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

As we saw in Volume I (1928-39), the 1930’s fervidly autocratic USTTA President/Editor Carl Zeisberg finally retired to be justly feted for his leadership innovations—bringing in the Expedite Rule, doing away with fingerspin serves, and lowering the net from 6 and 3/4’’ to 6." With his retirement, the Association’s war with Parker Brothers and their trademark "Ping-Pong"—belittled in editorial after editorial by Zeisberg as "p. p."—nearly came to an end. There were just the occasional sniper shots still occuring in the official USTTA magazine, Table Tennis Topics. Zeisberg kept a sleight-of-hand in, or occasionally even a heavy hand in, for he continued for a while to contribute his obsessive-minded fillers and cartoons to the magazine (one drawn-in character got a richly deserved black eye from another because "he buys gyp bats not advertised in TOPICS"). But yes, o.k., no less an authority than Mademoiselle, "The Magazine for Smart Young Women," agreed that Table Tennis was the name of the Sport (TTT, Feb., 1940, 4). And now that that battle had been won, and the USTTA had a new volunteer President and a new volunteer Editor (the decade of course would bring forth others to take their place), there would be no more civil wars?

Uh, not exactly. Uncivil skirmishes, call them—between players and officials—would continue to occur. Indeed, one didn’t have to wait for the later highly publicized Miles/Reisman/Cartland controversies. Or even those about to involve McClure, Nash and Bellis. Immediate case in point: Southern California’s uncooperative best players. Their Affiliate President, C. M. Harris—make that their former Affiliate President—had this to say in the November, 1939 Topics:

"Southern California is inactive as a T.T. center. Fundamentally, because the leading players would not cooperate with the officials when tournaments were held. They would send their entries in late, sometimes not at all. Frequently they would default— leaving weak quarter’s and semi’s. When exhibitions were required, they were poor scouts about putting themselves out for the benefit of the game. And when we had one of the world’s leading players visiting, and had an exhibition arranged, two of our best men refused to play. A third agreed to play, then didn’t show up. He had no real reason for not coming. The play was a flop. At this time there isn’t a man capable of commanding the facilities to hold a tournament who will have anything to do with T.T. tournaments" (11).

The 1939-40 season continued, then, with clashes between players and officials, much as in the previous decade—but without Zeisberg’s intractable feistiness that in 1937 climaxed in a battle of egos with International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) President Ivor Montagu that threatened our Association’s withdrawal from that body. The same U.S. tournaments, held the same time of year, prompted the same talk among dedicated, unpaid officials about all those potential rec players "out there" who just didn’t want to cooperate. Nope, not even when celebrity-comedian Jimmy Durante said the Game was "dynamite" and he was seen on the Oct., ‘39 cover of Topics raising his racket to the imagined newstand readership much as he might have raised his hat, fanning it right into center court while smiling in homey, crooked-teeth exuberance: Let’s play!—a piece of shtick rivaling the enthusiasm given his celebrated schnozz.

Everybody’s playing table tennis—so hyped the Association’s magazine lead-off editorial of the new season. A "gigantic increase" in players, it said. And two issues later: "Today table tennis is a great industry. Every major retail store carries a complete line of equipment." Only—it will be the same refrain, the same lament, every decade of the 20th century and on into the new millennium—"the hordes of non-members" just don’t want to join the USTTA. Why not? The explanations remain the same too. Most of the players are too cheap. There’s too much pressure having to compete. The dedicated tournament players are too good—indeed, you might just as well call them all professionals, especially the New Yorkers of the 1940’s, many of them so "distant" from the neighborly, amateur-minded Midwesterners. The solution? Force the players who want organized play—leagues, tournaments—to join the Association. But for as many who join, as many won’t remain. Still, throughout this cycle of hope and despair, the Sport in the U.S. struggles on, come what may.

