “As a matter of fact, men anticipating failure of girl to make correct pass or to fumble ball may so arrange themselves to be of further assistance at these weak points.” Not completely ignored, women were granted their own rules by the women’s committee of 1928. These regulations enjoyed official status until 1958. Eight per side, two serves per server, no limit to hits per side, 30-minute matches, a 7’6” net. All that and still some complained the game was boring.

Although serious male competitors chafed at the popular epithet of “sissy sport,” most of the YMCA hierarchy and those playing “nooners” apparently didn’t mind the label. In fact, the ongoing hue and cry of the portly bourgeois players was that the game was becoming “too intensive.” It was a perennial battle. The recreational mindset pitched against the competitive spirits who had few to champion their cause other than a rare progressive few like Pop Idell, whose “Intensive Volley Ball” articles, appearing annually in the USVBA Guide, were considered the sport’s Bible.

Another problem plagued the hard-core competitors—refereeing. Given the fact that a single ref called the game, a lot was required of a mere man. Regional variations in rule interpretations coupled with the various judgment calls such as in setting, made for frequent howlings and remonstrations at the Nationals. The prickly issue was mitigated in 1934 when an accreditation program was adopted to select national referees. An eye test was also demanded by certain contingency players but, alas, to no avail. If the man-up-top had a big job, it was hoped that the “honor system” would give him some help. In the 1940 Nationals, it was reported that “well over 100 honor calls” were made by players admitting their own sins such as touching an out ball on the block—reportedly some matches were won and lost because of honest souls—but it was a practice which, although officially enduring decades more, was increasingly bypassed with the passing of virtue. A perennially thankless job, referees received a gesture of support in 1940 when Ross Breniser contributed an article in the USVBA Guide, “The Training of Volley Ball Referees.” Considering the ultra-amateur persuasion of the YMCA bureaucracy, Breniser still made the outrageously daring suggestion: “I likewise advise that in all tournaments, large or small, a fund be set aside to pay officials their expenses. Too long have these men given their services for nothing and paid their way besides.”

If referees needed players’ assistance, it was largely due to the increasingly powerful offensive skills which developed. The two-foot takeoff was emerging, and the old roundhouse was being replaced by the modern-style attack. Guys were hitting the ball a lot harder. Whether it was smarts or a visceral reaction to protect one’s manhood, the old half-moon defense of six digging men was thrown out. “Let’s try and block those bullets!” was the collective cry. By the mid-‘30s, blocking became the best way to get a point; first by one, then by two, and finally by three blockers. Somehow this defensive strategy raised hackles with the ruling hierarchy. The conservatives screamed that the new blocking was not only a “physical” danger (exhaustion) but an “immoral” act as well. Three guys ganging up on a solitary spiker? The nerve. Debate raged. In 1938, a compromise was reached by the USVBA. Two adjacent blockers could try to deflect an oncoming ball, providing they didn’t go over the net.

The Great Depression hit hard in the early ‘30s and put a halt to the national mania for sports. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was supplanted by “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” but volleyball suffered less than most sports. It took money to grow any game, and that was something the USVBA didn’t have (nor wanted, for that matter). The men who ran the USVBA were primarily YMCA officials and remained determined that filthy lucre would never taint the sport. Since the YMCA ran the yearly Nationals, the USVBA had little function other than to make rules and publish the yearly Guide. In fact, the only source of revenue was a small royalty from the Guide. In 1942, the USVBA boasted a surplus in the kitty of $192.87. But hey. From its inception, this was deemed a recreational game of good, clean fun. Money wasn’t needed for that.

Still, you had the zealots, those who liked the “go for it” style of play. “Have fun, but when it gets down to it, let’s beat the brains out of those other guys.” Accordingly, a grassroots movement took hold in the ‘30s that was manifested by a series of local volleyball publications. The first one, the Lawson Digest (Chicago), appeared in 1936. Soon, The Evanston Volleyer, The Dope Sheet (Chicago Central YMCA), The Hollywood Volleyball News and others were mailing out their mimeographed copies to members. In 1941, the rags were combined into a national organ, The National Volley Ball Review, which was edited by an emerging powerful personality in the sport, Harry Wilson.

As the game crept along through its own momentum, however slight, Jimmy Wortham and company slipped toward middle age, and the lone Texas stars eventually dropped like those legendary defenders of the Alamo. And like the wave of Mexican marauders under General Santana, a great tsunami was cresting out in Southern California. The overwhelming dominance of the sport—from top to bottom, sand to hardwood—was about to break, and it did in 1940. That year, seven guys and a dentist-coach, Doc Burroughs, hopped in two cars and drove across country to win the USVBA Nationals in Philadelphia. The Los Angeles Athletic Club was the first California champion and the first non-YMCA title holder. The propriety of those staid YMCA officers in their annual meetings must have felt an unwelcome jump. Especially, when the guy who led the squad along with the fabulous Orrin Sage was a wild, hard-living lefty whom Burroughs had to spring from jail periodically to get to the gym. Henry Valle was not a YMCA paradigm, but he was one hell of a player.

“The best player I ever saw,” claims Paul Johnson—and at 83, he’s seen a lot. A sprinter who approached the 100-yard world record at the time—“he could have played pro football if he wanted,” adds Manny Saenz—the sinewy Valle had a lightening left arm. He also liked to celebrate his exploits, and apparently his lifestyle injured the sensibilities of the USVBA patriarchy. In those days there were two All-American selections: one by a dyed-in-the-wool USVBA official, Vincent Bennett, and the other by the selection’s inventor, Pop Idell. Bennett refused to place the outlaw Valle on First or Second Team in 1939 (LAAC was runner-up) or in 1940.

In 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor emptied gyms, courts, fields, and stadiums across the nation. Volleyball was halted. Except once again, the portability of a ball and net made them part of official troop issue. Particularly in the South Pacific, soldiers strung nets between palm trees, tanks (or whatever was available) and batted the ball back and forth between more serious endeavors. When the young men came back, thousands flocked to a new home in Los Angeles. Tired of the deprivation of war, Americans also returned to sports with an avidity never before seen. Particularly in Southern California, on beaches and in Ys, volleyball felt a surge of new interest.

A new dawn was approaching. North Avenue Y had given back the glory to Chicago by winning the Nationals in 1941, 1942, and 1945 (1943 and ’44 were suspended because of the war). But in 1947, the last hurrah for the rest of the country was heard when North Avenue won its final title. For the next 40 years, California teams battled among themselves to decide National Championships. The California seal of dominance was first stamped in 1948 when the diligent Harry Wilson assembled a squad of mostly short setters and one 6’9”, 280-pound destroyer Jack Stetson. Two cornerstones on that team, Saenz and Holtzman, were already controlling State Beach, and in the first bonafide Open ever played, the duo’s immaculate ball control triumphed over Dick Livingston and Don McMahon. The beach-indoor hybrid formula for success was demonstrated in living color.

Still, after 50 years of existence in 1945, the upper level of organized competition under the stewardship of the USVBA was feebly limping along. In 1936, 22 teams entered the national competition. There were 20 entries in 1936 and just 16 in the 1949 USVBA Nationals. Yet, as the game had spread westward to places like Chicago, Houston, and now Los Angeles, not all the seeded ground fell fallow. Unquestionably, more people were playing a more intense game. Most important, after the war, the torch had been passed to the bronzed denizens on the sunny shores of Southern California. It would never leave there.

Originally published in May 1995

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