Let's credit not only Parker Brothers but New York City's Tompkins Square (Ave. A and Tenth St. ) Boys' Club--led by its star player and all-around athlete (swimming, basketball, the shot-put, volley ball, handball, tennis), Marcus "Mark" Schussheim--for helping to bring Ping-Pong here in the U.S. back into popularity from its brief "fad" phase around the turn of the century.
After Mark's fame as our first National Champion, he was boyishly profiled in one of his Club's "Poisonalities" columns:
"MARCUS SCHUSSHEIM: Ping-pongist unique of the Boys' Club. Bloomed the 5th [make that the 4th] of August, 1912. Stands 5 feet 7 inches.
Sleeps on his stomach. Snores but claims it is unknown to him. Sleeps in the raw and encourages all to do likewise. Dreams constantly of the opposite sex. Slumbers alone. Drinks lemonade before retiring and upon rising.
Owes his life to an ashcan. At the age of two he fell from the third story directly into the can. Two points! A scar from this 'shot' persists beside his left eye.
Combs his hair three times daily.
Nothing pleases his palate more than a broiled steak. Never drank coffee, or--er--beer.
Likes to dunk his bread and crullers.
He's the president, vice-president, treasurer, board of directors, etc. of his own firm, The Rand Rapid [Messenger] Service Company. Has male secretaries. The mule!
Always helps [Boys Club] 'Recordmen' with their ping-pong articles. Can be found every Tuesday and Wednesday in the 'Record' room lending a hand. Furnished a good deal of the foregoing information personally. Is reputed to have said, 'A Record is incomplete without my name.'
Sunday is his 'lady's night.'
Being a gentleman--he prefers blond[e]s. 'Love 'em 'n' leave 'em is his motto."
Ah, this East Side Boys' Club--little Mark was only seven when he first came there. That's when his mother, on finding out the cost of a yearly membership for him was 10 cents, asked if she couldn't please pay on the installment plan.
Mark would agree that he owes a debt to Henry C. ("Hank") Randow, future President of both the Metropolitan Ping-Pong Association (1930-31) and the New York Table Tennis Association (1934-35). Randow was the Games Director for Intermediate Boys (ages 14-17) at Schussheim's Settlement House--and, not content with the Club's 1927-28 undefeated Boys' Athletic League play, helped Mark and his 1928-31 teammates get into and eventually win the big-time Metropolitan Ping-Pong League.
Of course the first 1929 match against the West Side YMCA had to have been momentarily disconcerting--so many new Ping-Pong rules these young players weren't used to. Forget about any "Lawn Tennis Count"--you now played each game to 21. And, no, you couldn't put your free hand on the table without losing a point. Also you had to alternate shots in doubles (a lot more moving around, huh?). As for the underhand one-bounce "Tennis Service," though it was still understood that only the handle of the racket could be above the waist, now the ball needn't be struck from under the table but from anyplace up to the server's waist-line. Oh, the unexpected spin those long-legged players could generate. Perhaps players of below average, or even average height like Mark, felt the need to jump as they served? Or, in this League, did they have to keep one foot on the floor? At any event, the double-bounce serve imported from Europe was imminent.
No one could doubt in these beginning years that, wherever one played, the rules had to be decided upon beforehand. Casual players might just drop the ball from the free hand to the table, then, after it bounced, hit it over the net, but Parker Brothers' American Association Ping-Pong (APPA) players were soon asked to follow today's standardized double-bounce pattern--except that initially the server (sometimes in singles, always in doubles) had to alternate each serve, first from his right "minor court," then from his left (though in doubles to give his partner more room, he could, so long as he struck the ball from behind the width of the table, stand outside the imaginary sidelines).
Schussheim's four-year League play against all those Metro players, young and old, under all kinds of close-quarter conditions, built his game. He and his teammates over the years--I think particularly of Abe Krakauer and Alex Gomberg, of Levy and Krowchunk, of Harry "Hesh' Osterweil and Pincus "Pinky" Reinish, of Meyer "Mike" Goldberg, Sol Damsky, Larry Quinn, Morris Berman, and Victor "Vitty" Schaffzin--played and usually won against whomever New York and its environs had to offer. That included the best from the New York Ping-Pong Club (reportedly begun as early as 1927 with eight charter members), the Hakoah Club, and the Art Guild, and also the Westchester White Plains and New Rochelle Clubs. Elsewhere, not Chicago, or St. Louis, or Indianapolis, or any other U.S. city and its surroundings could match the quality of play and depth of players Schussheim and his teammates were continually exposed to.
