USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan Chapter IX: 1934-35: First Coleman Clark U.S. "Circus" Tour of Visiting Hungarians Barna and Glancz.

Before Jimmy McClure, the winner of the USTTA’s American Zone Qualifier, and Sol Schiff, the runner-up, would represent the U.S. at the Feb., 1935 Wembley World Championships, the famous Coleman Clark "Circus"--a Dec. 28, 1934 through Jan. 24, 1935 barnstorming Tour of 20 U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Cleveland, Toledo, South Bend, Cedar Rapids, Omaha, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Buffalo, Springfield, MA, and New York City--got underway.

The catalyst for this immediate increase in the Sport’s exposure was the former University of Chicago star athlete, member of the Interfraternity Club, and respected A.C. Allyn brokerage man, the 1932 APPA National Champion Coleman Clark. Ever the promoter, Clark had for months been looking to bring top European players, particularly four-time World Champion Victor Barna, to tour the U.S. But because Cokey had been associated with the APPA and Parker Brothers, the ITTF, under Ivor Montagu who insisted on player control as opposed to any one manufacturer’s control, had refused to even consider the matter.* Now, however, since Clark had resigned as Vice President of the APPA, in order to end what he called "the rather senseless ‘warfare’ which is harming this fine sport" (TTT, May-June, 1934, 6), a Barna Tour was not only possible but end-of-the-year imminent.

The expectation of seeing the best player in the world play against the best of our local competition excited everyone’s imagination. For players who were top-ranked in their state but who could never hope to represent the U.S. internationally--those participating with McClure at the Indianapolis stop, for example: Lester Adams, Joel Inman, Jerry Jacobs, Dick Mills, Ned Steele--this opportunity to be in a singles or doubles match against Barna and/or Glancz was the fantasy-cum-reality chance of a lifetime. Stories began to circulate about this already legendary Hungarian Barna. When his playing arm was broken in an auto accident in May, ‘35, talk was it had been insured for $10,000 (TTT, Oct., 1935, 10).**

Twenty-three-year-old Gyozo or rather (surely everybody preferred the apt) Viktor or Victor ("Viki") Barna had been World Men’s Singles Champion every year but one since 1930; while his accompanying world-class Hungarian teammate, 26-year-old Sandor Glancz, had been the 1930 English Open winner and, more recently at Baden, the ‘33 World Men’s Doubles holder with Barna.***

Actually, Glancz might well have won a World Men’s Doubles title six years earlier. Philip Reid, in his (1974) Victor Barna, says that Bellak and Glancz led the Austrians Liebster and Thum, 20-9 in the 5th in the final of the 1928 Stockholm World’s but began to quarrel and lost! (15). But as Laszlo "Laci" Bellak in his (1990) Table Tennis rightly points out, this was a semi’s match, and in Laci’s version he and Sandor were up 2-1 and holding a big lead in the 4th when Sandor, objecting to a call by the umpire that cost the Hungarians a point, adamantly refused to play on unless the score was changed. So...too bad, but enough is enough--the Bellak-Glancz team was defaulted (31).

During this month-long U.S. "Circus" Tour--in which Champions Barna, Glancz, McClure, and Clark were the principal players and the worthiest local opponents more or less their foils--it’s clear that, regardless of who won, everybody wanted to put on a good show, have Table Tennis recognized as the great, crowd-pleasing Sport that it was.

Barna, naturally, as befitted his status as current World Champion, lost only once--a 19, -19, 19, -12, 19 Exhibition Match in Toledo to Glancz. Indeed, the highly detailed match by match, city by city coverage of the Tour in the Feb. and Mar., 1935 Topics made much of the rare occasion when Barna lost a game. Glancz, on the other hand, was defeated in a dozen or so matches, but that was alright because most of these losses were inflicted by McClure--and, boy, wasn’t our Jimmy grand!

Of course, no matter how wonderful the players, there was always the usual exaggeration in advertising them. Barna was said to have won (and who could deny it?) precisely "73 titles and 524 cups"; he was also said to have "never lost a title except by not defending it" (RHS, 41)--which conveniently overlooks his first World Men’s Singles defense in 1931 at Budapest where in the final he lost three straight to his fellow countryman Miklos "Mike" Szabados. As for Glancz, he was identified not as both the 1928 and 1934 (actually Dec., 1933) World quarterfinalist that he was, but far more prestigiously and yet quite safely as the "No. 1 World’s ranking player in 1927" (since the World Championships were held in 1926 and 1928 but not in 1927, who was going to argue otherwise?). Still, so what--these two Hungarians, visiting the States for the first time, were great players, so why quibble about how they were hyped.

