USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan Chapter XXIX. 1938: Players Unofficially Extending "Season," Making Rankings Somewhat Suspect. 1938: Aarons Continues Her Popular Exhibition Play. 1938: USTTA Adds "Group" Memberships: 1,000 Players Paying 10-Cent Dues. 1938: Zeisberg Says "Goodbye" (Bassford Becomes USTTA President).

No sooner were the March National’s over with than Hammond issued his 1937-38 Rankings. Almost a year earlier he’d put a ballot in Topics asking the membership if they wanted to extend the Ranking Season. But since he apparently didn’t get much if any feedback (the vast majority of players, the unranked, were expected to care enough to respond?), the E.C. continued to pursue its rationale that 5 and 1/2 months was needed for an "off" season practice time (TTT, May-June, 1937, 15). Could anyone really believe that when almost 30% of Topics reported tournaments would be held in April and May? But to end the season on June 1, so far away from the climactic National’s, would be awkward, the more so because the Press wouldn’t consider the Rankings to be as "hot" as they would be right after the National’s, and because the results might not be published in Topics until the Oct. issue? And then of course extend the season to June 1, and there’d be many more tournaments to consider, and more complications, leading perhaps to the ranking impasses Hammond was trying so hard to avoid.

New York and New Jersey seemed strangely estranged from the USTTA. In a March 9, 1938 letter to Morris Bassford, Hammond said that he’d not been able to find a single tournament that Abe Berenbaum had played in. Presumably that’s because, according to Topics, the one and only tournament N.Y. held the whole 1937-38 season, the Feb. 16-17 Metro Open, chaired by Leo Schein, in which Berenbaum got to the semi’s, wasn’t reported--that is, until Leo’s brother, George, got a copy of Hammond’s March 9th letter, after which the results were published in the April Topics. (One wonders how many tournaments over the years, how many wonderful matches, how many anecdotes about the players were never reported, eventually forgotten.)

This annual Metro Open, which might have as many as half a dozen of the country’s top male players participating, was evaluated for the Hammond Cup race as a Class 4 (lowest level) "City" tournament...on a par with the first-time San Antonio YMCA Open (TTT, May, 1938, 18). Of course I don’t imagine that anybody in New York (except maybe Schiff who came second in the Cup race) much cared. After Coleman Clark’s recent 3-month swing through Texas there seemed to be more enthusiasm for the USTTA there than in New York. Table tennis was being played seriously not only in San Antonio but in Dallas, Houston, Corpus Christi, and Galveston. By season’s end Texas was an organized state.

What, though, was happening with President John Morgan’s NYC Metro TTA? The "City," as those in suburbia call it today and likely did then, was huge. But, as of June 1, it had a USTTA roster of 122 individual (as opposed to group) members who didn’t seem to have the leadership that would unite it with other N.Y. affiliates to form an organized state. Those most active in the City didn’t care about being "organized" in the eyes of the USTTA? New Yorkers were "different"? They liked being a law unto themselves? If push came to shove, they could do just fine on their own, could they?

And New Jersey? That too was an unorganized state. Prior to the National’s there wasn’t a single tournament reported there, despite the fact that as of June 1, after losing 72 USTTA members in the last year, the state still had 104 individual and 197 group USTTA members.

Perversely, you might say, after the National’s, after the announced National Rankings, after the Hammond and Wilkinson Cup races were concluded, tournaments in various parts of the country, including N.Y. and N.J., were reported in Topics. For aficionados, the season continued right on through April and into May.

Hammond and his committee had ranked Bernie Grimes U.S. #6, but it may be they never did find out if, aside from the National’s, he ever played in this country at all during the season. Now, though, as if having something to prove after his loss to MacCrossen, Bernie entered three straight tournaments (while Don, U.S. #22, went home to win an Apr. 9-10 Milwaukee Open). At the Apr. 23 New England Spring Open in Providence, Grimes beat first Les Lowry, then Dan Klepak. But at the New Jersey Open in Newark, Bernie was upset in the final by Harry Cook. And at the New York State Open in Brooklyn, he fell to--a rarity, one of our E.C. officers who could actually play--Jack Hartigan. Like Cook, he had not been among the season’s 30 ranked players.

