Dick Evans, co-manager of the Columbus, Ohio Club during the 1960’s, tells us how, even before John Tannehill was a teenager, his father, Chet, publisher/editor of a newspaper for the Gallipolis/Pomeroy communities along the Ohio River, had started bringing him to Columbus to play. After a time, however, since home was Middleport, Ohio near the West Virginia border, 100 miles away, Chet “would leave John to spend the weekend in the home of one of our club members, usually John Spencer’s.” There young Tannehill not only improved his table tennis—by 1965 he’d win the U.S. Open Boys U-13 from Glenn Cowan—but his chess with Spencer and Dick Miles’s friend Freddie Borges.
During the ’66-67 season, John was U.S. #1 in Boys U-15 and U.S. #2 behind Cowan in Boys U-17. Then, only 15 years old, playing at the U.S. Open Team Championships (USOTC’s), he had a 17-3 record, was named the tournament’s outstanding male player, and for 1967 was ranked #7 among U.S. men.
In 1968 Ichiro Ogimura came to North America, and at the Toronto Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament John was pleased to have had his picture taken with this great Japanese player/coach and the reigning U.S. #1, D-J Lee. Motivated, John, back home in Middleport with no weekday club to practice at, adopted the following two-hours-a-day training program Ogi had given him:
“ Jog half a mile; run 220 yards as fast as you can, then jog 220 yards (repeat 4 times); warm down with a quarter of a mile… go home, serve into [practice] board and whack back 200 made forehands; [then] shadow-train—that is, anticipate opponent’s table placements by moving fast to imaginary numbered positions on your side of the table (repeat seven-second movements forty times)… swing backhands and forehands hard as you can—sixty times a half minute (repeat 2-3 times), finish off with 100 sit-ups.”
At the 1968 USOTC’s, one of Ohio’s important ties has John playing former Thai Champion, Surasak Koakiettaveechai, who’d beaten him six months earlier for the National Junior Championship. Thanks to his stepped-up training, John ekes out a win over Surasak in three deuce games. Undefeated Ohio then goes on to down undefeated California—and the winning Ohioans tumble ecstatically all over the court.
This strong play ensures John’s position on the 1969 U.S. World Team. In Swaythling Cup play at Munich, John 5-5 holds his own. But at the English Junior Open that follows he plays this Swedish guy—and, after being up 18-14 in the 1st, and 17-15 in the 2nd, loses two straight. This Swedish guy John had down both games is Stellan Bengtsson, soon to be World Champion.
The May, ’69 San Francisco National’s saw Tannehill defeat Cowan and 4-time U.S. Champ Erwin Klein. But in the final John couldn’t contest against D-J. Paired with Dell Sweeris, John also came runner-up in Doubles—to Lee and Cowan.
At their ’69 summer meeting, USTTA President Graham Steenhoven’s E.C. valued John so highly that they showed an 8-minute, 16mm film from Associated Ideas featuring him—and promptly bought two copies for $785. But, oh, oh, a certain tournament director feels John’s “gone a bit mod” and that now, “at 17, his head is a bit too big.” And curly too.
Just as his rival Cowan’s looking a little different these days, so has Tannehill changed. Asked why he, like Sweeris, had switched to pimpled sponge, John said, “Because it’s more fun! You understand? More fun! I can feel the ball.”
By Dec. of 1969, John arrives at the Grand Rapids Central Open with his 8-pound Orbitron dumbbell. All week, he said, he’d been swinging that dumbbell as much as 50 times a day to develop his forehand. And, like some determined bullet-banded, grenade-carrying revolutionist converging on that Calvin College Fieldhouse, he carried, too, a Ton-a-matic ten-pound black belt (“I do all my exercises wearing this,” he said). Then, against Chicago’s Jim Davey, he mounts an attack, still wearing his heavy black belt. Fifteen straight times in the course of losing this match, John with dedicated industry and sobriety practices—and 15 straight times relentlessly fails to score with—his 3rd-ball attack.
But he and D-J do win the Doubles—in large part because John plays exceptionally well. “I couldn’t ever let D-J down,” he says. “He’s such a winner.”
At the 1970 U.S. Open, Tannehill is again beaten by Lee. Were there no South Korean Champion D-J Lee—John (once? twice?) would be the U.S. Champion.
