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History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan

Chapter III: 1933:Third APPA National’s and Second NYTTA National’s-- Fingerspin/Knuckleball Serves and First U.S. Women Champions.

Given the fact that by the start of the 1932-33 season the "outlaw" New York Table Tennis Association had been vigorously challenging the American Ping-Pong Association’s attempts to monopolize the Sport, there was certainly enough confusion, enough rivalry, enough real or imagined opportunities for Marcus Schussheim and other interested parties to make mistakes.

Sol Schiff told me that about this time there were plans afoot not only to start the USTTA but also another Association. Some well-known tennis star--perhaps, as Sol thought, Bill Tilden, who, though not much of a ping-pong player, had written a short but very pro-APPA Introduction to Schaad’s 1928 Manual, later reprinted in his 1930 Ping-Pong, but, much more likely, Vincent Richards, presenter of a "beautiful twenty-six inch cup" this Association would put up for as it happened its one-time Champion--was apparently hoping to form his own, or hype an associate’s, National Association. So to that end, or another, in the fall of 1933 a "National Championship" would be held in the Half Moon Hotel at Coney Island, Brooklyn.

This tournament, which was never followed by a second, seemed, for whatever reason, not to have attracted much attention. And yet Sol remembers it very well. Why? Because at age 16 he won it. He didn’t receive any prize money--"The best thing," he said, "was getting to take the subway. They paid for my fare, a nickel each way, and gave

me 15 cents for coffee and cake outside"--but he did beat Phil Miller in the semi’s, and Marcus Schussheim, by now no longer invincible, in the final. Not only that, said Sol, but when former APPA Champ Coleman "Cokey" Clark came by to watch and compliment him on being such a promising junior, patting him on the head and telling him that one day he was going to be a very good player, Sol instinctively smacked a forehand at him too--asked, "Why didn’t you play in the tournament, Mr. Clark? Were you afraid?"

1933 APPA National Championship

Clark, no dummy, undoubtedly had his reasons for not playing. Back in March of ‘33, though, he was clearly willing to defend his APPA title--this time in the beautiful grand ballroom of the Palmer House in Chicago. In fact, as Cokey’s good friend Yoshio Fushimi tells us, Clark did more than just play:

"...[It] was his great personal satisfaction to have staged such a successful event [as this ‘33 National’s], in spite of the fact that the country was in a deep depression and that on the Monday before the scheduled tournament every bank in the United States was ordered closed.

He thus proved himself a great promoter of the game, besides being a

splendid player. This tournament drew the biggest entry ever [sic: actually, it had only 170 entries], and every bleacher and box seat was sold out. At the finals at least 500 spectators crowded in for standing room only. Four major Chicago newspapers assigned their top sports writers...[to] the press box--and all final rounds of the tournament were officiated by umpires attired in tuxedos. The tournament committee that assisted Coleman Clark in preparing this tournament put in a solid year of hard work--these were business executives interested in table tennis, professional people like Dugal [read Dougall] Kittermaster, Reginald Hammond, George Little [read Littell] Ed Maltzer [read Meltzer], and Carlton Drake. They obtained maximum media support and publicity and detailed reports of tournament results" (TTT, Mar.-Apr., 1978, p.23).

"For the first time," says Fushimi in his Aug. 14, ‘89 letter to me, Black players entered an APPA National Championship:

"...The Palmer House in those days did not accept Black guests. Six members of the Savoy Ping-Pong Club from the south-side of Chicago were stopped at the main lobby by a security person. After negotiating with the hotel management, I [Fushimi] was assigned to escort them via freight elevator to the playing area, and each of them was matched against the six seeded players and eliminated in the first round.

As I was escorting them to the hotel exit via the freight elevator, they asked me to arrange exhibition matches to entertain and promote the sport of table tennis in the Black community. Most of the high-ranking players declined the invitation, but Max Rushakoff, Frank Work, and I accepted and we all had a wonderful time among the enthusiastic spectators and Black players."

There was also a Little Racket Club on Wabash Ave. in Chicago, whose President, Arnold Johns, was seeking in Jan., 1933 to organize "the American TTA for colored players" (TTT, Jan., 1934, 4). Fushimi gave an exhibition at this Club too.