The first big tournament Schussheim won, in 1929, attracted a lot of entries--18 of his own Boys' Club members participated. Here's Mark to tell us about it:
"...Parker Bros...owned and coprighted the name Ping-Pong ["registered in the U.S. Patent Office, August 7, 1928"]. This meant nobody was allowed to manufacture Ping-Pong balls, racquets or tables and call it Ping-Pong other than Parker Bros....[In 1928 they formed the American Ping-Pong Association (APPA), and in 1929 they] opened their offices in New York in the Flatiron Building located on 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue and started a campaign to develop and publicize the game of Ping-Pong. They began by opening a beautiful Ping-Pong Club in New York and invited very prominent citizens to become members, some of whom were fine players....
Parker Bros. was mainly interested in developing the sport so they could sell lots of equipment. [At their plush tournaments they used to have lines of dressed-up tables full of balls and racquets.] The New York Ping-Pong Club was the alter ego of Parker Bros. and they did a fantastic job of putting the game of ping- pong on the map. The New York Ping-Pong Club advertised in the New York newspapers that they were holding a ping-pong tournament for the Championship of New York at the "Little Carnegie Playhouse" on 57th Street, in a private room off the lobby where there was one table....There was no entry fee and if you played, you could also see the show at the playhouse at no extra charge. Every cellar champ and local club champ entered, including myself.....After you entered the tournament, you received a card telling you to get in touch with so and so and play your match. On the wall in the ping-pong room at the Little Carnegie Playhouse were four charts with approximately 32 names on each chart and if you won, you put your name in the next bracket...."
Enroute to winning this tournament over his Boys' Club teammate Pincus Reinish in a straight-game final, Schussheim, playing with a sandpaper racket, vanquished Court Gerstmann of the New York Ping-Pong Club in a key 18, -15, 8 quarter's match. Neil Schaad in his (1930) Ping-Pongdescribes Gerstmann's game:
"[He] is easily the most brilliant and interesting player to watch we have yet seen in this country. Gerstmann never plays safe. He attacks constantly, has blinding speed, being able to drive with either fore or back hand, has beautiful cut shots and knows how to mix spin strokes with his drives. He has beautiful form and has an easy, graceful motion that makes every stroke look simple...."
Gerstmann was a member of the German National Team at the first (Dec. 6-13, 1926) World Championships in London. He played all six Swaythling Cup Men's Team ties, and, with Germany unable to win a single one and so finishing dead last, his individual record was 4-14 (for then all nine matches per tie were played out). Though in the Singles he lost to an unheralded English player, A. E. Stillwell, in five games in the first round, he did in Team play earlier beat an eventual Singles quarterfinalist, Dr. A.H. Fyzee, the Provisional President of the Indian TTA and a Davis Cup lawn tennis player.
Unlike the great majority of players at this early time, Gerstmann played with a rubber-faced racket, and it seems for the several years he was on the scene he never lost a match in a tournament to anyone except Schussheim and once to Jimmy Jacobson in an 18-in-the-5th quarter's match in the 1932 Waldorf-Astoria APPA National's.
Schussheim says that after he won this Little Carnegie tournament--more likely, however, it's after he won the 1930 Metro Open--a Parker Brothers representative gave him a present of a rubber racket and that he was then the only player in his Boys' Club who had one. Perhaps the Club itself would now buy rubber rackets for his teammates? Certainly, as Mark told Director Randow, from now on any player interested in improving his game would sooner or later have to switch from wood, cork, or sandpaper to rubber.
A more important tournament won by Schussheim was the first annual Metropolitan Ping-Pong Championship, held (for men only) Mar. 24-28, 1930, Monday through Friday, on the roof of New York City's Pennsylvania Hotel. It was really our first (though unofficial) National's. The 336-entry reads like a Who's Who or Who Would Soon Be Who in Table Tennis--er, Ping-Pong.
Reporter Evelyn Seeley, writing about this tournament in the New York World-Telegram, spoke of an "amazing miscellaneous group": "Bankers and brokers...office boys and clerks, yachtsmen and Y.M.C.A. boys." Many players," she said, "spoke in Continental accents." Screened in on the Hotel Pennsylvania roof "by a net, [they] clicked away with rubber racquets and hard white balls, sounding like the 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer of 'orses 'oofs on the 'ard 'ighway." Not only was the game "extremely fast and played with great intensity," Ms. Seeley said, but it was "markedly polite." True, "one player, moved to exasperation by his partner's [read opponent's] tricky volleying, was heard to exclaim 'Damn!' but he quickly regained his poise."