That summer, John turns up in Kingston, Jamaica for a celebrated match with Jamaican icon Orville “Les” Haslam who at this time, based in London, was among the Top 10 players in England. A night crowd of thousands came to cheer their 6’3” 210-pound hero. As the fans were on their feet screaming, John kept thinking, “This Haslam hits the ball harder from both sides than anybody I’ve ever seen.” The normal expression in Jamaica for a good loop that’s returned high and is followed by a good kill is, “Loop! Cock-up! Wham!” But an ardent fan of Haslam’s was yelling, “Loop! Cock up! Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham!” In fact, both players were whammin’ like crazy. Until in the 5th, when Les breaks open the game and by “sheer power” finally subdues John.
In Columbus at the Sweepstakes Tournament, Ohio Closed Champ Rich Farrell has John down match point. But the fatal bullet goes wide, and John, winning the next two points, is alive and well, and, with a young gunfighter’s already old reputation, is fair game again for the next challenger.
And speaking of reputations and games there at the Columbus Club, Dick Evans clues us in on a local hippie pastime called “‘Strip Ping-Pong’—played after hours with the draperies closed and the front door locked. It was a game for the boys,” Dick said, “although there was one of our club ‘mascots’ who liked to join in because not only did she like just about any excuse to take her own clothes off, she liked seeing this particular John in the nude….”
At the 1970 CNE final, John rallies from down 2-0 to force D-J into the 5th and D-J’s wife Linda into an “I have to leave the hall, can’t watch,” anxiety attack.
Ohio wins the 1970 USOTC’s —but Bukiet’s losing 19-in-the-3rd struggle with Tannehill prompts Evans to pen a poem honoring Bernie with an Homeric allusion.
At the infamous 1971 Atlanta Open, John’s again playing Bernie. The amateur umpire calls the score wrong…a 2-point swing in Bukiet’s favor. Bernie isn’t waiting, serves. John catches the ball, wants to make a correction. Fault! The umpire awards another point to Bukiet. Bernie, in his “Survival of the Fittest” way, hurries to serve again. John doesn’t understand what’s happening. He can’t concentrate. No, he can’t have another umpire. Yes, he can have another umpire—she will keep the tally on paper for the first umpire who will call the score. And now 5-10 seconds go by before each service while the first umpire looks at the second umpire’s tally. Yes, alright, all’s correct. John is down 2-1 and 19-13 in the 4th. He wins 5 straight—then again has words with the umpire and, his concentration broken, loses, and comes off the table sobbing.
Like any changing teenager coming into manhood, John has issues. He’s cut off his long hair, looks monkish. “Am I into meditation?” he responds, repeating my question, trying to ready himself to answer it. “No. My religion is probably…Life—whatever that is.” John is thinking of making a transfer—will maybe leave the U. of Cincinnati, the robot in his dorm, and go to Ohio State where they’re more liberal. He complains that where he’s at “there’s no creative schooling….Like every teacher I went up to, I said, ‘Could I please learn under you? For after class for an hour or two, or whatever time you set aside, and we can be friends.’ But they all said no. Like you either learn under me in class or not at all. ‘I don’t want to be responsible for you’—that’s what they were saying.”
“My speech teacher said, ‘We have to stick to the schedule.’ She drew a circle on the board where she put an x inside the circle and an x outside the circle. She said, ‘We will be in the circle. We will not go outside the circle.’ I jumped on her for that. I really went berserk. She started crying.”
This unfulfilled quest for knowledge—it really hurt him.
So now the trip into the unknown, China, where John was soon engrossed in a Mao Tse-tung pamphlet he’d picked up called “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among The People.” Later, he was carrying round a silkscreen portrait of “The Great Helmsman” and was fast trying to convince himself that Mao, as he said, was “the greatest moral and intellectual leader in the world today.”
One of the Chinese interpreters wanted to know from John if the Soviet Union was like America. “Yes,” said John,. “In both countries the workers are exploited. They’re working for a capitalistic motive—for more and more money. The Soviets are heading more and more in our direction. Most of the youths there are taking drugs to try and escape everyone’s greed and selfishness and to gain a sense of adventure that isn’t provided by the society.”
“Drugs help me think,” interjected Cowan. “John attacks me for drugs. You have a million crutches, John. Everybody has crutches.”
