USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan"So what's the difference between Table Tennis and Ping-Pong?"

How often over the years, over the decades, have so many of us heard that--it seems to be the first question asked by someone just becoming aware of the Sport.

"Sport," of course, not "Game." For, think "Ping-Pong" and think what you might of yesteryear "family" entertainment--of bygone board games stretched over an all-purpose dining-room table, or snow-blown hours whiled warmly away in some sibling-struck neighborhood rec room--Table Tennis, in having its own World Championships since 1926 and in participating in the Olympic Games since 1988, is undeniably, a Sport.

In the minds of many, the ready answer to that divisive Table Tennis/Ping-Pong question I've opened with is, "Well, there really isn't any difference between the two: Ping-Pong and Table Tennis--they're the same thing."

Well, yes...and no. For any History of U.S. Table Tennis has quickly to acknowledge the not so civil wars fought and re-fought over the use of the two terms. Even as I begin here in the beginning to give you a brief commentary on the origin of the Sport, the divisiveness can't help but be apparent.

In his (1930) Ping-Pong: The Game, Its Tactics And Laws (a re-write of his 1928 Manual), Cornelius G. Schaad (Schaad as in SHAD-ow), of New York's Westchester Ping-Pong coterie--a lawyer by profession and in Ping-Pong a blatant propagandist for the Salem, Massachusetts-based, games-oriented Parker Brothers and their American Ping-Pong Association --suggests that the game's origin was not in England, as is generally recognized, but in the U.S.

He writes of a "game"--an indoor tennis game played "with small size rackets" and "a firm light ball covered with a knitted web to avoid harm to furniture" that could be played either on a table or, if the net were extended from chairs, on the floor. This game, he says, was "produced in Salem, Massachusetts, but exploited principally through the London house of the makers" (27).

In trying to trace the validity of this long-ago Parker Brothers claim, I’ve had necessarily to consult and be greatly indebted to Gerald N. Gurney's definitive Table Tennis: The Early Years.

Gurney says that in 1886 (perhaps as early as 1884), the English sporting goods house of F. H. Ayres Limited--later it would be absorbed by Slazengers (17)--was selling a lawn tennis game "played with miniature rackets." But (as the `86 Ayres catalogue specifically states) this game was played not on a table (though it could be?) but "on a green baize court laid on the floor" (5).

Schaad, however, though he speaks of an indoor tennis game that can be played on the floor, as well as on a table, is apparently not referring to any game listed in any '80's Ayres catalogue. Probably, as Gurney citing the Shell Book of Firsts (5) points out, the first table tennis sets were manufactured by the English firm of J. Jaques and Son--and it's to a connection with this firm that Schaad alludes (27-28).

As early as 1891 Jaques had registered an indoor game--played with india-rubber balls--called "Gossima." Gurney says that it's not known whether any sets of this "Gossima" were ever produced (2), but by 1898 Jaques was probably boxing "The New Table Game of Ping-Pong or Gossima" (5).

With the turn-of-the-century innovation of the celluloid ball, which of course made the game more popular, the Parker Brothers’ English distributor, Hamley Brothers--they sold toys and games, including Jaques and Son’s Ping-Pong sets--in 1901 registered this "Ping-Pong" trademark with the U.S. Patent office. These boxed Jaques sets being popularized in England were then, as Gurney points out, "simply over-printed `United States, America, Trade Mark 36854 6/8/01,'" and sold in the U.S. (11). Soon thereafter Parker Brothers bought "Ping-Pong" from Jaques who retained world-wide rights to the name everywhere except in the U.S.

After a 1900--1904 brief but intense exploitation--both by its older, generic name of Table Tennis ("tennis" played on a table) and its later, proprietary name of Ping-Pong--during which it was introduced throughout the world and became a craze not only in England but in the U.S., the game abruptly lost its immense popularity.

Its at first modest resurgence began in the early-to-mid 1920's, understandably in England with its PPA and TTA, but also in Europe (especially in Hungary), and resulted, in 1926, in the formation of the Ivor Montagu-led International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), and, in 1928, in the formation of the Parker Brothers-controlled Metropolitan Ping-Pong Association (MPPA) of New York, which would be the major branch of Parkers’ American Ping-Pong Association (APPA).