The ninth and final round of this unofficial National's--played at 1 a.m., and won in straight games by Schussheim over Gerstmann--was umpired by APPA Vice-President and tennis celebrity Francis T. "Frank" Hunter (Bill Tilden's doubles partner?), elegantly dressed in a tux of course, and was watched by a crowd of 400.
Afterwards, as a number of Parker Brothers officials, including Mr. G. S. Parker, looked on, a trophy was presented to Mr. Schussheim by Mr. Hunter. One wonders though if, in the "moving pictures" of this tournament that Parker Brothers advertised were being distributed round the country by Pathe and Universal News reels, we'd see a close-up of Mark accepting his trophy. For the odd thing was that (as the best Parker Brothers' photo of the day shows) not Mr. Schussheim, or Mr. Parker, or any official, or even any bystander is smiling. Would this then cause Herbert Allan to worry that the high ideals of the Sport might be in jeopardy? Would the public think the ping-pong action here "frivolous"? After all, "business methods" and "spiritual benefits" didn't seem to come happily together in this Lower East Side Champion. As Allan had said, "The cardinal American principle that sport must have a higher raison d'etre than pleasure never should be lost." Had it been here?
"Winning that first big Championship," Mark was to say years later after a successful business career, "gave me the feeling I could do anything." A cocky kid was he? No doubt. "But," said Mark, "if you don't think that way, you'll never be good."
A week later, on Monday, Apr. 7, 1930, no less a personage than the ITTF Chair Ivor Montagu himself watched as Schussheim, this time on his own Boys' Club turf, was again presented with his Metro Cup. Montagu, playing in the evening's "Montagu Invitation Tournament," was using an at-first-difficult-to-return rubber racket serve, but T. Roland Jones finally got the btter of him in 3. In the final, Schussheim, down 1-0 and 20-16 match point, and down again 19-16 in the 3rd, rallied to beat Gerstmann.
To end the '29-30 season, Schussheim also won the Eastern Open Ping-Pong Championships, held Apr. 21-26 at the Kingston Tennis and Ping-Pong Club of Brooklyn.
The first official National Ping-Pong Championship (again, for men only) was held Mar. 25-28, 1931, at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City. There were 369 entries (nearly 150 of whom drew first round byes), each paying a $1 entry fee. The great majority were from the N.Y.-N.J. area, but there were also a dozen or so outside cities represented. Reportedly, over 700 players had tried to get in, but the field, which was going to start on only eight tables (later increased to 16), had to be restricted.
The closeness of the tables, players, and spectators prompted one reporter to point out an advantageous feature of the tournament--namely how "the audience may collect half a dozen or so ping pong balls during the evening, for the players knock many wild. Autographed by the 'international' players present they make excellent souvenirs." (The "international" players were of course just shamelessly hyped local players--the "former Champions" of Scotland, Poland, Lithuania, and Japan.)
One reporter describing the scene had this to say:
"...Umpires sat opposite each net, and 1,000 spectators registered enthusiasm with polite hand clapping. The players bowed, apologized, and treated each other with deference.
Only the costumes furnished a contrast to the white of Forest Hills. Anything went. Some wore tennis shoes. Some wore storm rubbers over their shoes to prevent slipping. Some played in coats [and knickers] and others considered shirt- sleeves and brilliant suspenders the proper outfit."
All players were supposed to wear colored shirts. But when one young man appeared on opening night in a white shirt, pleading that that was the only shirt he had with him, the officials, though fearful of white ball on white background, let him play anyway.
And the about-to-be-named "official" Champion--for his final-match win over Westchester County Champ Ed Svigals--how did he, Schussheim, look? Well, to jump ahead for a moment, here's N. Y. World-Telegram columnist Joe Williams, being more than a little snide, more than a little superior, telling us in a post-tournament rewrite article in the magazine Judge:
"If you are interested, the current national champion is a gentleman named Mr. Marcus Schussheim of New York, who is by way of something of a sports celebrity in his own name, which is pronounced as if you were singing 'Shush shine on, silvery moon.'
Mr. Schussheim is a very young man ["in," as the writer's earlier version in the World-Telegram had it, "his early Woolworth's, which is to say his teens or twenties,"] with a sort of Jimmy Durante, junior, size nose, and he comes bounding on to the floor with his sleeves rolled up to the elbows and his dark hair severely flattened out under generous spreads of slickem.