The crisis in Europe—begun with Hitler’s Mar., 1939 acquisition of Austria and Czechsolovakia, and reinforced in September with his invasion of Poland that brought England and France’s swift declaration of war against Germany—had barely begun to be felt in U.S. table tennis circles. But at least Topics Editor Harry Harris’s opening-season editorial paid lip service to the "men, women, and children dying who should be playing" (Oct., 1939, 3). Since the "miraculous" would have to occur for the French to hold the hoped for 1940 Paris World Championships, perhaps, said Harris, the U.S. could take over these Championships, minus the Team events. Players from Europe (for up until 1952 the Championships always centered on Europeans) might be able "to brave an Atlantic ocean trip on neutral ships"? Naturally balls would be needed. But this wouldn’t be a problem—not yet anyway, or so Harris thought:

"...Far from curtailing their exports, the warring nations [England, France, Germany] will strive to continue to exchange their products for much-needed money to feed the roaring guns. The amount of cellulose involved in making balls would not affect production of explosives. Even blockaded Germany could export balls through neutral countries."

Coming into the 1940’s, players in the U.S. were still far, far away from the devastated courts of Europe. Two weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, Russia did too, then moved on Finland. By Apr., 1940 Germany had occupied Denmark and entered Norway. The following month Hitler attacked the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. On June 17 the Germans entered Paris. No miracle had occurred, far from it. There would be no World Championships in Paris or anywhere else—not for seven lean years.

During which time, the U.S. players would have a big advantage? They’d already proved their mettle in the ‘30’s by winning World Singles, Doubles, and Team Championships—and while Great Britain would be subject to repeated air attacks, the best American players would be showing up under well-lit tables for their nightly practice or uninterrupted tournament matches.

That is, up to a point.

The Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor had been preceded by an unprecedented invitation for a U.S. Team to come to Japan in June of 1940 for friendly matches. Our Association had accepted, and, as Team Captain Bill Gunn reported, all went well for our players abroad. On their return, a July 2 letter from Japanese Association President Usagawa spoke of more matches in the future "for the sheer purpose of developing amity between the two nations."

When our new U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion Lou Pagliaro was asked—a month after Italy had joined forces with Germany—on July 12, 1940 by New York reporters Fred Herbst and Donald Spencer if he "might exchange his racket for a gun and uniform," he said bluntly what many young men would have, "Any guy who wants America to enter this war must be crazy."* But Selective Service trainees began registering in Oct., 1940, and as of May, 1941, just before Germany attacked Russia, the U.S. declared itself no longer in a limited but in an unlimited emergency state. More U.S. players began entering the Armed Services. In Sept. not so amiable Japan joined Germany and Italy in Axis military partnership, and after the Pearl Harbor attack, U.S. table tennis players mobilized for War.

In the same Dec., 1941 issue of Topics that stressed that veteran Tournament Chair Dougall Kittermaster had all in readiness for the upcoming Chicago Intercities, Hungarian official Ervin Brody, who’d befriended our winning 1937 U.S. Teams abroad, was making the following point:

"...Expert opinion is unanimous here [in Hungary] that after the war the USA will take over the lead in T.T....[for it] is being played and sponsored in your country unhindered by the war while the game in other countries suffers considerably if not totally from its effects" (6).

Although there was a sameness about these Intercities in that New York was again undefeated and had been since 1935, the Dec. 7 Japanese bombing would change the lives of many of these players, some sooner rather than later. We would no longer be "unhindered by the war." Popular Yoshio Fushimi, who’d emigrated to the U.S. in 1925 from Shizuoka, Japan, promptly resigned his Captaincy of the Chicago Intercity Team, as if anticipating the doggerel lines appearing in the Feb., ‘42 Topics: ‘This is God’s country, great and clean/With liberty he blessed it/And if some Jap tries to get in/I’ll scalp the slant-eyed buzzard’"(15). Yosh told me that on the morning of Dec. 8, 1941, when he went to open his employer’s Fuji Trading Co., six F.B.I. agents were waiting for him. Of course in the 16 years he’d been in the U.S. he had a very clean record, and, until he could find new employment, for all goods from Japan would be blocked, he had a host of friends willing to support him. In a sense, he was lucky—he was a Japanese who didn’t try to get in, he was in...with a sympathetic "in" group. But though he wasn’t sent to an internment camp, he later met with some hostility in getting his U.S. citizenship.

