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

Chapter XXV. Zeisberg’s Concerns: USTTA Membership/USTTA Funding. 1937: First Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Open at Toronto. 1937: University of Pennsylvania Takes First National Intercollegiate Team Tournament.

As the '36-'37 season progressed, it had become obvious to Zeisberg that too many State Association Presidents were just not doing the job he expected of them. They weren't meeting their Fighting Fund quota (Zeisberg himself had contributed $50 to this Fund, then added $13.50 more, payment for two Encyclopaedia Britannica articles he’d written). And they weren't working hard enough to acquire new USTTA members.

Of course there were some exceptions. Out in Kansas City, Missouri, Dr. Stan Morest, taking a page or two from a bowler’s manual, had organized very successful league play. Sponsoring firms "paid the entry fees and bought shirts for their teams and, in addition, paid for each player’s USTTA membership." Players always had their individual schedules in hand, and when each evening matches were completed scores and standings were immediately sent to the press (TTT, Nov.-Dec., 1972, 21).

Pennsylvania, too, had set the other states a fine example by building up league play, especially in the Philadelphia area (as witness their 1936-37 Laws of Table Tennis and Model League Rules Handbook), and by insisting that every league player be a USTTA member. Philly's Financial and Industrial League, for example, was starting its 1937-38 (fifth consecutive) season with four Men's and (thanks to the continued efforts of Mrs. Violet Smolens and Mrs. Florence Archer) one Women's Division. Among its 32 teams were those representing Sears Roebuck, AT&T, Campbell's Soup, GE, Western Electric, and Zeisberg's own Evening Bulletin (TTT, Dec., 1937, 14). As a result, by April 1, 1937, just after the National’s, Pennsylvania had 545 members --more than a fifth of the entire USTTA membership. For $10 a month, for a few issues, Pennsylvania even had its own page reserved in Topics (the only state, along with Illinois, ever to do so).

Massachusetts had provided the affiliates with another model. Two years ago it had 73 USTTA members, now, with the four VP's from its TTA each in charge of a district, and after running the ‘36 Eastern's and other Open tournaments (the USTTA policy now was that every entrant had to be an Association member, else Topics wouldn't publish the results), it had built up its roster to 334 members, second only to Pennsylvania (TTT, Apr., 1937, 4).

But some shake-up among other states was called for. Of California's 55 members only 5 were left. Two seasons ago, the week after the National's, Indiana had 165 members, Wisconsin 133; now Indiana had 35, Wisconsin 10. Even some states among last year's leaders were slipping: New Jersey dropped from 463 members to 188, Ohio from 314 to 155. By Jan. 1, 1937, only 12 states, in Zeisberg's eyes, remained "organized." New York, despite its Apr., ‘37 244 members, was deemed merely a "provisional" affiliate. (Apparently Zeisberg felt he didn't have any meaningful contacts in N.Y. Though why didn't he?)

Mindful no doubt that just two seasons ago supposedly 23,000 enthusiasts had enrolled in the Chicago American’s Novice Championships (TTT, Apr., 1935, 4), Zeisberg might appear to be a mite discouraged--at least from these lines in his June 30, 1937 letter to his remaining Board of Governors and others:

"...It seems that by far most Americans playing table tennis simply want to enjoy themselves. They don't want TOPICS or a vote or sanctioned play or ranking, don't want to work or be bothered by organization matters, and don't care to join [the USTTA]...."

Yes, that does sound discouraging--the more so because Zeisberg’s assessment is all too accurate, and not just for his decade but for all the decades to come. However, he should have said "Americans playing ping-pong"--not "Americans playing table tennis." For the very great majority of players care only about recreational ping-pong. They want to play the game, not the sport. And they want to play for free, or for some very nominal fee, since in the past it’s cost them very little, if anything, to play at Y’s or rec centers.

It’s hard though for Zeisberg to give up on his dream--he himself is so defined by it.

