If you're one of those players who call table tennis "Ping-Pong," you'll get a kick out of this story. Until one emerges from the dingy cellars and poorly lighted garages of the Ping-Pong subworld, the fantasy of beating anyone of world championship caliber must remain unfulfilled. In the fall of 1948, though, I emerged from my basement just long enough to test a superiority complex developed from beating anybody who dared challenge me to a game on my dusty, pockmarked table with its sagging net—anyone willing to contend with lopsided balls, battered paddles and whitewashed stone walls that forestalled more than two backward steps.
Thanks to a not-bad forehand smash and quick reflexes, I had become a neighborhood champ (Kew Gardens, N.Y.), college fraternity champ (Dartmouth) and, while in the Army, a frequent winner in those Friday-night handicap tournaments held by the USO for soldiers.
But it was when I was a junior at Dartmouth in 1948 that my friends and I decided to try our luck at a tournament in Springfield, Mass. billed as the New England Open Table Tennis Championship. Though we'd never wandered very far from home in search of opponents, we'd kept ourselves abreast of what was what and who was who in world table tennis by subscribing to Table Tennis Topics, probably the only American publication devoted to the sport at the time. We knew, for instance, that Europeans always won the world championships (though they rarely played in the U.S.) and that the best of the American men were Dick Miles and Marty Reisman, both New Yorkers. At that time, we knew nothing about players in China or North Korea, the countries that now dominate the sport.
It was thrilling to read how Miles had won four consecutive U.S. titles (he eventually won 10 overall), using such a wicked chop that few opponents could consistently drive a ball against him. And we were enthralled by Reisman's arsenal of tricks, for example, using a Coke bottle as a paddle. Other great players we once idolized had faded somewhat, but weren't forgotten. They included red-haired Sol Schiff, an ever-smiling lefthander, and pint-sized Lou Pagliaro, who raced about so vigorously he wore out sneakers at an alarming rate. They were the demigods of the sport. Little did we realize that one of them, Reisman, would deign to enter the New England Open that year and that we'd get to see one of the sport's masters in person. That alone would have been worth the entry fee.
Because this was our first exposure to big-time table tennis, we were naturally quite excited that morning on arriving during a snowstorm at an armory in Springfield, where the tournament was being held. There were tables all over the place, and the clickety-clack of the celluloid balls was disconcerting to simple cellar-bred blockers like ourselves. Our fantasies quickly dissolved as we watched what appeared to be a hall full of potential champions blasting shot after shot without a miss or returning balls in perfect parabolas.
We had mailed in our entry fees, so there was nothing to do but register and get it over with. We looked at the draw sheet to see whom we would be playing. I stared at the sheet in disbelief. In the first round: "Keese-Reisman." I looked up at the seeding list. Sure enough, seeded No. I was "Marty Reisman, New York."
"Tough luck!" someone said, but before I'd time to panic, someone else made a quite logical observation: "Hey, I'd pay $10 just to practice with Reisman."
He was right. If I wasn't planning to win the tournament—and I wasn't—just being at the same table with a guy like Reisman was well worth the fee ($3.50, I think). And if Reisman went on to win the title, I could always say I lost to the champ. Suddenly, I felt a little better. We found a table and began warming up. The snow was still falling, and there wasn't much heat in the armory, so it took quite a while to find a groove.
The starting time of my match with Reisman was supposed to be 10:30 a.m. At 10:40, an official said that because of the travel conditions, first-round matches would be two of three games instead of three of five and that they had moved our starting time to 11 o'clock. It was easy to see they didn't want to lose their star attraction on a forfeit.
It was past 11 when Reisman appeared. Without bothering to take off his coat or scarf, he grabbed a bat from his bag and asked for his opponent. I was introduced, but I'm sure the tall and gaunt-looking Reisman couldn't have cared less as he swung his right arm several times to crank up for the slaughter, making wisecracks to spectators all the while. A crowd had appeared at our table. Suddenly I was nervous, more nervous than I'd ever been in my life.