DICK MILES--PART IUSATT Hall of Fame Inductee (1966)
by USATT Historian Tim Boggan - © 1999
By the late 1930's and early '40's, Ping-Pong parlor-game sets had been around for decades. It was ironic but not particularly surprising then that Dick Miles, perhaps our greatest U.S. Champion, should be introduced to the Sport in this way. "For my 9th or 10th birthday," says Dick, "a woman friend of my mother's gave me a miniature 'Tea-Table Tennis' set and my uncle and I used to play with it in the evenings over our dining room table.
At this time, Dick, a lifelong New Yorker, born there on June 12, 1925, was living in an apartment on 84th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam Aves. with his mother, her parents, and her brother (Dick's father had left the family when Dick was only 2). "When I came home from school for lunch," he says, "I'd eat in a hurry, then with my 'Tea-Table' racket, which was probably sandpaper, I'd hit hundreds of balls on the fly against my bedroom wall, trying of course not to miss a single one."
As a boy Dick always loved games and sports that stressed hand-eye coordination. He was good with marbles and yo-yos and enjoyed that paddle-walloping pastime of trying to control-hit out, again and again, that little rubber ball rubber-banded to a racket (more ping-pong in miniature?). He played stickball in the streets and had a good arm; he was a pretty fair second baseman in Saturday games at Van Cortland Park; and he played golf with cut-down clubs his mother had given him--learned, as he was later to do in table tennis, to hit the ball "square to the line of flight," occasionally sneaking onto such a famous course as Winged Foot in Mamaroneck. He was a semifinalist in a PAL Paddle Tennis Championship, and says he owes his singular table tennis chop defense to hours and hours of Chinese Handball where you had to learn to slice the ball into the right pavement-block.
At PS 166 on 89th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam, where one of his classmates was Ty Neuberger (later to become, if not "Mr. Ping," Leah Thall's husband), Dick began playing something more than "Tea-Table Tennis." From there he made the transition into the Manhattan clubs--at first playing with a MacCrossen, then a Hock bat. "In the late '30's, early '40's," says Dick, "it was possible to find as many as 1-2-3-4 table tennis clubs located up and down Broadway from 54th to 96th streets." He also says that when eventually the ITTF gets rid of sponge--as they'll have to, else destroy the Game --it still wouldn't be incredible to find proprietors of four different clubs in a 50-block New York City area making a living at table tennis.
The first club Dick played at was Mitch Karelitz's (basement, ground floor, and upstairs) at 76th and Broadway. (After Karelitz lost his lease here he would open another place at 80th and Broadway, and then would move again to 79th and Broadway.) "After school," says Dick, "I'd bring in my pennies--maybe 15-20 cents worth--and would play anybody until a light would flash indicating my time was up." The best junior at this club was Billy Levinson and it's to this 16-year-old that Dick owes an historic debt.
"Dick," said Billy, "you're somthering your forehand. You're hitting on top of the ball--that's why it's going into the net so much."
"Ordinarily," says Dick, "I wouldn't have listened to him--wouldn't have listened to anybody. But I could see he was saying this in a nice way, was trying to help me. So I changed my forehand, learned to hit underhand, and this helped my game a lot."
Harry Piser's 12-table club was at Broadway and 91st or 92nd. It was here that Dick first saw the world-class Hungarians Bellak, Glancz, and Hazi. "I remember seeing the Hungarians out there at the table hitting balls, warming up, enjoying themselves, talking and laughing in a very intimate, in-group way about their strokes and styles. It impressed me very much that they had a private table tennis language I didn't understand--that table tennis itself had such a language--and I wanted to know more."
Another club was Mac's at 96th and Broadway. But this, says Dick, was largely a "residential" club.
"I don't want good players here," Mac told Dick.
"I thought he was kidding," says Dick. "The idea was ridiculous to me. But he was serious."
"All my customers stop playing to watch them, " said Mac. "Then sometimes they get discouraged with their own games."
The most famous club of the time was located above an automobile showroom at 1721 Broadway between 54th and 55th. This was known as the Broadway Courts, or Lawrence's, and had at least 7 tables on the second floor and 5 more upstairs on the 3rd. Mobster Legs Diamond was said to have owned the building when it was a speakeasy. As a table tennis club it was formerly Bernie Joel's, then John Morgan's, now Herwald Lawrence's. Originally from Barbados, Lawrence (most people called him by his last name) was a "gentleman"--dignified and well-known for his cultured speech. He ran a Tuesday night Handicap Tournament and after watching strangers play had a very good eye for handicapping them. His Friday Night Tournaments, though, were where it was at.
