USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan Chapter VII: Backgrounds of Superstars Schiff and McClure. 1934: Last APPA National’s. 1934: First USTTA National’s.

Solomon ("Sol") Schiff, born June 28, 1917, and James Hodgson ("Jimmy") McClure, born Sept. 28, 1916, are almost exact contemporaries, so of course as soon as the APPA swan song, its 1934 April National’s, is over and the USTTA becomes one big happy family we’ll see Sol and Jimmy united in a fierce rivalry.

The young Schiff’s progress we can easily follow, easily understand. Sol said he "learned the game on a lunch table at P.S. 151 on East 91st St. in 1925." By 1928, at P.S. 30 in Yorkville, he was playing with a wooden bat on another improvised lunch table. Later he joined the 92nd St. YMHA where for $1 a year he could go swimming and play ping-pong in the Game Room. Encouraged by older Y players George and Leo Schein, Sol became part of that Y’s Junior Ping-Pong Team--though as a Junior he wasn’t allowed to play matches at night. Perhaps, too, his prodigy progress was momentarily curtailed by the fact that, as this was The Depression and his parents were not well off, he had to become a working schoolboy when he was just 13.


Sol Schiff (left)

However, by the time he was 15 and attending Textile High, he’d graduated to the Y’s Varsity Team and, armed with the 75-cent Slazenger hard rubber bat he was to win his many titles with, was competing in the NYTTA’s annual round-robin League. In addition to the Scheins, some of his teammates and/or frequenters of the Y’s Game Room were early Team Manager/Captain Bernard Markowitz, Dave Schulman (who was beaten by Court Gerstmann in the 8th’s of the 1932 NYTTA National’s), Emil ("Babe") Graetz, Rudy Rubin, Dick Geiger, Abe Rosenblatt, Stanley Borak, future U.S. Champion Abe Berenbaum, Julius Toff, William Fernandez, and Phil Kenner. Sol, with a 32-13 league record for the NYTTA’s 1932-33 season, was 5th in the Metropolitan Rankings (behind Solomon, Rubin, Isadore Rosenblatt, and Heitner). In the semi’s of the April, 1933 Manhattan Championships, 15-year-old Sol (after dropping the first game at deuce and winning the next two) lost in 5 to the eventual winner Heitner who in just a few weeks would be the NYTTA National Champion.

It must have been a foregone conclusion that Sol would win the Jan., ‘34 N.Y. High School Championship (32 schools, 64 players). He beat Victor Gurrado of Murray Hill in the final in straight games after Gurrado had taken out Sol’s winning doubles partner Graetz (from Clinton High) in the quarter’s and Sam Hoffner (Stuyvesant High) in the (16, -15, 20, 21) semi’s.

On his imminent way to becoming National Men’s Singles and World’s Men’s Consolation Champion, Sol raised his level above all those around him who loved the Sport and who were fortunate enough to be able to take geographical advantage of the rich cluster of talent in super-competitive New York.

How though did Jimmy McClure, growing up in the Midwest and isolated from comparable New York (or even Chicago and St. Louis) competition, become so formidable a player? Was he, like Ruth Aarons, something of a show business "natural"? It would seem so.

Jimmy came to table tennis in the same way that Aarons did: one day in 1932 he was playing tennis when it started to rain; then, once inside, one stroke led to another....

An Indiana tournament player, Jerry Jacobs (he’d be #23 in the APPA Rankings for the 1933-34 season), ran an Indianapolis Outdoors/Sporting Goods store and on a table he’d set up there started playing matches with Jimmy, giving him a 10-point spot. But then, after abandoning the short experiment of playing penholder--as a shakehands player Jimmy always continued to keep his racket head down in the manner of a penholder--this unknown youngster was soon giving Jacobs 10 points a game.

Jimmy was already a champion hustler at age 8 or 9. He sold as many as 1,000 copies a week of Liberty magazine--out-hustled dozens of other youngsters to win a first-prize watch in a national contest. Also while at Grade School No. 27 he began taking tap dancing lessons, and, after proving himself adept at "The Charleston," was soon doing a tap dancing specialty act with "Night Club Queen" Texas Guinan and her troupe. In fact, had she not died unexpectedly, he probably would have gone to Hollywood to make a movie with her. As it was, he got to perform on an Indianapolis stage with singer Dick Powell.

Jimmy says this early dance training helped him to move better out on the table tennis court, and doubtless all the attention bestowed on him in public bolstered his confidence and gave him the feeling that he was different from others, was a star.

