USA Table Tennis

Surely no USTTA President was ever so anonymous to the general membership as he’s about to take office as Otto Ek was. Not a word had been written about him in Topics, only the line in the monthly list of “Affiliates” indicating he was President of the Ohio TTA—and even that the Editor got wrong first time out. In the Oct., 1951 issue, in a mix-up with his son, Otto was referred to as Fred, then the youngest qualifier for the Cleveland team at the ’51 National Team Championships and two seasons later the #3 Junior in the country.

In his farewell article as President, Jim Shrout (1951-54) had a few words to say about his successor: 

“Your new President will be a business man with a full time job that demands the major portion of his time and energy. The balance he is donating to the USTTA. Help him use this time to good advantage by giving him the help and clerical assistance he must have, if he is to do more than just keep the association alive until he becomes too busy or too discouraged to keep on trying to do more” (TTT, May, 1954, p.2). 

Strangely, Shrout doesn’t mention the incoming President’s name, nor is it mentioned by anyone anywhere in the issue (or, as I say, in any previous issue). Such is the appalling state of the Association it’s as if everyone’s not really sure this “business man” is going to materialize. I, however, coming from Ohio, knew Ek, was the Vice-President from the Dayton area, had run tournaments there, and in fact had been urged by Otto to succeed him as OTTA President, but I was into too many other things to even consider accepting.

When in the fall of ’54 Otto did courageously take over as USTTA President, did he know what he was getting into? Maybe not. Here’s the opening of his Oct. 19, 1954 letter to his Executive Committee: 

“Information has reached me that during the Summer Meeting a resolution was presented and approved to discontinue publication of ‘Topics,’ and replace it with issuance of a mimeographed letter prepared by the President. I have not yet been furnished with a copy of the minutes of this meeting.” 

It certainly defies tradition that the incoming President wasn’t at the Summer Meeting (the new season starts June 1), and that the Board was making decisions involving him without his knowledge. He protests that “‘Topics’ appears to be necessary for an association such as ours,” and says that “we surely owe something to the present subscribers and advertisers.” He urges that, before his E.C. members “take any action so drastic as allegedly [sic] proposed at the Summer Meeting,” they all candidly talk over the situation. He calls for an Emergency Meeting—but not until Nov. 28-29. Meanwhile, unprecedentedly, there’s neither a magazine nor a newsletter. Ek says: 

“I understand our current liabilities run close to $2,000 and the prospects to wipe out the indebtedness, even if we discontinue publishing ‘Topics,’ from expected revenues is not too favorable. Unquestionably, it is necessary for us to ‘tighten our belts,’ and also to find a means for paying our outstanding bills, before we get into serious trouble with our debtors.”

Problem is that only “22 of 48 states have any [USTTA] members at all.” That “roughly only $750.00 income was derived from membership in the USTTA.” This meant the USTTA membership was at an all-time low. As of April, 1954, there were only 657 members in the Association, with more than half of them paying just a $.25 membership fee. Of these 657, there were “only approximately 400 paid subscribers” (at $1 a year) to Topics.

Ek by nature may have deliberately kept a low profile, but he was a responsible fellow. In just a few months, by January, 1955, the Association’s outstanding bills had been cleared up, and Otto, withstanding members’ complaints, game, persistent, had taken on the additional role of NewsletterEditor. He thus kept the lines of communication open as best he could with monthly mimeographed pages, unnumbered, bunched and stapled, as if hot off the typewriter.

He and his E.C. bristled a bit when Dick Miles had independently queried English TTA Secretary-Treasurer Bill Vint about an all expenses-paid invitation for him to play in the English Open. Dick, he said, should have come, per ITTF and USTTA regulations, to the USTTA first for permission to make the deal. Miles replied that his query was just a casual “feeler,” and that had the invitation been fully extended him (the English offered hospitality but not air fare) he naturally would have sought permission from the Association to accept.

In a later clash with Ek—who’s taken aback when Miles, with some customary wiles and likely necessary but controversial “private negotiations” regarding a Far East Tour he’d worked out, repeatedly urged that Reisman and Cartland, suspended from playing in international tournaments, be permitted to play international exhibitions—Dick’s arguments were far more convincing than those by Otto and his E.C. who insisted on enforcing a very questionable ban. I will say, though, that while I don’t think USTTA administration after administration is empathic enough to the concerns of our Sport’s greatest historic figures, I certainly believe Ek had integrity, did try to hear one out, and then do firmly what he thought best.

