USA Table Tennis

Bill Gunn, President of the Gunn Brothers Oil Co., a home heating firm in Mamaroneck, N.Y., didn’t start playing the game until the early-to-mid-1930’s, when he was 33 years old. In 1935, when the Larchmont Westchester, N.Y. Club changed its affiliation (it had been one of the last holdouts) from the Parker Brothers’ American Ping-Pong Association to the USTTA, Bill became its President. He soon took to participating seriously in tournaments, and by the 1938 Philadelphia National’s was good enough to make the semi’s of the Veteran (then Over 35) event where he lost to the eventual winner, N.J.’s Morris Bernstein. For the next 20 years he’d be a threat to win, or would win, many National titles in both the Veteran’s (later, Senior’s) and Esquire’s (Over 50).

But Bill was even more well known as the Captain of U.S. Teams, as an E.C. member, as Chair of USTTA committees, as head of the Westchester, N.Y. TTC and organizer of various Open and Closed tournaments in the area, and as a sought after Announcer and Umpire for Finals Night at U.S. National Championships. He was a very dedicated worker for the Association, though I think also a controversial one.

Bill was never afraid to be critical, and one can see that early on from his comment at the 1939 National’s. He complains of one “sour note” in an otherwise beautifully-run tournament—the service:

“I saw many top-notch players waving their paddles and arms in superfluous motions, designed not to impart spin to the ball, but to confuse the opponent and take his eye off the ball. At least two players served from behind their backs and under their legs. I even suspected two of deliberately serving before the opponent was ready. I think our rules on service need a little strengthening” (TTT, Mar., 1939).

Here Bill’s already controversial—with regard to whether deception should be part of the play, whether the antics emphasized here demean the Sport, whether, if they’re repeated, they quite possibly do the perpetrator more harm than good, and whether spectators enjoy such stuff.

The Eastern Open held its first Veteran’s event in Feb., 1940, and in the final against George Bacon, Gunn, after winning the first two games at deuce, lost the next three. However, he would go on to win in ’45 (from Bill Ousley) and in ’49 (from Ernest DeVos). In the Veteran’s at the 1940 Indianapolis U.S. Open, Defending Champ Bacon was beaten in the quarter’s, after being up 2-0, by Nebraska State Champion Johnny Tatom, manager of the Omaha TTC and a local tennis pro. Tatom would then defeat Ed Dugan, the Chicago Stay & Play Club owner who wished he could have won to stay and play here. In the other semi’s, Gunn outlasted that same Bernstein who’d beaten him in 1938, then stopped Tatom in the final to win his first National Championship.

That summer, out of the blue, the Japan TTA surprised the Americans. General Secretary Numa issued a letter of invitation—a friendly challenge—to the USTTA to send a U.S. Team of five players for “a stay of 21 days in Japan” with “all hotel charges and travel expenses defrayed by the Japan TTA” (TTT, March, 1940, 3). Gunn was named Captain of this Team, for he could take time off from his business, and, as a USTTA Vice-President, he could get the ear of his colleagues that he was worthy and available. So, accompanied by his wife Mae, and the players—Men: U.S. #5 Bob Anderson and U.S. #7 Bill Holzrichter; and Women: U.S. #2 Ruthe Brewer and, in place of U.S. #4 Mildred Shipman, suddenly pregnant and unable to set sail with the others from San Francisco, the U.S. #12 player Mayo Rae Rolph. In the last U.S. Open, Mayo, from Portland, Oregon, had been a finalist in Mixed Doubles with Anderson, and was now last-minute available to sail independently from Seattle. This she did and, after suffering some ill effects from a shipboard vaccination, joined her teammates in Osaka.            

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, in his Captain’s Report (TTT, Oct., 1940, 3; 14-15) 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 our players were victorious in the match of the moment, often they were not. But of course on a trip like this it was more important to be diplomatic than to play well. Obviously, faced with changes in custom, one needed to have sophisticated responses. Hungarian table tennis aficionado Ervin Brody wrote of receiving postcard after postcard from his friend Miklos “Mike” Szabados when he and his fellow International Istvan “Stefan” Kelen were making their celebrated Tour, their late-‘30’s Odyssey to Oceania and the Far East. Brody says: 

“In Japan they played in the court of the Tenno, where they were given a beautiful silver plate, and reported that Nippon players touched their noses to each other before the match started. They were told that this gesture corresponded to the handshake of prizefighters at the beginning of a boxing bout (TTT, Dec., 1941, 21).           

Gunn doesn’t mention seeing any such “handshake,” but he does say: 

“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 many spectators.” 

Gunn made it clear that the Japanese already—12 years before their entry into World competition—had “very fine players,” and Ruthe Brewer agreed: “They take the attack all the time. No defense just steady killing. A chop means nothing to them.” 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.