Mr. Schussheim tells the press that he owes his pre-eminence in the sport to subway rushes, food in automats, park-plan dances, and plenty of good old soot- soaked air."
After winning all these tournaments, including the National's--in which his last 21-18 game with Svigals was broadcast (apparently not very successfully) over WEAF by the famous commentator Graham McNamee--Schussheim was indisputably the #1 player in the country. In fact, he had won every single league or tournament match he had ever played (except--shhh, you could hardly count it--once, under very poor, very cramped playing conditions, he did lose a league match to a White Plains player forever unidentified in Mark's Scrapbook).
Parker Brothers, too, wanted to be the one and only winner--that is, of course, in insisting that players in their tournaments play only with their equipment. But was it good to have just one company--though granted a company with money to spend to promote the sport--call all the shots? Shouldn't the players themselves have some control over their destiny? Obviously if you didn't approve of the Parker Brothers "official" line you shouldn't be trying to play in their fancy Ping-Pong tournaments. So, take it--the Parker Brothers Ping-Pong tables, nets, posts, rackets, balls, rules--or leave it.
On Sept. 17, 1931, members of the Metropolitan Ping-Pong Association meeting at the Hotel Alamac in New York City unanimously voted to leave it--to form a New York Table Tennis Association (NYTTA).
Schussheim went along with the "outlaw" NYTTA, but privately, it seems, he didn't know what to think. Hadn't he been doing pretty well with Parker Brothers? They'd given him his first rubber racket, silver loving cups for winning their Championships, glamorous venues, and considerable publicity. Wherein lay his playing future?
Earlier our perennial Champion had supposedly told columnist Joe Williams that he, Marcus Schussheim, was primarily an "artist" and that there wasn't "enough money in America" to make him turn Ping-Pong "professional." So now Williams writes:
"Our Mr. Schussheim is not the artist we took him to be. Art for art's sake is not his credo. When you mention Art, it appears, he is disposed to ask, 'What about Marcus?'
I have seen some letters which our Mr. Schussheim wrote to the [APPA] tournament promoters in which he suggested that his participation in the [Second Annual National Ping-Pong] championship was of sufficient box office importance to warrant the payment of certain gratuities...."
Sixty years later, Schussheim has an answer for us in regard to Williams's implied question here, "Are you planning to turn pro?"
"My answer to him [Williams], which every good player could understand, was, 'You must be kidding. Who would be stupid enough to pay five cents to see me play? We are having a tournament here--a  National tournament with free admission and I am almost positive there isn't one single spectator in this whole crowd. There are approximately 1,000 people watching and they consist of 369 players, their families, their very close friends, and newspaper reporters.' Mr. Williams couldn't possibly print my answer which definitely would not have pleased Parker Brothers. Instead he wrote, 'Marcus Schussheim was primarily an artist and that there wasn't enough money in America to make him turn professional.' Did he forget I told him I lived in a tenement house on the East Side where we paid nine dollars a month in rent? I may have been naive but I wasn't stupid. Mr. Williams knew I was running a messenger service in New York where I saw a future and there was no possible future becoming a Ping-Pong pro."
Schussheim, though he sided with the NYTTA, thought, along with many another player, that Parker Brothers was on the right track when it gave out all those complimentary tickets to black-tie high society to help fill the house at the APPA's upcoming 1932 National's--a Championship that would be played in the Grand Ballroom of N.Y.'s swank Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Chicago star Max Rushakoff, a Russian immigrant, would speak admiringly of how "the upper strata of society jammed the boxes, at a cost of three dollars a person," and how it was "these people, after all, [who] make a tournament, what with their high station and evening clothes."
Parker Brothers always wanted to bring an image of well-to-do Hollywood glamour to Ping-Pong (as in fact those in Table Tennis would want to do too). As late as the spring of 1934, after the USTTA was well on its way to completely taking over the U.S. tournament scene from the APPA, Reader's Digest carried a pro Ping-Pong/consequently anti Table Tennis article by John R. Tunis, the following lines of which voice a strong class-consciousness:
"Harold Lloyd is chairman of the Pacific Coast Ping-Pong Association, which includes Ginger Rogers, Conrad Nagel, Fay Wray, Nancy Carroll, Lew Ayres, and Howard Deitz.