By the June 18-19, 1955 E.C. Meeting in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (just outside Cleveland where Ek lived), a USTTA resurrection of sorts was evident. For the “first time in seven years,” as a result of Topics being discontinued, the Association’s books were in the black. Hence next season members would receive the (normally $1 a year) Newsletter free, beginning with an extra September issue to encourage membership growth. The USTTA’s Cash Balance as of May 31, 1955 was $844.06—“showing a net profit of $1,678.38 for the year.” Also, in less than six months, a membership increase had occurred. At the end of the 1954-55 season, there were now 264 full Adult members, 46 Multiple members, 219 Junior members, and 190 Club members.

Miles had beaten Bergmann in the final of the ’55 Rochester U.S. Open, and Otto was historical-minded enough to acquire a film of those National’s, and to realize that it and foreign films newly available, loaned to clubs, could be of promotional value. In addition to a film of the 1949 Stockholm World’s, there was one of the 1954 London World’s as well (showing top stars, European and Japanese, playing with both hard bat and sponge—over a running time of 25 minutes, and with narration by Jack Carrington). These films after 50 years still exist and are presently being modernized.

When President Ek first heard about Guy Blair’s proposed Aug. 27-28, 1955 Ohio Open Invitational at the Buckeye Lake Amusement Park near Columbus, Ohio, where Guy ran his club, he thought it possibly a “colossal proposition” which might give the USTTA “a much needed boost.” It turned out, however, to be a colossal headache for Otto.

Blair said he’d lost a considerable amount of money on this tournament, wanted his sanction fee waived (15% of the entries), but hadn’t all the match results to turn in, wasn’t interested in filling out the requisite USTTA Forms, and was apparently keeping the “Fighting Fund” money he’d collected (entries were “taxed” a small amount as a means of raising funds for our U.S. Team to the World’s).

In an Oct. 22 letter to Tournament Chair Jack Dale, President Ek says: 

“…Guy seems to know quite definitely how much money he collected, and how much of a loss was sustained! How can he be aware of all this, and still claim ‘records’ have been lost? Were all these matters in Guy’s hands? I thought the Buckeye Lake Assn. was the sponsor.

What happened to the ‘Fighting Fund’ fees which were collected? These fees absolutely cannot be waived under any circumstances. They were collected from each player [25 cents] for each event, on the basis they would be turned over to the Fighting Fund. This particular collection must always be recorded as a separate item of Tournament collections.

…Why, Jack, if Guy claims records ‘lost’ on Fighting Fund collections, it is the same as embezzlement. [Indignant E.C. member Lillian Guyer calls it ‘fraud.’]

…This is the final time for Guy! We have been lenient, too lenient with him in the past. If he does not clear up this mess satisfactorily and promptly, although I am reluctant to do so, I see no alternative but to place the whole matter before the E.C. and recommend that he be barred for life from participation…in the handling of USTTA sanctioned tournaments [which means he could still play in them?].

…[Please put Blair on notice of this possible punishment and tell him] that any disciplinary action deemed advisable by the E.C. shall be published in the USTTA NEWSLETTER that all members may be so informed.

I, too, have all the sympathy in the world for his financial loss, if they had one. However, I just cannot believe Blair would lose as much as $143.36 in any sort of a venture. Who are the other two [Guy’s partners] who lost $143.36 each. I believe his entry fees totaled more than $279.50. Most players entered at least 2 events, cost around $6.50. I signed up at least 20 new members, many others already had cards, including practically everyone from N.Y. If there were only 50 players entered, the gross would have been over $300. The Men’s draw alone had that many, or more! Transportation he says for tables seems high. Cannot comprehend the expense for bleachers because the site uses them for other types of events. Looks like a build-up to make his losses appear staggering!…” 