Cokey Clark, introducing Barna’s game to readers of Topics who might or might not get to see The Master play, had this to say:

"...[Barna has a] backhand of indescribable variety, rhythm and brilliance. Nine shots out of ten are played from his port side, and when it becomes necessary for him to bring his graceful forehand into use, he leaps into the air, making a half turn, which brings the crowd to its feet. His change of pace, the variety of his game, the grace and ease with which he quietly and confidently places himself behind the table causes amazement" (TTT, Feb., 1935, 1).

Clark, in a Jan. 2, 1935 letter to Reginald Hammond, also had high praise for Sandor Glancz:

"...[Glancz is] a far greater player than he appears to be. He uses his head every minute of the time; his tactics are flawless; his forehand drive has terrific speed and he can place it on a nickel; his drop shot comes suddenly and simply worries the life out of his opponents. He has a swell defense, too, and an assortment of strokes the like of which I have never seen" (RHS, 53).

Glancz, however, didn’t always have those strokes. Although 1928 World Champion Zoltan Mechlovits told Coleman Clark that Hungary had a strong tradition of taking table tennis seriously--that the country had legitimate Champions before World War I and so by the ITTF-organizational ‘20’s had a head start on the rest of the world (TTT, Dec., 1934, 2)--another well-known member of those many extraordinary Hungarian World Championship Teams, Tibor Hazi (a.k.a. Tibor Hoffman), told me that in 1925 Glancz played with a wooden racket, had no chop stroke, no forehand whatsoever, but simply stood close to the table and used only the backhand side of the racket. But Tibor also said, and Bellak confirms it, that by 1927 Sandor was playing with pippled rubber and had all the strokes (including a two-fingers-on-the-blade forehand, which Montagu explained helped "to steady the wrist force as the blade passes upwards over the ball" (Table Tennis, 60).

The Tour’s first stop, on Dec. 28, 1934, before 1,000 spectators, was the swank Penn Athletic Club in Philadelphia. Ed Silverglade, though he was from Trenton and President of the South Jersey Association, had been eligible for and had recently won the Pennsylvania State title, so he was chosen as the local player representative. Pennsylvania "professional" Hyram ("Hi") Paul, given (as his Philadelphia Club ad in Topics suggests) not only to instruction but to exhibitions, lost to Barna 21-5 in a game in which Barna, it was announced ahead of time, would change "his racket from hand to hand after each stroke" (RHS, 64).

Topics reported that the "accuracy, speed, footwork and acrobatics of the Hungarians were a revelation to the crowd" (Jan., 1935, 1). That the "Exhibition" nature of the Tour was well understood by the participants--though McClure assured me that he always played for "real"--can be deduced not only from the fact that Promoter Clark (doubtless our weakest U.S. Champion ever) led World Champion Barna 19-16 one game, but also from a brief description of their play in the 36 x 50-foot court:

"...Each in turn drove the other back to the barricade, made hairbreadth returns of drop shots and net-cord shots, drove back drives and chopped back chops" (TTT, Jan., 1935, 1).

In the evening’s one avowed Exhibition, Barna, who it was said had this habit of fanning himself with his racket between points, beat Glancz 25-23 in the 3rd. Which brought forth the following positively lyrical response from one sportswriter:

"Make us go to bed right after supper on New Year’s Eve if it ain’t a grand game. The players cover as much ground as a basketball team on skis....We’re not comparing Barna and Glancz with athletes like Dizzy Dean, Max Baer, Huey Long and such as that. Those Americans lack the color to fit into the picture" (TTT, Jan., 1935, 1).

These Tour-opening matches in Philadelphia were surrounded by much hoopla. There was a welcome by the Mayor at City Hall; the Secretary of the Hungarian Legation came up from Washington; various Hungarian societies hosted a reception; and the World Champion players were interviewed on radio.

In addition to the results of the matches, the Philly newspapers carried a page-one story on Barna and Glancz because of a telephone threat they’d received. Topics reported that the two policemen who arrested the caller were table tennis players (Jan, 1935, 3). Maybe the publicity-seeking caller was too? No, he was a mentally-ill Hungarian who had threatened that if Barna and Glancz played he’d blow them and the whole Penn Athletic Club to bits. "Hungary is in trouble," he’d said. "We are virtually at war. No loyal son would spend his time at play these days." The police later arrested him after the matches "wandering along the corridor of the floor where Barna and Glancz had their rooms."