Yosh, who sometimes played before his audience in a native Japanese costume, also speaks of playing ‘33 exhibition matches at the Casino de-Alex of Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair. And shortly thereafter, he tells us in that same ‘89 letter to me, he was invited along with other players "to take part in sports telecast experiments at the CBS studio located in the State-Lake Building in downtown Chicago":

"...Taking our turns, while some of us played table tennis before the TV camera, others of us watched a monitor in another room far from the playing area. As we were amazed by the experiment, an engineer told us that in the very near future people would be able to enjoy sports telecasts and movies in the comfort of their own homes.

I wondered then, How could it be possible!"

Among the prominent Easterners entered at this APPA Palmer House National’s were Abe Krakauer, winner of the just completed APPA Eastern’s over Robert Lawton, "24-year-old office manager for a flour concern"; Herbert W. Allen, "formerly Leipzig Champion," indeed of all "Saxony," and one of the players who earlier in the year had helped Westchester defend its Intercity title against the Chicago Interfraternity Team; former APPA National finalist Ed Svigals from White Plains who, on moving to Madison, Wisconsin, seemed to have lost much of his game; and Arthur Van Dyke of the Metropolitan PPA who, in Sept., 1934, along with MPPA President Robert W. De Graff, would vote to disband that Association and then become an officer of the reorganized NYTTA.

Local favorites included Dec., 1932 Cook County winner Max Rushakoff and runner-up Elmer Dorywalski who’d had very satisfying quarter’s and semi’s wins--Max over Mort Ladin, 19 in the deciding 3rd, and "Dory" over Joe Ward, 19 in the 5th. Favored, too, were Rushakoff’s late-round victims in the Jan. 19-20, 1933 Chicago District tournament: Billy Condy, whom Max beat in the quarter’s, 23-21 in the 5th; blond Swedish rival Paul Pearson--he’d had repeated chances to hold on in the 19, 20, 19 semi’s but couldn’t quite pull himself into continued contention; and Frank Work, losing 5-game finalist, who, with Fushimi, would wrest the District doubles from Pearson and Lewis, deuce in the 4th.

Coleman Clark did not raise the Parker Cup in victory at this National’s, nor would he ever again. But his career, his fame, as a table tennis promoter and even more as an entertainer was just beginning. "I was a player, Clark was a comedian," Schussheim would say later with a twinkle. Still, for the second year in a row, this time by downing Paul Pearson in 5 in the semi’s, Cokey did get to the final of this prestigious tournament. He lost to the much younger Jimmy Jacobson, a New York University freshman who only the week before had been upset in the third round of the Eastern’s by N.Y.’s Murray Waldman. Jacobson’s toughest match in these National’s was his semi’s against Wilmette schoolboy Billy Condy, whom Clark described as having "the most marvelous array of knuckle-ball serves I have ever seen."*

Knuckle-ball serves?

For an introduction to fingerspins and knuckleballs--to see how, basically, they differ--we might look at Clark’s Modern Ping-Pong (40-41). In using a fingerspin serve, says Cokey, the "[right-handed] Europeans hold the ball in the left hand between the index and middle finger and flick it onto the bat, imparting various spins depending on the action used."

And the knuckleball serve? Well, says Clark, he invented that. "The ball is shot like a marble from the fingers....To be effective the ball must be snapped by the thumb and with plenty of speed. If you can generate more speed with your left thumb [that of course for right-handers would be all the better], then let the ball contact the bat in your right hand [so you won’t have to switch the racket in follow-up play]." Clark says that to "increase" the speed of the knuckleball serve you should use "a vigorous swing of the arm. The angle at which you set the racket and the direction in which you shoot the ball should give you a variety of weird, crazy, bouncing serves."

One very big advantage to using these serves, as the USTTA’s future first President Bill Stewart points out in his Table Tennis Tactics is this:

"...The regular serve gives away its results for an opponent can tell by the way the server’s racket meets the ball what is going to happen. It is hard or almost impossible to foretell what the fingerspin ball will do. The only clue--for the hand, fingers and racket so hide the ball--is the action of the ball in the air as it crosses the net" (33).

A number of very good players--more perhaps in the Midwest than in the East--tried to incorporate this extra spin and deception into their serves. In the Jacobson-Condy semi’s match, Clark says he saw Condy "win five consecutive serves outright":

"...They would jump one way and then the other, and try as he would, Jimmy, great defensive player that he is, could not cope with them successfully until the match had advanced far into the third game. At the beginning Jimmy was so dumbfounded that he couldn’t refrain from holding up the game a moment to emit a hearty laugh which at once made him a great favorite with the gallery" (41).