Cook, apparently free from any Tour duties, and having acquired (perhaps from his many exhibitions) a "grand offense" (TTT, Nov., 1938, 11), also played in three successive tournaments, and had the season been extended would surely have had to be ranked. After his victory in Newark, where he also beat Charlie Schmidt, unranked because of his incapacitating auto injury, Harry won again in Brooklyn, downing U.S. #3 Pagliaro in the semi’s and (Abrahams vas good, but I vas better) Schmidt again, this time in 5, in the final. Ah, how many good players continued to be clustered in New York that many of the country’s Club, City, and even State Champions didn’t know about, and, it didn’t matter, naively felt they could beat anyway.

In the Tri-State Open at the Broadway Courts, Schiff, the U.S. #1 for the second straight year, and pleased at receiving USTTA permission to put his name on whatever M(unro) A(thletic) P(roduct) might help him to fame and fortune, took out the dangerous Cook in the semi’s, then, after Paggy had eliminated Abrahams, got the better of Lou in the final.

Naturally the women continued to play in April and May too. At Providence, U.S. #8 Mae Spannaus lost to U.S. #3 Ruth Wilson, who only a year ago was U.S. #20. In Brooklyn Mae was beaten in the semi’s by power-hitter Helen Germaine, but she avenged that loss in the Tri-State. And Helen, victorious in the National’s over the #8 and #12 U.S. players, what was she ranked back on Apr. 6 when Hammond announced the Rankings to the Press? Sorry, insufficient data.

Philly’s U.S. #16, Florence Archer, before losing to Wilson in the final at Providence, had a satisfying win over Ruthe Brewer, U.S. #17. Ruthe, though she’d lose to Germaine in Brooklyn, would be encouraged in Newark with her victory over Molly Kareives, for, though Molly wasn’t among last season’s top 25, she could play, was the N.J. Closed Champ.

In winning his first N.J. Closed Men’s Championship, 20-year-old Bill Cross defeated U.S. #25 Abbott Nelson. Defending Champ Moskowitz, upset by Morris Miller, at least got to enjoy himself a couple of weeks earlier at a one-day mixed team event in Baltimore where, as Maryland Closed Champ (who yet was able to defend his N.J. Closed title?) he partnered U.S. #2 Dorothy Halliday on court...and maybe was carded at the dance held in her young honor afterwards (TTT, May, 1938, 16).

Over in the Midwest, where during the season there’d been more tournaments than in the East, Hammond Cup winner Garrett Nash and Wilkinson Cup winner Sally Green were still hard at it. In the Apr. 23-24 Miami Valley Open at Cincinnati, U.S. #2 Hendry beat U.S. #22 V. Lee Webb in the semi’s, then Nash in the final, after Garrett had eliminated U.S. #11 Cal Fuhrman. U.S. #6 Green won the Women’s both at Cincy and at Hamilton two weeks later, each time over Columbus’s Norma Hieronymous, anonymous as far as the season’s rankings were concerned.

This 1938 Cincinnati tournament marks the first Topics-recorded appearance of a woman who will become one of the most famous names in U.S. table tennis--Leah Thall (later Neuberger). Born Dec. 17, 1915, she began playing table tennis at the Columbus, Ohio Y.W.C. A. in 1937--this for want of something to do after initially being fearful of diving into the pool there. Ironically, her first appearance in print came as a result of a first-round loss--for she then went on to win the Women’s Consolation (TTT, May, 1938, 17).

In the Apr. 23-24 Mid-Western Open, Mildred Wilkinson, whose ranking had dropped from U.S. #3 to #12, beat Betty Henry in 4. U.S. #10, Herb Aronson, downed first U.S. #17 Al Nordhem and then U.S. #15 Ralph Muchow in a Windy City windshear that blew away the scores of all the reported matches.