From Philadelphia the Circus traveled on through Western Pennsylvania, across Ohio, over to South Bend, and then up to Chicago--playing to crowds of generally 400-600 along the way.

Clark speaks of McClure’s first appearance on the Tour--at the second stop, the one organized by Cokey’s twin brother Harold at Oil City, PA, on Dec. 29:

"...The little lad from indianapolis was a bundle of tenseness and nerves. Barna stood at the opposite end of the table, like a king, with a glint of pity in his eye as he beheld the little lad from the Hoosier state. Barna won the toss and served. Like a terrier, Jimmy fairly exploded and hit the ball so hard that it went clear over the barricade 25 feet behind the table; it was a clean ace and Barna stood there with his mouth wide open. I saw him take a side glance look at his partner Glancz, and they both grinned at each other. Jimmy kept playing like one possessed, socking everything within reach; with the score 20-19 in Jimmy’s favor, it looked as if the world champion had met his master, but Jimmy was to be denied and the great master from Paris [where Barna was then living], still maintaining his confident, cool manner, pulled out the game at 22-20" (RHS, 53).

Clark describes Barna as always having...

"a pleasant smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye; he is unusually handsome with an expressive eye, a fine head of black hair, a sensitive mouth and an ingrained gentlemanliness, which makes him one of the greatest showmen I have ever seen" (RHS, 53).

Repeatedly, both Barna, who in his other life was "a chemist and technical advisor for a Paris sporting goods manufacturer," and Glancz, who was "in business with his father, a Budapest wine exporter" (TTT, Mar., 1935, 2), are compared to stars of stage and screen: Victor is "Richard Dix" and Sandor "Maurice Chevalier" (RHS, 53).

Clark stresses their color, their showmanship:

"They are charming gentlemen, fairly radiating personality and cheer....[They] bring the house down with their native Hungarian cheer, which is the oddest assortment of sounds you ever heard" (RHS, 53).

At the third stop, the Ohio Hotel in Youngstown, that cheer was "‘Huj, huj, hajra--Majyarosag’ (Hip, hip, hooray in Hungary)" (RHS, 65).

Cokey, who must have known of Barna’s sports background (swimming, boxing, tennis, golf, soccer), points out a little trick of Victor’s that amused the gallery:

"...Barna rarely picks up the ball with his hand; being an excellent soccer player, he taps the ball with his foot into his hand. Often for exercise, he will toss the ball into the air where it lands on the opposite knee, goes into the air and lands on the opposite knee; keeping his legs going up and down he can often keep the ball alternating from one leg to the other" (RHS, 53).

Clark also emphasizes the classy on-court look of the players:

"The Hungarians present a pleasant appearance on the floor clad in their Hungarian uniforms, with white shoes, gray flannel trousers, their red, white and green silk belts, their red woolen jerseys with short sleeves with their national emblem worn on the left side. The American team wear white shoes, gray flannel trousers, dark blue shirt with the American shield on the left side, and as they come on the floor they wear Royal blue sport jackets with U.S. embroidered on the left pocket" (RHS, 53).

In Cleveland, the fourth stop, Clark was pleased to tell how McClure, down 18-16 in the 3rd, "rolled up pants...[and] kissed corn for [the] first time on Tour"--beat Glancz that deciding game, 24-22 (RHS, 65). Although it’d be another half dozen matches before Sandor would lose to Jimmy again, after that, during the last six days of the Tour, he would drop three matches in a row to Jimmy and also lose matches to Silberman and Schiff. "You’re supposed to be good," Barna chided him. But Glancz wanted to have a fun time and, as it turned out, it was hard work to keep beating McClure. Also, Sandor said, he "could not sleep in American sleeping-car berths" (TTT, Mar., 1935, 1)--which perhaps did account in part for his bad showing the last week of the Tour.

In Chicago, for the first session on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 6, in the Grand Ballroom of the Stevens Hotel, the players were welcomed by a crowd of almost 2,500. Want to watch with them? Right up next to the playing area, a limited number of boxes, holding six chairs each, were available for $9.90. Reserved seats in raised stands or up in the balcony were $1.10. General Admission was $.75. Compare these prices with the $.25-a-year dues the USTTA was charging ($.15 of which went for Topics).