In 1939-42, when Miles was serving his apprenticeship, all the really serious players--with the exception of McClure from Indianapolis; Burns from Detroit; Holzrichter and Anderson from Chicago; Nash, Price, and Hendry from St. Louis; and possibly the Pacific Coast Champion Pearson from Seattle--all the really good players in the U.S. were from New York or close enough (Lowry from Massachusetts; Hazi and Fields from Washington; Bellis from Philadelphia) to play against one another. In Lawrence's Friday Night Tournaments you could find, even if all the Hungarians were off touring: Pagliaro, Schiff, Berenbaum, Schmidt, Pinner, Sussman, Klepak, Cartland, Somael, and Grimes. No wonder so many players played (Lawrence would split the entry fees with the winner and runner-up)--they wanted to see the matches. Indeed, so many non-players, fans, tried to crowd in that Lawrence would have to rope off the entranceway. And what a show, what a class act, Lawrence right from the beginning would put on. Here's Robert Lewis Taylor giving you his impressions in the Jan. 31, 1942 issue of The New Yorker.
"To get the tournament underway, Mr. Lawrence sits down at a card table on the sidelines and picks up the microphone of an amplifying system. In grave tones he announces the pairings for the night's play. Then a cluster of bright lights go on over the tournament table. Suddenly Lou Pagliaro steps out onto the floor, looking solemn. As befits his station, he is to play the first match. Mr. Lawrence's voice booms out over the loudspeaker: 'The national champion, ladies and gentlemen. Shall we give him a hand?' It is when Pagliaro hears the applause which follows that he thinks life and ping-pong have been very good to him."
No wonder Dick on first coming to these courts remembers thinking that "all these guys are outta my class." Who did he play that first time at 25 cents a game (the price of five subway rides)? Freddie Borges--not a bad player himself, and more than half a century later still a tournament-goer and one of Dick's dearest friends.
Of course Dick began to improve his play at the Broadway Courts. When there wasn't anyone around for him to play, Lawrence was helpful. He'd set up half a table with the other half as a backboard, and Dick would spot coins on the table surface and spend hours developing his stroke, trying to put the ball exactly where he wanted it. Dick still thinks the play's the thing, thinks physical training--lifting weights, jumping rope, sprinting, cross-country running--is pretty much a waste of time. To Dick, getting the right "touch" has always been far more important than even superb physical conditioning.
Dick certainly did play a lot. At one point in his teens, he quit DeWitt Clinton High School, would sleep till about two in the afternoon, and would then get up to put in his 11-hour day, or, if it were a Friday, 15-hour day. Lawrence generally opened around 1 pm and closed around 3 am, or later if money matches were still being played. Dick says in those days it was generally safe to come home in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes, however, there was a problem.
"My grandmother," he says, "was a very strict and strong-willed person. Because she so strenuously objected to my obsession with table tennis, she'd periodically lock me out of our Riverside Drive apartment, bolt the door so my key wouldn't do me any good, and muffle the sound of the doorbell. It's a terrible thing for a teenager to go back home and find his grandmother has packed his bag and put it out in the hallway in front of a locked door. Some nights I'd be sitting out there in the hall crying until finally someone would open the door and I'd hear my grandmother yell at me, "You're a bum! We don't want a bum in the family!"
Even Dick's family doctor had a few mocking words to say. "He came one day," says Dick, "to take out a blister on my big toe the size of a golf ball. He injected a hypodermic needle into the blister and I watched as the needle filled with fluid. 'Now, Dickie,' he said calmly, 'why do you do this? Why do you play this'--and here he went into an exaggerated pit-pat sing-song--'Pinnnggg-Ponnnggg?'"
Why indeed? To become very, very good, of course.
Dick's apprenticeship started to move toward its inevitable conclusion when Pagliaro, who'd won the first of his three straight National Championships in 1940, wanted to prepare to defend his title but didn't want to practice day-in, day-out at Lawrence's against his chief competitors--Schiff, Bellak, Hazi, Pinner, Grimes, Schmidt, Sussman, and Cartland. When Paggy saw his chance to run Mitch Karelitz's club and import Dick as a sparring partner he did so. And after months of play, the master was now giving his journeyman partner only three points a game.
