History of U.S. Table Tennis: Vol. II,  l940-l952

 By Tim Boggan, USATT Historian
  Typeset by Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer

   Printed by:  The Outer Office, Fulton, MD

    Review by Dick Evans, Assistant Manager for Table Tennis, 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games


Why should you buy this expensive ($33) book?  Because you are a table tennis athlete, aficionado or serious student of the art of historical research or excellence in rhetorical writing.  If the subject of this book were of a high-profile sport, rather than a history of the arcane sport of table tennis, this review would be written by George Plimpton, Norman Mailer or, perhaps, Hunter S. Thompson.  Nonetheless, Tim Boggan’s Vol. II of his projected multi-volume history of American table tennis belongs on the bookshelf beside the leviathans of historical writing:  Carlyle, Gibbon and Toynbee, who spent years of their lives painstakingly excavating the detritus of the past.  In this instance, the people and events which contributed to the development of this esoteric – but grand – sport of table tennis.

What is the task of a book review?  First, to accurately describe what the author intended in writing the book and how well he achieved it.  Second, explain to the readers why they might want the book.  And finally, to place the book in some larger, literary and historical context.  Ernest Hemingway admonished that, “To like the works of friends is beautiful as loyalty, but can be disastrous as judgment.”  It’s a risk I will have to take.

What Tim Boggan has set out to do in this second volume of his history is to describe in detail the players and events during the years of the Second World War and after, up to the advent of the sponge era at the 1952 Bombay Worlds.  Each chapter in the book has an overview of its contents, followed with an in-depth description of the tournaments and matches in great detail, down to the deuce/add scores in the exciting matches.

The year is 1940.  Nearly every war has a long fuse, and WWII was no exception.  But it is ironic that in that year the Japanese association decided to invite the U.S. to send a team to play friendship matches when a year and a half later they would be bombing Pearl Harbor.  War had already put the lights out for table tennis in Europe, canceled the Worlds scheduled in Paris that year, to be re-scheduled seven horrible years later.  Many European players had to flee their homelands for safety in England and the U.S.  Some, like Sandor Glancz and the great Victor Barna, lost brothers to the Holocaust.  On coming to the U.S., Glancz joined the U.S. military, as did some of our own top players, including Jimmy McClure and Sol Schiff.

But here at home in the states, these war years were to foster the beginning of two careers that would dominate American table tennis for many years:  Dick Miles and Marty Reisman, the yin and yang of the sport:  quiet, elegant grace vs. flamboyant, provocative showmanship.  Their mastery of the sport inspired awe and envy in a generation of players, including this reviewer, who at the age of 16, the state junior champion of West Virginia, was taken by his mentor and coach, Herman “Whitey” Lykins, to Columbus, Ohio, to see the U.S. Open at the Ft. Hayes Armory in 1948.  It was a classic final between Dick and Marty that was to be repeated many times during the next decade with a par usual deuce-in-the-fifth win by Miles.  It was for me an epiphany, peeling the skin from my eyes, returning home to West Virginia hopelessly – happily – addicted to a lifetime of enjoyment under the lights, across the net, on the verdant green of a 5x9 table.

Meanwhile, from Barbados to the Big Apple:  Herwald Lawrence on Broadway.  Seventeen-twenty-one Broadway that is, between 54th and 55th Streets, there was located during those war years and beyond a club run by a player from the islands come to NYC.  This famous and infamous club was in a building reputed to have been a speakeasy owned by the notorious “Legs” Diamond.  There were even bullet pockmarks in the walls to prove that “Legs” had narrowly escaped assassination there during those heady Prohibition years.  But it took a person of Herwald Lawrence’s skill and personality to turn this rowdy site into the emporium of the Golden Age of New York table tennis.  At Lawrence’s, betting was de rigueur:  no matter how big or small, nobody played just for fun.  Even the ladylike Leah Neuberger played for money, albeit only for a penny a point.  Other bets were much more menacing.

Music lovers may be interested to read that table tennis during this period was played, and financially supported by, several famous musicians and composers, including Jascha Heifetz, George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, Paul Whiteman and Arnold Schoenberg.  Gershwin and Whiteman could swing, but Schoenberg’s backhand was a bit dissonant.  In another field, the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, also was a player but we haven’t time to get into his motivation here!

But now we must fast forward because my allotted time and space are nearly up.  It is l952, that seminal year in simmering Bombay and our sport is about to change forever.  The war is long past – but never forgotten – and Japan is to return to international competition in an unexpected and dramatic fashion.  On the Japanese team at Bombay is Hiroji Satoh (Japan #5) who arrives with a bat like no other:  sponge rubber over Hinoki wood.  Although there is no U.S. team at this Worlds, Marty Reisman and Doug Cartland are there as individual entrants and to witness Satoh’s relentless march to the men’s world singles title.

Here Tim Boggan’s book ends (To Be Continued) and so must this reviewer, but not before he closes with this tribute.  If you read this book (or James Joyce’s Ulysses), will it make you a great table tennis champion?  Probably not, but it will tell you a lot about those who were our great champions, about those eccentrics, clowns and gentle giants who love this game.  This book will also tell about the sweat that, bleeding through every page like pentimenti revealing the hidden masterpiece within, produced these beginning volumes of a history that is still unfolding, and will continue until the author’s time and stamina, like ours, is over.  Until that time, demonstrate your love of this game.  Buy this book.