Just as there had been a rivalry in England, both in the early days and in the resurgent years, between an independent-minded Table Tennis faction and a commercially-minded Ping-Pong faction, so in the U.S., in the early 1930's, such a rivalry would not only exist but become full-blown. Parker Brothers, it would soon be clear, was going to go all-out to promote tournaments, the most important of them in the most elegant surroundings, providing that every participant agreed to play only with Parker Brothers equipment, regardless of whatever else was on the market.

This Table Tennis/Ping-Pong divisiveness in the U.S. can be anticipated with 1930 APPA spokesman Schaad's denigration of Table Tennis (29) and his unsubstantiated claim that the origin of the game could be attributed to Parker Brothers (27). Schaad's intention was to authenticate Ping-Pong over Table Tennis by hyping an historic connection. But he would have been far more convincing if he had been as specific as, decades later, Table Tennis Historian Gurney's counterpart U.S. collector, Chuck Hoey, would be. Research in the Parker Brothers' Archives brought forth the discovery that in 1887 George S. Parker and Company (later Parker Brothers), Salem, Massachusetts, had advertised a "Table Tennis" game that was "laid out like a Lawn Tennis court, played and counted just the same, all the rules being observed." However, since no evidence of anything more about this game has surfaced, English Historian Gurney is not as convinced as American Historian Hoey is that it had its origin in the U.S. and speculates that it might have been an Ayres' set "imported from England under licence" (5).

This "Table Tennis" discovery is striking, though, especially in view of Parker Brothers' later fight-to-the-death with first the New York Table Tennis Association (1931) and then the U.S. Table Tennis Association (1933). For a firm that would so exclusively seek "Ping-Pong" hegemony in this game-about-to-become-a-sport, what could be more ironic than Parker originally trying to promote not a "Ping-Pong" but a "Table Tennis" set.

Schaad in his Ping-Pong turns the monopoly-minded Parker Brothers' argument inside out: Table Tennis, he says, not only differs from Ping-Pong "in the use" of Laws (Laws common to both?) but "is, generally speaking, a term used commercially, indicating a miscellaneous source of supply outside of the adopted game" (27).

Different laws?...Table Tennis is...commercial?...The adopted game? Adopted by who?...

Gurney tells us (17) that as far back as 1901, in England, there was a rivalry between the newly formed Table Tennis Association (TTA) and the newly formed Ping-Pong Association (PPA). And, as with those attempting success in any endeavor, each Association applied organized effort and sought authority. If ever there's a sport wherein History repeats itself, it's table tennis. And as the uninitiate continue to this day to use the two terms, table tennis and ping-pong, interchangeably, so--aside from the early proprietary question raised in England by Jaques and in the U.S. by Parker Brothers, and the fact that over the years Table Tennis more suggests a Sport and Ping-Pong a Game (though even here consider 10-time U.S. Champ Dick Miles's The Game of Table Tennis)--what differences, really, are there for Schaad or anyone else to argue about?

Consider even that most controversial aspect of the game, of the sport--the serve. How different were the laws of the TTA and PPA concerning that?

Following the lead of Arnold "Ping-Pong Parker" (no relation to Parker Brothers),* the 1903 English Champion, the author of Ping-Pong: The Game and How to Play It (1902), and the formulator of the first Ping-Pong Laws, the modern double-bounce serve was at least somewhat popularized, though only for a short time and, as Gurney makes clear, only by the PPA (17).

Both the earliest TTA and the earliest PPA advocated the one-bounce tennis serve and so were in accord that the serve had to be underhanded and from behind the table with all parts of the racket, except the handle, below the server's waist (18), for of course were one to serve overhand in the manner of the parent game, tennis, most attempts to return the ball would be irretrievably absurd.

This one-bounce service law, favoring the racket-head-down penholder grip, was then modified in the combined English TTA/PPA Handbook (1903-04)--yes, just as people began to lose their enthusiasm to play, the two rival factions (though not without objections by Jaques) decided to consolidate (18). Gurney describes this new TTA/PPA agreed upon serve:

"...the server [has] to stand behind a line three feet from the table to serve

under-arm (that is with all parts of the racket except the handle below the server's elbow at the instant of striking) and [as in tennis] to serve alternately left and right of the middle line" (18).

After this belated TTA/PPA cooperation and the game's decline in 1904, it wasn't until 1922, in England, that, with the help of Jaques, Ivor Montagu and others reinstituted the Ping-Pong Association--but this time, as Gurney says (32), with the double-bounce serve.

