In Memoriam: Doug Cartland, 1914-2002

By Tim Boggan

Doug Cartland arrived on the New York table  tennis scene in the mid-1930’s after graduating with honors from the University of North Carolina where he played on the tennis team behind nationally known Bitsy Grant. Making the USTTA’s Top 10 for the 1936-37 season (he would also make it for the 1956-57 season), he was proclaimed one of the “most improved players in the East.”

It was soon clear that “Dixie,” as he was sometimes called, had his own inimitable ways of making a living. If he weren’t already writing stories for pulp magazines he soon would be. More importantly, he was “a puzzle expert” – had won $15,000 in a New York Post contest. “Worst thing that could have happened,” he later lamented – “all the players kept trying to borrow money from me.” (But, as Doug inevitably had a consuming interest in their plight, it was something he’d put up with for decades.) He would go on to win other contests, other prizes – thousands of dollars, an automobile or two – under an assumed name or with the help of an intermediary. 

Working legitimately or illegitimately he was diligent. For one of these contests Doug went to the sponsor’s headquarters and got the official Dictionary the contestants would be bound by. He then saw what 99% of the others didn’t see – that a single word could become two if used as a noun and also as a verb. Hence, since “nut,” say, could not only be used in various ways as a noun, but also as a verb – to nut, “to seek for or gather nuts” – he ended up a couple of thousand words ahead of his competition.

Doug was very good with words, and always very focused – he was paid handsomely by Webster’s for finding at least 150 misprints in their New International Dictionary. He also was very helpful in the writing of Sol Schiff’s Table Tennis Comes of Age (1939). In 1953, the Barnes Sports Library would publish Cartland’s Table Tennis Illustrated, for which he was reportedly paid $10,000. However, Doug had to make it clear to the Editor that he had not plagiarized from Schiff’s book. “I wrote those lines back then,” he said indignantly, “so I sure ought to be able to use my own lines in my own book!”

For many years Cartland toured with various partners – chief among them Schiff, Harry Cook (the Toronto CNE Champion in 1939), and later Marty Reisman. Because of his tennis background, Doug’s forehand drive was made with a stiff wrist, locked firmly in place to hit low balls, so that he was an extremely steady topspinner, and thus a very dependable exhibition partner. Sol tells us what touring in 1940-41 was like:

“…[Doug] and I went to various schools and YMCA’s, table tennis clubs, and private clubs also….Suppose we wanted to stay one week in, say, the State of Illinois. We would go down to [the] telephone company, and look at all the addresses of sports clubs, and we would write them….[Then] we rearranged the tour so that we didn’t have to travel a lot. We would be in their area one or two weeks at a time, and played all around the area. Then we went out for another State….Exhibitions averaged 30 dollars each….Gasoline cost about 8 cents a gallon. We used to stay at motels for 50 cents a night, and food would not run more than a dollar or a dollar and 50 cents a day….”

Doug’s exhibitions with Sol were much as they would be with Cook, Reisman, or anyone else. They’d do the “trick” shots – hit the ball behind their back, under their leg, blow the ball, pretend to swallow it, blow it back out, keep 1-2-3-4-5 balls going, play jingle bells with pots and pans, and follow a pre-arranged game plan. Usually (though not of course if Doug were touring with the Harlem Globetrotters) the audience would be invited to participate.

By 1939, Doug, when not touring, would be playing at Lawrence’s fabled Club and winning New York tournaments. In the summer of ’41, Sandor Glancz said, “Cartland plays the best game in the city.” Why? Because he had an incredible will to win. And a rough intensity – which in the eyes of some was maybe not such a good thing to have.

