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The Broadway Table Tennis Courts in New York City served for 20 golden years as an incubator of U.S. champions and a finishing school for hustlers, but I remember it most vividly as an outpatient refuge for the unlikeliest assortment of oddballs west of Creedmoor. It was, I recall, a kind of USO for weirdies—a home away from home. Experts disagree on whether table tennis creates its screwballs or merely attracts them. Some say that a decade of missing setups under hot lights erodes the cerebrum, while others maintain the ball's ping acts as a homing signal for crackpots. But whatever the cause the Broadway Courts was their cloister. The Club, as we fondly described it, did little to lure clientele. It occupied the second and third floors of a rundown four-story structure at Broadway and 55th Street, and only the legend lettered across its casement windows—TABLE TENNIS WHERE THE CHAMPIONS PLAY—hinted at its existence. Indeed, to find it in summer when the casements were swung open, a sane man would have needed a sextant and bloodhound.
The Club's proprietor, house pro, stakeholder for money matches and supreme arbiter of disputed scores was Herwald Lawrence, a lofty West Indian with an impeccable British accent. From his desk near the windows fronting Broadway his imperial voice blasted through a hand microphone and policed the reaches of his establishment. He had a predilection for the royal "we" and frequently intoned such injunctions as, "We do not tolerate banging rackets upon the tables, gentlemen!" When all of his 12 tables were occupied, each bringing in $1.20 per hour, his disposition sweetened somewhat and his commands were more familiar. "On table No. 7, please, not so loudly there, old top," he would say. On taking over the Club in 1935, his first act was to fill in the bullet holes behind table No. 5—stigmata left by the previous tenant, when the building was a Prohibition speak-easy owned by Legs Diamond and called the Nutty Club. Thereafter, Mr. Lawrence constantly made improvements. He polished the spittoons until they were cuspidors, and he outlawed swearing and double negatives until, finally, the Club had tone.
The Club regulars included a plastic surgeon; a chiropractor; the pilot of an elevator at the Empire State Building (he kept a meticulous flight log); a concert violinist turned commercial who, when he recorded pop music, plugged his refined ears with wax; an Englishman known as Captain Kennedy who played backgammon at the Racquet Club on Park Avenue but was drawn to our den on Broadway for exercise; a barber; a bandleader from Pennsylvania named Fred Waring: a shrill logical positivist who incessantly argued philosophy with a seminary student of unshakable convictions; and a guy named George, who was something in a brewery. But in real life they were all table-tennis players, possessed by a demon that transformed them into a band of fanatics driven by a single mad pursuit—pursuit of the white celluloid ball.
Though the Club had a reputation for producing champions, I did not aspire to stardom when I first sought it out in 1940. I merely needed a new place to play because "Mitch's Place," an airless dungeon on the upper West Side that I had frequented for three years, disappeared one Sunday afternoon when a uniformed hatchet squad from police headquarters demolished the wire service for bookies that operated in the same building. So the following Tuesday, already badly in need of a table-tennis fix, I set out to find the Broadway Courts. The place was tucked away so discreetly that I might have missed it had I not passed beneath those open casement windows just as a temperamental duffer within, a fellow named Hugo Batzlinger, lost a deuce game. In a paroxysmal rage Batzlinger had hurled his racket and one sneaker at his opponent (who ducked), and the familiar items fell at my feet two stories below on the sidewalk. "This must be the place," I reasoned. A moment later I was sure, for a glazed-eyed man appeared and hopped around on one sneakered foot while he retrieved his gear. I followed Batzlinger back through the gloomy hallway with its bare 40-watt bulb, up the rickety stairs and lo! I beheld the promised land.
One look made it clear to me that I had never played the game. All around me wild men were climbing walls to return seemingly impossible smashes. At I one table the then U.S. champion, Louis Pagliaro, a 5-foot-2, 100-pound wisp, was imitating a comet. At another I saw Douglas Cartland, also a star, top-spin a dozen successive forehand drives into the chop of a stubborn defensive artist. Agony contorted Cartland's face at every stroke. Finally, trying for the kill, Cartland missed, and with an anguished cry he lifted his foot right onto the table and in a spasm of overwhelming grief began clawing at his trouser leg until the cloth parted in tatters. I was awed. Table tennis was serious here. Even a guy at a pinball machine was intense, hugging it passionately and nudging it with his hips. "Tilt?" he screamed. "Impossible! Why I never even touched it!"
This was the glorious, green tableland that nurtured me. It was a splendid prep school for life, the Broadway Courts, and I learned many useful things there: how to make a person-to-person call at the station-to-station rate, when to schmeiss at klaberjass, and a forehand drive and backhand chop that won 10 U.S. singles titles for me and took me around the world. But the Club got me into trouble, too. It impaired my judgment. I spent so much time there that I became immunized to the eccentricities of its inmates, and I began to regard table-tennis fiends as people—you know, regular guys, the kind you might double-date with or recommend for a job. It never occurred to me how unfit they were for the world outside.
And so it was that in 1953, when the Department of Defense asked me to do an exhibition tour of military bases in the Far East, I invited along as my partner a typical table-tennis addict, the aforementioned bombardier, Hugo Batzlinger. To unleash Batzlinger in the real world, on a mission that called for tact, diplomacy, adaptability and the repression of first impulses was, it turned out, a reckless thing to do. But how was I to know?
Ladies and gentlemen," the stewardess said, "we have just reached our cruising altitude...."
Ah! But let me first arrange the scene for you. How well I remember it, that day in 1953. Hugo Batzlinger and I flying over the Pacific. Sun, blue sky, slate-gray ocean. An old Super Constellation, chartered by the Military Air Transport Service, one hour out of Honolulu, heading west for Wake Island and Tokyo. Around us, the military. Khaki, Air Force blue and pea-jacket black. Here and there a pregnant woman in a faded print dress, a dependent, curbing the kids who swell the monthly pay check. Unheeding, Batzlinger and I ardently rereading our official government travel orders: "The aforementioned personnel are invited to tour Japan; Hong Kong; Okinawa; Taiwan; Korea; Philippines; Vietnam; Thailand; Cambodia; and other points at the discretion of the Commander." Our mission: "To entertain military personnel with exhibitions and clinics in table tennis." Again Hugo and I read that exotic list. Ah, the mystical, magical East! Mount Fuji, Kyoto, the saffron-robed monks in Bangkok—but for us, more important, the lands where a table-tennis champion lurks beneath every lotus blossom! I am Dick Miles, 28, present and seven times U.S. champion, new to the Far East but a veteran traveler to Europe and South America. Alongside me, Hugo Batzlinger, 32, a no-time U.S. champion, who once drove to Poughkeepsie. He is eager, proud of his virgin passport. I can spot him nine points on 21, but if I set the ball up he can play the exhibition we've rehearsed. He is my partner, my choice.
Table-tennis players come in all sizes despite the corny jokes about Ping-Pong biceps. Batzlinger was a large one, 6 feet even and 175 pounds, but it was from the shoulders up that his aspect was singular. A preposterously long, forward-curving neck served as a platform to display a face that was flagrantly avid. The face had the faintly bluish hue and the translucency of skimmed milk—a Ping-Pong parlor pallor. The gray, bulging eyes were imprisoned (fortunately) behind thick, rimless spectacles, whose lenses Hugo polished repeatedly and compulsively until they gleamed like disks of Steuben glass.