However, Gurney points out, when Jaques, who'd published the Association's Handbook, objected to the PPA's approval of a tournament "without specifying equipment by Jaques" (32), Montagu and his associates, as Ivor himself in his (1936) Table Tennis tells us, rather than "remain subject to the will of one manufacturer," immediately "reformed themselves as the Table Tennis Association" (39). This in turn, in 1926, led to the formation of both the English Table Tennis Association and the International Table Tennis Federation.

With the English organizing nation-wide, could it be very long before the Americans--and Parker Brothers, in particular--would do likewise?

Coleman Clark, at the time another Parker Brothers partisan--he was their 1932 APPA National Champion--in his (1933) Modern Ping-Pong speaks of the "constant efforts of the Parkers," even from as early as 1915, to popularize the game in the U.S. (75). So surely they were aware of pockets of players around the country holding good-sized tournaments according to whatever local playing conditions might be arranged and whatever local rules might be enforced. Hence were not the possibilities of a very large market almost endless? Why, far-off California had already had its first State Championship as early as the middle 1920’s (TTT, Jan., 1935, 2).

That there was a huge need for standardization of play in the United States in the '20's can easily be imagined. There were many players--in homes, Y's, Men's Clubs for the privileged and Boys' Clubs for the not so privileged--who enjoyed batting the ping-pong ball around, often on makeshift tables, and generally with sandpaper or plain wooden rackets, using every homemade grip imaginable. Dr. Stanley Morest, a former President of the then USTTA (now the USATT), in his Kansas City Table Tennis League Official Handbook 1939-40 cites George Kieffer as the best player in that area in the 1920's (11), and elsewhere remarks that Kieffer didn’t use the handle of the racket at all, but, clamping his hand round the racket edges, palmed the entire blade!**

Morest also tells us how, in this so-called Heartland of America, James B. Schwitgebel, Secretary of that Kansas City, Missouri Boys' Club where Kieffer registered his 1922-24 City triumphs (18), had drawn "courts" on the Club tables with white chalk, patterned after lawn tennis; had built nets "of solid wood in a removable frame" (the better to use the tables for other games); and had provided his charges with long-lasting fiber board, pressed wood rackets (18)--which, from the pictures I've seen, I dourly fancy look like stern schoolmasters’ very large paddles. At first, these young players banged back and forth, and doubtless all around, sponge rubber balls, but then the more adaptable celluloid ones appeared that (Ohh, not another one broke!) "could be purchased only with complete table tennis sets" (10-11).

Yes, Ping-Pong in the U.S. was here, there, and everywhere to be developed, and who better to develop it than Parker Brothers. It was, after all, as they said, their game. And although their rules were undoubtedly shaped by both the English TTA and PPA, and although Montagu said they had been "redrafted to accord in practice--not in wording--with copies of the ITTF rules he himself had forwarded to them in 1928-29" (38), their spokesperson Schaad in 1930 could straight-faced still insist--and yet rightly insist:

"The Ping-Pong Association has adopted the registered Ping-Pong and its laws because, among other advantages, it details a single source of responsibility, which confused and unstandardized sources of production cannot possess" (29).

Who could quarrel with the need to organize the players and form an Association? In a country the size of the U.S., even were the wherewithal available, this networking would not be an easy task. It might take years and years to get thousands of members.The relatively minescule differences between past Table Tennis and Ping-Pong Associations were really of little consequence. The important question was, How might an organization appeal (much like the movies were more and more going to do) to all kinds of people from all walks of life? How might this organization--the Parker Brothers APPA--give the game some much needed sophistication, some glamour?...

By starting in New York, New York, of course--a wonderful town....But also one wherein all that glitters in the melting pot doesn’t come out gold.


*Gurney, 11. I’ve a copy of Schaad’s Ping-Pong that has its cover rubber-stamped in red "Presented With Ping Pong Set/Compliments of Parker Brothers," so naturally when Schaad speaks of Parker’s "excellent book" that helped "to bring the game into overwhelming popularity" (28), he’s not going to make the distinction that this Parker was no relation to Parker Brothers.

**TTT, Jan.-Feb., 1980, 12. See also Schaad (63) for an illustration of an unnamed player’s (might it be Kiefer’s?) freak, palm-covering-the-blade grip.