His pattern of being better at what he did than others was quickly made clear: he was obviously a superior student. After skipping 5 half-grades, he applied to enter Shortridge High School when he was only 11. Because of his size, 4’ 4," he needed to show school officials his grade school diploma and had to have his mother vouch for his age. Although during his four years in high school he reportedly never weighed more than 85 pounds, he knew even then how to throw his weight around. He won the Indianapolis Boys Under 15 and later the Junior Under 18 Lawn Tennis Championships. Along his light fantastic way, in leagues and tournaments, he continued to improve--dynamically improve--his table tennis. By 1933 he was already both the Indianapolis City and Indiana Open Champion. Jimmy was entirely self-taught--he never had, and never would have, a coach. He watched the strokes of others and chose what was natural for him. The secret of his success? Above all, he says, he wanted to win, really wanted to win.

1934 APPA National’s

When the 17-year-old McClure--described as being slightly freckle-faced, 5’ 5" tall, and 128 pounds--arrived at the ‘34 APPA National’s, he was said to have already won that season almost 20 Midwest tournaments--including the Western’s at St. Louis, the Southern at Louisville, and Championships in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. His unexpected rise to such prominence, so startling to those who’d witnessed his near perfect record at the Intercities in Chicago, clearly made him the favorite to win the U.S. APPA title.

And win it he did--in a final played before 1200 spectators--his sandpaper racket (made for him by his father?) and "well balanced game" getting the better of Winnetka, Illinois’ 16-year-old penholder Billy Condy, 19, 11, 17.

A Chicago Tribune reporter wrote that Condy "has no defense at all...depends entirely on a ferocious, smashing game, with sharply-angled drives that keep his opponent deep in the court" (RHS, 20). Since this comment might give you the idea that young Billy often just stood up there and flailed away, it’s also good to have Ruth Aaron’s view in 1937, after she’d attended two World Championships: Billy Condy, she said, had "the only really graceful penholder game I’ve ever seen" (TTT, Nov., 1937, 7).

Jimmy McClure (right)

At both the Feb. Intercities and these Apr. National’s, McClure found his sandpaper racket very helpful in taking off much of whatever fingerspin or knucklespin he was occasionally encountering. Also, he’d earlier tested his own spin-serve capabilities by serving against a wall, then, as the ball spun off--exactly as an opponent’s serve might be coming at him--he’d practice his returns. Smart, huh?

McClure and Condy weren’t the only impressive teenagers at these Cleveland National’s. 1932 APPA Champion Coleman Clark’s relief at having won 8 in a row from 19-13 down in the 5th against Detroit’s George Abbott was short-lived, for he was then (18, 18, 22) surprised in the 8th’s by 15-year-old Dick Tindall from St. Louis. But, no hard feelings, a year later Cokey and Dick would win the Western Open Doubles Championship together.

Here at the Hotel Carter, however, Tindall played the least contested of the quarter’s matches, was beaten soundly in 4 by Condy. But the other St. Louis player still alive, Mark Schlude, continued his advance to the semi’s with a fierce (-18, 23, -12, 19, 17) win over Sam Silberman--no mean feat, for, though Sam (after pulling out a down-2-0 match against St. Louis’s Leonard Radunsky and surviving a 19-in-the-5th death-struggle with Carl Tietjen) had been stopped from winning the Singles, he would go on to partner not only Aarons (as we saw in the last chapter the Women’s Singles winner at these Cleveland National’s) but Alan Lobel to a Doubles title. McClure (16, -18, 22, 17) got by Al Goldman in 4 in the quarter’s, then prevailed over an even more stubborn Schlude in 5. For Defending APPA Champion Jimmy Jacobson, who’d had that disastrous Intercities, it was not a good year--in the quarter’s he needed 5 games to stave off Jack Boksenbom, who would succeed his younger brother Aaron as the #1 Cleveland player, then fell to Condy in 4.

Taking the first ever National Veterans’ (or Senior’s title as in 1946 it would become known)--for those 35 and over, or 40 and over, depending on what rule is enforced when*--was J.R. Leininger, 43, who just four seasons earlier was the Chicago District Men’s Champion.

That Leininger at 39 and Clark at 34 could have become the Midwest’s best players in 1930, when the Sport in the U.S. was more or less "pat ball" and in its organizational infancy, is understandable, but by 1934 Chicago youth was being served--and not only by Billy Condy. In early Feb., at George O’Connell’s Illinois TTA Headquarters Club, both a Chicago 15 and Under and a 12 and Under Junior Championship was held. Elvin Keyes took the 15’s over Earle Sering in straight games, and Al Gunther was patently tough in (-17, -20, 20, 23, 16) outlasting Wayne Kempf. Behind Gunther and Kempf, at #5 in the ‘34 end-of-season Western Junior Rankings, would be Les Lowry who, 10 years later, would lose a particularly infamous and heart-breaking U.S. Open Championship to Johnny Somael.

