USA Table Tennis

Sanford “Sandy” Gross, then reportedly out of Toledo, Ohio, was known to have participated in a USTTA tournament as early as the 1939-40 season, and was said to have remembered playing the 1937 and ‘38 U.S. Open Champion, Laszlo “Laci” Bellak, 25- cents a game at Harry Piser’s 91st and Broadway Club in New York City. So it wasn’t until Dec. 7, 1941 that we can confidently place him in the Cleveland that he wll make famous in table tennis circles a decade later.

On the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an act that would eventually draw Sandy himself into the War, a far different reorganization was taking place at the Allerton Hotel in Cleveland. There those who supported a local Association, among whom Sanford was singled out in Topicsas being one of the most interested, met to renew and intensify their commitment and to conduct a successful tournament that drew 126 players.

By the ‘42-43 season, Gross’s Cleveland friend Sam Shannon was not only the Ohio #1 but President of the Ohio TTA, which for a time led all USTTA affiliates in membership. Sam and Sanford, an Ohio top ten player at the time, enjoyed going to tournaments, and Sandy in particular must have had fun at the Toledo Western Open, for though he and his doubles partner lost the final in 5 to St. Louis stars Allan Levy and Mel Nichols, it wasn’t everyday that Fate afforded him or anyone the opportunity to play with Bill Holzrichter, just three weeks away from being the U.S. Men’s Champion.

Then the tournament fun stopped and Gross went into the Service, where (as Shannon tells us) after Sandy had endured “130 consecutive days in the Italian Campaign” and won a “Silver Star for gallantry in action,” he received “a medical discharge” that enabled him to return home.

Back playing again in the ‘44-45 season, Sanford, paired with Sam, lost the Ohio Closed Men’s Doubles final in 5 to Bob Green and Dave Spence. Sandy also lost, though this time in the first round, in Men’s Doubles at the ‘45 Detroit National’s; but his pairing there may have been prophetic in that he teamed with renowned South Bend Coach John Varga’s protégé, ‘45 U.S. Boys’ Champ Gordon Barclay--a partnership that suggests Gross’s later encouragement and support of Cleveland Junior players that would be legendary.

That summer Sanford was taking his play seriously. He and Shannon traveled to Chicago for the Western States Summer Open, but instead of playing doubles with Sam, who’d teamed temporarily with U.S. Junior Champion Bill Early, Sandy struck up a partnership with U.S. #3 Max Hersh, only to lose in the quarter’s, 25-23 in the 5th, to the redoubtable Toledo Juniors Bob Harlow and Bob Wisniewski. Sandy and Max would continue playing together for years with some success--in the late Feb., ‘48 Ohio State Open, for example, they beat the strong Ohio pair of Guy Blair/Jim Irwin, 19 in the 5th, then had the pleasure of losing to Miles/Reisman in 4.

It’s not as a player that Gross will be remembered, however. It’s for the youth that he helped, and for the tournaments that he was in large part responsible for. I note that the 1950 Ohio State Open in Columbus, which Gross and a Cleveland contingent entered, had a remarkable 32 entries in the Boy’s, and that the relatively unknown, unrated Vic Vinci, one of the youngsters Sandy had befriended, got to the final.

Cleveland had no ranked players, but Gross and his local Association put on the 1951 Ohio State Open, and word had spread that since Sandy was pushing the tournament it was going to be a very good one. Whereas last year’s Open had drawn only local Ohio, Detroit, and South Bend entries, this year’s Open, with strong Chicago and St. Louis players, had much more stature. U.S. #1 Bill Holzrichter won the Men’s over U.S. #13 Allan Levy. U.S. #3 Bill Price beat U.S. #9 Gordon Barclay in the Men’s quarter’s, and also won the Senior’s over John Varga. U.S. #8 Wally Gundlach and U.S. #10 Bob Harlow took the Doubles. Chicago’s Ralph and Carolyn Bast persevered through two 5-game matches to come out tops in the Mixed--defeating, first, Gross and Joanne Gardner, 1950 U.S. Junior Miss Champ, and then Gundlach and Women’s winner, U.S. #3 Mildred Shahian. And U.S. Boys’ Champ Al Holtman, after knocking out Defending Champ Max Hersh in the Men’s, 26-24 in the 5th, won the Junior’s from ‘51 U.S. Junior Champ-to-be Ron Liechty, and the Boys’ from future Hall of Famer Bobby Gusikoff.