“How angry Doug used to get when he was unlucky and losing,” said 4-time U.S. Champ Lou Pagliaro. “He’d clutch in fury at his shirt, his pants, as if he wanted to rip them off.” Despite Lawrence’s sense of decorum, disruptions in the heat of a wager could occur – for Doug would never willingly be taken the slightest advantage of, was never willing to part with a penny, always wrenched every bit of value out of what he could get for his money. New York’s Mitch Silbert remembered seeing a fuming Cartland thrust his foot through the closest tableside barrier, while Pagliaro, not to be outdone, soon slashed out just as furiously with his racket – prompting from the proprietor an “I say, old chaps, you must stop this nonsense.” “Yeah, yeah” came the response mid continued play, “we’ll pay for it.” “And yet,” said Paggy, “Doug was always in control. He’d be forever driving to my backhand, and I really have him to thank for improving my defense.”

 For about three seasons during the War, Lawrence’s would have to get along without Doug – he’d be overseas, touring with Cook. As the English and Americans pushed back the Nazis in Italy, Doug and Harry, starting at Naples, followed, along with other GI entertainers – Jascha Heifetz, Mickey Rooney, and the acrobat Burt Lancaster.

On returning to tournament play, in the era of Miles and Reisman, Cartland was, for four straight seasons, at the peak of his powers – U.S. #3, #5, #4, #3.  

He would have the reputation of being “the best player never to win the National’s.” Four times, beginning in 1939, he would be a Men’s Singles semifinalist, and each time he would lose to the winner – to McClure in ’39, to Miles in ’47 and ’48, and to Reisman in ’51. Further, in the five National’s in which in Men’s Doubles he figured prominently, he won once (in ’47 with Arnold Fetbrod), lost two finals (in ’51 with Miles, in ’55 with Reisman, both in 5), and lost two semi’s (in ’46 and ’48), again to the winners. Almost always it took the best to beat him. He also won the Mixed Doubles (in ’51 with Leah Neuberger).

In 1947 – he was then 33 – Cartland went for the first time to the Toronto CNE tournament, and was in all three finals, the Mixed with Leah, the Men’s Doubles, which he won with Schiff, and the Men’s Singles, which he lost to Reisman in 5.

“Doug was always a vastly underrated player,” said Miles. “He was an amazing competitor – someone who never, never beat himself, you always had to beat him.” And of course he was a great hustler. “He was always figuring out games to play,” said Dick. Once he played with a black eye patch on, deprived himself of depth perception, but still attacked and defended so well that soon his opponent and those betting on him came over to check that patch to see if there wasn’t some way that Cartland was seeing through it. There wasn’t.”

Cartland’s first trip to the World Championships as a member of the U.S. Team was in 1949 – and resulted in his one-year suspension from the USTTA, and Miles’s and Reisman’s as well. All three of course were proud, world-class professionals and felt they’d not been treated fairly as befit their stature. Doug’s problems were mainly with the Swedish Association who’d paid the USTTA (not nearly enough, said Miles) a $1,000 for a series of exhibitions by the U.S. Team. According to Reisman, who was with a wing of the Team, including Cartland, that went to northern Sweden, Doug was very unhappy about two things. One, meal after meal, he was being served reindeer meat until he was just sick of it. (The Swedish word for this meat sounded to Doug’s ears like “shit.”) And, two, repeatedly he and the others were being asked to take very early morning trains as they barnstormed about, usually playing in school gyms.

Eventually at a tournament Doug just lost control. The prize was a pair of ski poles that Marty wanted, so he and Doug were playing for real. When the umpire made what Doug thought was a bad call, he became upset…and argued nastily. Then, oh, oh, when that same umpire made another bad call, Doug really lost it, began cursing – went berserk, Marty said. The audience started to stamp their feet, and say in unison, Nay, nay.” Whereupon Doug raised his hand, waved at them as if to wipe them all away, and said loudly, “Go to hell!” Marty was embarrassed, as who wouldn’t be – the more so when all the spectators got up and left. Later, likely at another stop, the U.S. players were guests at a dinner and were expected to say a few polite words. When it came time for Doug to speak, he said only, “I hate Sweden! I hate Swedes!” Some tried to see that as witty – as ironic American humor. But, said Marty, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, for of course Doug couldn’t have been more serious. He was not a happy northern camper.