A month after Keyes won the 15’s, 17-year-old Billy Burd and his "tricky little fingerspins" won the Chicago American -sponsored Chicago District Men’s Singles Tournament for "novices." The four finalists in the "Men’s Doubles were two 11-year-olds and their 13 and 15-year-old opponents! Reportedly, 11,000 men, women, and children entered this tourney via "three months of almost daily play in hundreds of leagues and clubs throughout the city" (YFS II, 5-6). Eleven thousand entries? Yeah. And next year, when Berne Abelew beat Ralph Muchow, there’d supposedly be double that. No wonder the best of these young "novices" were clearly formidable (both Abelew and Muchow would later be among the Top 10-ranked U.S. men).

Granted Chicago did not have the juniors to match the young New York stars--headed of course by Schiff, who at 15 had won the ‘33 New York City Junior Championship, and Lou Pagliaro, future 4-time U.S. Men’s Singles Champion, who had won the City’s 13 and Under Championship--still, there were continuing accomplishments. In the ‘34 Western’s, 13-year-old Keyes knocked off Paul Pearson, who’d won the Illinois State Championship less than two months before, and by the following season teenager Burd would be good enough to make the Chicago Intercity Team.

1934 USTTA National’s

In the last few months before the inevitable merging of players in the one Association, the USTTA, like the APPA, moved to the climax of its season--the Apr. 5-8 (Easter Weekend) NYTTA-sponsored National’s at the Hotel Astor (Broadway and 45th) in New York.

Sixteen-year-old Sol Schiff was the favorite to win, for, though, through the four major tournaments preceding the National’s, the Manhattan, New York State, Metropolitan, and Eastern Open Championships, he’d occasionally been extended--he’d gone 19 in the 4th with Rudy Schaumann of the Bronx, deuce in the 4th with his YMHA teammate Abe Berenbaum, and the full 5 games with both his sometime doubles partner Seymour Solomon and Ed Silverglade, about to be succeeded as New Jersey Champ by Manny Moskowitz--he’d lost only one match...to Schussheim.

The tenacious Berenbaum, a lefty chopper with "tireless energy," was also a threat to win this ‘34 USTTA National’s. Abe had tried to play in the Jan., ‘34 APPA Metro Open Singles and Doubles (with Schiff) but had been turned down by APPA Tournament Chair Herbert W. Allen primarily of course because he’d been playing in table tennis tourneys. (Would he like to apply for reinstatement in the APPA and wait out a probation period of four weeks?...Uh, no, but thanks.) In the New York State Championships, before losing to Schiff in the final, Abe had -18, -12, 20, 12, 13 rallied to defeat Sydney Heitner, the ‘33 NYTTA National Champion, and later he’d won the Metropolitan Open despite being down 2-0 in the final to Schussheim. However, after losing three finals and 9 out of 10 games to Schiff this season, he’d surely be hoping that in these National’s someone else would somehow eliminate Sol.

More than half a century later Schiff would say that he’d preferred playing lefties because he could hit straight down the line through his opponent’s backhand--but, as Sol was already beginning to realize (as far back as the Manhattan Championship, for example, he’d been careful not just to go out there and try to blast through Abe), Berenbaum was more and more perfecting one of the stiffest backhand chops of any U.S. player ever.

Schiff, keeping pace with McClure, did win this National’s--downing Silverglade, Berenbaum, and Max Rushakoff in the final. One sportswriter--though not from the New York Times or New York Herald Tribune, papers which, according to NYTTA Publicity Director Bill Festger, for some reason banned all table tennis or ping-pong from their pages--found a story angle in the 16, 19, 12 final:

"...[The colorful Rushakoff, looking to psych out his opponent,] had a cute trick which made his opponent explode. In the middle of a game he’d take a pocket comb from his trousers and begin to arrange his dark and lengthy locks.

This trick had its irritating effect on Marcus Schussheim. But when Rushakoff tried it on Solly Schiff...the trick proved a boomerang. For Solly "kept his attitude, a la Schnozzle Durante, pulled a comb out of his own pocket and stroked it through his curly red mane. It was sensational!"

Rushakoff, after beating Schussheim, had had a great -19, -20, 18, 21, 13 win over Rudy Rubin in the semi’s (a "swatfest of sensational drives"), after Rudy had beaten Defending Champ Heitner in the quarter’s and another of Schiff’s YMHA teammates, Emil "Babe" Graetz in the 8th’s. Earlier Graetz had upset Illinois Champ Pearson, while N.Y.’s Fred Festger had come from 18-13 down in the 5th to eliminate Pearson’s buddy, Western Champ Erwin "Tiny" Lewis.

Schiff also won the Men’s Doubles --with Manny Moskowitz, who, reminiscing in 1990, told me with a grin how he used to duck as Sol, following up, would smash in shot after shot that threatened to decapitate poor Manny. Such teamwork, such fun! In the quarter’s they defeated the best team in the Midwest, ‘33 APPA National Doubles Champs Pearson and Lewis. In the semi’s, down 2-1 and match point in the 4th to ‘33 NYTTA National Doubles Champs Langsam and Waterson they managed to survive. And in the final, with "their accurate placements, excellent defense and well-placed drives," they had an easy win over Heitner and Schussheim (TTT, May-June, 1934, 3).