Participating in the afternoon and evening’s 12 matches were all the leading Chicago-area players--Condy, Rushakoff, Pearson, Lewis, Fushimi, Dugan, Prouty, and Leavitt. But of course it was the Hungarians and particularly four-time World Champion Barna everyone wanted to see. Arch Ward, famous "Talking It Over" sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune prepared his readers to take Victor and the Sport seriously: Barna, he warned, "takes five minutes to select a ball at the start of a match" (RHS, 2).

Another Chicago writer described the Hungarians as "men who lunge vigorously at the little white ball with true masculine eclat and belie the feeling that table tennis belongs to the ladies" (RHS, 41). Ironically, just as our soon-to-be World Singles Champion Ruth Aarons was pointing out that table tennis--at least tournament table tennis--was apparently not for the ladies (whose matches male officials and players didn’t much care about), here was this sportswriter raising the bugaboo that was to plague our Sport, damn it with faint praise for decades--that, oh, surprise, it really isn’t a "sissy" game.

Although the Chicago players were again blanked in the evening matches, there were another 1,750 or so ticketholders attending. Why, asked Topics Editor and future USTTA President Carl Zeisberg, was Chicago "so much more table tennis conscious" than other sections of the country? Because, he rightly answered, of Coleman Clark:

"Here’s a real man, a one-time noted and popular college athlete, a decorated World War I veteran, who has accumulated a store of hard business sense and always had an engaging personality. When, several years ago, he seriously took up a sport that was generally regarded as a "sissy" pastime, nobody who knew him snickered. They followed his leadership.

‘Cokey’ [or ‘Coco’ as Barna and Glancz took to calling him]...is the greatest individual asset in table tennis today, for no one else in the game combines the manifold abilities that he possesses" (TTT, Mar., 1935, 1 and 4).

Nearly all of USTTA Executive Secretary Clark’s salary was borne by the contributions of manufacturers (TTT, Jan., 1934, 4). The USTTA really had very little money--and never would have any until after Table Tennis became an Olympic sport.

Zeisberg again singled out for praise the generosity of table tennis manufacturer Will Schnur (he’d "financed" the first American Zone Qualifier in Nov. of ‘33): "Declining to participate in any possible profits [from the Tour] he quietly guaranteed to pay any deficit that might result" (TTT, Mar., 1935, 2). Fortunately the "Circus" was a great success.

Following five well-attended performances in Iowa and Nebraska (in Boone, IA, 600 spectators, or 5% of the population, came out to see the matches), the Tour players moved on to St. Louis. Barna rated the local participants there--Schlude, Tindall, Blattner, Price, Trobaugh, Edwin Woody, and Leonard Radunsky (runner-up to Robert Bonney in the first U.S. Intercollegiate Championship, held in Chicago in Dec., ‘34)--as being superior to the Chicago stars. This was an historic appraisal since heretofore only the New Yorkers as a group were considered superior to those in the Windy City.

Fourteen-year-old Robert "Buddy" Blattner excited the crowd by winning a "one-game exhibition match" from Glancz. Blattner "took an early lead at 9-3...[by] playing a ‘soft’ game": that is, during one rally, "both players hit the ball back and forth so cautiously and so long that the crowd became amused and roared when Blattner’s patience wore out and he slammed out a wild shot" (RHS, 64). Cokey also gave the public some laughs. "The humor...came from seeing Clark, a middle-aged, bald-headed and bulky man, running up to and back from the table in frantic efforts to keep up with the varied shots of Glancz."

Clark was slightly ridiculous? Perhaps. But in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, because of his painstaking professionalism,**** his enduring ability to entertain and be paid handsomely for it, no one, not even World Champion Ruth Aarons paired with Barna or Glancz, was more successful as an Exhibition player.

On leaving St. Louis, the "Circus" went on to Indianapolis, then up to Detroit, over to Buffalo, down through New England, and finally ended up in New York Jan. 23-24 just before Barna and McClure were to set sail for the World Championships in London. Despite the "worst snowstorm in years," over 600 spectators turned out for the first night’s matches at the Hotel New Yorker. Marcus Schussheim--his name, his titles, lending prestige to this international competition--came momentarily out of retirement to lose to Glancz. But the following night McClure, to the audience’s delight, defeated Sandor deuce in the 3rd; and Barna, as if this past month of non-stop travel was just the perfect preparation for defending his World title, annihilated Schiff 7 and 5!

