"Bobby, let’s go and watch your cousin Leon play ping-pong tonight."
From that casual suggestion, made by a father to his son on an evening in the late 1940’s, comes Bobby Gusikoff’s half-century recollection that, "As we climbed the stairs to those fabled Herwald Lawrence Broadway Courts, there was no way to know that in a few minutes my entire life would be changed. When the big steel door of Lawrence’s opened we walked into a smoky, slightly seedy-looking room packed with people. It was standing room only, and there before me was Dick Miles playing Marty Reisman a money match. I had never before seen anything like this. That night I had found my love."
Ah, Bobby, the drama of it all, the action!
And the road not taken. Bobby, born Mar. 28, 1936, was brought up in a very musical family. His mother’s father, Bohumil Kryl, had played the cornet for John Philip Sousa; his mother was a very accomplished pianist; and his father was a noted violinist and symphony orchestra conductor. But there would be no performance-concerts in Bobby’s future--his footsteps would have him traveling to a different kind of playing hall.
Early in 1949 at his first Eastern Open, in Springfield, MA, young Gusikoff, not quite 13, was runner-up in the Boy’s to a local lad, George LaPierre. Bobby remembers coming home on the subway, holding on his lap the little 4-inch trophy he’d received. He still has it, though now it doesn’t look as it did 50 years ago--the handle on one side’s missing.
Two years later, at the Rhode Island Eastern’s, Bobby won his first major Boy’s Championship. By this time he was a freshman at New York City’s Professional Children’s School. Reportedly he’d "played bit parts in several movies," and had "spent one year on Broadway in...‘Miss Liberty.’" He’d also been chosen as the "‘Star of Tomorrow’ on the Tex and Jinx Falkenburg television show for his imitation of Al Jolson." In an Interview, Bobby says he likes table tennis because it’s "a fast moving game in which he can release all his excessive energy." And energy he certainly had. His unflagging attendance at every weekly Club tournament was invariably accompanied by the emotionally-powered plea, "Mr. Lawrence, please let me play Miles."
At the May, 1951 Toledo Open, Bobby’s friend Harry Hirschkowitz, continuing to rise in the Top 10 National Rankings, won the Men’s over former whiz kid Gordon Barclay. Gusikoff didn’t precociously distinguish himself, but he was part of the picture.
Bobby’s first U.S. title came at the 1953 Kansas City National’s, where he won the Junior’s over defensive star Dave Krizman. Miles had told Bobby to go for the Expedite Rule, so, although Dave could pick-hit, Bobby uncharacteristically pushed his way to a win.
That fall, however, at the annual Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Tournament in Toronto, Bobby, defending the Junior Championship he’d won in ‘52 from Jimmy Calcaterra, lost to Krizman. But in compensation he and Hirschkowitz took the Men’s Doubles. The 17-year old Gusikoff was ranked U.S. #25, but with 10 of those top 25 players clustered in New York City, it was clear he was going to get a lot better.
The ‘54 National’s brought Bobby his second U.S. Junior Championship--this time over Erwin Klein, already the 1953 Pacific Coast Men’s Champion.
Then in Nov. at Indianapolis, Gusikoff, Hirschkowitz, and 1944 U.S. Champ Johnny Somael, representing New York, won the Intercities. Five more wins for Bobby in these Team Championships would follow.
At the Feb., ‘55 White Plains, N.Y. Eastern’s, Bobby might be said to have come of age. He beat 4-time U.S. Champion Lou Pagliaro in the quarter’s. Then, up 2-0 against Miles, who was about to win the 8th of his 10 U.S. Opens, Bobby, at the beginning of the 3rd game, for the first time in his life got a leg cramp, was bodily picked up by Herwald Lawrence, and, "with Dick’s permission, was allowed to rest while the other semifinal match was played." He then returned to hit through Miles before defeating in the final the ever-dangerous Hirschkowitz. Bobby’s showing here led to his being added to the U.S. World Team, and vaulted him into being ranked U.S. #3. From 1955 through 1969 he’d be ranked in the Top Ten 13 times.
At the 1955 National’s, Gusikoff and Hirschkowitz lost in the Men’s Doubles to the visiting four-time World Singles Champion Richard Bergmann and his partner, the young Californian, Klein. Bobby said that Bergmann, whom he’d soon be touring with, doing exhibitions for the Globetrotters, had "marvelous table control." Bobby also said he wasn’t comfortable playing Richard because he floated so many of his returns, and Bobby’s whipped-up forehand was more effective against "spin and pace."
Playing in the English Open that year, Gusikoff gave former World Champion Johnny Leach a tough 4-game match ("Leach had no middle," Bobby said). Also, in the Doubles there at Wembley, Bobby and Harry eliminated England’s Defending Champions Brian Kennedy and Aubry Simons.