To a number of players' surprise, Dick did not enter the April, '41 National's, even though it was held at the Manhattan Center in New York ("seats 1400 around the seven tables [in play]"). "I just didn't have the $5 entry fee to waste," Dick says. "I never did get much table tennis allowance money. I'd never won a tournament, not even a local junior tournament--I'd always lose to the perennial Champ, Roy Weissman [U.S. Boys' #2 (behind Indianapolis's Charles Tichenor) for the '39-40 season]. What possible reason did I, at 15, have for thinking I could win the U.S. Championship? My feeling was that if you went into some big tournament you'd certainly want to win it. You'd want to be the best. The idea of beating Pagliaro was ridiculous to me. He was a great player. Now, more than 50 years later, I still think Pagliaro was a great player. I also think that McClure, Schiff, and Reisman were great players. McClure had one of the best forehands in the world and could go on incredible streaks. Schiff was a very explosive player. There were nights when nobody could beat Schiff. It was very embarrassing to play him when he was hot. He could go through you like you were a beginner. And Reisman was always a bravura player. He would get very angry when he lost. But that was O.K. If you want to be a great player, you have to be angry if you lose. I myself used to get very sad if I lost.
Six months after Dick didn't see any sense in entering the National's, he was certainly in a different frame of mind. Perhaps one of the things that changed his view about playing in big tournaments was Johnny Somael's win over Ray Pearson in the second round of that '41 National's. Dick knew Johnny as a peer, and felt that, even if he couldn't beat Pagliaro, he, like Johnny, could surely beat a number of other good players, and perhaps that would be satisfying after all.
His name appeared in Topics, the USTTA magazine, for the first time after he'd played that summer not only in the traditional Provincetown, Massachusetts Quiniela tournament (where in the Doubles final Dick and Bill Cross upset Eddie Pinner and Cy Sussman, the National Champions) but also in tournaments held at the Brooklyn Courts.
At the Dec., 1941 Intercities in Chicago, the New York team--with Pagliaro, Hazi and 16-year-old Miles--was a winner (Dick doing his share with a 10-5 record, including, in the all-important last tie with Chicago, wins over Bob Anderson and Dan Kreer).
In both the Jan. 1942 Manhattan Championships and the Mar. Connecticut Open, Dick lost to Paggy in the final, but in each semi's was able to beat Pinner, who'd gotten to the final of the '41 National's.
The Mar. 14-15 Eastern's was a disappointment, though, for it suggested that, though Dick's rise had been mercurial, he'd not yet arrived. Miles and Pagliaro were beaten in the final of the Doubles by Pinner and the two-time world semifinalist Tibor Hazi (like Bellak and Glancz an Hungarian immigrant to the U.S.). And in the Singles Dick was upset early by Baltimore heavyweight (maybe 300 pounds with a terrific cross-court forehand) Gordon Barry.
At the April Detroit National's, Miles reached the quarter's before losing to the stylish New England star Les Lowry, and so that season for the first time received a USTTA ranking--#7. In the eighth's there at Detroit, Dick beat 3-time world finalist and 1937 and '38 U.S. Champion Laszlo "Laci" Bellak. By this time Dick knew how to play Bellak. But woe to those who met even an aging Laci for the first time. Invariably it was a unique not to say baffling experience. "You never knew where the ball was going," Dick says--"in part because he really enjoyed clowning with you. On or off the court Laci had a great sense of humor. 'Drrrink your meeelk, Dickie,' he used to tell me."
It was at this '42 National's that Dick might have won the U.S. Junior Championship. But Bellak and Hazi talked him out of entering, said it would be bad for the Sport if Dick were to win both the Men's and the Junior's.
With the advent of the War, many of the Sport's leading players--McClure, Bellak, Lowry, Holzrichter, Nash, Hendry, Anderson, Somael, Pinner, and Sussman--went into the Armed Services. Miles had a heart murmur that kept him out, but it wouldn't be long before he'd be doing exhibitions for servicemen both in the States and overseas.
At the Feb., '43 Eastern's, Pagliaro, who lost to Hazi in the final, was still too much for Dick in the semi's, and Dick and Lou couldn't win the Doubles from Schiff and Somael.