Then Tannehill began talking about how drugs provided the dreams for youth. “Glenn needs dreams,” he said. “Because he’s a product of a society where the dreams are taken away.”
“I do escape in drugs,” said Glenn. “I choose to because they give me a world that fits my needs.”
“You escape into another reality,” said Tannehill. “But is it better than this one?”
Then John went on to say, Mao’s the adventure here. Mao’s the drug here.
Of course there is also nicotine. Friendship first, competition second. “Here, try one of these cigarettes, John,” say some smiling Chinese. “You’ll like it.”
Naturally we all went to the Great Wall, where Time took our picture, and Howard, Resek, and then Tannehill got sick—and, no, John, recuperating in a hospital room, didn’t want to stay here in China after all; he’d go back to the U.S. with the Team. He’d been a fool to think he could know much about China after only a few days.
Later, when the Chinese came to the U.S. through Detroit, John was there too. He’d arrived at the airport in his familiar Washington overalls, accompanied by two unknown Chinese friends while the rest of the Team was in uniform. One of these mysterious friends carried a strange box out there to the welcoming line with John. Finally one of the security agents turned up his hearing aid and discovered him. “Hey, you, who are you, and what’s in the box?” Turns out it’s a pair of overalls, which John wanted to present to the Chinese, which wasn’t so out of line, was it? But did it matter? Goodbye box. Goodbye Chinese friends. And, soon, goodbye Tannehill. He and Management—“Ping-Pong Diplomacy” in the person of USTTA President Steenhoven—weren’t on the same Team page, weren’t even in the same book. “Responsibility to Graham,” said John, “means control, domination—I hate the way Graham uses the word ‘Responsibility.’ I’ve decided to be political and suffer the consequences. Not being political, it’s like not having any mind.”
How long John would stay in the Game wasn’t clear given two introspective, controversial articles he wrote for Topics. In “The Coward in Ping-Pong,” he confronts the “paranoid attacking player” who “can dream of nothing besides ping-pong.” This perfectionist has a “lifeless life,” for his table tennis play—at which he works relentlessly, mechanically—takes away his anxieties. Takes away, too, his soul, his humanity. It was clear to many that John was writing a warning to self.
That summer of ’71 he was certainly up for adventure. He and his friend Bert Jacobs decided to climb the Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border. Which was almost a very bad mistake, for John “came very close to falling 3,000 feet”; fortunately, said Bert, “a Swedish mountain climber…grabbed his arm.” Afterwards, Bert and John tracked down the Swedish team who were participating in a clinic in Kranfors, near Lapland, and joined them—John ready for anything. “This will be your death, Jahn,” said Bengtsson. “It was five miles of running full speed up a mountain,” said Bert. “John struggled to the end and finished. The amazed Swedes pronounced John not nearly as weak as most American players and asked him to return in the future.”
This experience provoked another Tannehill article, “Who Is To Judge?” Recalling his experience with Bengtsson, John says, Though Stellan’s “unvarying strategy of serve, loop, kill, is, with his Mark V space weapon, executed with an unbelievable consistency and technique,” it’s “anathema to the senses.” Anti-human technological need is beginning to pervade the Sport: mechanical robots spread their “metallic disease like cancer around the globe.”
John laments how “the sensuality of the game has been lost to the silent thud of the sponge.” Now speed is of the essence. “The long, skillful maneuvers of a hotly contested match have evolved into the rushing impatience and quick movements of an athlete racing the clock of his mind towards the tape, nervously aware that a split second could tell the winner.” But, adds John, there’s no tragedy in a sponge player’s defeat—nothing resembling “the moral suffering of a Marty Reisman who has remained faithful to the sensual style of his game despite technological inventions.” Marty’s “personal aura” remains.
Tannehill himself has surely undergone some moral suffering. He turns up at the 1971 CNE, and Rufford Harrison, who’s always insisted U.S. Teams be properly outfitted, is appalled by John’s appearance. “If you can’t put on clean shorts, you just put the same ones on backwards, right?” And your shirt, it reads ‘Hodge.’ This is some example to set for our Juniors and for the Canadian public.
“Ping Pong Woes?”—that’s the heading for John’s Jan.-Dec., 1972 Topics ad. He urges members to buy his—“Beginning Strokes,” “Advanced play,” “Training methods”—cassette tapes ($8.50 each) or, and this is innovative, buy his response letters to questions sent him ($7.50 each).
