HISTORY OF U.S. TABLE TENNIS: Vol. I, 1928-39
By Tim Boggan, USATT Historian
Typeset by former World
Champion Laci Bellak, Bellak Color…Miami, Florida
Printed by BTL Below the Line Productions
Review by Steve Isaacson
If you’re expecting a world class book review, remember, this is not the New York Times…and I am not William F. Buckley. But if you’re reading this magazine, it figures you’re a table tennis fan. To say that History of U.S. Table Tennis is the best book ever written on table tennis is like saying Cheng Yinghua can loop! It’s a truism…a fact…an absolute! No…Don’t look for any instruction here. You’ll have to learn how to serve on your own…or buy another book with instructions…or spend more time with your robot. There will be no tips here...only the most complete review of a decade in sports I have ever seen. Get ready for 375 pages featuring people you may actually know, and over 200 photos and graphics painstakingly collected for years by Leah Neuberger, Ruth Aarons, Frank Dwelly, Yoshio Fushimi, Reginald Hammond, Mark Matthews, (Marcus Schussheim), Mayo Rae Rolph Roy and George Schein.
Tim Boggan has spent years personally interviewing scores of players all over the world so this book can be absolutely correct. The only limitations have been the faulty sixty-year-old memories of the players themselves, but even then Boggan has checked and cross checked and checked again for accuracy.
If this were a book about baseball or basketball or golf, Barnes and Noble would be scheduling book signings all over the country and the name “Boggan” would be bandied about like John Grisham or Hillary Clinton. Serious sports fans search their local bookstores and web sites for that perfect book on their favorite sport. They routinely spend hours at their libraries scanning section .796…to little avail…until now.
If you’re a player you’ll surely be interviewed by Boggan for Volume II or Volume III and you too will be able to read about your own –20,15-16,19,23 clash with immortality at the South Bend Open or Central Florida Closed.
In some ways History reads like a textbook…then like an essay…then like a novel. But it is not like The Brethren. You will never finish this book…ever!!! You’ll re-read passages over and over and over. This is after all…table tennis.
Two stories especially stick in my mind. Both are deeply ingrained in the folklore of U.S. Table Tennis and while many people I know consider themselves experts on both incidents, they all disagree with each other! Boggan documents each story but still…both require…no, demand…further explanation, which will never, I assure you, be forthcoming.
The first is the saga of the fingerspin serve, or was it the knucklespin serve? Sol Schiff was known to be the master. He denies it. McClure was perhaps the next best. He denies it. How much did fingerspin serves influence Schiff’s two world titles? McClure’s four world titles? (Actually, he won a 5th as captain of the 1949 Corbillon Cup winners but I hardly think his serves were a factor). The greatest players in the world, five-time champion Viktor Barna and four-time champion Richard Bergmann agreed that Schiff’s serves were the work of the devil and virtually impossible to return. We will never know the importance of these serves.
The second story is even stranger. In 1936 our own Ruth Aarons won the Women’s Championship of the World, slaughtering the German champion, Astrid Krebsbach 16,14,11, after dispatching the defending champion Marie Kettnerova in the semis. However, in the 1937 Final between Aarons and Austria’s Trude Pritzi, the title was declared “vacant” at the end of a time limit. “Vacant”?!!? What does that mean and why? Are we to believe that two intelligent young women, the best two table tennis players in the world, consciously allowed the title to disintegrate before their eyes without protest, without screaming, without today’s obligatory legal action? Did Pritzi know of the time limit? Did Aarons? Where were our officials? Can you imagine Lance Armstrong courteously pedaling over a mountain cliff just because the road ran out? Preposterous!! What happened? Why? Who caused it? Just another never to be understood legend of our sport. Ruth Aarons retired shortly thereafter!
During your journey through History of U.S. Table Tennis you’ll read about “Table Tennis Topics,” you’ll learn about the early feud between Parker Brothers’ American Ping-Pong Association (APPA) and the fledgling USTTA. You’ll learn about our first National Champion, Marcus Schussheim, and his successors: Coleman Clark…Jimmy Jacobson…Abe Berenbaum…as well as the 1933 Champion Sydney Heitner, who was to disappear from his Glen Cove, Long Island home on April 29, 1950…never to be seen again! Gallons of ink will be well spent on the two greatest players of the decade: New York’s Sol Schiff and Jimmy McClure of Indianapolis. You’ll learn about the dominant women of the decade: the invincible Ruth Aarons, Jay Purves, Emily Fuller and Delores Kunz. You’ll get a first glimpse at the Indianapolis beauty, Sally Green, who was a finalist in the last U.S. Open of the decade. You’ll have to wait for Volume II to read about her unprecedented five straight titles. You’ll read and see pictures of the fabulous venues of the early championships: Chicago’s Palmer House and sold out Steven’s Hotel; New York’s Pennsylvania Hotel and Waldorf Astoria. You’ll read about the important officials who built the USTTA: Carl Zeisberg, the editor of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Elmer Cinnater, Reginald Hammond and Sidney Biddell, as well as USTTA president, Jim Clouther, who would lead the association into the 1940’s. You’ll be amazed at the Hungarian men…and the Hungarian and Czech women. You’ll read incredibly detailed descriptions of Ruth Aaron’s march to the 1936 world title, along with American victories in the 1937 Swaythling and Corbillon Cups. You’ll agonize through the 1936 and 1937 Men’s Doubles reign of Buddy Blattner and Jimmy McClure and the 1938 victory of McClure and Schiff. You’ll live through Schiff’s 21-1 record with that victorious 1937 team.
You’ll be amused by the 1935 U.S. Corbillon Cup team at the London Worlds. U.S. #6 (formerly #2) Helen Ovendon and her pickup partner, Julia Ruth, lost every match. Julia was the “ping pong playing” stepdaughter of Babe Ruth! Just another piece of table tennis history. You’ll find a myriad of actual letters…suspending or defending all kinds of table tennis folks, for all kinds of deeds…the worst which, apparently, was chiseling.
There are stories about the Easterns and Westerns, the CNE and the Intercities. You’ll read about St. Louis’ Bill Price and Garrett Nash and George Hendry…Chicago’s mighty Bill Holzrichter, and Rocky Graziano’s good friend, Lou Pagliaro. And don’t forget young Betty Henry, of South Bend, Indiana…the U.S. #16 who somehow played her way to the semifinals of the 1938 Worlds!
Leaf through the pages and agonize at the continued failure of Sol Schiff to win the Worlds’ Singles, a title he truly deserved…but never won!
How often do you get to read a book about people you actually know…people you played against…people you’ve had dinner with. These were the giants of the game. Some are still regulars at our tournaments: Schiff, McClure, Frank Dwelly, George Hendry. Others are still around: Sally Green Prouty and Carlton Prouty, Billy Holzrichter, Doug Cartland, Laci Bellak, Mark Matthews, Mildred Wilkinson Shipman.
As you read this book, do not for a moment assume Boggan’s unorthodox style of writing is two steps below correct. On the contrary, it is three steps past perfect. No writing style can be mastered until the writer is first thoroughly competent. Then and only then can he stray from what is termed “correct.” A great poet must first master the art of rhyme before he chooses not to rhyme!
I for one can’t get enough of Boggan’s unique style of writing. I have even tried, unsuccessfully, to imitate it.
If you are a table tennis player and you like Boggan’s style, History of U.S. Table Tennis will soon be the most important book in your library.
If you are a table tennis player and you don’t like Boggan’s style, History of U.S. Table Tennis is still the best book you’ll buy this year.