USA Table Tennis

Indispensible to any attempt to recreate the early History of U.S. Table Tennis are the published books and private scrapbooks of those active in 1930’s table tennis--specifically, the popularizations of Neil Schaad, Bill Stewart, and Coleman Clark, and the lovingly kept (if not always so chronologically ordered) clippings of Marcus Schussheim (later Mark Matthews), Yoshio Fushimi, Reginald Hammond, Ruth Aarons...and George Schein.

George, helped by his brother Leo, was the dedicated Table Tennis "Coach" in the Game Room at New York City’s 92nd St. (and Lexington Ave.) YMHA when young Sol Schiff, who’d been playing ping-pong with a wooden bat on an improvised lunch table at Yorkville’s P.S. 30, paid the Y’s yearly $1 dues, and in 1932 became part of their Junior Ping-Pong Team.

By the time Sol was 15 and attending Textile High, he’d graduated to the Y’s Varsity Team (overseen by George) and, armed with the 75-cent Slazenger hard rubber bat he was to win his many titles with, was competing in the NYTTA’s annual round-robin League. At this time, in the Scheins’ Game Room, or at the annual 92nd St. YMHA Tournament at the Y’s Buttenwieser Hall, held with George and Leo’s help (in 1934 this tournament would change its name to the prestigious New York State Championship), one would be sure to find, among others, Varsity Team Manager/Captain Bernard Markowitz, Dave Schulman, Emil ("Babe") Graetz, Rudy Rubin, Dick Geiger, Abe Rosenblatt, Stan Borak, future U.S. Champion Abe Berenbaum, Julius Toff, William Fernandez, and Phil Kenner.

Though that Y, that Game Room, was "home" to George, he didn’t then, nor would he later, limit himself merely to local table tennis action. Case in point: the 1933 "American Zone Qualifier." This tournament, held Nov. 17-18 at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago, would initiate U.S. participation in the World Championships, for the Men’s Singles winner would have his way paid to that upcoming Dec. Paris World’s. Eight New Yorkers entered, among them not only tournament favorites, Schussheim, Schiff, and ‘33 NYTTA National Champ Sydney Heitner, but Schein too, along more or less for the ride. They rented a van, equipped it with mattresses, and off they all went to the Windy City, sprawled this way and that, sometimes riding 20 hours at a stretch and sometimes through snowstorms.

Back in June, Schein had recognized that, last year, when Sol was "the fifth man on the [Y’s] junior team," all he had was "a good forehand drive," but that, during his 1933 play, he’d acquired "a backhand drive, a severe forehand chop, deceptive serves, and an excellent defensive game," and so had developed into a player "of championship calibre." Indeed, before leaving for this Zonal Qualifier, in a tune-up tournament at Bernie Joel’s Broadway Courts, Sol had beaten Heitner 28-26 in the deciding 3rd, then Schussheim in a 4-game final.

But here in Chicago, Schein would write, echoing the very same criticism that he’d made of Schiff after his loss to Joel in the spring NYTTA National’s, that, on winning the 1st game from Schussheim, Sol lapsed into "overconfidence and continuous carelessness," and it eventually cost him the match. These two losses--in the most important tournaments of the year--probably hurt George (lauded for years in the Y’s Bulletin as Schiff’s "mentor") as much as they did Sol.

At the 1934 National’s, though, Schiff, already N.Y. State Champion, not only won the Singles, but with Schein’s help, the Doubles, for it was George who arranged his pairing with that season’s N.J. Champion Manny Moskowitz

Sol, then, had fully arrived, and of course now would go on to become one of the world’s best players and so one of our foremost Hall of Famers. Decades later, though, in June of ‘94, at George’s funeral, Sol, though publicly expressing gratitude for all the help at the 92nd St. Y George and Leo had given him, privately confided that George had never really "coached" him--I suppose in the sense of knowing enough to make helpful changes in Sol’s naturally developing game. Since George himself (and Leo too) was at best a mediocre player, it seems likely that it was more the paternal interest and continued encouragement he showed his Y boys, more than the coaching tips he gave them, that, as we’ll continue to see, allowed so many to be accomplished players.