At a pre-World’s tournament in Gothenburg before a large, appreciative crowd, Doug beat that year’s World quarterfinalist Tibor Harangozo (after whom today’s Tibhar Co. is named). Later in Stockholm Doug lost in Singles to his friend and fellow grinder, Alex Ehrlich, 3-time World runner-up. In Doubles he and Miles got to the semi’s before losing to the eventual winners, the Czechs Ivan Andreadis and Frantisek “Ferko” Tokar.

Following the Stockholm World’s, on arriving at the Wembley English Open as celebrity drawing cards (Marty would win the tournament), Miles and Reisman (but not Cartland) took it upon themselves to move to a better hotel (where the ETTA food coupons they’d been given were worthless) and threatened to cancel, or actually did cancel, a scheduled exhibition or two in or around London when ETTA officials at first balked at paying the extra food and lodging expense (which later they insisted on being reimbursed for). The New Yorkers were also accused of openly betting “under the noses of officials” and so were “a ruddy nuisance who spoiled the atmosphere of the tournament.”

Cartland’s suspension didn’t stop him from again touring with Cook. In the spring of 1950, Doug and Harry, being driven to Cleveland after an exhibition in Dallas, were involved in a bad accident when a big truck bolted out of a side road and hitting their car rolled it over. Doug emerged unscathed, but Cook, thrown out, had broken his pelvic bone. Sent to a hospital, he unexpectedly died there.

Over the years Cartland would sometimes represent N.Y. at the U.S. Open Team Championships. The most bizarre of these was the 1950 one at Columbus, Ohio where the blizzard that hit was so intense it prevented  a snowbound Reisman from joining his teammates Doug and Johnny Somael. Despite the fact that in every tie the New Yorkers had to forfeit Reisman’s scheduled matches, Doug and Johnny almost won the tournament – for, with Doug, undefeated throughout and in the final annihilating the whole Chicago team, including U.S. #1 Bill Holzrichter, New York barely lost, 5-4. 

In 1951, continuing to ride a wave of wins – the Capital Open in Washington, D.C., the Atlantic States Open in Philadelphia, and the Eastern’s in Pawtucket, Rhode Island – Doug was back on the U.S. Team representing us at the Vienna World’s. There, in Singles, he beat England’s Aubrey Simons, last season’s World #10, then lost to France’s Michel Haguenauer, World #11. Doug himself was ranked World #14 that year, primarily because in a Swaythling Cup match he defeated – a remarkable feat – the legendary Bo Vana, deuce in the deciding 3rd. Granted Vana wasn’t at his 3-time World-winning best, he was still good enough there in Vienna to win both the Men’s and Mixed Doubles. Jack Carrington, the great English coach, mentor to two-time World Champion Johnny Leach, writing in the official ETTA magazine Table Tennis, had this to say of Cartland:

“…He has neither the skill, the touch, nor the speed of a great champion, but he knows how to get every ounce of value out of what Cartland has…and what the opponent has not.

His defeat of Vana in the Swaythling Cup match was a classic. Possessing neither a drive which could pierce Vana, nor a chop which could worry him, the left-handed Yankee so rung the changes in the play that he won out in the third game of what must have been one of Vana’s longest sets ever.

Cartland chopped Vana round to his backhand, then pushed the second drive wide to Vana’s forehand, and kept this up several times each point until the Czech was losing his speed. Then out would come a last-minute backhand drive to force Vana on to defense. Using short balls near the net, high loose topspins to the baselines, counterhits to the body, and his disguised backhand slow drives, and fighting, fighting every second, Cartland won the match against the master….”

Doug Cartland, Marty Reisman and the first sponge World Champion, Hiroje Satoh in 1952.