Teenager Billy Holzrichter, on his quiet way to becoming a super-player of the ‘40’s, won his first Topics-acknowledged tournament--the Tri-State Open at Burlington, Iowa. That same weekend, in not very far-away Des Moines, Joe Camero and Helen Baldwin were winners. With such overlapping tournaments, unorganized Iowa needed the fine group of "T.T. executives" neighborly Nebraska Governor Jerrold Woodruff was proud to tell everyone Des Moines’ President Carl Nidy had.

In Kansas City, Missouri’s Heart of America Open, U.S. #18 Herman Mercer, as expected, scored a first. Tom Howle had a nice semi’s win over Claude Edwards who’d taken the Topeka title the week before. Dorothy Joseph, Secretary of Doc Morest’s USTTA Organizing Committee, this June to be Dorothy Benson (TTT, Oct., 1938, 12), won the Women’s over Ruth Forsythe. Lisle Hughes, Ruth Aarons’ cousin, capped the High School event.

Up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, the two Ed’s, as usual, were battling it out. This time Litman won everything--the Men’s, the Men’s Doubles with arch-rival Sirmai, and the Mixed with his sister Belle.

And finally, in the Northwest, where everyone was eagerly awaiting the Barna-Bellak Tour and, were it possible, telling even taller tales about the exploits of the Hungarians than they themselves did, Portland’s Hal Philan won the Apr. 23-24 round-robin Oregon Open over Don Vaughan and Dick Jordan, and in the Pacific Northwest Open at Seattle that followed, when Ray Pearson was upset by Ed Dalbey, Walter Judd took the Championship.

Aarons Continues Her Popular Exhibition Play

Bellak, after winning his second U.S. Open in late March, had no time to rest. For the next month he would be the star of the Glancz traveling "Circus" troupe. Or well, alright, for one night only, the April 8th Tour stop at the Boston Arena, maybe the co-star...or maybe even the second banana. For at this performance, sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Shepherdson of the Newton, MA TTC, the troupe’s "guest" was World Champion Ruth Aarons. She was giving what she called her "last sports exhibition"--except, as she told reporter John English (see the Apr. 9, 1938 Boston Herald) she hoped that there would be "a few more nite club and vaudeville engagements." Uh-huh.

Though it was a terrible night in Boston for anyone to go out, a night of "snow, sleet and rain storm," over 4,000 paid spectators attended--the largest crowd in the U.S. ever to watch a table tennis exhibition (RAS, 94). And--with the help of Glancz, Paggy, Abrahams, Lowry, and of course Bellak (‘the master of spin and angle shots")--what a show Ruth put on.

She took a back seat to no one. Marjorie Martin in the Apr. 9, 1938 Boston Herald tells us that when "the second coating of green water-colored paint on the wooden flooring of the court had not dried sufficiently," Ruth slipped and fell three times. "Every time she fell she came up with her hands covered with green paint. The back of her [gray] slacks was smooched...but she laughed heartily."

Ruth was so much the focus of everyone’s attention that reporters seemed to think she was the only player on court. And many a spectator too, for they would not only be talking about her but would be able to show living proof of her enduring uniqueness:

"A novel touch [said Martin in the Herald] was added to the two hour and a half program when a special exhibition match was played purely for the benefit of the candid camera enthusiasts in this section. Under ideal lighting conditions almost 40% of said rabid fans gathered on the court to photograph Miss Aarons."

Now that there’d be no tournament play for Ruth ever again, what did she plan on doing?

Well, according to Topics, "with the aid of the new Table Tennis Manufacturers’ Association," she had already made, or soon would make, the Warner Brothers’ Clem McCarthy table tennis movie short, "Table Manners," starring Eddie Foy and his strong t.t. supporting cast of Fuller, Halliday, Bellak, Glancz, and Paggy. And very likely Ruth found the thought of performing before an estimated 30,000,000 more fun than playing before an actual 4,000 (TTT, May, 1938, 3):

"[To a Boston Post reporter covering the event, Ruth said,]‘I’m going to Hollywood, and Sandy is going, too....This is the end for me. No more competition. I’ve won every title I wanted. I’ve travelled a lot while winning four American and two world championships. And now we’re heading for the West Coast. I have studied singing and can dance a little, and may be able to get into the movies.’

She denied any romance with her partner, Sandy Glancz, although she said that he had taught her a great deal about the game."