So now he proceeds in his letter to detail all kinds of suggestions he's received about how to get more members and/or more money. Advisors urge him to charge anything from 75 cents to $10 for a membership. (Actually, he himself this past season had argued for higher dues, for then, he said, only those really interested would join, and the USTTA would be easier to operate and the game would be better served.) Perhaps, someone suggested, there ought to be a 5 cents tax on every entrant in a tournament? Or a "grading" of membership dues? Zeisberg picks up on this latter idea and offers a suggestion that in modified final form won't take effect for another year. The idea is to have another kind of Membership--a "Club" Membership for "groups of 5 or more" for only 10 cents a person. Meanwhile, as new E.C. Recording Secretary and Leagues Chair Dr. Stan Morest and his Organization Committee work on the idea, the 50-cent dues will remain for the '37-38 season.

Still, considering that the USTTA membership on June 1, 1937 was only 2,237 (TTT, Nov., 1937, 13), down 752 members from June 1, 1936, ways had to be found of increasing income--the more so because for the '37-38 season the USTTA had just taken on a full-time General Secretary, Joseph D. Berna, at a salary of $1,000 a year. (Berna's appointment was not unexpected, for, after his brother Edwin "Frank" Berna had abruptly resigned as momentary Topics Editor and USTTA Recording Secretary, a resignation which, strangely, was never explained to the membership, Joe had been working with Zeisberg for more than half the past season as Editor and Business Manager of Topics).

There was also transitory talk, as there had been fancifully before, of the U.S. hosting a World Championship, for which of course a great deal of money would be needed.

At the moment, USTTA income came first and foremost from the membership dues, half of which (every 25 cents) were earmarked for Topics (evolving now from its earlier 9 x 6 then 11 x 8 newsletter formats). Second V.P. Morris Bassford had a hand in the new 7 and 1/2 x 5 and a 1/2 booklet-shaped Topics making its first appearance with the May-June, 1937 issue.* The October and January issues that followed, with covers of Fay Wray and Dick Powell (meant to further the idea that perhaps the publication could have newstand appeal?) were the first Topics to dramatically pick up on earlier Parker Brothers’ attempts to show movie stars enjoying the game.

USTTA income was also being raised by sanction fees: for example, from fees received from the National's ("20% of the entry fee") as well as lesser tournaments ("10% of the entry fees"); from Exhibitions ("If admission is charged to spectators...10% of gross receipts; if sponsor is commercially interested...[perhaps] a flat fee"); from the "Circus" Tours (from the 1937 3rd International Tour--$5 an exhibition plus 10% of the net profits, half of which would go to the states wherein the exhibitions had been held); and even from occasional racket royalties--Ruth Aarons would pay one cent, Sandor Glancz and Sol Schiff 2 cents a racket (TTT, Mar., 1937, 6 and May-June, 1937, 24).

Now, in addition, Bassford had put together a strong Equipment Committee, so that, beginning Jan. 1, 1937, USTTA Approved Equipment--the return of seals on tables, plus packs of individually stamped ("Official USTTA") balls, even net sets and lighting--had been bringing in fees. This was very helpful since from the beginning of the ‘35-36 season the USTTA had stopped charging for Equipment Approval.

There was also a minimum amount of money raised from Topics advertising: a National ad ran $2 per column inch per insertion, a Local one $1; there were discounts for running large and season-long ads; and a special "Places to Play" rate of $2 for 1/2 inch insertions for the year’s 8 issues (TTT, Jan., 1937, 2 and 5). Among the latter clubs advertised in "Places to Play" was Harry S. Wahle's 14-table Euclid Ave. Club in Cleveland, Ohio. It opened with much fanfare in 1935--"Surpasses Europe's Finest" said Barna and Glancz. "Club members pay $1 fee per year to get a flat rate of $1.50 a month for play and membership in association. Leagues pay $1 entry fee and 40 cents a night per man. Public play charge [was] 60 cents an hour, 35 cents a half hour" (TTT, Oct., 1935, 3). With that kind of fee structure so favorable to the habitue who wants to play 3-5 times a week, unless there's a good bit of casual walk-in play, it's hard to see how such a club could survive for long. And, sure enough, within two years it wasn't advertising in Topics, and less than a year after that another Cleveland club, in a different location and with fewer tables, began advertising in "Places to Play."