After Vienna, Doug teamed with Reisman to begin several years of an adventurous life, one for a novel, including a prolonged tour with the Globetrotters, and then on to Bombay for the ‘52 World’s. There, Reisman would lose to the new sponge-bat sensation Hiroji Satoh, then win the Consolation while Satoh was winning the Men’s Singles. Cartland, down 2-0 to the South Vietnamese star, Mai Van Hoa, rallied to win in 5, then lost in the quarter’s to World #13, France’s Guy Amouretti. In the Doubles, Doug and Marty were beaten in the quarter’s by the eventual Japanese winners Norikazu Fujii and Tadaaki Hayashi.

Following these Championships, Reisman and Cartland embarked on a series of matches (summarized in fact and fiction in innumerable half-century articles about Marty) in Rangoon, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Hong Kong, Manila, Taipei, and finally Osaka where The Money Player allows Cartland to share the glory of their win against World Champions Satoh and Fujii.

Doug and Marty’s life continued more or less routinely. In 1956 The Money Player tells us, while on tour with Miles, Cartland and two Canadian girls, Reisman, in his Terry-and-the Pirates way, successfully served as a courier – smuggled gold from Manila to Bangkok.

In 1957, Doug, tripped up by a confederate, was not so lucky with his smuggling. He was caught with undeclared “goods [watches, I believe] estimated at $10,000” – for which transgression he was fined in Federal District Court in Trenton, N.J., $1,500. Of course the USTTA suspended him again for the “damaging…adverse publicity” his actions brought to the sport. He’d not been a member of that ’57 U.S. Team, but, playing as an individual, a 42-year-old one, he’d defeated Brazil’s World #16 Ivan Severo, then had lost to Yugoslavia’s World #12 Josip Vogrinc, -13, -20, 21, -21, again “fighting, fighting every second,” as Carrington had said of him 6 years earlier.

Whatever the currency of Cartland’s long and varied life, he was first and foremost a table tennis player. But space permits only another example or two from his lengthy career. In 1965, Doug returned to the CNE. His opponent in the 8th’s was Jimmy Blommer, who this year and the next in Toronto would win the Men’s Doubles with Danny Pecora, and who this season would be ranked U.S. #8. “Dixie,” age 51, cheered on vigorously by fellow New Yorkers, of which I enthusiastically was one, beat Blommer in what Topics would call “the comeback of the year.”

Cartland, as we’ve seen, was always coming back. Through the mid-1960’s and into the ‘70’s I played against him…and usually lost. I remember a tournament in Maryland where I’d won the 1st from him and from 20-13 down in the 2nd I’d miraculously rallied to go 2-0 up. As I passed him in changing sides, he said, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to play better.” It was such an upbeat comment, especially since he then beat me three straight, that I immediately tucked it into my own psyche’s portfolio.

After the New York clubs – Gusikoff’s and Reisman’s – closed, I would occasionally talk with Doug, interview him for my History, at a tournament he’d come to watch. The last time I saw him was at a 1995 reunion with Schiff, Pagliaro, Reisman, Laszlo Bellak, and others at Dick Miles’s home. The ravages of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and the fatal prostate problem he’d already had surgery for in the early ‘90’s were still in his dying future.

Now, though Doug is gone, the puzzle of his game lives on. Here’s New Yorker Alan Bell 30 years ago paying the timeless tribute:

“…shot for shot he doesn’t appear to be as strong as he really is when you’re up there playing him. The reason for this, you discover, is that Cartland moves the ball so well within the configuration of his game that his opponent cannot use his stroking edge even if he has one….

No one should ever rate a player over another, stroke by stroke. It doesn’t mean anything. Particularly if that player is an elderly gentleman of pleasant sympathies, disposed to smile, to lean, as it were, to the side his wallet is on (which is not your side)….

Break down Cartland, his game? Why, it defies analysis. As if you could learn to understand a great novel by reading dictionary definitions of all the words therein.”





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