Ruth won’t be wowing them in Hollywood the rest of this spring and summer, but she and her partner, the "European Wizard"--that’s Sandor--will keep busy. In mid-April, they’ll be in Harrisburg, PA.--not trying to perform a windy exhibition on one of the 21 concrete tables enthusiast George Smith will make available for outside summer play in the area (TTT, Oct., 1938, 13), but, far more sedately, giving some of the after-dinner entertainment at the 11th Annual Ladies Night of the Zembo Luncheon Club.* This booking suggests her popularity’s really on the wane? Don’t be deceived. In May she and Sandor will be at Billy Rose’s N.Y. Cafe Manana with Frank Fay and Bert Wheeler (RAS, 122). In June, with Barna as her partner, Ruth will again play the Rockefeller Center Rainbow Room, so informal in the summer that women can wear "clothes that don’t necessitate a girdle" (RAS, 102).

July 1st promises a new beginning (but nothing more): Ruth will make her stage debut as Hilda Manney in the Saratoga Springs Spa Theater Players production of "Room Service"--and, as if that wasn’t enough without the Marx Brothers, she’ll be asked by some patrons to entertain in between Acts; you know, bring out a table, a stand-in partner, and rally the audience as it were to a promotion of U.S. table tennis.** Later in July she’ll be on more professional footing with Barna at the Washington, D.C. Earle Theater (RAS, 102).

In August (and, as we’ll see later, for months, even years to come), she’ll continue to stay at the top of her profession. She and Sandor will perform at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton Roof with Eddy Duchin and his Orchestra (see George Holland’s "After Dark" column in the Aug. 16, 1938 Boston Globe). On being challenged there by patron Jimmy Foxx of the Boston Red Sox, she’d say, "Jimmy has excellent timing and a good eye but he had no idea of this modern table tennis and the importance of spin" (Aug. 23, 1938 Boston Globe).

It’s easy to imagine how many other people enjoying casual ping-pong-play in homes, schools, church basements, rec centers, and clubhouses of all kinds liked to hit home runs when they swung at the ball. The game might be for everyone, but not the sport. Serious tournament play, as those at least interested in it enough to discover, took a great deal of practice, patience, and the professional’s will to win. But though hundreds of thousands were not interested in batting away at that reality, the remainder might be persuaded to join the USTTA?

USTTA Adds Group Membership--Has 1,000 Players Paying 10-Cent Dues

How was the Association’s membership doing as the ‘37-’38 season came to an end? Better--though just exactly how much better was not immediately clear. Progress was being made in that last June the roster read 2,237 members, this June a neat 4,000. However, one needed to know that the E.C., following Zeisberg’s lead, had passed a First Amendment to the Constitution that authorized an "experiment." Three organized states--Indiana, Missouri, and Nebraska--and all unorganized states were encouraged to allow, along with the regular individual memberships, USTTA "group memberships"--"from schools, firms, and social organizations." Such groups paid a $2 charter fee, and then each individual in that group, instead of having to buy a $.50 membership, could buy one for $.10--with every five members of a group getting one (presumably well-thumbed) copy of Topics thrown in (TTT, Jan., 1938, 23). Thus, by the season’s real June 1st end, at the completion of its well-publicized Membership Drive, the USTTA could say it had a record 4,000 members, though 1,000 of them were paying merely a token 10 cents for their membership (TTT, May, 1938, 22).

Actually, the USTTA had gained 770 individual members--last year’s slump being attributed now to "sending U.S. Teams to Baden to win both world titles," as if all the Association’s energy (save the pharmaceutical surge of H.N. Smith’s $900 anonymous contribution) had been focused on that. Did Zeisberg’s 1937-38 season-beginning tip--"Persuade wealthy neighbors [sic] to donate 50, 100, or 500 memberships for a boy’s club, high school, or church league" (TTT, Oct., 1937, 18)--enable any organized Governor to win the monthly gold paddle for the state with the most percentage-wise membership gain? I think not.