It would be nice to be able to enumerate an equally imposing list of big shots who enjoy Table Tennis, but this is impossible. Its cohorts, being recruited from the East Side of Manhattan and the South Side of Chicago, are named Bernbaum [read Berenbaum], Schiff, Schussheim and Lipschitz [read Lipschutz]."
Table Tennis has often been considered a predominately "poor man's" sport, its players notoriously "cheap." It's also been considered a "Minority" sport in the U.S., and for many years a "Jewish" sport. Implicit in these attempts to categorize it is the looked-for explanation as to why Table Tennis has never gained the recognition that those who play it avidly feel it deserves.
Schussheim was more a realist than a romantic. New York City Champion, then National Champion, he certainly was, but he wouldn't join the genteel New York Ping-Pong Club, even in the highly unlikely event he were asked to. He didn't fit the black-tie Parker Brothers image. As I said before, one has only to look at that photo showing Mark receiving his 1930 Metropolitan Ping-Pong Championship trophy from the unsmiling tuxedoed elite to understand how privately disapproving they were of this Lower East Side winner.
The 1932 NYTTA National's (for men only) was held on the 9th floor of L. Bamberger and Company Department Store in Newark, N.J.--and spectators had to pay $.50 admission fee ($1 for the final).
Defending Champ Schussheim's opening match was against steady forehand topspinnr Rudy Rubin who was said to have had "a tricky side-spin slice." However, as one reporter put it, Mark "without changing from his street clothing, nonchalantly stepped up to the table and conquered in successive games." Amazing, was it? And not a little patronizing. Six decades later, Schussheim's contemporary, Joe Blatt, still recalled vividly how Mark was not well liked by the players, how he'd cockily come over to a draw and say, "Let's see, who do I play in the semi's?...Oh, he's no problem." Perhaps it was Mark's air of invincibility that had prompted one awestruck teenage Boys' Club reporter to say that it "would take a supernatural player to defeat Schussheim."
Phil Miller was not such a player--though for a while in the 19, -20, 16, 10 final he certainly put up respectable resistance. Said one reporter in describing the match:
"He [Schussheim] allowed Miller to do the hard driving, but he kept the ball going back at him so fast that Miller had little chance to set himself for his drives. Schussheim made some remarkable gets all through the match, robbing his opponent time and again of what looked like sure points."
The May 15-18, 1933 NYTTA National's, held at Gimbel's Department Store (at 33rd and Broadway), again suffered by comparison with the earlier Parker Brothers APPA National's held in the Grand Ballroom of the stylish Palmer House in Chicago. Also, the newspaper publicity, compared to what Parker Brothers' 1932 APPA Champion Coleman Clark had gotten, left much to be desired. New York columnist Ed Hughes was scarcely promoting the Sport when he gave readers his lasting impression of the tournament:
"...The tiny dwarfish character of the thing chilled me. It seemed like real tennis done in the marionette form. The delicate balls, the puny bats, the microscopic net that seemed like some patient old lady's tatting, all served to strangle the thrill for me. Only the players loomed large and I thought that seemed inconsistent. For the sake of artistic unity I'd like to have seen two dwarfs opposed to each other...."
Still, there is at least one wild enthusiast: 19-year-old David Doll--who's hitchhiked all the way from Chicago. "Had to get here, just had to," he says. Yeah? replies a reporter. So what's it like hitchhiking all those miles?
"It was hard getting lifts in the day, but night drivers were just fine," explains Doll. "The trip didn't cost much, only twelve cents fare from Jersey City. I still have eighty cents, which should be plenty, as the tournament will be over Thursday. And I don't intend to spend a cent going home." [The players later "took up a collection for Doll" and got him back to Chicago "on the Twentieth Century."]
National Champ Schussheim was uncharacteristically having his troubles this '33 National's. No longer would it take a "supernatural" player to beat him--mere mortals were proving they could do that. Shown to be vulnerable this season, and having a Champion's intensity, maybe Mark could occasionally be viewed as one of those "temperamental stars [who] glowered at spectators who applauded their errors, or [who] smacked their bats smartly with moist palms when shots went awry"? In the 16th's, he'd had to go 5 to beat Fred Festger, NYTTA Tournament Committee Chair. Then, in the 8th's, he again drew lefty teenager Al "Stonewall" Goldman, a bespectacled, baby-face blocker with a wooden racket, who only three weeks earlier had upset Mark in a tournament. Two hours--that's how long it took Schussheim, "chiseling," to win this aggressively non-aggressive match.
