Ping Pong Fever: The Madness That Swept 1902 America
By Steve Grant
Review by Larry Hodges, TableTennisCoaching.com
During a break between coaching sessions I pulled out the book "Ping Pong Fever" (260 oversized pages, available at amazon.com, $15.95) and spent a fascinating afternoon learning about the 1902 American table tennis craze. The basic story is this: table tennis swept America in 1902 as a huge fad, and then was nearly forgotten for over two decades. If you have any sort of historical bent, or simply want to read about table tennis and its beginnings, you'll want to read this book. You don't even have to read it, though that's highly recommended; just the pictures tell the story. And it's absolutely packed with vintage table tennis pictures, circa 110 years ago. (Now I know why Steve Grant is the #1 contributor of pictures for CelebritiesPlayingTableTennis.com.) A bunch of kids on break gathered around and spent a bunch of time browsing the pictures with me.
The book has an unbelievable number of excerpts from newspapers of the time, giving readers a flavor of just how the game was viewed in those days. Numerous Ping pong cartoons also adorn the pages. The book has 26 chapters divided into six sections: 1. Going Viral; 2. Changing Lives; 3. The Victims and Their Gatherings; 4. Serious Cases; 5. How It All Started; and 6. How It All Ended. There are also ten "Side-Spin" sub-chapters that cover various themes, as well as an epilogue with four sections.
One of the best chapters is the one titled "Who Really Invented It?", which explains that "As with many inventions, this one was evolutionary, not revolutionary." The chapter gives "...the true early history of table tennis and ping pong, the most complete and accurate yet published, beginning at the beginning." While the sport was developed incrementally, Steve traces the name Ping Pong back to 1884, and declares the actual inventor of the game: James Devonshire, an electrician, in 1885.
You'll learn that originally players served by hitting the ball directly to the opponent's court, like in tennis (i.e. the ball didn't have to bounce on your side first), but the serve had to be done underhand--and to thwart very tall players from smacking the ball downward, contact had to be no more than five inches above the table. Did you know that in doubles players once had to use one racket, and between shots place the racket on the table for the partner to grab? (You couldn't hand it to him directly.) And that scoring was at one time done tennis style ("40-love!"). You'll also learn about tiddledy wink tennis, balloon tennis, and other early versions of the game.
You'll read about ping pong perfume, ping pong drinks, twins named Ping and Pong, ping pong in Broadway shows, ping pong gambling, and ping pong on a train. You'll read about the early tennis champions that dominated early table tennis. You'll learn that a wedding was cancelled because a woman insisted that she'd continue to play ping-pong even after the wedding, and the non-ping-pong-playing husband-to-be thought that was unbecoming of a lady. Yes, ping-pong players were crazy even back then.
I'll close the review with the poem on page 1 (from a ping pong ad), one of several from the time:
"That's Ping Pong dear---it's all the rage,
The Bar, the Church, the House, the Stage
All Ping pong now---it's quite the fashion,
And you don't know it? (with compassion).
"Such ignorance is quite a shame;
Come, you shall see us play a game!"
Alas, she saw---she caught the fever---
(And goodness knew when it would leave her.)