At the Eastern’s, John wins the Mixed with Ogimura-trained Olga Soltesz. But loses in the Men’s to Peter Pradit. “I don’t think I can ever beat Lee. Or maybe Pradit,” John says after the match. So if he doesn’t think he can….
At the ’72 U.S. Open, he opens strongly, knocking out Resek and ex-Korean National Champ Joong Gil Park Then, with Bong Mo Lee giving him emotional strength, making him feel he can’t lose, he goes out to meet D-J in the semi’s.
John’s down 1-0 but up 15-13 in the 2nd when, according to John, D-J picks up the ball and throws it on the rise into his racket, gives John a super illegal serve. Then he starts with the same serve again. This time umpire Bill Scheltema warns him….Lee goes for his towel….Starts with the same serve again. Is warned….Goes for his towel….John is livid after his defeat and charges D-J with cheating.” At an earlier tournament, John had said that he couldn’t let D-J down ‘cause he’s such a winner. Only now D-J, in winning, has let John down.
After Tannehill had words with Steenhoven in Detroit and been sent packing, maybe he didn’t really want to be on another U.S. Team? At the Tryouts for the 1973 U.S. World Team, after you’d thought of John as U.S. #2 for the last 4 seasons, he posted an unbelievable 6 and 8 record. But he did want to beat D-J. And finally did—28-26 in the 3rd. And yet—o.k., he had a blister, but, m’god, 8 losses!
Enough to make you quit, was it? Sort of. He went to the University of Maine, where for 6 months he attended Bert Jacobs’ classes and studied and wrote papers. Then made up his mind to come back to table tennis and start afresh. Joe Newgarden made it possible for him to again train in Miami, and Marv and Caron Leff invited him into their home and gave him moral support.
John resurfaces at the 1973 CNE and makes preparations to play one of the mainstays of the Yugoslav National Team, Zlatko Cordas, who’s winding up a coast-to-coast, two-month tour of the U.S. Except for some Organic Topaz Coconut-Banana Honey, John was, as he said, fasting. He was also into meditation and yoga. In addition, he was wearing a Zuni Indian badger claw of inlaid turquoise—“guaranteed,” said John’s guru friend and teacher Jacobs, “to turn your enemies to stone.”
Though down 2-1 to Cordas, he rallies for the win. “I play for the spectators” who give energy to the table, he says, and for my friends Bert, Patty, and Ron Schull who’re praying for me.
After reading Carlos Castaneda, John says, “I like to think of myself as a warrior, as a man of unbending intent. A warrior never indulges himself. He chooses a path with heart, and never doubts himself.” Soren Kierkegaard says “purity of heart is to will one thing and then follow that path with passion, without doubt or remorse. Each table tennis shot has to be a symbol of that.”
Does John beat U.S. #1 Danny Seemiller in that CNE final? No, but they play a gutsy, thrilling 5-game match, with Danny winning the key 3rd game 25-23. Afterwards, John was upbeat, had no regrets—smiled and said, “I met another warrior.”
In the Kansas City Invitational that follows, Cordas can’t be stopped. But, before losing to Zlatko, also his winning Doubles partner, John will beat not only D-J but also Alex Tam. Once Tan Cho-lin, China’s World #14, Tam has now settled in the States after escaping from the Mainland a few years back. John feels that one reason why he beat Alex is because he saw him earlier taking a smoking break, eating a hamburger at McDonalds. Which means John will try hopelessly to improve my health by opening his bag and offering me Wheat Germ Oil, Nature’s Plus pills, Carrot juice from Germany, and black Honey.
Then it was on to the USOTC’s—where what warrior gave what warrior his only loss? Yep, it was Tannehill—over Seemiller.
John married Arlene in 1975, and in 1976 they had a daughter Clare, followed by a son Soren, both of whom are with him as he’s being honored tonight. From the mid-‘70’s on, John had been at least semi-retired. Still, before the old millennium was up, the two warriors would go at it again—with John for sure playing for fun, for feel. At the 1998 U.S. Open, Danny won the Hardbat final from John. At the 1999 St. Joe Valley Open, John won the Hardbat final from Danny.
Ten years ago, one of these warriors entered the Hall. Now it’s the other’s long overdo time to join him. Ladies and Gentlemen, a man who we know chooses his path with heart, John Tannehill.