Now, in the quarter's, Mark was faced with Bronx accountant Seymour Solomon--a "lean" and "thoughtful young man," as one reporter put it, "whose only preparation for title play," wrote another, was "doffing coat and vest and shucking off his cravat.'
New York player Dick Geiger writes about this turning-point match in Schussheim's career:
"Seymour was hot. He swept across the table with his unique, effortless penholder forehand, and Marc [sic] was driven back into the crowd. It was to no avail that he stamped the floor, rushed in to use his backhand flip. Back he went on his heels as Solomon murderously smashed into the ball."
Although Schussheim tried tenaciously to hang in there (ordinarily, he said, he could give top-of-the-bounce attacker Solomon at least 5 points a game), he -16, -22, -25 just couldn't do it, couldn't ignore the message that his years of triumph were coming to an end.
Best then to lose graciously--which, as one reporter noted, he did:
"When Solomon won the last point of the prolonged set-to, the players embraced in the manner of two prize fighters who have just gone twelve fast rounds to a draw [sic]."
Interestingly, though, when the 1932-33 NYTTA Rankings came out in Oct. of '33, Schussheim was conspicuously absent from the list. Was the Association punishing him for some reason? Or didn't he participate in enough tournaments--maybe didn't play other than in the NYTTA-sponsored Metro Championships (in which he lost to Goldman) and the NYTTA National Championships (in which he lost to Solomon)? If so, what did his absence mean? Was making money from his ("Telegram or Package, Sir? It makes a difference") increasingly popular Messenger Service becoming more and more this 20-year-old's preoccupation--so much so that he'd neglected to keep tournament tough? Still, what kind of future could there possibly be for him in table tennis? "Nobody knows the early history of the Game like I do," he was to say later. "I suffered through it."
No doubt from a present-day perspective it's depressing to note that the NYTTA, at a meeting of its Executive Committee on Jan. 4, 1933, had set down very strict guidelines for its amateur players. Supposedly any one of 13 violations would make a player (Schussheim in particular?) ineligible to compete in NYTTA tournaments. For example, the player...
- could not permit "the use of his name or initials on sporting goods" for advertising or sales promotion;
- could not be connected "with a firm manufacturing or selling table tennis goods";
- could not use "his titles or statement of his reputation as a player...in connection with books, newspaper, or other written articles, motion pictures of himself, lectures, or radio talks, for which he would receive any payment of compensation";
- could not write "for pay or a consideration current newspaper articles covering a tournament or match in which he is entered as a competitor";
- could not teach Table Tennis "for pay or for a consideration";
- could not play a match for a cash prize";
- could not, without USTTA permission, play "in a team or exhibition match where gate receipts are charged";
- could not, except through the USTTA, receive or negotiate "expenses to play in tournaments, or team matches outside of New York State."
Wow! How'd you like to be U.S. Champion under these conditions! Is it any wonder that, decades later, when these restrictions were recalled to him, Mark could only gasp, "A man couldn't breathe!"
Whether such rules were ever actually enforced, however, is another matter. Certainly Schussheim would have violated them just for practicing with Ruth Aarons. He remembers receiving tickets to Broadway shows and ("Won't you please stay?") accepting dinners at Ruth's house. Actually, Mark doesn't think the players or even officials paid much if any attention to these rules. (S the fact that he wasn't ranked didn't mean he was being disciplined?) Regardless, he recalls only a relatively few opportunities for making even a small amount of money--remembers, for instance, playing a small exhibition tournament with a handful of his contemporaries at some "3-4-table Coney Island joint for maybe a $15 first prize."
At any event, peak-tumbling past aside, ex-Champ, ex-ranked Schussheim was not yet ready to retire. And just as well--for, though he didn't know it yet, an excitingly different table tennis world was about to open to him.
The idea of international play was suddenly in the air. On Sept. 23 in New York City, the NYTTA got its 1933-34 season off to an impressive start when Schussheim and four other N.Y. players, representing the "U.S.," defeated a strong Quebec team, representing "Canada." This first Team Match between the two countries--which drew a few lines of coverage by famed Broadway columnist Walter Winchell who'd dropped in on the action--was initiated by James Cooke of the Province of Quebec TTA, and the friendly rivalry continued thereafter through six decades.