One story about Manny, who was born on Aug. 23, 1917, is that in 1930, when he was 12, he, his brothers Martin and Harold, and Mel Silverman were all playing in the Bergen County Recreation Center when they were "discovered" by G.M. Tamblyn, Secretary of the Rutherford Y,who induced them to form the Rutherford Table Tennis Club. Another (complementary?) story is that young Manny picked up a Popular Science magazine, saw instructions for building a table tennis table, and did just that. Manny himself told me that he and his older brothers formed a neighborhood club and that their invitations for team competition led to Rutherford league and tournament play. From the early ‘30’s on, virtually every good male player, without exception, from East or West, whether affiliated with Ping-Pong or Table Tennis, was certain to have sharpened his game and found a camaraderie with others by participating in leagues. In addition, many players had fun competing in (usually local) intercity matches.

Men wanted to join in a male bonding? In the fall of 1933, a man in a Philadelphia suburb wrote in to Topics as a joke that a "Cellar League" or, more precisely, a "Subterranean Table Tennis and Beverage League" was starting (Nov., 1933, 3). By the time the next issue came out, eight Clubs wanted to join, and someone ran a 1/2 inch one column ad in Topics that offered "Taproom supplies, glasses and accessories. A Full Line of Malt" (Dec., 1933, 2). No doubt it wouldn’t be long before they’d all be playing exclusively on Durabilt tables with that special green finish that Durabilt advertised as being "alcohol resisting" (TTT, Apr., 1936, 4).

The women in those days didn’t play much against men, except in Mixed Doubles (though in the 67-entry Nov., 1934 Miami Valley Open, in the absence of a Women’s Singles, Richmond, Indiana’s Enola Stevenson played in and won her first match in Men’s Singles). Generally speaking, there just weren’t that many women players around...which too often over the years seems to be an historical given.

In a Feb., 1935 Topics article, Ruth Aarons herself protested that tournament committees and men players in general had "an attitude slightly condescending, slightly bored, and slightly supercilious" to the "girls who compete in Eastern tournaments" in particular. "Give us three out of five matches," she pleaded, "give us mixed doubles in all the tournaments, encourage the practice of women’s doubles at clubs, table tennis courts, etc. Eventually they will add to the color of tourneys" (8).

Legwork--that’s what one official at these first USTTA National’s was emphasizing to a visiting newspaperman who was finding the Women’s play "exceptionally interesting." In stressing the "sheer speed and activity" of the game, their analogies to long-distance running and boxing might have seemed incongruous when applied to women table tennis players in skirts. But the official was serious when he invited the visitor "to sit under a table and watch only the footing." "The invitation possessed interesting possibilities," the reporter later wrote; "however, it was declined."

I don’t know how many men were watching, but winning the Women’s Singles at this ‘34 National’s was New Jersey’s Iris Little, the Eastern Open titleholder--over New York’s Helen Germaine, the Metropolitan Open titleholder and National Public Park Women’s Tennis Champion who’d been playing tennis for at least six years, but had only rather recently taken up table tennis.

There were so few women competing in that Astor Ballroom (Topics doesn’t report a game score for any player) that before the new Champion and runner-up went out for their 4-game final, they’d had but two warm-up matches, likely only one of which for each--Little over Anne Sigman and Germaine over Fan Pockrose--could have been meaningfully contested. Contrast that turnout with the one in the "West"--the full 32 Women’s draw at the Hotel Carter in Cleveland, and you’ll sympathize the more with New Yorker Aarons’ plea to USTTA players and officials to at least try to make the women’s game in the East equal to the men’s. As it is now, she said, it’s like the women are "being invited to a party and then being ignored throughout the evening. You do send us entries, but you hardly make us welcome." (TTT, Feb., 1935, 8).

Even before the Easter National’s had capped the season, there was much talk among the players of USTTA/APPA consolidation. On April 7, 1934 the fledgling USTTA had 1,002 paid-up members in 11 states. But with the almost total defection of the remaining APPA players expected by the beginning of the ‘34-35 season, the USTTA hoped for such a rapid expansion that it set a one year goal of 10,000 members. A goal, which more than 60 years later, it still had not achieved.

NOTES.

*See National’s entry blanks in TTT, Mar., 1945, 9 and Feb., 1946, 9. See P.W. Roberts compilation of U.S. National Champions (in U.S. National Champions file). In 1934 the age requirement was 35, in 1935 it was 40, from 1936 through 1953 it was 35, thereafter 40 (see TTT, Apr., 1935, 3; Feb., 1953, 6; and Jan., 1954, 6, and also Neuberger’s 1931-39 National’s volume, 84 and 103.