But the group membership plan was widely embraced. In the N.Y.-N.J. area, about 400 $.10 memberships were issued. Iowa, Missouri, and California accounted for 400 more. And Indiana, under new Governor W.B. Hester who was helping to nurture the as yet infant tradition of the South Bend Y’s St. Joe Valley tournament, added another 200.

Nebraska, one of the three organized states authorized to experiment with group memberships, didn’t bring in any, but more power to Governor Woodruff, for Nebraska collared 117 new individual members. Indiana’s Hester brought in another 95. Minnesota went from 0 individual members to 96. And Oregon and Texas between them gained 80 more (TTT, May, 1938, 22).

The most striking advance among the organized states, though, was shown by Maryland, whose Governor, Vernon J. Boyd, won not only a monthly gold paddle but the Topics Cup for the biggest percentage gain of the season (673.3%). From June, ‘37 to June, ‘38 Maryland went from 30 members to 232. This was due in large part to the persistent efforts of Max Graf. "Few people can boast of having left...[Max’s] Paddle Club as a non-member." He promised "an hour’s free play" to one and all who joined up (TTT, Feb., 1938, 8).

Question was: after one became an individual USTTA member, how long did he/she stay one?

The biggest membership losses in the now 16 organized states were in Massachusetts (down 133) and Illinois (down 66). West Virginia, having lost 25 of its 35 members, also lost its "organized state" status as well.

Of course, as was very obvious after five formative years, USTTA members, like the Association’s hopes, came and went, took their place in History’s high-to-low echelon, to be remembered or not. Eventually there would be a Table Tennis Hall of Fame for players. And for Officials and Contributors too. Among the latter in the 1930’s, there was no one more significant than USTTA President/Editor Zeisberg. No one could have tried harder, exerted his will more, to make the USTTA a success.

Zeisberg Says Goodbye (Bassford is USTTA President)

With Zeisberg’s retirement, third V.P. Bassford moved up to be the new President for the ‘38-39 season--or as much of it as he could stand. (Resignations of those in office had scarcely been unusual.) For Bassford, as for anyone else, unexpected things could happen. No sooner will he purchase a new home in Silver Spring, MD than his insurance firm will decide to send him to Philadelphia week after week. Meanwhile, his 13-year-old daughter, Stella, will take a bad bicycle spill and be laid up with two broken bones in her left leg (TTT, Oct., 1938, 13).

Frank Trolle, having weathered a number of E.C. Meetings, was elevated to 1st V.P., Stan Morest to 2nd V.P., while Don Vaughan took Doc’s place as Recording Secretary. Urban R. Lemay, who as Pennsylvania Governor had done such a fine job working to increase that state’s membership , was elected 3rd V.P. Jim Clouther remained as Treasurer, Jack Hartigan as Executive Secretary. Joe Berna continued to be based at Philadelphia Headquarters as our Association’s paid General Secretary.

Retiring along with his friend Hammond, who’d given up the Ranking Chair to Elmer Cinnater, was Dougall Kittermaster, lst V.P. since the office was instituted. Both men had long been a part of the Zeisberg USTTA-organizing team.

Said Kittermaster: "I give my unqualified support to Morris Bassford and the other officers....It is a great regret to me I cannot continue....[But] I had to decide whether to retire from business or table tennis" (TTT, May, 1938, 10).

To his right-hand man’s decision to retire in favor of another, Zeisberg responded warmly:

"Frequently I begged good old Kitt...to take my job, but in vain. After 3 years working side by side, though 800 miles apart, Kitt and I persuaded Morris Bassford to run for President. All of us are very lucky that such a fine executive accepted the responsibility" (TTT, May, 1938, 10).

Really? How then, if Zeisberg really meant the public praise he gave Bassford above, could he, in a Feb. 18, 1949 letter to USTTA Historian Peter Roberts, admit to the negative mind-set he had about Bassford? Clearly, 10 years later, Carl is still bitter toward Bassford for his actions months before Morris succeeded to the Presidency:

"Much of the ill feeling [over the Ruth Aarons affair] would have been eliminated if Morris Bassford had not been so anxious to advance himself at the expense of others and if he had played square with me. I gave him documents to take to London to show the ETTA officials that most of the rumpus was due to some misunderstandings at the outset, but he craftily failed to show them. I’d like to tell you what I think of Bassford, but can’t afford to put it on paper."