With his ability to draw name players, Gross, assisted by Bill Palmer and Wray Hertzline, wanted to run the 1952 National’s, and was awarded the tournament over USTTA Executive Secretary Vergil Carson who’d made a bid for Milwaukee. This Mar. 28-30 Cleveland National’s would be held at the Masonic Temple--which was downtown, with the official tournament hotel and many restaurants conveniently nearby. As preparations were in full swing, Sanford said, this will be one U.S. Open “no one will forget in a hurry.”

And Bob Green, who’d run the ‘48 National’s in Columbus, agreed. In his capacity as Topics Editor he told readers he had reason to believe that Sanford (who was Topics’ Associate Editor) would stage a great tournament“...The floor plans for the placement of tables and nine lights over each     playing area is terrific. Special light shades designed and built by Westinghouse have been procured, and nothing has been spared for ideal playing conditions, including a finals set-up that will knock your eyes out....Only upper clothing need be white. [This was the beginning of the end for all-white wear.] If you do not want to be troubled with those pesky numbers on the back of your shirt, then sew your city’s name, and your own, under the city, in letters large enough to be seen from the sidelines, and you will not be required to wear your number....

Full coverage of all events is assured by Cleveland Newspapers and AP dispatch, plus news reels and possibly television. Many foreign players are expected. People who have been to Sanford Gross’ tournaments before know that he really puts on a fine show--but wait until you see this one, when he goes all out.

...The official party will be given all contestants here on Saturday night from 10 P.M. to 2:00 A.M. in the Ballroom....Dancing to an orchestra...[and buffet supper]....”

Spectators were not going to be admitted free, but they could buy an all sessions ticket for $2.25, or pay anywhere from $.50 to $1.00 per individual session. As for the lucky winners, said Green, this National’s...

“is going to have the largest array of prizes as well as trophies for all winners, runners-up, semis, and in some events down to the quarters. I hear there is a TV set, watches, jewelry, luggage, and a host of too many things to mention.”

And the turnout was what had been hoped for--312 entries. Pauline Robinson said in her Topics column that “30 New Yorkers and 66 Easterners” attended this year’s National’s, as compared with only “15 Easterners” at last year’s. Big surprise in the 166-entry Men’s was Lou Pagliaro’s win (in Expedite) over Dick Miles 10 years after Lou had won those three straight Championships back in ‘40-42. The tournament “was run off [on 8 tables] like it had been rehearsed for many months” (Gross was insistent that the 4 practice tables be reserved for those whose matches were coming up), and a “more lavish display of trophies and awards has never been seen” in USTTA competition. Winning the new Sportsmanship award was 12-year-old Erwin Klein from Los Angeles, who was beaten in 5 in the final of the Boys’ Singles by South Bend’s Dave Krizman. Almost half a century later, Hall of Fame founder Steve Isaacson is still reliving his disappointment at losing in the quarter’s of that Boys to one, Lowell Latshaw, and not getting the shiny new bike that even the semifinalists were awarded.

Following these National’s, Gross, who’d received the Jimmy McClure Trophy for being the “Outstanding Official of the Year,” was named U.S. Ranking Committee Chairman, which didn’t give him too much time to rest before--after the interim Kansas City U.S. Open--he and the assisting Ohio TTA, still under the Presidency of Cuyahoga Falls’ Otto Ek, prepared to run what would hopefully be an even bigger ‘54 National’s (actually there would be more women but fewer men players). The prizes would again be lavish, but, said Sandy, “all the profit arising from this tournament will be contributed for the use of combating juvenile delinquincy.” This time play would be at Western Reserve University, and players were asked to stay at the Hotel Carter (“Single room $5; Double room, $8: Twin beds, $9”). At the Players’ Party, in addition to the buffet supper and dance, there would be “an amateur contest (with beautiful prizes)...open to all players [who sing, dance, play a musical instrument, etc.].”

Of course if Gross wanted lots of entries for his Ohio tournaments and especially his National Championships, he had to support other tournaments, and so by this time he’d be coming to them with an entourage of Cleveland players, including former and future Ohio Champion Bill Palmer, the improving young women, Elaine Mitchell and Elinore Kimes, and the promising juniors, Angelo and Ray Vinci and Sandy Potiker.