George would enter our Hall of Fame as an official, and from the beginning he was involved, and would be for many, many years to come, not only in running tournaments but in taking on administrative positions, both locally and nationally. The second "American Zone Qualifier," held Dec. 12-15, 1934 at New York’s 3,500-member Downtown Athletic Club, was headed by a Committee, Chaired by Herbert W. Allen, that included NYTTA officials Henry Randow, Robert V. Maleeny, and the Schein brothers (George being at this time the NYTTA Secretary and in charge of entries).

Because 5-time World Singles Champion Victor Barna would likely win the ‘36 U.S. Open, the Men’s Singles winner of this Zonal Qualifier would be designated the ‘36 U. S. Closed Champion. And since this time Schiff beat McClure for the #1 spot on the 1936 U.S. World Team, and since the USTTA desperately needed contributions to fund that Team, President Carl Zeisberg wrote Schein that the NYTTA should raise more money than it had for one of its own (George and Leo had both personally contributed the then not insignificant sum of $1)--and asks him if he couldn’t hold a raffle at his YMHA. It would be ironic if he did though, for literally hours before Sol was to set sail with the other Team members for Prague, Zeisberg suspended him for having naively signed a racket contract with Zeisberg’s hated foe, Parker Brothers.

Schiff wasn’t the only very good player, the only U.S. Champion, that that Game Room Schein presided over was producing. Both Eddie Pinner and Samuel "Sy" (later "Cy") Sussman began playing there in 1935, and in the 1940’s would be 3-time U.S. Doubles Champions.

Schiff, suspended until June 1, was barred from playing in the ‘36 Philadelphia National’s (which Barna did indeed win), but another YMHA player, Tommy Sylvester, scored a fantastic upset over U.S. World Team member Dick Tindall just back from Prague, then went on to beat Northern Indiana Champion Ned Steele before losing to the 1933 Parker Brothers’ APPA Champion Jimmy Jacobson. Moreover, three of George’s YMHA youngsters made the 21-entry Boys’ Under 15 semi’s. After defeating the precocious 10-year-old Cub Scout Roy Weissman, 13-year-old Benjamin Franklin High School student Sussman downed Roy’s older brother Gene in the final, also in straight games, and thus became the second Schein-influenced U.S. Champion.

At the ‘37 National’s, however, Sy did not retain his title, lost in the semi’s to runner-up Bill Palacio, Jr. However, he continued to be intense about the Game, and in just two years was ranked U.S. #4 in the Men’s. Two more years and he would again be a U.S. Champion.

Schein’s third Hall of Fame protege came of age when he won the Boys’ at the Feb., ‘39 Pennsylvania Open--over his fellow Y player Roy Weissman, 19 in the 5th. The "most exciting match of the tournament" Topics columnist Reba Kirson (later Monness) called it. But unlike Sussman, Pinner wasn’t able to win the U.S. Open Boys’ Championship. In ‘39 at Toledo, Charles "Chuck" Tichenor of Indianapolis downed Weissman in 4 in the semi’s, then (19, 18, -17, -18, 18) held off Pinner’s rally. But two years later at another National’s, Eddie would make great strides--again would be runner-up, but this time in the Men’s, to Lou Pagliaro, and so be ranked U.S. #2. Even better, there in 1941 in New York at the Manhattan Center, he and Sussman would win their first U.S. Open Doubles Championship. They were still extraordinarily young--Eddie was 17, Sy 18.

Pinner would die, young, in middle age, but Sussman, like Schiff, went out to Montefiore Cemetery that June day in ‘94, and to George’s wife Hilja and others acknowledged he owed a debt to George, dead now at 85, for by encouraging his table tennis play George had kept him out of trouble and given him the strength of character to get out of the Jewish ghetto.