Bassford didn’t show clarifying documents to Montagu and others when he went to the ‘38 World’s? After all those exchanges between Montagu and Zeisberg, after the positions of both sides had been thrashed out so thoroughly, what further positioning, unknown to Montagu and ETTA officials, could Zeisberg be talking about? And why didn’t Bassford show these documents? What, craftily, could he gain by not showing them? Had anyone reason to think he was a crafty fellow before? Would it be a surprise to anyone if high on his private agenda was the USTTA Presidency? And, most importantly, when did Zeisberg find out Bassford hadn’t shown the documents? Are we to believe that Carl found that out at some later time, after he’d retired? I doubt it. Meanwhile, he publicly calls Bassford "a fine executive."

Perhaps Bassford had worked at maneuvering himself from 3rd V.P., past lst V.P.Trolle, to be the President. The anonymous "Jeers and Cheers" Topics columnist "Annie Mossity" (Reba Kirson?) speaks of "Morris Bassford ‘executiving’ all over the place" (Oct., 1937, 11)--but is that something to jeer or cheer about?*** Perhaps Trolle, like Kittermaster before him, didn’t want to be the President--which meant that Bassford was the logical choice for the position. Anyway, at this moment Bassford certainly seems to have his peers’ respect.

Zeisberg, whose psyche in part might be characterized by a little drawing he did--of a big shoe coming down on a worm named "Pusher"****--has been increasingly non-combative this last year of his office, hasn’t been railing away at the membership as he used to, and seems resigned to saying "Goodbye" and to being properly feted.

At the Pennsylvania TTA’s May 12 4th annual banquet in Philly’s swank Arcadia International Restaurant, 200 people, 60 of whom were turned away for lack of room, came out to pay homage to Zeisberg. "A black walnut desk and chair, gold-and-onyx desk set, silver plaque, 2 quarts of champagne from friends" were presented to Zeisberg by Bassford (TTT, May, 1938, 13-14).

Is it possible that these two men really don’t like each other?...

Better, in saying "Farewell" to Zeisberg, if it is "Farewell," to let Kittermaster have the last word:

"No one appreciates more than I do the thousands of hours which Carl has devoted to the USTTA. We marveled at the way he did two jobs in 24 hours and still found time to sleep. He deserves the unlimited thanks of every member of our Association" (TTT, May, 1938, 10).

NOTES.

*RAS, 97. This Club considers itself the "Largest and Best Shrine Luncheon Club in the World" and boasts as one of its past entertainers Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra.

**See RAS, 122 (Robert Coleman’s article in the June 26, 1938 N.Y. Sunday Mirror) and RAS 125 (the Spa Theatre Program). There’s no evidence Ruth ever played t.t. between Acts--but on a Monday, at 2:00 and 3:30 in the afternoon, she did put on an exhibition with a local champion (see the July 2, 1938 Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Saratogian --in RAS, 125).

***The "Jeers and Cheers" column in TTT, May-June, 1937, 21, for example, reads like one of Reba’s--especially in a line like "I Feel That Foolish Feeling...Me vs. Bellak..." (in 1941, after partnering Bellak to the semi’s in ‘40, she’ll win the U.S. Mixed Doubles with him). Also, in the Feb., 1938 issue, there was no "Annie" column and perhaps not coincidentally just a very short "Reba" column (14), apparently because Reba was vacation-bound (confirmed by her next, Mar. column, 7, which stresses her Florida experience). Reba seems to like Bassford--in TTT, May-June, 1937, 8, she calls him "an offlynice man," and in TTT, Mar., 1939, 11, she offers a "twenty-one point salute" to "our former chief."

****TTT, Feb., 1938, 6. Actually, this "Kill that worm Pusher before he kills the game" cartoon had been seen earlier--in the upper left-hand corner of the Nov., 1935 cover of Topics. From Oct., 1933 through Oct., 1936, for almost every issue, Zeisberg drew in this corner space a small, thematically pertinent cartoon.