As did Hungarian immigrant Tibor Hazi. A Texas Congressman apparently found it very Un-American that Hazi had brothers who were officers in the Hungarian Army. He began grilling Tibor with repulsive questions—asked, for example, "If the U.S. asked you to serve and you fought the Hungarians, would you kill your brother?" Tibor’s response was blunt, "I’d be happy to serve, but I wouldn’t kill my brother." Serve Tibor eventually did, after he and his wife Magda were awarded U.S. citizenship through a private bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt.

Toward the end of the 1941-42 season, Topics advised cheerfully "that the first room you blackout is your table tennis room....With a good supply of table tennis balls and a radio, what could be nicer for the entire family?" However, an editorial in the May Topics speaks of how it had been "a difficult year for table tennis from all angles."

"A number of former members have been lost to the armed services. Many who formerly played frequently are unable to devote much time to the game because of defense work. The majority of our officials have had to curtail their table tennis work somewhat because of defense business. And some players have been unfortunate enough to lose their playing areas that the space might be utilized for the more important purpose of war work" (2).

So now, warns Topics in prose and verse, "When you put away your bat for the summer, make sure it is stored in a safe place. It will be difficult to replace next season." A thought echoed in the first stanza of Bea Horowitz’s poem "We’re Squelched": 

"Priorities affect our game, 

The bats and balls are not the same. 

Ball shipments sunk while on their way, 

For rubber bats we sure must pay." 

By the end of the 1942-1943 season, Topics had twice published Wes Bishop’s guide to "The Care and Feeding of Bats For the Duration." If we don’t want to go back to the sandpaper racket era, he says, players have to keep "rubber facings from getting sticky and hard." So, members, do this:

"Wet the paddle on both sides and scrub thoroughly with soap and water. A fingernail, or hand brush is the best for this. Then let the water rinse off all the soap. Do NOT use hot water. Slap the paddle against a towel to shake off the surplus water and then wipe the edges of the bat carefully with the towel. This is to prevent the water from seeping under the facing and dissolving the glue."

Bishop says the washing should be done "at least once a month, or oftener, depending how much the paddle is used." He warns that perspiration must not "remain on the sensitive rubber pips for very long. The acid in perspiration is the chemical that hardens or makes the rubber sticky." Where keep your irreplaceable racket during the summer? It should be lying flat in a cool place "where there is some circulation," not, say, "in an old bureau drawer. There should be humidity in the room, too, as dry air will harden the rubber." 

Got all that? You’d better, "because next season will not just bring a shortage of rubber, but a total lack of it" (May, 1943, 20). 

Meanwhile, USTTA 2nd V.P. Carl Nidy in his Topics article "No Tires! No Gas! So-o---What!" reiterates the USTTA position that during this past 1941-42 season tournaments have benefited from "a large entry list and also by the increasing interest of spectators." Don’t worry, he says, if the big stars can’t get to your tournament, it may be a blessing in disguise. You won’t have to pay so much for trophies, can cut down on the promotional expenses, and ought to be able to charge less of an entry fee. That will revive interest, as will the fact that local players have more of a chance of winning if the better players can’t participate. The "quality of play" of these locals "will be entirely adequate to please the spectators attending the matches" (Apr., 1942, 3, 11). 

The prospect of locals watching locals play for the umpteenth time might prompt a bit of a grimace from some. Of course if you’re a USTTA official you hope for the best and try to put a good face on things. But if you’re 1940-41-42 U.S. Men’s Champion Lou Pagliaro and can’t defend your title because you’re "working in a defense plant," it’s undeniable that the War has hit you hard. 

Also undeniable is the fact that the USTTA, as of Jan. 1, 1943, has only 1,320 regular members. Nidy says that "We are in the position of a coal miner who has been satisfied with surface findings and has yet to develop the main vein which lies beneath." So our Sport’s got to go even more underground? 

