The only extant photo of the 1933 New York Table Tennis Association National Champion Sidney Heitner is a sedate, pipe-smoking, suit,-tie,-and-vest one that bespeaks him as a serious fellow, old beyond his years. It appears in the beginning of Table Tennis Tactics, a 100-page, softcover book published in 1933 by the USTTA's first President, Bill Stewart.
At the time Heitner won his May, 1933 National Championship, there were two rival U.S. Associations in our sport--the 1928-formed Parker Brothers American Ping-Pong Association and the breakaway 1931 New York Table Tennis Association. However, each group's National Champion has long been recognized as being co-equal by the USTTA (later USATT).
As of our 1998 Hall of Fame Awards Banquet, Heitner is the last of the (40+) eligible, U.S.-born U.S. Open Men's Champions to be inducted into the Hall.
His counterpart 1933 NYTTAWomen's National Champion was Fannie MaGARic Pockrose, a woman I chanced to meet in the mid-1960's when she was a professor of Russian Culture at Brooklyn College.
Her opponent in that final was Helen Ovenden. Helen was like a later Mildred Shahian in that for years, with her friend Ed Dugan, she ran a well-known table tennis club in Chicago. She was called the Amelia Earhart of Table Tennis, for she was our first woman representative to a World Championship.
Before the USTTA's first issue of Topics,in Oct. of 1933, the main sources of information about Heitner and his contemporaries, besides the New York newspapers, were the yearly NYTTA Handbook, the short-lived New York Table Tennis "Newsletter," and Stewart's Table Tennis Tactics. From these we learn that Heitner was not an upstart Champion--he'd paid his dues.
In the first National Ranking ever compiled--for the 1930-31 season--the APPA spokesman Neil Schaad had Heitner as U.S. #17. But the next 1931-32 season Heitner's NYTTA National Ranking was #2, behind the dominant player of the day, our early-inducted Hall of Famer Marcus Schussheim, later known as Mark Matthews. Together, Schussheim and Heitner, both tenacious defenders, had an excellent doubles partnership.
For the May, 1933 National's at New York City's Gimbel's Department Store, the entire proceeds of the gate--the rather steep 25 cents admission for any of the first three evenings, 50 cents for Finals Night--were turned over to leading sports editors in the Metro area to help needy newspapermen. A ploy no doubt on the part of the organizers to try to "buy" publicity for future tournaments.
Heitner had already won four tournaments this '32-33 season, including the prestigious Metropolitan Championship, but in the quarter's of these National's he had a big problem with one, Morris Berman, who'd won the first two games from him. Berman was giving Heitner a weirdly-bouncing serve that was winning him a lot of points until someone--perhaps the slow-to-catch-on umpire?--discovered that Berman was nicking the then easily dented ball with his fingernail so as to give it, when it landed on that dent, a Mexican jumping-bean hop. Once this freak service was stopped, Heitner won the next three games.
After the favorite, Schussheim, was upset by Seymour Solomon--in these early days Table Tennis was often thought of as a sissy, swishy sport, a minority sport, a Jewish sport--Heitner, encouraged, proceeded on his side of the draw to win his semi's against George Schlissel. Schlissel used a crude, soon banned, sponge racket--one so crude that, if his matches went the full five games, this 3-5-pound racket became just too heavy for him to play well with.
In the final, against Solomon, Heitner, having suffered some sort of accident, came on court with his thumb stitched up and encased in a large white bandage. But this didn't affect his heavy forehand chop--forerunner to future National Champ Lou Pagliaro's--which penhold-hitter Solomon couldn't handle.
This 1933 National title was Heitner's crowning glory. But he had another immediate success in Sept. of 1933, in the first Team Tie ever held between the U.S. and Canada, again at Gimbel's. With his customary fighting spirit, he defeated the Canadian table tennis AND tennis Champion, Reginald Chapman, deuce in the 5th. This Team Tie drew a few lines of coverage by famed columnist Walter Winchell who'd come over to see some of the action in person.
After the 1933 National's, the most important tournament for Heitner and the other top players was the so-called "American Zone" tournament--the MEN'S winner of which would get an all-expenses-paid trip to represent the U.S. at the Dec., 1933 World Championships in Paris. After taking the long, wearisome snow-journey to Chicago in a cramped van with other N.Y. players, including fellow favorites to win, Schussheim and rising teenager Sol Schiff, Heitner was upset in the semi's in straight games by the Chicago eccentric Max Rushakoff. With his long reach and driving penhold forehand--called by one reporter "a pencil smash"--Rushakoff would later be described by his contemporary Jimmy McClure as something of a "wild" man, for he always talked nervously, a mile a minute. And though, like some gentlemen golfers of the time, he might play a match wearing a shirt and tie, he might also have been thought a bit unrestrained because in between points he might suddenly pull out a comb--or a banana--and nonchalantly stop play.
