USA Table Tennis

More than a quarter of a century ago, a friend of Bernie Hock’s, Dave Russell, wrote a letter to the USTTA’s Topics to say that this "old buzzard" Hock, "a number-one-class character," just had to be remembered in the magazine. "You can’t let a champion, a fine man, and a person who has done more for table tennis than most anyone to just fade away."

But talk to another good friend of Bernie’s, Gene Bricker, and you get the idea that, while Bernie himself often wanted to keep a low profile, he was also very independent, very stubborn, and inwardly resilient. So that to self and certainly to select others, his longtime identity as table tennis batmaker--hand-made hard-rubber rackets for the stars--was secure. He was Hock, which meant he wanted precisely what he wanted. No surprise then that being so insistent--some would say cantankerous--to the end, he resisted surgery, despite several heart attacks. Forget hospitals, forget doctors and operations, he might be in pain, but he’d endure.

And considering how he’d had a cigarette habit even as a teenager, and some slips and harrowing hangings-on in his early occupation as a roofer, he did endure--for much longer than anyone expected. Fifteen years before New Albany’s John Riley called to tell me that on Aug. 18th, 1999 Hock had finally succumbed, I’d received a Feb. 2, 1984 letter from Bernie in which he says:

"...my illnesses plague me day after day. It’s a trial for me to do anything. I can work in my shop about 1/2 hr. to an hr., then I have to rest. Sometimes I go 4 or 5 days without working in my shop.

I go to the T.T. Club twice a week to hold things together. Once in a while I will play a game of doubles. Our [New Albany, IN] Club is 52 years old.

 

Hock was a man who had a place...like Benny Hull with his equally fabled, equally enduring Waltham, MA Club. From his home-base, his world, there in New Albany, Bernie took great pride in his craftsmanship and loved to talk and write about his life’s work to others. I’m sure any number of people have letters from Bernie--Marty Reisman, I know has, and of course Don Varian has recently acquired much important archival material on taking over Bernie’s Co.

Reisman won his ‘49 British Open with a Hock racket (a 3-ply for control, later he’d switched to a faster 5-ply). "The Hock," says Marty, "was the bat in use at Lawrence’s famous New York City Club."

Dick Miles, who won so many U.S. Open Championships with a 3-ply Hock bat ("He knew just how I wanted it--with the handles loose, no glue") remembers Bernie as being "very nice, very soft-spoken."

And Jerry Hock, the youngest of the five brothers, and a long-time player himself, recalls how in the beginning the boys made their own table, and how Bernie was very early into making rackets--stretching inner-tube rubber over the wood to produce a surprising playable effect.

History offers us a famous photo, taken in Kokomo, IN in 1937 by Coach Schleff, of a group of 15 player/organizers who’ve united to form a more progressive Indiana T.T.A. There, with McClure, Bob Green, John Varga, Bill Hornyak, Indiana TTA President W. B. Hester, and others, is Bernie, then in his mid-20’s, with a fine shock of hair. (Looking at this photo again now, I’m reminded of how startled I was at his 1993 induction into the Indiana Hall of Fame to see him so totally bald). He’s standing there in 1937, upright in the service of his country, or TTA, arms at his sides, all attention--as if he knew he was, or wanted to be, a part of something important.

And of course he served our Sport well--both as bat-maker and bat-wielder.

At the 1950 U.S. Open Bernie won the first of his two Open Senior Doubles Championships. His partner (perhaps through a connection with the English Leyland Rubber Co.?) was England’s Jack Carrington, World Doubles finalist with 2-time World Singles Champion Johnny Leach. Bernie’s second major was in 1954, with his regular partner Gene Bricker. Later, he won the 1966 U.S. Open Over 50 Singles and the 1965 and ‘66 U.S. Open Over 50 Doubles, again with Bricker.

As the years went by, it was said Bernie was always compulsively ready to make 12 times the number of rackets he actually sold, and he sold hundreds, thousands annually, maybe 75,000 in his lifetime--for they were asked for by aficionados and would-be aficionados of all ages, even after sponge bats began more and more to be accepted.

The cost of the plywood he bought was relatively high, but it made for a better bat, for he had "less than 1% loss to warpage." And no wonder--for he’d insisted that the plywood factory that made his bats follow his specifications to the letter, "redrying the 3 veneers, face, back, and center core, to a specific moisture, a special glue," and then heating it all together "under certain pressure and heat." He also requested, among other things, "that the face and back veneers be from the same tree or log and from consecutive slices off the log."

By the early ‘80’s, the workers who’d hand-made this plywood were retired, and the factory itself had closed. But Hock was still filling orders. By the mid-80’s, umpires were looking for the ITTF logo on tournament players’ rackets. This, Hock rackets didn’t have, but as then USTTA Rules Chairman Mal Anderson explained, since Hock had paid the USTTA approval fee, and since his racket met USTTA specifications, "and it isn’t possible to prove that the rubber on it is original or not," players may play with it in any U.S. tournament other than an internationally-attended one like the U.S. Open.

I’m sure in his declining years Bernie was thrilled with the resurgence of Hardbat play. Now, given the active USATT Hardbat Committee, its subscription Newsletter, its Championship tournaments, Hall of Famer Hock’s many friends needn’t worry. Neither he nor the Classic Game he did so much to foster will ever fade away.