Still, there are great hopes for Membership in the future—as there have been for the last 10 years, as there will be for the next 60. Mrs. William Guilfoil’s Feb., ‘43 Topics guest editorial adopts a thankful-so-many-are-playing, morale-building rationale: "Men in the Armed Forces are learning that table tennis helps them attain the prime objective of all physical training—that of teaching the individual to think clearly and act quickly in combat" (2). Since it’s certainly true that many U. S. stars are giving exhibitions with United Service Organizations troupes, and that recreational ping-pong is a hit in Service camps and U.S.O. and Red Cross Clubs everywhere, USTTA Tournament Chair Dougall Kittermaster in the Oct., ‘44 Topics follows up by saying, "We hear from all over the world that Table Tennis is the most popular game for the men and women in uniform and we can expect a great increase in interest in the sport when peace comes" (6). But of course, as History keeps insisting, and our officials keep denying, there’s a big difference between the Game, Ping-Pong, for the masses and Table Tennis, the Sport, for the relative few. Without too much competition, Sally Green can be our Women’s Champion for five consecutive years. 

From Oct., 1942 through Feb., 1944, Topics no longer put photos on its covers, or anywhere in the magazine. Each cover, listing names and Service addresses, was dedicated to USTTA members in the Armed Forces. A special May, 1943 issue revered those "who have given up the pleasures of civil life to make the supreme sacrifice, if necessary, to bring peace again to the world." Further restrictions were required though, for the U.S. Government Office of Censorship soon insisted that Topics delete from those names and addresses "the Company, name of the ship, bomber squadron or group...[since] this information could be very helpful to the enemy." 

Of course patriotic V-Mail began to appear in Topics. Here are excerpts from an article, "The Thrill of a Lifetime" (Jan., 1944, 3, 12), by Budapest-born, 1933 World Doubles Champion Sandor Glancz, whose "oldest and youngest brothers, William and Andrew," while living in Hungary, "were captured and killed by the Nazis":

"...The first thing I saw was a huge smoke in the ocean. As I found out later an LCT [landing craft] shot down a Jap diver. I bet the boys in the boat were proud. The next I saw was two Jap dive-bombers coming down with tremendous speed at a ship. They let loose two torpedoes but they missed by about ten feet and both planes never came out of the dive and crashed right in the sea....A bunch of planes appeared suddenly from beneath the clouds about a mile and a half from where I stood and a P38 right on their trail. Thousands of soldiers were standing on the beach watching excitedly. Just like a football game. Suddenly a tremendous ovation burst out and I saw a Jap in flames falling in the ocean. Then another one, and another one, and another one all in flames, paying for Pearl Harbor. We were screaming and cheering just like at a Notre Dame game, only this time we had a lump in our throat and the crowd was slightly "prejudiced." I saw more Jap planes going down in flames and in a few seconds I can count on my fingers. They were all blasted from the skies down to their doom and not one of them escaped.

...[In] our mess hall we have a sign that reads as follows: ‘Jungle restaurant, with daily floor shows. At least one Jap plane guaranteed shot down daily.…’" 

The celebrated Victor Barna, with whom Sandor had won the 1933 World Doubles Championship, had safely emigrated to England, but his younger brother, too, "Tibor, Hungarian Champion in 1941, perished in the Holocaust." After Glancz saw action in the South Pacific and the Philippines, he was awarded the "Purple Heart and two battle stars." Then, not yet a U.S. citizen and "concerned about where he’d be if he were captured by the enemy," he wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt and very soon thereafter got his citizenship.** 

During the War a number of well known table tennis players served with distinction. 1934 APPA National runner-up Billy Condy, for example, after graduating from flying school in Feb., 1942, flew 50 missions in B-17’s from the Eighth Air Force in England and the 12th Air Force in North Africa.*** Some prominent players and officials were killed in action—among them: Richard Tindall, 1935 U.S. World Team member; Gar Gomon, 1940 Nationally-ranked player from Michigan; and William R. Gilfillan, Chair of the 1941 Manhattan Center National’s and former President of the N.Y. Metro TTA, who was buried at sea. 

For many, Table Tennis life then returns to normal—though even at home change is inevitable. Topics co-Editor, Berne Abelew, urges tournament managers to realize "that the player and not the tournament sponsor is the one that should be made happy. It is the player for whom the entire affair is run." He says that "players have a bit of a reputation for being temperamental, fussy, and—as some people put it—‘kind of screwy.’" Maybe more so after the War? Anyway, he advises those who run tournaments that some players need "kind handling" (Mar., 1945, 2). Perhaps his suggestion is taken to heart? The Jan., 1946 USTTA membership is up to 1564. 