Singles winner Jacobson and his New Rochelle partner George Bacon, Jr., the defending Doubles Champions, lost to the experienced Chicago team of Paul Pearson and Edwin "Tiny" Lewis, for three years running the Western Open Doubles Champs. The fact that Pearson and Lewis and so many of the top players in the early ‘30’s played penholder suggests how much influence the earlier one-bounce "Tennis Service" from below the surface of the table sometimes had in fashioning both the player’s grip and stroke.

Perhaps the most famous early world-class penholder had been Hungary’s Zoltan Mechlovits, 1927 World Men’s Singles Champion (but only after losing the ‘26 Championship to fellow Hungarian Dr. Roland Jacobi who’d beaten him wearing "ordinary shoes, [a] vest, and a bow tie").** Mechlovits spread his fingers on the back of the racket for better control, but, as Sol Schiff has said, many penholders in the U.S. in these early days didn’t, just gripped the racket at the handle. Their backhands weren’t strong at all, for they had "very stiff wrists." Soon they all began switching to shakehands; the women, one might suppose, before the men, for, according to Stewart’s Tactics, the penholder grip "requires more strength than is possessed by the average woman" (17).

First (1933) APPA National Women’s Championship

For the first time the APPA National’s had a Women’s Championship. The great majority of the 40 entries were local Illinois players--Evanston’s Alice Curtis, for example, who in late fall would be runner-up to Glencoe’s Trudie Schnur in the American Zone Qualifier, and Florence Hunter O’Connell, destined that December to win the Chicago District Closed Championship over Mildred Wilkinson. (Wilkinson, who would beat O’Connell in the semi’s of the ‘34 Illinois State, was absent from these National’s, as were Marianne Stockebrand, #1 in the 1932 APPA Western Rankings, and ‘33 Indiana Open and Closed as well as Indianapolis City Champion Flo Wiggins who in the quarter’s of the ‘34 APPA Nationals’s will take Defending Champ Purves to 5.)

Prominent out-of-state entries were: Ethel Baer Schneider, St. Louis’s best, who’d gotten by Helen Ovenden, 19 in the 3rd here; Omaha’s well-known player/official Anita Currey; former Illinois Cook County Champion now to become Indiana’s #1, Enola Stevenson; Mabel Etzweiler, who, after having played for just a year, won the Dec., ‘32 Milwaukee Championship, the first tournament she’d ever entered; and the only player from the East, who then didn’t compete after all, Brooklyn’s Nina Berman, whom Coleman Clark described as having a "deadly" backhand (65).

The winner of this 1933 Women’s National Championship was Jessie ("Jay") Purves, a 1927 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois and Director of Women’s Athletics at the Maine Township High School in Des Plaines. This future member of the winning U.S. Corbillon Cup Team at the ‘37 Baden World Championships barely survived a match-point-down second-round match against Catherine Hammond, wife of soon-to-be USTTA Ranking Chair Reginald Hammond of Highland Park, then had to go 5 with teenager Trudie Schnur in the semi’s. In the final against Flossie ("Flo") Basler, for three seasons (‘32-’34) the Chicago Open District Champion noted for, as Clark, says, "her fast forehand drives and...wicked twisting serves" (65), Purves was (-16, 19, 21, 13) again hard-pressed but again came through to become the first APPA Women’s Champion.

Clark writes in Modern Ping-Pong that by 1933 he’s "intensely proud of the progress...[women] have made in ping-pong the past few years" (65). And in the mid-1930’s he did donate a permanent trophy, inscribed on which would be the names of the yearly winners of the U.S. Women’s Singles. But I’m sure future USTTA President Bill Stewart didn’t forget that it was Cokey alone who’d barred Bill’s wife Cecile from playing in that first Chicago District Closed, held at the Hotel LaSalle--after which Cecile went on to win the 1931 Western’s. Helen Ovenden, whom Stewart beat in that final, and who later, with Ed Dugan, ran the Stay and Play Club in Chicago, would be called "the Amelia Earhart of table tennis" because in 1935 she would be "the first American girl to cross the Atlantic" to play in the World Championships (TTT, Apr, 1935, 1).