Guy calls Otto, says there were 111 entries, says he wasn’t aware that the Fighting Fund fees were separate from the sanction fees. Anyway, the Fighting Fund money amounts only to $27.50. Says he’s not done anything because he’s waiting to hear if the sanction fee has been waived. Then he vents for maybe 10 minutes. Otto says that Blair resents the disciplinary threat, and makes “several derogatory remarks about the USTTA, the members running it, including myself, and various trite remarks.” Blair will follow that 10-minute tirade by returning a letter from Otto unopened and adding an Oct. 31, 1955 accusatory letter of his own that says: 

“…Anything that you might possibly have to say I couldn’t care less. I repeat that I think you are a very little man. Instead of trying to really help and promote the game, you have probably set it back ten years. I have talked with many players that carry those same sentiments, so it is not as one-sided as you probably would like to think. Of course, there are your clustered few who pat one another on the back, each assuring the other what a wonderful job is being done.

Just what have you done to really help the game in 1955? Did you promote more tournaments and aid in the organization and execution of them? (You wouldn’t even referee a match at Buckeye Lake.) Have you done anything to increase the Junior program which is really the backbone of the game? Do you attempt to centralize the major tournaments for the benefit of the majority of the players?  (The [Nov., 1955] Nat’l. intercities [are] in Conn. [actually Worcester, MA] & the [Mar., 1956] National’s in N.Y.) It would seem that your primary interest is to set [sic] back on your haunches, collect all monies possible and do nothing in return for same, [except] discredit those who attempt to run tournaments and try to give the players a little something for his [sic: for their; Guy’s thinking of himself here?] time, energy, and money spent. Whether you believe it or not the game is still primarily for the players, and not for putting the executives on a higher plane! For the first time in years we didn’t even have an Ohio Open last year (your home state). I, along with others, think it is time for a new organization, and just possibly something might be done about it! Yours for the game, Guy.” 

Poor Otto. He needs this rant? He’s been doing a good job, and Jack Dale, too, whose hard work will bring about many more tournaments this season. Imagine the short, acerbic response President Zeisberg back in the ‘30’s would have given such unwarranted criticism. Patiently Ek answers, perhaps instinctively questioning whether Blair really couldn’t care less. For if Guy weren’t involved in the Sport, really didn’t care, he wouldn’t have written the above letter, right? Here’s much of Otto’s reply: 

“…I believe criticism is good for the sport, and I personally welcome it….I do not believe it is my place to comment on what, I, personally, have, or have not done to help the game in 1955. I do know that…many, many hours of volunteer time have been given by officials [toward]…promoting the sport, I believe with a certain amount of success.

The promotion of tournaments is in the hands of a very capable National Tournament Chairman, who has organized tournaments in regions that have been inactive for years….The USTTA would like nothing better than to be able to centralize all major tournaments! However, we must, perforce, accept the best bids offered, and many times the only bid! Presently 50% of our entire membership is east of Ohio and north of Virginia. [Also, says Otto, the USTTA can’t ‘demand’ that any state run an Open.]

[The] USTTA President should not referee matches….USTTA presidents,…ITTF officers throughout the world observe the same practice.

I certainly will agree with you that a Junior program should be promoted to the ultimate, as this division is the backbone of the sport. Candidly, the USTTA generally has not fostered the Junior program well, and we certainly hope to do something constructive toward this end in due time….Since you, personally, have been pretty much in control of table tennis in Columbus during the past 5 years, might I ask what have you done to develop the Junior program?

…I, too, consider the sport is for the players, all the players….[However,] there is still need for Rules and Regulations, to insure that players’ rights are protected….Sincerely, Otto F.J. Ek, President, USTTA.” 

So, bringing closure to this disciplinary problem, the USTTA invokes on Guy Blair a lifetime suspension as a player and official.”

Closure, did I say? Four years later, after Rufford Harrison has replaced Ek as President and Si Wasserman has replaced Tibor Hazi as Disciplinary Chair, Rufford, in an Oct. 20, 1959 letter to Si, explains Ohio TTA President Bill Atkinson’s request that Blair be reinstated: 

“…His [Atkinson’s] point was that in Columbus they always had two places to play, the Beatty—colored—place and Blair’s place. Many of their [Blair’s] members have no objection—they say—to playing with colored people, but about fifty percent do object. In actual fact, the Beatty club is 100% colored, with none of the white people playing there. [However, the annual Beatty Club’s Midwest Open tournament does draw quite a few white entries.]