Elmer Cinnater, who’d Captained our winning World Championship Teams of 1937, will be back in command—this time as President of the Association, and for an unprecedented five years. In his first address to the Membership, he offers Political Pablum: "...I realize it is difficult for management and players to be always of one mind as to what is best for the U.S.T.T.A., but I see no fundamental reason why, if there is good will and understanding on both sides, the problems we are sure to encounter cannot be amicably discussed and satisfactory agreements reached to comply with majority opinion" (Topics, Oct., 1946, 2). 

Wouldn’t it be nice to think so? But, as we’ll see, four years into his Presidency, Cinnater will have to acknowledge that, as one observer points out, "differences of opinion" between New York and the Middle West "take rather a long time to heal." 

Chicago’s Lynel Overton—the subject of early ‘40’s discussion as to whether he and other Negroes ought to be allowed to play in our National Championships—had celebrated the day Japan accepted the Allies’ terms of surrender, Aug. 14, 1945, V-J Day (Victory over Japan), by giving an exhibition at a local Servicemen’s Center. Now, in that same Jan., ‘46 Topics that has a cover picture of former U.S. World Champion Jimmy McClure being mustered out of the Navy, he offers some suggestions for the advance of the Sport. Lynel proposes, among other things, that the USTTA enlarge the magazine, put in a bid to hold the next World Championships, and begin to produce member-accessible films of the Association’s outstanding players. Result? Beginning next season, Topics will expand considerably....And the USTTA will set a goal of "at least 10,000 new members." 

Meanwhile, Topics is giving 1945 and ‘46 U.S. Men’s Champion Dick Miles singular attention: "Miles is in a class by himself at the present moment....There is nothing to indicate that any player in the U.S.—or any place else—can get within shooting distance of the classy New Yorker" (Apr., 1946, 5). Such an appraisal of course comes at that 1946 moment. What about at the World Championships that will follow for the U.S.—in 1947 (Paris), 1948 (Wembley), 1949 (Stockhlom), and 1951 (Vienna)? 

Well, the forecasters were right, and the U.S. will again show itself after the War as a World table tennis power. But I’ll not spoil your fun, not share any of the details with you just yet. A word of warning, though. Will it be heeded? The Japanese are coming…bringing with them historic, irreversible change. And having said that, I close this Introduction with one of the best poems ever printed in Topics, and with the exhilarating admonition that some heady moments are coming up—and not just for Miles. 

"TABLE TENNIS By Ralph E. Royer 

It is a sight for rousing cheers 

To see strong men drive tiny spheres... 

Commanding with the tutored twist 

Of paddle, and the snap of wrist. 

For all experience in our ken 

Reveals: The sphere has driven men. 

An ancient spin turns us about, 

Impels us in, and drives us out... 

The angles of our incidence 

Reflected in the consequence. 

Aeons after we are gone, 

The whirling ball will still whirl on. 

How apropos, then, to reverse 

The technique of the universe." 

(May, 1946, 5) 

SELECTED NOTES 

*Louis E. Laflin, Jr. and Peter W. Roberts, in their "History of Table Tennis" articles published in Topics in the late 1940’s, say that Italian dictator Benvenuto Mussolini instituted a ban against handshaking "either before or after matches in table or lawn tennis." They quote him as saying, "Intimacy between opponents in sports is an ugly reed which should be uprooted" (TTT, Jan., 1949, 4). How foreign, how crazy, such thinking would have been to Pagliaro, who was always considered a good sport, a class act. 

**For this and more background information on Sandor read Reba Monness’s "In Memoriam" article in TTT, Mar., 1974, 4-5. The reference to Barna’s brother can be found in Ervin Brody’s article on Victor in the ITTF’s Table Tennis Digest, May, 1993, 10. 

***Source: Billy Condy’s Table Tennis Resume prepared by himself for Hall of Fame Board Members and sent to me by George Hendry with an accompanying Dec. 6, 1993 letter from George.