Having been enthusiastically invited to become a member country in the ITTF "family" by Montagu, the USTTA now set about organizing its first American Zone Tournament. Held Nov. 17-18, 1933 at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago, it would determine who would represent the U.S. at the upcoming World Championships Dec. 2-10 in Paris. There would be three separate Championships--Men's Singles, Women's Singles, and Men's Doubles--but only the Men's Singles winner would have his way paid to Paris.
Before this USTTA tournament, the APPA warned that anyone who participated would be barred from playing in its Western Open the following week. But this 1933 Zonal Qualifier had so many "outlaw" entries that to save face the APPA had to postpone its Western Open for a few months. The secession here in Chicago of a key group of prestigious Western PPA players--a secession urged by a fervent, personal appeal from Yoshio Fushimi, the local defensive star who was often Coleman Clark's exhibition partner--was the beginning of the end for the APPA.
Not a Western but an Eastern player was favored to win the tournament and the free trip to the World's. Eight NewYorkers had entered: Schussheim, Schiff, Solomon, Heitner, Rubin, Bernard Joel, Fred D. Thompson, and George Schein. Of course they were excited about playing, but, to begin with, they had to figure out how to get to Chicago. Since most if not all of the players couldn't afford to go by plane or train, Thompson, who'd run the popular uptown YMCA Club (124th and Lennox), rented a large van or truck and, on equiping it with mattresses, off they all went, sprawled this way and that. After riding (sometimes 20 hours at a stretch) for four days and nights, sometimes through heavy snowstorms, the players, all cramped up and sometimes exasperated, were more than ready to contend with another out at a table, if just for the fun of taking an even longer trip to Paris.
The most significant matches of this Zonal Qualifier were Schiff's deuce-in-the-5th win over Solomon in the quarter's; Max Rushakoff's straight-game upset of Heitner in the semi's; and especially the Schiff-Schussheim semi's that would likely determine which of the two would represent the U.S. in Paris.
Schiff had just beaten Schussheim 28-26 in the deciding 3rd in a tune-up tournament at the Broadway Courts. But here in Chicago, Sol's early mentor, George Schein, would write, after winning the first game from Schussheim, Sol lapsed into "overconfidence and continuous carelessness" in the 2nd, and so allowed Mark to even the match, get some needed confidence, and go on to win it, deuce in the 4th.
Schiff himself, reminiscing about this match, said that, point after point, the better he'd hit in shots, the more the crowd would go crazy, and the more Mark, following the pat-on-the-back approach he'd taken toward Schiff the whole (my god, stop-for-a-minute, can't you?) trip, would himself applaud and say something complimentary. In fact, Sol said, Schussheim seemed at times even to be "feeding" him balls--with the result that, blasting away to one rapturous Ohhh! after another from the spectators, trying to hit the ball harder and harder, Sol began missing more shots than he was making and never could find the right winning rhythm.
Message coming down from the boss: winning The Big One's too heady stuff yet for the 16-year-old, even though he is, and knows he is, the best player in the country. Match to the crafty, experienced "old" champion who early in the tournament had found a ball he liked (in those days of course they were never uniform) and, though a few of his opponents objected, had insisted on playing with it throughout.
As for Schiff's vaunted knucklespin serves, Schussheim says Sol did use them (they were illegal in New York but not in Chicago--the USTTA wouldn't ban them until Jan., 1934). However, since Sol didn't win with them, perhaps this bears out his contention that, once good players were used to them, they didn't really give you that much of an advantage. (The rub of course was getting used to them.)
In the final. no psych job was necessary. Schussheim's defense was just too strong for Rushakoff's penholder attack. Still, many of the points were challengingly played: one rally, it was said, "ran to at least 100 strokes each."
The other results seemed almost not to matter. Schussheim and Heitner won the Doubles--but Heitner would not go to Paris. The 16-entry Women's was won by Gertrude "Trudie" Schnur--but she would not go to Paris either.
For Schussheim a rough sea might lie ahead, but what a way to cap a career! More than half a century later he recalls his European adventure:
"In 1933 planes did not fly to Europe. To get to Paris in time to play in the tournament, I had to rush to New York to pick up my passport and catch the S.S. United States [actually the steamship "Washington"?] going to LeHavre. From LeHavre I took a train to Paris and was greeted by a contingent of table tennis players and immediately brought to a table tennis center where [the already 3-time World Champion] Victor Barna, [and already2-time World runner-up] Laszlo Bellak and all the European champions were waiting for me. They didn't even give me a chance to check into a hotel. When it came to playing table tennis, I felt like the cellar champ who took on everyone in the neighborhood. From 1929 to 1933, I lost only one match [sic] and I felt I could beat anyone. When it came to athletics, the whole world had respect for the American athletes and they [the world's best players] were really worried about this American playing in the World Championship. They couldn't wait and had to find out immediately how good I was. Well, it took exactly five minutes and their fears vanished. I played Barna one set and I believe I made five points. If I was smart, I would have taken the next ship back to the states, but I stayed and learned how the game should be played."