At the Mar., 1956 National’s in White Plains, N.Y., the 3rd-seeded Gusikoff, playing here just prepatory to leaving with fellow U.S. Team members for the Tokyo World’s, was upset 15, 12, 12 in the opening round by little known Bill Rapp, one of the first in the U.S. to use a sponge racket. "I’m not going to play in any more tournaments," said the upset, really upset, 19-year-old Gusikoff. "It’s not the same game with the sponge paddle. You never know where the ball is going. It’s ruining the game."
For the the 1956 Tokyo World’s Program, Bobby struck quite a pose. But it was the U.S. Team of young Klein and perennial U.S. Women’s Champion Leah Neuberger who won the Mixed Doubles--the last such major World title the U.S. has won. In early Swaythling Cup play, "Red China," as the headlines had it, beat the U.S., 5-4. Bukiet lost the deciding third game of the last match. But, as Bobby was reported to have said, Bernie invariably kept up his spirits, and whether he won or lost matches overseas, everyone wanted to room with him. Why? Because "he could get you laid in six languages."
The U.S. did beat South Korea, but it didn’t matter much--back then there was no Kim Taek Soo. In Men’s Singles, Bobby lost early to Japan’s Kobayashi, 19 in the 4th. Team Captain Bill Gunn said that Gusikoff had a "mental fixation about sponge." Perhaps. But Bobby, who had to have something of a musician’s ear, couldn’t hear the sound of the ball, and this bothered him. At the "Farewell Party" at this World’s, Gunn said that American player Lona Flam "was a sensation, with her dancing and [that] Bobby Gusikoff brought the house down when he took over the [orchestra’s] drums and traps...."
Bobby wasn’t going to play in any more tournaments? In the fall he not only played in but won the CNE Men’s Singles--another first. He beat Hirschkowitz in 5 (from down 2-0) in the final.
At the Jan., 1959 Washington D.C. Eastern’s, Bobby got by Bukiet, 24-22 in the 5th in the semi’s, before losing to Miles in the final. USTTA Vice-President Bob Chaimson--Barbara Kaminsky and Donna Sakai’s father--then presented Bobby with his runner-up trophy. At the 1960 Eastern’s, though, Bobby was a winner over Sol, Leah a winner over Barbara.
He was "cat-quick" said the AP man who reported Bobby’s U.S. #1 triumph--his 1959 U.S. Men’s Singles win at the March Inglewood, CA National’s. That’s the one where Chuck Medick, blind since infancy, came out of retirement to umpire. As far back as the 1948 Columbus, Ohio U.S. Open, Chuck was umpiring--the final of the Mixed Doubles, for example, played under Bob Green’s spider-webbed lighting. At the ‘53 Kansas City National’s, Medick umpired 54 consecutive games in one day, and said he wasn’t even tired. But, taking his cue from a taut net or not, he umped so badly in Bobby’s quarter’s match and in others in Inglewood that he said he was "grossly ashamed." Bobby beat Norby Van de Walle, 19 in the 4th in that quarter’s, then Lenny Cooperman in the semi’s, and Defending Champ Marty Reisman in the final. First followed first--for Bobby also won the Men’s Doubles with Schiff over Cooperman and Mike Ralston. Sol said he enjoyed playing doubles with Gusikoff because "Bobby took the shots I would have. He went for the point."
By now Gusikoff was at his unyielding best--Reisman says Bobby would play "3-and-Stop or 5-and-Stop" games against some of New York’s best. In other words, Bobby would have to score on his 3rd or 5th ball, or give up the point. A nervous, energetic, at times electric player, with a fast, all-out attack, he’d win point after point with his flurrying, windmill forehand, or deceptive, snap-ricocheting down-the-line backhand--and, withal, he’d somehow always have time in the midst of a furiously-fought exchange to send a balancing hand up to straighten his glasses.
At the ‘59 Dortmund World’s, in Swaythling Cup play, Bobby had a very big moment, for Captain Si Wasserman heeded his plea to play him against Hungary. When Bukiet beat Laszlo Foldy, 20, 19, Bobby had the opportunity he’d hoped for--a chance to play Ferenc Sido, the 1953 World Champion, and destined at this ‘59 World’s to be the Men’s Singles runner-up. "Sido will let me lead," Gusikoff had argued. And, sure enough, Bobby with his snap-smack attack did lead--and produced a startling upset over one of the world’s best players.
At home or abroad, Bobby has always enjoyed coming up with colorful Damon Runyan-like lines. One of my irresistible favorites is; "When "Miles lost his nose, he lost his forehand." But colorful sayings aside, in 1959, long after his cosmetic surgery, Miles reached the World’s Men’s semi’s, and, as he had at previous World’s, led his opponent, this time Jung Kuo-tuan, the first of the great Chinese players, so that again it seemed Dick might be World Champion. But it was not to be.