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 that the team received so many gifts that shipping them home became quite a problem.” Rolfe agreed with Bill that “Our Japanese hosts were exceedingly kind to us.” She particularly liked “a box of oriental make up cream and a pair of exquisitely carved wooden shoes” she was given. Mayo told Topics(Nov., 1940, 10) that in general the Japanese women “have a charming poise. They are always sweet, charming and natural. They smile a great deal and laugh softly. As in many foreign countries, the woman’s place is strictly in the home. The men are considered socially superior to the women.” Given this unequal-partner connection, Gunn reported that “In many Japanese cities it is against the law to play mixed doubles.”

 On July 2, JTTA President Usagawa sent a letter to our USTTA President Jim Clouther in which he stressed: 

“…[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” (TTT, Oct., 1940, 16). 

Amity aside, there would be no continuation of this kind of U.S.A.-Japan exchange.

On returning from the Far East, Bill en route home to N.Y., stopped off in Minneapolis to play in the July 20-21 Aquatennial Open and won the Men’s Consolation. But then, enough vacation, Bill had to get back to the flow of his Oil business. Perhaps, too, after this 1940-41 season he wasn’t interested in retaining his USTTA E.C. Vice Presidency. At any event, the Association’s Nominating Committee proposed an unchallenged slate, so Larry Minneker replaced Bill as 3rd V.P.

At the 1941 N.Y. National’s, Gunn had a Veteran’s title to defend. But Massachusetts TTA President Lloyd Shepherdson defeated Bill 20, 18, 19 in the semi’s, then went on to down Philly’s Al Nachsin in the final. In other years, too, Bill would come runner-up in the Veteran’s—in 1942 (loss to Marlin Tucker), in ’45 (loss to Bacon, 27-25 in the 5th), and  in ’46 (loss to Tucker again). However, he was the 1944 N.Y. State Open Vet’s Champ—over Simeon Sabre. And in both 1945 (with Bacon) and 1949 (with Laszlo Bellak) he won the U.S. Open Over 35 Doubles. 

Gunn, with his “melodious bass voice,” enjoyed announcing matches at various tournaments, and since he also did quite a bit of umpiring, it may be that one of the matches he worked was the 1946 New York City U.S. Open Women’s final—won by Bernice Charney (later Chotras) in 5 over Leah Neuberger. James A. Burchard, the covering reporter for N.Y.’s World-Telegram, quoted the umpire (most likely Gunn, but possibly Mel Rose) as saying, “Miss Charney had the guts to gamble everything on an all-out offensive. It was make or break and she won.”

The 1949 National’s were also held at St. Nick’s, and on Finals Night Gunn was again on the mike announcing matches “until long after midnight, too late for the morning papers to report the results.” The 1950 National’s were in St. Louis—and Gunn’s presence there was felt in two ways. In the Senior Doubles, Jack Carrington, esteemed English coach and mentor to World Champion Johnny Leach, paired with Bernie Hock for the win, but they were tested by Gunn and his partner, Raul Riveros, a police lieutenant from Santiago, Chile. Later, Topics Editor Bill Price praised Gunn for making “the slightly long presentation of trophies interesting with his wit and aplomb at the mike.”

With the increasing attention Gunn was getting, it was no surprise that he was named Captain of the U.S. Team that would play the Canadians not, as usual, at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament in Toronto in early September (that tournament wouldn’t be held this year), but, with the cooperation of CTTA President Lou Beedle, at the Canadian Open, held Apr. 28-29 in Montreal’s Palestre Nationale Gym. Bill’s team of Johnny Somael, George Hendry, and Ralph Bast blitzed the Canadians 6-0, and Bill himself won the Senior’s, as he would also do at the Quebec tournament over Easter weekend in 1952.

That Nov. the National Team Championship was held in Columbus, Ohio when the city was hit by its worst blizzard in 37 years. A team coming by car from California was stopped just short of the Ohio border, and the N.Y. team was reduced to just Doug Cartland and Johnny Somael because Marty Reisman and N.Y. Team Captain Gunn were stranded in snow outside Pittsburgh and couldn’t attend. One wonders if that forced time Bill spent with Marty caused some lingering resentment of the U.S. super-star that would later out in his attacks on Marty.

Among the U.S. contingent to the 1951 World Championships in Vienna were not only Reisman but Gunn, who was to assist Captain Jimmy McClure with the Women’s Team, act as U.S. Delegate to the ITTF Congress, and have the fun of playing a match or two.

At both the 1951 and ’52  National’s, Gunn paired with Tibor Hazi to win the Senior Doubles. The 1950-51 season also saw Gunn’s friend Marianne Bessinger make the USTTA Women’s Ranking list. Out of the darkness that was World War II Germany, she’d tripped the light fantastic to England where she’d received a dance scholarship. Her exuberance for table tennis could first be seen from afar when in the spectator stands at the 1948 Wembley World’s she’d caught sight of Bo Vana and other greats. Then—how else for a 26-year-old or anyone else to learn?—she began playing the Sport…at London’s Regent Polytechnic Institute. On coming to the States, she settled in White Plains, in Westchester County, not far from New York City, and opened—it would be her lifetime occupation—a dance school for children. By 1950 she had won the first of her local County Closed Championships, and later would be the President of the Westchester Association.