1933 NYTTA National Championship

The counterpart NYTTA National’s, held two months later, May 15-18, in New York, again suffered by comparison. The venue for the 188-entry tournament wasn’t a glamorous hotel but Gimbel’s Department Store (at 33rd and Broadway). Despite the fact that a local reporter noted that the proceeds from the gate were to "be turned over to a committee of leading sporting editors in the metropolitan area to be used at their discretion in helping needy newspapermen," the newspaper publicity, compared to what Parker Brothers/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 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..." (MMS, 73-73a).

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" (MMS, 71). [The players later "took up a collection for Doll" and got him back to Chicago "on the Twentieth Century."]

Also playing in these National’s were the usual stray players out of the area (perhaps they chanced to be in New York City and entered on a whim?). One was a New Orleans "Champ," another a San Francisco "Champ." But Jerry Jacobs (from Indianapolis), the bona fide Southern Champ, didn’t enter (like most Midwesterners he was a PPA player). Nor of course did tennis star Alice Marble who, in the second annual Pacific Coast Ping-Pong Championships at Los Angeles, had beaten Emily Fuller, five years away yet from becoming our National Champion.

One writer pointed out how "disappointing" a trip it was for the Chicago players "who came to town boasting a peculiar spinning serve, made with the thumb. They were confident of victory because of this innovation but the judges declared it illegal" (MMS, 71).

No surprise then perhaps that, after NYTTA #20-ranked Lloyd Waterson and his deep defense had stopped Western Open winner Max Rushakoff in 5, and New Jersey Champ Ed Silverglade, who in ‘35 would pair with Abe Berenbaum to win the National Men’s Doubles, had knocked out Ed Dugan, the last of the Windy City players were gone. Dugan’s aunt, however, so the story went, continued to badger officials for a couple of hours, insisting that an umpire had been wrong in protesting what he thought was an illegal fingerspin from her nephew. A matter of principle, was it, from one who knew what she was talking about? Doubtful--for Auntie "had never before seen a table tennis game, nor did she know how many points made game" (TTT, Dec., 1939, 9 and 19). Dugan, himself, it may be inspiring to note, would not only wreak revenge on Silverglade in the upcoming late fall American Zone Qualifier but would then switch from his penholder grip to a modified shakehands one (with two fingers on the blade) and so show everyone that, nothing to it, a year and a half later he could win a major Chicago tournament.

The strange serves that were the talk of both ‘33 National’s were not confined to Midwesterners. In the May Metro Open just before the NYTTA National’s, 15-year-old Sol Schiff (who because of his youth was able to play in both APPA and NYTTA tournaments?) beat Phil Miller in straight games in the final. Said a covering reporter, "Miller found it impossible to cope with the [92nd St.] Y player’s steady drives, placements, and exasperating service." In his semi’s, Schiff had defeated "J" (read Morris) Berman. "Using a freak service, Berman had Schiff swinging futilely and ran up a 9-1 lead." But the "red-head crossed his opponent in the second and third games by copying his service, and the latter’s efforts at returning were hopeless."

George Schein, Schiff’s early YMHA mentor, writing in the 92nd St. Y Bulletin about the National’s that followed, said that "Carelessness caused by over confidence ruined his [Schiff’s] chance of being in the...finals, for [had he not been defeated] the next three men he had to beat...were to his liking" (GSS, 46). And, echoing this thought, one on-the-scene observer, Dick Geiger, recollecting this tournament years later, speaks of how "Schiff toyed with Bernie Joel [whom he’d beaten the last 3 times they’d played], relied too much on his serves and lost" (TTT, Apr., 1941, 21). Joel, I might add, was another who used a combination racket to advantage--sandpaper on his driving backhand, rubber on his forehand.

One newspaper man could only be thinking of former Boys’ Club member Morris Berman when he wrote:

"One of the experts annoyed his competitor with a weirdly bouncing serve that stood him in good stead until someone discovered he was nicking the ball with his fingernail to give it an unorthodox hop. [That is, since the ball could be dented, if it landed on the dent it took off like a Mexican jumping bean.] From that point on the umpire threw out more balls than a big league arbiter suspecting a pitcher of flinging emery or shine balls" (MMS, 72).