The 1960 National’s were in Washington, D.C. and Gusikoff and Reisman were in the final. Marty, playing with a hardbat, had just a couple of days before lost a few hundred dollars to Bobby in a money match. So, he thought, what the hell, just for this final why not switch rackets? What have I got to lose? So he warmed-up for a minute and a half with a Johnny Leach pimpled-sponge bat, then went out and played with it and beat Bobby in 4. In the Men’s Doubles, Bobby and Sol were upset in the final. But Bobby and that year’s Women’s Champ, Sharon Acton, won the first of their back-to-back Mixed Doubles titles from Schiff and Neuberger.
It’d been a while since Herwald Lawrence had been forced to close his legendary Broadway Courts. So in the fall of 1960, Bobby opened his own Club in the basement of the Riverside Plaza Hotel on 73rd St. off Broadway, and commissioned Gus Rehberger to make a striking action-drawing to advertise it. As Mal Russell’s famous painting would testify, the Club would soon become a colorful meeting place for late afternoon and evening authorities on The Sporting Life and The Late Show. "The Gooey" himself would hold court, settle all arguments: "Are you kidding me?" he’d say. "Nobody knows more about this Game than I do."
Some of the happiest moments of my late 30’s and early 40’s life would be spent at this Club. Well I remember how, after I’d finished teaching my afternoon classes, I’d hurry away from school and, on coming up out of that Manhattan subway, would literally run the two blocks that remained, then dart down those Hotel-basement steps. It was also in this dark, subterranean world that my two sons began to learn not only about table tennis but about people in all their life-giving, life-loving variety.
Managing the Club, then the next season becoming President of the New York Table Tennis Association, didn’t seem to interfere with Gusikoff’s play much.
The ‘61 Detroit National’s saw the debut of the new Cobo Hall Arena, and this was the only time in the next four decades that Table Tennis would be given such royal quarters at this mammoth Hall. Bobby beat Danny Vegh in the quarter’s in a great down 2-0-and-at-22-all in the 3rd comeback, then fell to the eventual winner Klein in the semi’s.
At the Apr., ‘62 Long Island Open Bobby lost the final to Jack Howard, 19 in the 5th, and afterwards a local reporter tried to explain what happened:
"‘It was definitely an upset,’ Gusikoff, 26, said, still sweating and breathing hard after trying to keep up with [27-year-old] Howard’s bustling-type running game. ‘And a surprise. I’ve played him hundreds of times. And he’s never beaten me. He sure was good tonight, though.’
...Gusikoff is a slightly-built five-foot-11, 130-pounder. Howard is a well- muscled 175-pound six-footer.
‘Bobby’s a lot better than me stroke for stroke, [Howard said]....But I’ve got a lot more energy....’"
Well, maybe. But, as we’ve seen and will continue to see, Gusikoff’s not one of those Champions whom we remember just for his play. Prior to the ‘62 New York City U.S. Open, Bobby, as part of his NYTTA administrative duties, promoted a "Professional" tournament at the Riverside Plaza Hotel featuring the top six seeds at the upcoming National’s. Robert M. Lipsyte, who, 37 years later as the old millennium is about to end, is still writing for the N.Y. Times, speaks of "the rather chic crowd" of 500 spectators--among whom most notably are Huntington Hartford, Mrs. Sugar Ray Robinson, tennis pro Dick Savitt, Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for the Broadway hit "Fiorello, and comedienne Elaine May, who presents Miles with the winner’s check for $250. Bobby is described as "slat lean" with "a whip-lash forehand that is considered the best in the world when it is on."
The 1962 St. Nicholas Arena National’s Bobby would always remember. When Defending Men’s Champion Klein was unavoidably late, Bobby paid another player, Maxwell Lawrence, $25 to default his 1st-round match to Erwin. But the Tournament Committee refused to countenance Klein’s delay and defaulted him.
At the 1963 Detroit National’s, Bobby seems unstoppable--he beats Danny Pecora in the 8th’s, Jerry Kruskie in the quarter’s, and, after eking out a 29-27 1st game, Van de Walle in the semi’s. But then, up 2-0, he loses the final to Bukiet.
However, at the 1964 Inglewood, CA U.S. Open, there’s another first for Bobby--he’s given the Barna Award for his contributions to the Sport. But with his 5-game loss to Marty Doss in the quarter’s, his success in the National’s will be over.