Naturally rubber rackets and cellulose balls were already in short supply. Manufacturers were still accepting orders, but only with a "delivery not guaranteed" stipulation. Also, tire and gas rationing were curtailing the number ot tournaments. Still, in late March, the U.S. National's were held in St. Louis, and, as Topics reported, it was a success:
"From coast to coast, north and south, to the middlewest came some 146 players and several hundred table tennis enthusiasts to crown or recrown the 1943 champions in all events. They came by train, bus, auto--shhh!! and maybe a little thumbing, to be met not by a brass band but by the 1943 National Tournament Committee headed by Elmer Cinnater and Tommy Gibbons, who made everyone feel as welcome as an old fashion juicy tenderloin steak."
Though a number of servicemen were given leaves to play in these Championships, including the eventual Singles winner, Chicago's Billy Holzrichter, three-time Champion (1940, '41, and '42) Pagliaro couldn't defend his title. The explanation? He worked in a defense plant and couldn't be spared. So that left the way open for Miles. Except, after beating Garrett Nash, he lost deuce in the 4th in the quarter's to Detroit's Chuck Burns (formerly Bernstein). However, Dick--who'd be ranked U.S. #5 that season--did get to his first National's final, the Men's Doubles, where he and Lowry were beaten in 5 by Bellak and Hazi.
Though Pagliaro couldn't play in St. Louis, he could in New York, and in the final of the Nov., 1943 Metro Open at the Broadway Courts he again beat Miles, and this time teamed with him to win the Doubles.
Even such a great player as Miles would become had to pay his dues. And for a while it didn't look like he'd break through. In the Jan., 1944 New York State Open and in the Feb. Eastern's Dick could continue to win the Doubles with Paggy, but would again lose in the Singles--first to Somael, then to Hazi.
Dick's National Ranking dropped to #9, partly because for whatever reason he didn't attend the '44 St. Louis National's (Hazi said it was because Dick knew he couldn't beat Hazi, who as it turned out had his leave cancelled and so couldn't play). This National's is the one where Lowry was leading Somael 20-14 (some say 20-13) match point in the final, and lost.
However, there's no doubt that Dick continued to be very active--even becoming 2nd Vice-President of the NYTTA under President Reba Monness for the 1944-45 season.
At this point, Miles's equally legendary rival, Marty Reisman, began to appear on the scene. In Dec., 1944, Dick (now 19) lost the New York City Open to Pagliaro, after being up 2-0 ("Pagliaro completely mastered the terrific blast of Miles' forehand"), while Reisman (now 14, almost 15) won the Junior's...over his brother David.
Finally Dick won a big tournament, a harbinger of things to come--the Mar., '45 Eastern's. He beat not Pagliaro in the final, for Lou didn't play, but Somael, 3-0 (while Reisman won the Junior's and lost to Somael in the Men's, 3-0).
Dick says that when Marty as a whiz-bang kid first began appearing regularly at Lawrence's, "I probably wouldn't even play with him. Later, I couldn't give him 5....Couldn't give him 4....Couldn't give him 3....So we went to 2 (-1). He got good very, very fast."
The '45 Detroit National's will long be remembered by both Miles and Reisman, though not primarily because it marked the first time they played one another for a National Championship--Dick beat Marty in 4 in the quarter's. There were other memories.
Reisman no doubt remembers his loss to Toledo's Bob Harlow in the Juniors, but even more he remembers, and still talks about, how the then Michigan Association President, Graham Steenhoven (later known for leading the 1971 U.S. "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" Team into China), almost succeeded in throwing 15-year-old Marty out of the playing venue for gambling.
Miles has to remember this Detroit National's as the one where he finally arrived. It was the first of his record-setting ten National Championships. "I was playing Somael," says Dick. "Johnny was a clean-cut, good-looking kid, Polish not Jewish, who the year before, in winning the Championship, had proven himself to have a great heart. I was playing in my first National final, was a skinny 111 pounds, and had a big nose."
"There must have been 3,500 spectators there, and the crowd was so much for Somael that the first point of the match, when Johnny scored a net ball, there was great applause. This irritated me, and though Johnny threw up his hands to me and said, in effect, 'I didn't applaud,' I made no attempt to conceal my irritation, for I thought the audience showed very poor sportsmanship. I was always very conscious of such things since I myself always wanted to be a good sportsman and believe that I was." (I'm reminded of what Steenhoven reportedly said, and where his head was when he said it, on handing Miles the Men's Singles trophy: "Here," he said--"I hope you behave like a Champion").