With the coming of the '37-38 season, Wahle, who for "good personal reasons" had been "forced to become inactive in mid-[‘36-37] season," was replaced as Executive Secretary by Westchester County’s Jack Hartigan, former Executive Secretary of the PPA.

And--surprise--the Oct., '37 issue of Topics is now "pleased to announce an amicable settlement of the misunderstanding between Topics and Parker Brothers." "Misunderstanding!" Yes, Topics will once again accept Ping-Pong ads because Parkers assure that "no advertisement of theirs will cause the USTTA any embarrassment." So, in this Oct. issue--but only in this issue--there appears a full page ad advertising "Ping-Pong" (16). Here’s the head for that Parker ad--but where’s the USTTA’s head?

The acceptance of this latest 1937 ad from his scorned p.p. competitor suggests that reelected President Zeisberg, now that the USTTA's needed Approved Equipment fees are in place and being collected, is apparently willing to try (through liaison Hartigan?) to open-mindedly cooperate with Parker Brothers--the more so, perhaps, if he thinks he can also momentarily taunt Montagu with this further show of icy independence. But as in 1935 when Zeisberg had accepted the Barna and McClure Ping-Pong ads for publication--those very ads he was still railing about when just last season he'd tried to suspend McClure--there'd be no continuation in Topics of this or any ad that championed the Parker "standard of excellence."

Executive Secretary Hartigan at an E.C. Meeting in April had suggested a Summer trial period for a new service requirement--namely that the "ball must be tossed at least six inches in the air." But, as this suggestion was defeated, dropping the ball on serve was still permitted. Meanwhile, USTTA Rules Chair Neil Schaad announced the adoption of two more Close Rules: a mandatory ball weight of not less than 37 nor more than 39 grams (soon to be extended to 41 grams); and a 5-minute time out between the third and fourth games--with play being uninterrupted otherwise, except for an emergency (TTT, Nov., 1937, 15 and 20).

Webb and Wilkinson Win First CNE Open at Toronto

In the first, Sept. 9-11, 1937 Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Open at Toronto--an annual tournament that was still being played almost 60 years later--Hartigan lost in the semi’s to V. Lee Webb, formerly of Kansas City, now living in Detroit. The "V" in this case was not only for Victory but for Vernon, and I presume his father was H. E. Webb, who as far back as 1930 began to run the first of his often site-changing commercial table tennis clubs in Kansas City. In the final, Webb beat Detroit’s Harvey Davis who’d taken out Mamaroneck’s Jimmy O’Connor in the other semi.

The Women’s winner in this first CNE wasn’t a Canadian either. A couple of years earlier Mildred Wilkinson had partnered Coleman Clark not only in exhibitions but in a memorable publicity stunt. They’d been photographed up in the Chicago skies playing table tennis--or so it seemed, or, granting a little poetic license, so it was, for they’d played on only half a table in a new wide-bodied jet that Boeing or McDonald-Douglas wanted to advertise as showing "the smoothness of flight" (TTT, Jan.-Feb., 1951, 5). Whether or not Mildred had come (by plane?) as dreamily to this Toronto tournament, she felt that, after her 5-game match with Aarons at the Newark National’s, it was no mere flight of fancy to hope she might be picked for the U.S. Team to the ‘38 World’s. Certainly her win here over Clara Harrison could only strengthen her chances.

A month earlier, player-official Hartigan had started the New England ‘37-38 season off well when he not only landed the Town Hall venue for the annual Provincetown Quinela but bested Les Lowry to win the Men’s unique Silver Cod trophy.

Sharing the Nov., '37 cover of Topics with Hartigan was the Provincetown women's winner of the companion Bronze Dolphin trophy, Mae Clouther, who'd prevailed over Lucia Farrington in 5. Six weeks or so later, however, in the Sept. 24-26 Massachusetts Open at Cambridge Farrington would get sweet deuce-in-the-5th revenge over Clouther, then would go on to defeat penholder Barbara Shields in 5 in the final. Lowry again would lose in the Men's, this time to Jimmy Jacobson who'd just entered Harvard.