Still, in the mid-60’s he continues his strong play at the Toronto CNE. After beating Bobby Fields in the final in ‘63, he’s again in the final in ‘64, but young Ralph "Pete" Childs stretches out a win against him, 26-24 in the 5th. In ‘65 he beats Canadian Closed Champ Larry Lee in the quarter’s, finishes off Bukiet in the semi’s, but loses the final to Pecora, 19 in the 4th. In the Doubles, Pecora and Jim Blommer just get by Bobby and Lee in the final, deuce in the 5th.
Gusikoff’s last hurrah at this cramped Toronto Fairgrounds venue was the great match he played in Sept. of ‘67. Though Bobby was now 31 and past his prime, there couldn’t have been another time in his whole career that he pummeled ball after ball in such an overpowering way. He lost this final to the visiting Englishman Denis Neale, but (after he’d won the 1st at 13, let the 2nd get away from 20-17 up, and won the 3rd at 10), everyone agreed that his furious and unrelenting assault on one of Europe’s Top 10 players, falling just short of a straight-game victory, was the best sustained attack they’d ever seen.
There remained one last Eastern’s for Gusikoff to win--in Philadelphia in ‘68, where he’s playing Bukiet in the final.
Of course Bernie’s been a fixture at Bobby’s Club for years and their relationship has always been a strongly competitive one. Many an evening match they’ve played where Bobby is betting a number of spectators a small fortune and Bernie’s betting a mere $5. Sometimes Bernie doesn’t know whether to win or not. On the one hand, he’s sure to get tips from all those who’ve bet on him, but on the other, though Bobby wants him to play to win, Bernie’s very conscious that he’s more or less been given the run of the Club, is allowed to make a good part of his livelihood there, and so doesn’t want to jeopardize that. Also, importantly, he has his pride, and doesn’t want Bobby to beat him. In other words, Bernie has to keep his wits about him, be...wily.
In this Eastern final, Gusikoff is up 1-0 and at 13-all in the 2nd. After having been visibly troubled for the last few points, he stops play and wants to know who in the gallery is whistling. Whistling? No one is whistling. It’s Bernie’s shoes--they’re squeaking. Another point. Squeak. Squeak. The audience titters. "What is this?" Bobby says to Bernie. "You weren’t making noise the first game." Another point. SQUEAK. SQUEAK. The audience begins to laugh. "Don’t think about it, Bobby," shouts a voice from the gallery. SQUEAK. SQUEAK. Surprisingly, Bobby does settle down. "Squeak!" he says to Bernie as his game point goes in.
By the beginning 1970’s Gusikoff’s playing career had come to an end. Summing it all up, he’d say, "Someday, when they’re about to close the big box on me, someone lift the lid for a split second and let me hit just one more forehand drive, and I’ll bet you $20 it goes in."
But Gusikoff’s service to the Sport would long continue. For Bobby was never afraid to make the Grand Gesture--take on a challenge, go for it, even though limited success might be his only reward. He left New York for California and the Southern California Film Institute, made a memorable table tennis short, opened a Club on North Beachwood Drive in Hollywood, unfortunately short-lived, then put on the 1977 U.S. Open--the Program for which has become a collector’s item.
I fondly remember how Bobby wanted me, my wife and kids to come to this Hollywood National’s he was running--Scott and Eric would play one another in the final of the Junior’s there that year--and so with his usual unthinking, spontaneous generosity he promised me $100 in the way of help if I came. When I got there, I could see Bobby was making no mention of this $100, and since I assumed he was "short," I didn’t want to ask him for it. But I myself in those days--taking Scott and Eric to tournament after tournament--was always in credit-card trouble, so soon I had to ask. And Bobby, bless him, promptly reached in his pocket and gave me that needed hundred.
Whatever Bobby’s difficulties were, he always wanted to hold to his word. Being very loyal to his friends, he was devastated when Erwin Klein, with whom he’d lived on first moving to California, was murdered. He’d sobbed the horrifying news into the telephone, could hardly get the words out to me. And once, I remember, a visitor to his N.Y. Club had cast a racial slur at one of Bobby’s regulars, the popular Jamaican player Fuarnado Roberts. Robbie of course could take care of himself, but Bobby was on this visitor in a flash, scurrilously harangued him right out of the Club--and I loved him for that.
In the 1990’s, as surely all of us must know, Bobby ambitiously began a project, not yet finished, of resurrecting as many old film clips of the famous Hard Bat players of the 1930’s through 60’s he could find, then collating them into a world-wide popular video he called "Legends."
Appropriately, in Dec., 1999, at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, one of those players, one of those legends so many of us have seen on that historic film--Gusikoff himself--was honored. For, despite his almost fatal aneurysm and subsequent paralysis commiting him to life in a wheelchair two years earlier, he proved able to courageously receive in person the first Mark Matthews Lifetime Achievement Award for more than 50 years of contributions to the Sport. Bravo, Bobby!