The white people have been still playing at Blair’s place, but B is getting fed up with the fact that he is host to all these members of an association that has thrown him out. Atkinson feels that B is ready to throw in the sponge, and throw out the players, thus leaving them with nowhere to play. He therefore wishes that we would review the case.”                       

So the USTTA Disciplinary Committee does. Atkinson pays the $27.50, takes responsibility for fulfilling all USTTA obligations incurred in any tournament run by Blair, and in a Dec. 24, 1959 letter, Wasserman as Chair says his Committee recommends, and the E.C. approves, that Guy “be given a probationary reinstatement for a period of one year.” 

In a Feb. 5th, 1956 letter to President Ek, Jack Schugardt, former Philadelphia T.T. Center owner, expressed his disillusionment that the upcoming National’s had Doubles of all kinds—Men’s, Women’s, Mixed, Senior’s—but no Junior Doubles, and not enough play in general for youths. He pointed out that some of his students wanted to attend the U.S. Open, but, as they were too old for the Boys,’ they had but one event, the Junior’s, in which to try to win a match. So, urged Jack, for the future of the Game give the young players a break—not the has-beens in their 40’s and 50’s rubbing their knees with “Ben Gay.” Otto listened to this plea—and acted. At the last minute, a Junior Doubles, a Junior Mixed Doubles, a Girls’ Under 15, and three Consolation events—for Junior’s, Junior Miss, and Boys’—were added. Which also pleased Guy Blair?

On Apr. 18, 1956, Ek writes his E.C. about a “proposal” from a Mr. Richard Saunders of  NYC’s Combined Artists, Inc. (perhaps the brother of 1955-elected NYTTA President Bill Saunders?). There is a “possibility,” says Ek, “of showing ‘local’ [t.t.] programs during the summer season, as a ‘try-out’” to see if such shows “would merit expanding to national television.” Otto says the USTTA “may be paid $150 weekly,” and since “weekly T.V. contracts usually run…13 weeks,” that would mean “a total payment, minimum, of $1,950.” Saunders gives NBC and ABC references, and says his “associate in this project is Alfred Palca, Producer and Author of THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS for Columbia Pictures and GO, MAN, GO! For United Artists.”

The announcer will be Bud Palmer, and among the players will be National Champions Neuberger and Miles; Richard Bergmann with whom Miles has performed halftime shows for the Globetrotters; and fellow New Yorker Johnny Somael. Some time passes while Otto asks his E.C. what they think, how much control the USTTA ought to insist on (the Association ought to name the players, for example), and more time passes because, though Otto would like to have “the necessary personal contacts with Mr. Saunders,” he is not ready to fly from Cuyahoga Falls to New York and therefore send a confirming letter to N.Y. E.C. member George Schein to stand in for him. Meanwhile, Saunders, Miles, and Co. go ahead with an audition, really ignore Ek and Schein who, too long inactive, are pitifully out-of-the-loop, and the prospective sponsor says, Sorry, the show would cost too much.

After Otto’s two-year tenure as President had ended, for the first time in the 23-year history of the Association, the E.C. officers for the coming season were elected by popular vote—that is, no State President cast a single vote for his constituency but rather each individual cast his own. Otto and the other incumbents easily won another two-year term. Which was no surprise since the USTTA had a net profit for the year of  $1478.41, and league membership (at 25 cents per player) had jumped in the last two years from “75 to 587 members.” Still, there was no doubt the Association needed funds. How, practically speaking, could the USTTA afford a magazine that would draw sponsors (who certainly weren’t going to advertise in the ugly-looking Newsletter) and dress up and increase the t.t. news now being disseminated? Who would take on the burden of editing it? Alas, the inability to answer these questions plagued the Association for 8 years until Norman Kilpatrick’s too brief turn as Editor.

Now Otto’s faced with virulent, escalating insults being traded by ’57 U.S. World Team Captain Bill Gunn and USTTA Disciplinary Chair Tibor Hazi, members of the USTTA Selection Committee who are trying to choose the U.S. Team that will face the Canadians in the Sept., 1956 International Matches at Toronto. So Ek not only has problems with, say, a Guy Blair, or a Dick Miles, but has to involve himself, unsatisfactorily, with some of those he most depends on to conduct USTTA business. Can it be any wonder that a volunteer President of this amateur Association lasts only so long?