Though Somael was a very tenacious player, and, as Dick says, "would never make the match easy for me," and though on occasion he'd beaten Dick in the past, he was invariably at least a 3-point underdog. "Johnny was strictly a chiseler," says Dick. "He had a little backhand flick but no forehand at all. He had a backhand grip on his forehand that more or less forced him to smother the ball completely."
The very steady Doug Cartland, however, was another matter. Like Bobby Riggs ("I thought I could give Bobby 12 or 13," says Dick, "but no matter what I gave him, I always lost"), Doug was a great hustler. "He was always figuring out games to play. 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 black eye patch to see if there wasn't some way that Cartland was seeing through it."
"Cartland was always a vastly underrated player," says Dick. "He was an amazing competitor--someone who never, never beat himself; you always had to beat him, and he was an even more tenacious player than Somael. I remember giving Cartland a 6-point spot at Lawrence's, remember taking his money. There'd be no chance we'd play otherwise. And then, unbelievably, next day I lost to him in a tournament."
In Nov., 1945, Cartland, after not playing in a USTTA tournament for two years, won the New York City Open, beating Miles in 5 in the semi's and Pinner in 4 in the final. "I literally cried on losing," says Dick. "I told a girl friend I'd lost to a man 30 years old. He seemed like the oldest man in the world to me then."
Once Miles won his first Eastern's, his first National's, more were quickly to follow. At the Mar. 15-16, 1946 Hempstead, Long Island Eastern's, Dick beat Paggy in the final, 3-0 ("Miles' all around game was too strong for Pagliaro's defensive play").
And at the Mar. 27-29 '46 National's , held at New York City's St. Nicholas Arena (on a Wednesday through Friday), Miles beat Bellak, Somael, Pinner, and finally Schiff, losing only one game--to Somael. Junior Singles winner Reisman, touted as "the most likely contender for Miles' title," was 2-0 up on Schiff in the eighth's before losing, as was Pagliaro in the quarter's.
In a Topics of the time, Miles is described as "in a class by himself." But then the writer says in somewhat contradictory fashion that Dick is "classy," but...
"Miles lacks color and is not interesting to watch--his forehand drive is a clock-like motion, so well grooved it's monotonous. Miles plays a smart game, never changes expression and seems to follow the policy of taking command of the situation--forcing the defensive player to hit and the offensive player into defense."
As the 1946-47 season got underway, there was talk about the resumption of the World Championships (last played without U.S. participation, in Cairo, in 1939), and how a Miles-led U.S. Team would be able to make a very good showing, perhaps win titles, in Paris, and in the English Open that followed.
At the Nov. 23-24 New York City Open, Miles (-15, -13, 20, 17, 12) rallied to hold strong against Pinner in the semi's, then in the final bested Schiff who'd knocked out Pagliaro, 19 in the 4th. Where was U.S. #3 Cartland? On Tour with Harry Cook, but taking time out to win the St. Louis Open over Hendry and Price.
Just who was going to be on that U.S. Men's Team was decided at the Nov. 30-Dec. 1 Detroit Intercities--the first to be played since 1941. Of course here the powerful New York contingent (Captained by George Schein)--Miles (U.S. #1), Schiff (#2), Pinner (#4), Somael (#5) and Pagliaro (Insufficient Data)--couldn't compete against one another. Pagliaro and Miles had perfect records (though Dick barely beat the 1934 APPA penholder finalist Billy Condy deuce in the 3rd), Schiff lost only to Bill Holzrichter, and Holzrichter lost only to Les Lowry (while beating Somael).
Afterwards, Miles won the Eastern's--in 4 over Reisman (who, though ranked U.S. #18 last season, beat U.S. #4 Pinner in the semi's, 19 in the 5th).
Before this U.S. Men's Team left for the '47 Paris World's, Topics took a poll of USTTA members. Who was the "greatest U.S. [men's] player of all times?" Miles, a 38% plurality answered....
In Part II, during which I'll present Dick's accomplishments both in the U.S. and in many years of World Championship play, we'll see if, half a century later, such a weighty appraisal can be justified.
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