Obviously in this match with Victor, Sol (so perversely off form one wonders if he could even have tried to play) did not use any of the knucklespin serves the USTTA but not the ITTF had banned (and which in future international play he would use so effectively). Had he done so, Barna, not Schiff, would have been humiliated. For Victor, as he was to write later, had expressed amazement on first seeing these serves: "Serving sometimes under the table, sometimes with his back turned," Schiff made the ball come "either like a bullet or zig-zagging all over the place. I did not have the faintest idea how to make a return." On coming back to Europe, Victor said, "I urged the International Federation to follow the USTTA example and ban the fingerspin [actually knuckleball] service universally before it could harm the game. I was not successful."*****

When all was said and done then, what did this nearly 4,000-mile barnstorming Barna Tour do for table tennis in the United States?

Well, since it was viewed in 20 cities by roughly 20,000 spectators (though what about all those other "players" out there estimated to be some 10,000,000 strong buying 20,000,000 rackets a year?),****** it gave a great many people enjoyment. And surely it provided the Sport with quite a bit of media coverage it wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Also, it made a few dollars for those local groups sponsoring the stops--the NYTTA, for example, according to its Treasurer George R. Onody, took in a net profit of $141.68, less a counterfeit 50-cent piece. But as USTTA President "Big Bill" Stewart emphasized:

"Here we are still playing mostly in home basements, where the amount of room is restricted and therefore deep or angle shots are unplayable. Our game has graduated from the dining-room table to the basement and partially to the public parlor where more room is available.

The next big step forward will be taken when players will have available a club where they will have ample room and can get together with other players of ability...."

Obviously, said Stewart, our players can’t expect to share, let alone surpass, Europe’s supremacy in the Sport without spacious central playing spaces that would help them create and maintain a competitive edge (TTT, Feb., 1935, 6).

The hope was that Barna could repeat his Tour next year. Said Samuel Hardy, former Captain of the U.S. Davis Cup Team (who, apparently in a USTTA bid to win the National Tennis Association’s help, or just crassly trade on their name, would be elected "Honorary President of the USTTA for the ‘35-36 season):

"The game should grow in popularity on its own merits if only the public can see, thru Barna, its great possibilities" (TTT, Mar., 1935, 3).

If only the public can see....My, how History will repeat itself.

SELECTED NOTES.

*TTT, Jan., 1934, 1. Montagu, in his book With Eisenstein in Hollywood (New York, 1969) has an interesting story to tell about his experience with Parker Brothers and their desire for control: "...Suddenly the two publishers with whom I had contracted respectively for an article and a book on ping-pong, each received a letter from...Parker Brothers. They demanded to see and approve in advance the text of what I wrote. If I refused (and of course I did flatly refuse) they threatened an injunction.

...Benjamin Stern explained to me that in the United States a great firm with big resources could effectively control anything if it had even a shadow of a title, since the nuisance it could present with litigation must operate to discourage any would-be rival. In this case, of my book and article, he said, Parker Brothers would unquestionably lose their claim, since the Constitution would not allow literary censorship, but could it possibly be in the interest of the Saturday Evening Post and Simon and Schuster to be driven, on such a triviality, as far, possibly, as the Supreme Court?

This was evidently the opinion also of the two publishers, who paid me, the one $1,000, the other $500, for not publishing what I had not yet finished writing."

**In commenting on Barna’s auto accident, Bellak in his Table Tennis says: "The law in France, at that time, was that you had to insure your passengers, but not yourself [as driver]." Since Victor was driving and hadn’t insured himself..."[everyone] in his car got insurance money, except him" (61).

***According to Philip Reid’s Victor Barna (12), "BarnaGyozo," as (TTT, Feb., 1935, 3) he signed his name--with "Gyozo" (umlauts over the o’s) said to be the Hungarian equivalent of "Viktor" (TTT, Jan., 1935, 1 and 3)--was born in Budapest Aug. 24, 1911, one of five children. According to an "In Memoriam" article by Reba Monness (TTT, Feb.-Mar., 1974, 4), Glancz was born in Budapest July 14, 1908, one of seven children.

****Marty Reisman told me how he’d done exhibitions with Clark which Cokey had very carefully choreographed. I’m sure with partner George Hendry, too, Clark wanted everything his exacting way.

*****See Richard Bergmann’s Twenty-One Up, 31-34; Reid’s Victor Barna, 53; and Barna’s Table Tennis Today, 29-30 and 109-110.

******For Tour spectators and potential for USTTA members, see TTT, Mar., 1935, 1 and 2. For bats sold, see June 12, 1934 N.Y. Herald Tribune in which the reporter draws on John R. Tunis’s figure of 20 million that had appeared in "The American Spectator."