In the other semi's, Schussheim beat Schiff, then had no trouble with Rushakoff in the final, and so became the first USTTA men's representative abroad. Heitner won the doubles with Schussheim, and so was eligible to play in Paris in that event, but, as neither his nor Women's winner Trudie Schnur's way was paid, he didn't go.
The last of Heitner's major accomplishments occurred at the end of Chicago-based President Stewart's tenure, at the 1935 National's when he and attractive U.S. Women's Champion Ruth Aarons won the Mixed Doubles.
For some time Stewart had been having trouble with the man who'd succeed him, who in fact would soon simultaneously be both the USTTA President AND its Topics Editor, Carl Zeisberg. Zeisberg was the most important, most dedicated official of the 1930's. But, as he was also a very autocratic and authoritarian figure, he liked to order his President around. Zeisberg thought "I was sort of an errand boy," Stewart said, "and that I wasn't." So it's no surprise that after a while they didn't get on together. However, Zeisberg's soon-to-be second-in-command, the USTTA's 1st Vice President, Dougall Kittermaster, did work very well with Carl.
Kittermaster, who also lived in Chicago, was the USTTA Tournament Chair, and, just before the '35 National's, had set up the famous Exhibition, in the Grand Ball Room of the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, with 4-time, about to be 5-time World Champion Victor Barna and his friend and World Champion Doubles partner Sandor Glancz.
Whether the court was quite so momentous-looking, so surrounded again by spectators for the 1935 Mixed Doubles final there with Heitner and Aarons vs. Schiff and Anne Sigman is doubtful.
If there had been no Ruth Aarons, Sigman, also a very attractive young woman, would have been U.S. Champion. Anne's classy young Exhibition partner was Stanley Feitelson, later known as Stan Fields, Hall of Famer Bobby Fields' father.
Against Heitner and Aarons, Schiff and Sigman were up 2-0 and 20-17 in the 3rd, only one point away from being National Champions. From which position they'd go on to lose in 5!
Sol chivalrously took a large part of the blame for the loss. It had never happened to him before, he confided. But he became so flustered. Why? Because from the beginning, Anne, so pretty and shapely, had promised him if they won she would give him a "reward"--which meant at the very least "a big kiss." So, with victory in his grasp, so to speak, Schiff couldn't concentrate, just wilted.
Of course Sol would not always be so teenage timorous. He would later also confide that, of his many Mixed Doubles Championships, he enjoyed winning the most with Sally Green Prouty--because, he said, he liked to watch her "shake her ass."
After these '35 National's, Heitner was suspended by the USTTA--perhaps for playing in a no-no New England "Ping-Pong" tournament. Thereafter he just vanished from the table tennis scene, was never mentioned in Topics again....Not until, 15 years later, in 1950, when one lone sentence in the magazine spoke of his far more mysterious disappearance.
Some clarification came in a Missing Person article in a local N.Y. paper.
Sidney's brother, Max Heitner, said Sid had no reason for leaving his Glen Cove, Long Island home, his wife and two children, and emphasized as far as he knew "Sid had no enemies." "The missing man, his brother added, had every reason to stay. 'He had a $25,000,000 group life insurance policy for a national organization lined up and...would have been on easy street for life....'"
"A fourteen-state alarm was broadcast by the Nassau County police May 11 for the six-foot, 200-pound broker, after his wife, the former [Maplewood, N.J. "society girl"] Iris Little...reported his absence to the Glen Cove police." Iris, not just coincidentally, was the 1934 USTTA National Woman's Champion, and daughter of a Prudential Vice President.
"Max Heitner said he saw his brother for the last time on the night of April 28 after he had dropped him and 'a beautiful tall woman' at the 69th Regiment Armory, Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street, while a roller derby was in progress. He said he did not remember the name of the woman, recalling only that she liked roller-skating and that she claimed to own a four-door black Oldsmobile sedan...."
"New York City police reported...[Heitner] was last seen on April 30 at the Sixty-Eight Restaurant, 59 Fifth Avenue. At that time he was wearing a blue tweed top coat, a tan jacket, and gray pants...."
"...[Sidney] Heitner [according to his brother] is thirty-seven and a graduate of Rutgers University and New York University Law School, "always wears white shirts, never wears loud ties and smokes Corona Corona cigars...."
Did he turn up at our 1997 Awards Banquet? Nope. But while he was not there in person, not even in disguise, he was, I'm sure, in spirit--another Champion from long ago to, finally, be fittingly honored.