In the late ‘30’s George might have been found conducting a Table Tennis School at his Y (for which he never took any coaching fee), or serving the Metro TTA as 2nd V.P. behind John Kauderer and John Morgan. Also, in the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, before World War II began taking many of our best players and officials into the Service, George was a very active member of the USTTA Ranking Committee and the yearly record-keeper of the Reginald G. Hammond (Men’s) and Mildred Wilkinson (Women’s) Cup winners (a participation competition begun in the ‘37-38 season in which considerably more points were given for matches won in major as opposed to minor tournaments).

During World War II George served five years as a mine demolition expert and afterwards made a good living as a civil engineer with the Borough of Brooklyn.

In her "More Or Less" Oct., 1946 Topics column, the outspoken, often highly critical Reba Monness said that "George and Leo Schein are two wonderful people in table tennis." And the fact that two months later the best of the best--Dick Miles, Lou Pagliaro, Johnny Somael, and Sol Schiff--had George as their winning Intercity Team Captain spoke equally well for him.

During the 1946-47 season George replaced Graham Steenhoven, who’d resigned, as USTTA Vice President. He didn’t afterwards try to continue in that office, but from the fall of ‘46 through the spring of ‘51 he was the Association’s Referee and Umpire Chair, and from ‘54-56 the Selection Chair.

This was a man whose table tennis work was clearly more than a hobby. The more involved he became, the more he wanted to do. "Another word of praise," Pauline Robinson Somael wrote in a 1953 Topics, "for the ever efficient George Schein who ran off all the events in the Eastern’s in perfect time."

In 1955 George Captained the U.S. Team to the Utrecht, Netherlands World’s. This is the one where the U.S., though losing to Hungary, had beaten Sweden 5-2 and had a good chance to win its Swaythling Cup group, but didn’t because the Swedes, up 4-1 on the Hungarians, couldn’t hold on to the lead. This is also the one where in the Men’s Singles final the Yugoslav Dolinar couldn’t handle the Japanese Tanaka’s serves and reportedly missed 16 of them in one game.

While in Europe, that ‘55 U.S. Team played first in the English Open at Wembley (where it was so cold that George had to buy his players track uniforms, which, because the USTTA was then even more financially strapped than usual, were not part of our standard playing outfits). Following that, the U.S. played a tie against the English at Wolverhampton where our men won every match and our women lost every one. As a result of these two encounters, the Hon. Secy./Treas. of the English TTA, Bill Vint, sent a letter to the USTTA in which he said that "the relationship between our two Associations has been further cemented by the goodwill and helpfulness on the part of your Captain."

At Utrecht, George represented the U.S. at the ITTF Congress Meeting and was of course in the thick of the controversy over whether the sponge bat should be banned. Appropriately, after his return to the States, he was named Chair of the Racket Standardization Committee, which, as it turned out, was not as intent on banning the sponge as the English were.

From 1956-58, under President Otto Ek, George was the USTTA’s Executive Vice President--after which he chose not to run anymore and pronounced himself "retired" from the Sport.

But in the fall of ‘61 George served on the Nominating Committee, and, regarding another Eastern’s, Pauline Somael could write, "George Schein ran off 17 events in 11 hours single-handed...and couldn’t talk for a couple of days thereafter."

In the early ‘60’s George really did retire from table tennis and I myself had little contact with him until almost 30 years later when a position opened on the Hall of Fame Board and President Jimmy McClure suggested George as a replacement. Since he seemed to enjoy a recent Hall of Fame Awards Banquet or two, was still thinking well, and was energetic enough to be playing golf several times a week, I didn’t see his advanced age as a problem and welcomed him. He dutifully responded.

Quite typically, in what were practically his last words to me, he said, "I wish I could do more." Which is a pretty good exit line to remember one by who loved table tennis so much that he always cared to do a lot.