Berman then in the 8th’s had surely annoyed Sydney Heitner, winner of a number of earlier NYTTA tournaments during the season, for he’d had him down 2-0 before the #2 seed rallied to take his expected place in the quarter’s.

National Champ Schussheim, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically having his own troubles. No longer would it take a "supernatural" player to beat him--mere mortals were proving they could do that. Shown to be vulnerable, 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"? (MMS, 72). 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." Again Dick Geiger recollects:

"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" (TTT, Apr., 1941, 21).

Though 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]" (MMS, 72).

There were other exciting quarterfinal matches too. Waterson, who would go on to win the Doubles with Ralph Langsam, struggled to a 24-22 in the 4th win over Joel, after Bernie had 19-in-the-5th barely escaped Silberman. Heitner prevailed over Brooklyn’s Moe Schulman, 17 in the 5th. And Newark South Side High School star Schlissel managed to hold on to his heavily weighted, crude sponge racket long enough to win deuce in the 5th over penholder Ed Silverglade. In his Perkiomen prep school days Ed had been a heavyweight wrestler; soon, though, according to Philadelphia reporter George Hingston, he was claiming that 5 hard-fought games of tournament table tennis took more out of him than a wrestling match (TTT, May-June, 1972, 19). Half a century later, when Table Tennis had been accepted as an Olympic Sport, Silverglade, as Chair of the International Selection Committee of the USA Amateur Boxing Federation, could sometimes be found at our Colorado Springs USOC complex.

The semi’s matches in these NYTTA National’s were won by Heitner over Schlissel and Solomon over Waterson, both in 4 games. Afterwards, said observer Geiger, Heitner, having suffered some sort of accident, came out for the final with "his thumb stitched up and encased in a large white bandage." But this "did not affect his chop, which Solomon was unable to handle" (TTT, Apr., 1941, 21). So Heitner, Gimbel Trophy in hand, was the new NYTTA National Champion, his title a kind of insurance for the future, to reminisce and smoke a pipe over.

Or so, a bit sentimentally, one would like to think--especially since Heitner, who sold insurance, would marry "Maplewood [N. J.] society girl" Iris Little, the 1934 USTTA National Champion and daughter of a Prudential executive. A match made in heaven, you say? Apparently not. We haven’t seen the last of Heitner yet, but one day he would leave Iris and his successful insurance business, quite mysteriously disappear, and, rumor had it, would flee to Florida where he would make a living driving a cab.***

First (1933) NYTTA National Women’s Championship

Like its counterpart APPA, the NYTTA had its first National Championship for Women. In the final, Mrs. Fan Magaric-Pockrose, who’d been coached by Schussheim, had to 18, -19, -19, 15, 14 rally to defeat Chicago’s Helen Ovenden, a (self-described?) "sports writer" for the Chicago News who earlier had won the Western Open over Flossie Basler. In the semi’s it had been Pockrose over Brooklyn’s Anne Sigman and Ovenden over Iris Little in straight games.

Making her first tournament appearance ever--losing to Little, 15, 14, in the quarter’s--was soon-to-be, astonishingly-soon-to-be World Champion Ruth Aarons, now still only 14. Next year Aarons, like the USTTA’s Little, will be the U.S. Champion--but it’s no surprise that she will have quickly opted to connect with Ping-Pong and Parker Brothers, for, as we’ll see, regardless of what Association prevails she herself will continually do everything she can to dress-up, to glamorize the Sport.

SELECTED NOTES.

*Modern Ping-Pong, 40. Also, Bill Stewart in his Table Tennis Tactics, 71, says Condy’s service is "the best in Table Tennis."

**Zdenko Uzorinac’s (1981) Od Sarajeva do Novog Sada/ From Sarajevo to Novi Sad, 164.

***A mid-May, 1950 "Missing Person" N.Y. newspaper article points out that "Stephen S. Heitner" (perhaps by this time Sydney preferred "Stephen" or the paper’s got the first name wrong), a former U.S. table tennis champion, has been missing from his Glen Cove, Long Island home since Apr. 29, 1950 and that his wife, Iris Little, who reported him missing, is now living in Maplewood, N.J. (where her home had been back in the ‘30’s). Much later, at a Sept. 23, 1995 Reunion of players (Laszlo Bellak, Doug Cartland, Lou Pagliaro, Marty Reisman, Sol Schiff) at Dick Miles’s house, I heard talk of Heitner having gone to Florida.