Gunn, particularly, poses a problem to some of the players and officials. He makes much of the gambling that’s going on at the World’s—likely both because he knows President Ek is in culture shock over immoral wagers by New Yorkers and so wants to show his own worthy Captain’s disapproval of them (and so continue to be the Captain), and also because he really wants to punish those New Yorkers who’ve disobeyed his written Captain’s directive not to gamble, or who have otherwise rejected his authority. Indeed, he’ll find a number of reasons to carry on an unwarranted vendetta against Reisman.

Ek is truly aghast at the “ever-growing tendency of more gambling at tournament sites, corrupting our young players and bringing disgrace to the sport.” When Sol Schiff, U.S. Team Captain at the 1957 Matches with the Canadians in Toronto, tries to downplay the gambling, the open exchange of money, that he feels obligated to report, Ek insists that he name names, and New Yorkers Gusikoff and Michelman are suspended for three months, while others receive a reprimand.

Then Schiff and NYTTA Marcy Monasterial get into a nasty public squabble, so that Ek, no doubt with a sigh, several sighs, in a Jan. 5, 1958 letter to Schein urges George and Bill Gunn to see if they can’t get together with Sol and Marcy to privately bring closure to this unbecoming quarrel which Otto and his E.C. do not want to get involved in.

 Meanwhile, some good news. A USTTA Membership Report showed, from Feb. 28, 1956 to Feb. 28, 1957, a dramatic increase in all types of USTTA memberships: Regular/Multiple Memberships ($2 one year, $5 three years, with Newsletter) were up to 836 (from 490); Juniors ($.25, Newsletter $1) up to 458 (from 205); and League & Club members ($.25, Newsletter $1) up to 641 (from an end-of-season 353). There were also a number of unidentified Closed memberships ($.25, Newsletter $1). The downside to all this increase was that considerably more than half the USTTA members (now numbering over 2,000) were paying dues of only $.25 annually—which didn’t allow much allocation for talked-of expansion.

For four years (1954-’58), through the sponge controversy in the U.S.—ban it or not?—President Ek would struggle. The mimeographed Newsletter in appearance and content continued to reflect an Association subsisting but not thriving. What Otto would say, though, in his May 31, 1957 E.C. Report was true: “From the handful of USTTA members and the near $2,000 deficit in the treasury of three years ago,” much progress has been made—thanks to “much hard work, devotion to the sport and certain frugal methods of operating.”

But Ek also realized that “there are not enough persons with altruistic motives [to help the Association]—more are anxious for the promotion of ‘self,’ and many more criticize more freely than constructively go to work.” So he’d finally had enough; he was not going to run for re-election (because of “business duties demanding more of my time”).

When Otto began to indicate his wintry mood about continuing on as President, Gunn, in a Feb. 12, 1958 letter to the E.C. writes: 

“In the years of his administration, he [Otto] has taken a bankrupt, demoralized, disorganized association from the brink of dissolution and turned it into a strong and growing organization which, while rapidly forging ahead, is still in dire need of his guiding genius.

…His loss now, before we have reached full stature, and with many things requiring his magic handling, would be a blow from which we might never recover.” 

Both Gunn and Vice-President Lillian Guyer hoped to persuade Otto to change his mind. In that Feb. 12th letter, Gunn noted that Otto had built up the USTTA “against great odds—not the least of which had been internal strife between some of us working with him.” Bill praised Otto for his “untiring effort, a fantastic amount of work, meticulous attention,” and, most of all, for “a stern sense of duty to fulfill the obligations he assumed when he took the job.”

Both Bill and Lillian pleaded, Couldn’t we somehow lighten his load? Think of all the letters he reads and writes. Each issue of the Newsletter he puts out. How he’s involved himself in Equipment matters. Realize, too, “tournament and ranking affairs have taken a terrific toll of his time and energy.” In other words, he’s shouldered “more and more of the responsibilities of the various chairmen” that Guyer says have been lax.

Gunn writes, “I can’t think of a single person, throughout the USTTA, who would have the time, the energy or the ability to handle the job with anything like his efficiency.” Otto Ek is the “Indispensible, Irreplaceable Man.”

Perhaps no other USTTA President, on leaving office, has ever received such an encomium.