University of Pennsylvania Wins First Intercollegiate Team Championship

Harvard was one of the 16 teams** entered in the fall's most hyped tournament--the first National Intercollegiate Team Championship (accompanied by the Philadelphia High School Interscholastic Team Championships) held Nov. 26-27, Thanksgiving Weekend, at the University of Pennsylvania's huge Palestra Stadium. The Chair of this tournament, Gene Smolens, Class of ‘29, was a former Penn lawn tennis star, and the trophy to the winning school honored Penn alumnus Thomas C. Bradley, the so-called "Father of American Table Tennis."

Appropriately, the University of Pennsylvania's Izzy Bellis and Len Sarner won the Championship over City College of New York's Bernie Grimes and Irving "Whitey" Sheraga in an exciting 3-2 Davis Cup-style match. Although it was the holiday weekend of the area's conflicting Army-Navy football game, Topics was disappointed that "only 500...in an arena that seats 10,000" saw the final.

Because of Penn's two singles losses to undefeated Grimes, U.S. #4, the doubles match was the decider--and, from 18-13, 19-16 down, the Penn team rallied for a deuce in the 3rd win. Sarner, unranked, was far more the hero than U.S. #11 Bellis--and not only for his needed singles win over Sheraga and his "daring forehand drives" in the end-game of the doubles. In the semi's, after Bellis was upset by Princeton's Abbott Nelson, Sarner had downed last season’s Illinois Open winner and U.S. #13 Dan Kreer, like his teammate a just enrolled freshman, and then -15, 22, 18 had staved off as if with whip and chair the tigerish Nelson. In the other semi's, Grimes and Sheraga were never hard pressed by DePauw's Billy Condy and Paul Souder. Ah, if only ‘34 National APPA Champion McClure had teamed up with ex-finalist Condy....(Earlier, Jimmy, thinking momentarily about a career in law or medicine, did briefly attend DePauw and also Butler--but academics always gave way to pressing World Championships.)

Some other good players participating in this ‘37 Intercollegiate tournament were: Ohio Weslyan's George Sturgiss; Loyola's George Sempeles (who after losing the upcoming Baltimore Closed to Manny Moskowitz would be this season's Maryland #2); Wilson Teachers College's Elias Schuman; and Cincinnati's Herman Lykins (who had to be carried off court here with a "badly sprained ankle"). Ohio State's Harry Sage and Sam Shannon, both of whom would be prominent in Ohio table tennis for decades, gave the winning Penn team quite a 3-1 battle in round robin preliminary play: Sage took a game from Bellis, Shannon played him to deuce in another, and in the doubles Penn barely beat the Ohioans deuce in the 3rd.

As for the younger Interscholastic Team players, Mike Lieberman, playing for runner-up Northeast High, would be the one recognizable name in Pennsylvania table tennis decades later.*** But is that surprising? How many teenagers as they continued to mature would stay with the sport for a lifetime?


*The booklet-size would be expanded to 9 x 6 beginning with the Nov., 1938 issue and stay that way until the Oct., 1946 expansion. See TTT, Oct., 1937, 5 for Bassford’s role in the new booklet.

**TTT, Jan. 1938, 8-9. According to a Feb. 1, 1935 article by Herbert Allen, Oklahoma City University was giving "academic credit for proficiency at it [table tennis]"--but no team from there played in these Championships.

***TTT, Jan., 1938, 10. For Lieberman’s longevity, see, for example, Philadelphia’s 1974 Eastern Open Program (2, 3, and 10). It may be that Mike was the son of Mort Lieberman who (see TTT, Nov., 1937, 21) by the fall of 1937 had taken over what then became the PA TTA headquarters, the 1311-13 Arch St. Quaker City Club formerly run by Godfrey Carlson. Two years later, Ham Canning took this Club over from Mort (TTT, Oct., 1939, 29).