In the first two rounds of the Singles, Schussheim said he had weak French opponents. Playfully he reported to New York Table Tennis that he equated the first of these two "set-ups" with Seymour Solomon and the second with Sol Schiff. In the 3rd round, Mark lost a close match, 19 in the 4th, to Arnold Oschins (or Osins) of Latvia.
On coming home from these Championships, Schussheim, along with a few other New Yorkers, was invited down to the Philadelphia TTA's Broad and Cherry St. Headquarters, where he gave a little talk about his experiences at the World's. Here's the Philadelphia Bulletin's Laura Lee describing the scene:
""You could...ask him [Schussheim] questions, which everyone did....[Did] he raise his mustache in Paris, and how were the girls?
And Mr. Schussheim, not to be trifled with, chose to think they meant girls playing table tennis, and he said they were fine--why, there was a Hungarian woman player [Maria Mednysnszky, World Champion from 1926 through '31] that could beat any man in America!" ["Ridiculous," Schiff would say later on hearing this.]
In an article for Topics, Mark said he heartily approved of the NYTTA's decision to accept the European lightweight ball (37-39 grains) as opposed to the American "bullet" ball (42-46 grains), the worst lot of which the ball-makers abroad had always reserved for the U.S. Offering a "higher and better bounce," too were the "one-inch solid top wood" tables.
Schussheim had emphasized that the best players in Europe were professionals--they do "nothing but play table tennis...with the sole intention of becoming perfect." But he'd also said prophetically that it's "only a matter of time before we will be considered in the same class."
Now he was writing in Topics:
"The Europeans' game is not vastly different from ours, but their precision in defense and agility in attack are far superior. And their headwork is beyond description.
...All the European stars play thoughtfully, scientifically, always trying for placements, always working to get the other fellow out of position for a drive...."
After his discovery in Paris that, veteran though he was, he still had a few things to learn about the Sport (he could see he lacked a necessary good attack), and knowing he was only as good as his competition, Schussheim, about whom Neil Schaad had written earlier, "He has that rare ability to raise his game as occasion demands," slowly began to lose it, began to realize, realist that he was, that there was no more he could do in table tennis that he hadn't already done.
In the Feb., 1934 first New York State Championship, he lost to the eventual winner Schiff, deuce in the 4th, in the semi's. Then in mid-March he dropped a tough 13, 9, -19, -19, -17 Metro Open final to Abe Berenbaum after threatening to run away with the match. And finally in the USTTA National's in early April he lost another 5-gamer in the 8th's to Max Rushakoff (whose "blistering drives," wrote one observer, "broke through Mark's great defense"), then, having teamed with defending Singles Champion Heitner in the Doubles, he had to settle for being runner-up to the George Schein-arranged pick-up pair of Schiff and Manny Moskowitz.
That was it--Mark's last season as a serious contender. Though he would surface for the Dec. 3-4, 1934 American Zone tournament in New York, and though he would repeatedly play in National's to follow, he was obviously always out of practice and would lose in an early round. "I returned to those last tournaments to remember who I was," he would say good-naturedly years later. Now he'd no longer commit himself to table tennis but to another competitive way of life.
Until 1946, when he moved to California, and by this time he'd changed his name to Mark Matthews, Schussheim thrived as much in the New York business world as he had in table tennis, matching his Rapid Messenger Service against Western Union and Postal Telegraph. "My table tennis really gave me business contacts," Mark would emphasize. "And I suppose, in the sense that I played the Game with executives and furthered my career in doing so, I might indirectly be called a professional after all."
On making Miami his permanent home, he became a successful (high rise and shopping center) builder, and managed along the way to be one of the best handball players in the state. As a Senior Olympian, he won medals in golf, swimming, racketball, and basketball. Catch him on an afternoon in the '90's, say, coming off a cruise to Hawaii, and chances are that some 18-year-old enthusiast with the runner-up ping-pong trophy will have paid unknowing homage to this stranger, this older man, who said he used to be--and still was--a Champ.