At the ’53 National’s in Kansas City, Gunn in winning his first Esquire Championshipwas bloodied in 5, but wasn’t atomized into psychic bits by Defending Champion Louie Scharlack’s “Atomic” sponge bat. In 1954, however, Louie played the avenger, won the 50’s from Bill, 3-zip.

Gunn would not attend the 1952 Bombay World’s, and could not attend the Iron Curtain 1953 World’s in Bucharest. But he did go to the 1954 Wembley World’s and, as Team Captain Tibor Hazi reported unfavorably on the U.S. Women’s Team of Leah Neuberger, Mildred Shahian, and Pauline Robinson, Bill may have formed the same opinion, for later he’d be opposed to Leah and Mildred representing us on other World Teams. Bill, as expected, didn’t do anything in Singles, or in Mixed Doubles with his friend Bessinger. But in the Men’s Doubles his and New Yorker Irwin Miller’s play was nothing short of exemplary: they won three Qualifying matches, then two more matches before they were beaten in the round of 32 by an English pair.

At the 1955 National’s Bill, continuing his annual 50’s battle with Scharlack, regained the title from him in a 5-game final—19 in the 4th, 19 in the 5th. The Utrecht World’s that followed saw our “extras,” Bill and Marianne, win a Mixed Doubles match that must have pleased them.

Pleasing them even more was Gunn’s appointment as Captain of the 1956 U.S. World Team (after USTTA Treasurer Bill Feldt, and former USTTA Presidents Elmer Cinnater and Jimmy Shrout had all declined the time-consuming Mar. 25th-May 8th honor). A week before the Men’s Team was named (Bukiet, Gusikoff, Hirschkowitz, and Klein), Sanford Gross of the Selection Committee urged that Miles be put on the Team, for to keep him off on a participation-point technicality would be “silly…ridiculous…very petty.” But only Hazi agreed. Team Captain Gunn didn’t object to Miles because he didn’t have enough participation points, or because, as Ek said, “We must treat all players alike.” Gunn said he had “more compelling reasons” for being opposed to Miles. Here’s Bill’s argument—a specious one, I think, given his own repeated involvement as Team Captain and official: 

“First of all, he [Miles] has been signally honored—deservedly so—by the USTTA, often enough in the past, in recognition of his very great achievements here. Second, he doesn’t seem to produce his best game in international competition [though still of course being recognized, from—what else?—his record, as one of the world’s great players]. I suspect he leaves it behind on the practice tables, in money matches with English and other players. Third, if he has ever done anything for the game, unselfishly and free of charge, without benefit to Miles, I, for one, know nothing about it. He demands, and gets, fees for playing in small tournaments—or stays out. At least once, and maybe twice, he held up our good friends in Montreal for $100.00 and expenses, to play in their Provincial [Open] Championship. They could ill afford this money. Has he ever played in the Canadian Open at Toronto? [Once, in 1948; thereafter he thought the venue next to the animal stalls beneath him.] Offhand, I don’t know, but many a year his presence in the draw would have helped them. Miles watches out for Miles, period. I don’t think he deserves the honor of representing us again…[Other] players have the same faults, but they are more conspicuous in Miles….Last, but not least, every match he played would be one less for one of our youngsters….”

Gunn says that if Miles were named to the Team he would treat him “exactly as I would if I were in his favor.” Huh? What is Bill consciously or unconsciously saying? Bill has reason to believe that Miles doesn’t favor him? Perhaps he means to say he would treat Dick “exactly as I would if I had favored him for the Team.” But given how he obviously resents Miles’s professionalism, his attempt as Champion to distance himself from the masses in order to make money in this amateur-minded sport, I personally don’t believe he could be impartial.

Representing our Women’s Team were Neuberger, Robinson, and Flam—with Prouty as Alternate. Sally couldn’t go as the 4th woman because the Army would only transport 8, including the Team Captain/Delegate to the ITTF Meeting, Gunn. Bill’s choices for the Women’s Team, unlike those of the Selection Committee members, did not include either Neuberger or Shahian. He wanted a young team of Lona Flam, Paulline Robinson, and Elaine Mitchell. Here’s what he says about Leah and Millie (who’d advised that she would not be available for the Team): 

“…They have had their share of honors, deservedly, in many past years. Altho’ they dominate the game here, they are completely outclassed over there [wherever World Championships are played]. They are getting older—it is logical to assume that they will not improve any more. They cannot even come close to winning….” 

Poor Leah. Her whole being is into the Sport—and in Tokyo, if we listen to Bill, she’ll be an embarrassment to us. But, like it or not, she’s gonna go, gotta go. In Part II, we’ll see much more of Bill as controversial U.S. Team Captain.