After the ‘54 National’s, Otto Ek began his long stint as the USTTA President, and Sandy, while continuing to be the Ranking Chair and relaxing when he could at his 5-table Euclid Ave. Club, joined him as Recording Secretary (though I don’t think he was going regularly, if at all, to the E.C. Meetings).

Now in the mid-’50’s a big problem in U.S. table tennis was coming more and more to the fore. After the ‘55 Rochester National’s, Herwald Lawrence, proprietor of the famous New York City Broadway Courts, in a letter in the May, ‘55 Topics (actually now reduced to a mimeographed “USTTA Newsletter”), complained that...

“THE SPONGE RUBBER RACKET GENERATES MORE SPEED WHEN THE BALL IS HIT WITH IT THAN HUMAN REFLEXES CAN EVER COPE WITH....Organized Table Tennis can not be a party to such action, for eventually it will eradicate interest for both players and spectators.”

Eradicating interest for Gross and those in his entourage is apparently what the sponge was doing. However, before the Mar., ‘56 White Plains, N.Y. National’s that would be a great success under Tournament Chair Bill Gunn, Gross had persuaded Bernie Bukiet to move from Chicago to Cleveland, and had put him up in his own home, so that Bernie might coach and serve as a sparring partner to Sandy’s juniors. Bukiet would be momentarily depressed by his horrendous loss to young Erwin Klein in the final of these White Plains National’s--for he was up 2-1 and leading 20-15 match point in the 4th. But Gross, perhaps more disillusioned than depressed at the technological turn the Sport was taking, had stopped his circuit play, and at season’s end gave up his USTTA Ranking Chair and did not join Ek again in running for E.C. office.

Sanford knew that with regard to the controversial sponge racket the Association’s official line was:

“The USTTA as the governing organization for Table Tennis in the United States, has absolutely no authority to bar sponge, except by a local closed law, and then only with the permission of the ITTF, according to the USTTA agreement with them to follow their rules and regulations.”

But he addressed an Open Letter to the membership in which he argued that “though sponge could be mastered by most of the players,...the transition would take time,” and that, since Table Tennis now had such a non-status among the general public, there wasn’t time to wait and wait and wait before trying “to preserve and promote” the Sport. The sponge bat was hindering whatever progress was possible. One difficulty was that play with it just wasn’t interesting enough to the spectators, and that of course was a terrible “detriment to the game”; sponsors needed “spectator admission fees to help defray their expenses,” and if there were few spectators there would be few sponsors, and the sport would have even less visibility. Also, since youngsters, say 11 to 15, generally need a year or two to master the strokes, “the desire to keep learning and becoming better is being lessened, because the minute they enter a tournament and play against a sponge player (which they definitely are not used to) quite a few of them are ready to quit immediately.”

The Sept., 1956 issue of Topics (“USTTA Newsletter”) had as its cover story the results of a recent postcard survey taken by the USTTA as to whether its members wanted to ban the sponge racket or not. About 43% of the membership responded: 253 said ban it, 253 said don’t ban it.

Bukiet, meanwhile, had left Cleveland to go to the Apr. Tokyo World’s (where Klein and Leah Neuberger won the Mixed Doubles), had then toured U.S. military bases with others on the U. S. Team, and after coming back to the States joined Richard Bergmann on one of his Globetrotters Tours, which at the beginning of 1957 saw them performing in Cleveland.

Then, again, Bernie, by now using sponge, was off to the World’s, to Stockholm, with again Bill Gunn as Captain. Sanford would be happy to hear that the English TTA, though not successful in getting the ITTF to ban sponge, themselves banned it for a season.

On returning to Cleveland, Bukiet took advantage of his chance to go with Gunn and Bobby Fields on a U.S. government goodwill trip--give exhibitions in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam, etc. But first he had to become a U.S. citizen, which he did, and then had to forego living in Gross’s home, for Sandy was not happy with Gunn, whom he understood was going to use his influence to try to ban sponge, but then didn’t.

Perhaps, after running that Ohio Open and those two National’s, Sandy felt he could do no more for the Sport, especially with the coming of sponge, and so just totally retired from table tennis. We tried to lure him back in person for his 1991 induction, but he begged off and instead sent an appreciative note. Strange how for years a great supporter of the Game becomes more and more enthusiastic, then for whatever reason suddenly withdraws his support, and is never seen again.