75-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
Day 75, June 18 - Until the 1950s, Table Tennis Was Considered a “Jewish Sport”
Some time ago when I was doing some research on Ivor Montagu, I ran across a book that I thought might be able to provide more insights about him. It was the Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports, published in 1965. In addition to covering some 41 sports, the book included sections on the Maccabi Movement, Olympic Medalists, and Jewish Community Centers.
Eagerly I turned to the coverage of our sport. The introductory paragraph caught my attention in a way that I hadn’t expected. “Table tennis, once known as ping pong, was considered a ‘Jewish sport’ until the advent of the Chinese and Japanese world champions in the 1950’s. The first men’s world singles and doubles champion, Dr. Roland Jacobi of Hungary, was Jewish and he was succeeded by a long list of co-religionists. Jewish pre-eminence in the sport continues today in the United States.”
A while later, curious about the “Jewish sport” reference, I reviewed all of the other sports covered in the book. I discovered that table tennis alone had the unique distinction of being referred to as a “Jewish sport.”
The focus of today is to look at this interesting piece of our early history and to pay tribute to the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs of table tennis. All biographical info is summarized from Zdendo Uzorinac’s Table Tennis Legends.
Covering the men first, as mentioned above, Dr. Roland Jacobi, “The Budapest Lawyer,” was the first winner of the Men’s Singles title in 1926. He won his first Hungarian title in 1910. Table tennis then went into a slump and competitions ceased from 1912-1925. Perhaps Jacobi could have won more titles otherwise. He was among the initial group of players invited to Berlin prior to the first “European Championships,” which were re-named the World Table Tennis Championships during the competition. (TTL, 26-29)
Fellow Hungarian Zoltan Mechlovits, “The Wise Mechli,” the runner-up in 1926, won in 1928. He played penholder style. He won 11 medals total at the WTTC’s (6 gold, 2 silver, 3 bronze). On the administrative side, he was credited with helping ITTF President Montagu draft the regulations for our sport as well as preparing world ranking lists. (TTL, 34-35)
Another fellow Hungarian Victor Barna, “Mr. Table Tennis,” took the top honors in 1930, 1932, both WTTC’s held in 1933, and 1935. According to TTL, “Barna was the recognized and crowned king of table tennis.” He won an astonishing total of 22 titles at the WTTC’s as follows: 5 in Men’s Singles, 8 successive titles in Men’s Doubles, 2 in Mixed Doubles and 7 as a member of the Men’s Team. (TTL, 45-52)
Still yet another Hungarian Miklos Szabados, “Barna’s Fiercest Adversary,” won in 1931. Barna was quoted as saying, “He was always in a good mood, never sullen. His good mood was infectious. I cannot remember him ever complaining to the umpire over a possible error, not even when the world title was at stake.” (TTL, 53-56)
Richard Bergmann, “Richard the Lion-Hearted,” took four titles in 1937, 1939, 1948, and 1950. Interestingly, his titles were allocated to three different countries. Playing for Austria in 1937, he won before a home audience. In 1939, he represented Poland (his father was a Pole). And he won his titles in 1948 and 1950 as a member of the English team, having obtained British citizenship in 1947. (TTL, 84-90)
During the years not accounted for above, men’s titles that went to non-Jews were limited to five men: Fred Perry of England in 1929, Stanislav Kolar of Czechoslovakia in 1936, his countryman Bohumil Vana in 1938 and 1947, Englishman Johnny Leach in 1949 and 1951, and Hungary’s Ferenc Sido in 1953.
Laszlo Bellak, “The Juggler,” was another Jewish patriarch. Although he was a finalist in three WTTC’s – 1928, 1930, and the 1933 Paris edition – he never won the coveted Men’s Singles title. As stated in TTL, “Together with Czech Ivan Andreadis, Bellak was probably the greatest table tennis player who never became a world single’s champion.” (TTL, 36 -39)
Winners of the Men’s Doubles, eight times featured two Jews (in 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, both 1933 WTTC’s, 1935 and 1939) and three other times at least one Jew (in 1926, 1928 and 1938).
Men’s Team Event
In the Men’s Team event, with the exception of Czechoslovakia’s win in 1932, there were two of more Jews on every winning team from 1926 – 1938.
Turning to the winners of Women’s Singles, there are three notable Jewish ladies: Hungarian Annus Sipos (1932 and 1933 – Baden edition), American Ruth Aarons (1936 and, in more recent years, she was declared a co-winner in 1937), finally Romania’s great Angelica Rozeanu won 6-straight titles from 1950-1955!
Annus Sipos won two consecutive world singles titles using two different grips: the penholder style in 1932 and the shakehand style in 1933! She had been denied the opportunity to play in the WTTC’s until the third edition in 1929. TTL quoted her frustration, “I could not believe my ears: although I was the Hungarian champion, I was not selected for the first world championships in London, 1926!? The honour was bestowed on the favourite of the association, Maria Mednyanszky. I was indignant, of course. The same story occurred in 1928, but then I protested loudly. That was probably the reason why I finally played in Budapest one year later, and ended my debut as third in the world.” (TTL, 43-44)
Ruth Aarons won a total of six medals at the WTTC’s (3, 1, 2). Her second title, although won consecutively, was actually many years in coming. In the 1937 finals, the match was suddenly stopped because of a “game duration limit” set at 1 hour and 45 minutes. Both she and her opponent, Trude Pritzi, were disqualified. Years later USATT’s Steve Isaacson successfully appealed and both were named co-champions. In 1937, more questionable treatment of her by the ITTF actually prompted the USTTA temporarily to withdraw from the ITTF. (TTL, 68-71)
Angelica Rozeanu, “The Trophy Collector,” won a record of 30 medals (17, 5, 8) at the WTTC’s! Although she first participated in the WTTC’s in 1936, she did not win her first Women’s Singles title until 1950. She did, however, win her first WTTC’s medal in 1937 in Mixed Doubles. In Romania, she won every national championship that was played between 1936 and 1957. (TTL, 117-120)
Annus Sipos, paired with non-Jew Maria Mednyansky, took Women’s Doubles six times from 1930-1935. In 1950 England’s Dora Beregi accounted for half of the winning Women’s Doubles winning team. Angelica Rozeanu paired with Ella Zeller, both Jewish, to win Women’s Doubles in 1955 and 1956.
Women’s Team Event
My research regarding Jews on the winning Women’s Team indicate one on Czechoslovakia’s team in 1935 and 1936. One American in 1937 and 1949. One on the English team in 1948. And, of course, two on the Romanian winning team in 1950, 1951, 1953, 1955, and 1956.
With regard to Mixed Doubles, two in the pair were Jews in 1929, 1932, 1935, 1948, and 1956. And there was at least one Jew on the winning team in 1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, both 1933 editions, 1936, 1938, 1951, 1952 and 1953.
I should note that I used multiple Internet searches to come up with this information and it’s possible that there were even more winners who were Jewish that have not yet been identified as such!
As the Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports alluded to, just a few years into the 1950s, Japanese and then Chinese domination were about to signal two new eras in our sport’s history.