Si Wasserman Speech by Tim Boggan

Tonight the Mark Matthews Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Si Wasserman.

Si first met his good friend and soon-to-be doubles partner Austin Finkenbinder in 1948 at the downtown Los Angeles YMCA table tennis club. (Next to Austin and Si, far right, is Ragnar “Ray” Fahlstrom, still playing in tournaments today.) It was Austin who introduced Si to the “mecca” of table tennis in California. This was the California Table Tennis Center, opened in Apr., 1949 by a 24-year-old leading local player, “Chuck” Feldman. Here, to Si’s delight, the conditions were ideal—“11 elegant, neatly aligned tables graced by excellent overhead lighting and a hardwood floor with generous runback space.”

Early on, Wasserman was a “Flyers Club” member with Austin, California TTA President Milt Forest, and others, and for a while they were always ready to hop a plane to travel within a 100-mile radius for intercity matches.

            By 1950 Si was CA TTA Membership Chair and, when 11-year-old Erwin Klein was discovered playing at the Poinsetta Park Playground, funds were found for him to play at the California Center. “Chubby” Klein was described as “looking like a slightly overripe Mickey Rooney.”

            In early 1952, after his return from Air Force Service in the Korean War, Si heard the bad news that Feldman was giving up his Center, and in a life-changing moment, agreed to take over the place, despite, he said, “having a full-time job, plus wrestling with a three-year lease at $350 a month.”

            In preparation for his first trip to a U.S. Nationals (he would play in every one of them from 1952 through 1964), Wasserman entered the Mar., 1952 Greater Los Angeles Open and beat Klein who was then the Southern California Men’s Champion. Afterwards, with Si acting as Erwin’s guide and guardian, the two of them went off with other Californians to Cleveland, Ohio to watch Pagliaro beat Miles in the final, and  Erwin win the Elmer Cinnater Sportsmanship Award, as well as a bicycle, a wristwatch, and three trophies.”

            From 1952 to 1955 Si was President of the Southern California TTA. Though he himself was neutral on the issue of “sponge” play, he agreed to a ban on that highly controversial rubber for a year—which caused young Klein to picket in protest.       

In Feb., 1955, Si hosted “the most successful exhibition matches in West Coast history.” When World Champion Richard Bergmann, Miles, and Klein played at the Center, Si said that “450 people jammed their way in…[some had to be turned away] at an average admission price of $1.40.” This of course would further encourage novice and intermediate players to frequent Si’s Center, and he’d be kept busy for years coaching. The crowd came to the exhibition in part because earlier Si had contacted the L.A. Examiner’s cartoonist Karl Hubenthal, and, on working from snapshots of the three stars Si had provided, he’d done a fabulous drawing of the trio that appeared on the Feb. 2nd front page of the Sports section of the paper.

            That month, too, Wasserman and Klein appeared on the Art Baker TV show “You Asked For It.” The $150 they received for their performance,” Si said, “would help defray some of Klein’s expenses to the Nationals.” The two also put on an exhibition “between halves of the UCLA-Stanford basketball game.”

            Biggest surprise at the then prestigious 1955 Toronto CNE tournament  was Wasserman who’d switched to sponge. He’d come there with Klein (who would successfully defend his Men’s title), taking four-hour driving/sleeping turns with the Volkswagen Erwin’s mother had bought him. After winning his first three matches, Si astounded everyone by leading 8-time Canadian National Champion Max Marinko, 2-1, before succumbing in the 5th. With this showing and his continued strong CA play, Si was called “The Most Improved Adult Player of the Year on the West Coast.”

In 1957, Wasserman is named the USTTA Disciplinary Chair and as such is automatically made a member (later Chair) of the Selection Committee. He feels that only U.S. citizens should represent us in International Matches, and his primary consideration is not playing ability but how an individual will represent the USTTA.  In 1958, Si, unopposed, becomes the Association’s Executive Vice-President.

            An especially big year for the 36-year-old Wasserman is 1959. Maybe, since he’s about to be on the USTTA Ranking Committee, and for the next several years will be the USTTA Coaching Chairman, he’s taking on too much responsibility? But, withal, how can he resist being appointed Captain of the U.S. Team to the Dortmund World’s? Table Tennis for him is far more than an avocation—it’s consuming his life. But because, with Si’s urging, the Nationals are awarded to nearby Inglewood, he’s encouraged to continue keeping his Center—and is greatly helped by his younger brother Nate. Indeed, what would he do without him? While Si gives “between 12 and15 lessons a week,” Nate handles the desk. In fact, says Si, Nate “runs the place himself all day Sat. and Sun afternoon, then works with me on Fri. night and Sun. night  and sometimes [on] a Tues. or Thurs.”

To show his appreciation for Nate, in 2007 Si will honor his deceased brother by donating $100,000 to our Hall of Fame to establish the annual Nate Wasserman Memorial Scholarship Awards. Each year, a total of $5,000 is awarded equally among Boys and Girls competing in different age groups, and afterwards commemorative poster- boards highlighting their success are displayed at our Dec. Inductee Banquet. Among those first 2007 premier players who’d been scholarship recipients are names well-known to us eight years later—Judy Hugh, Ariel Singh, and Prachi Jha. Thanks must go to Hall of Fame founder Steve Isaacson for initiating the awards, and to Danny Seemiller for continuing to run the yearly Junior/Cadet tournaments.

 Nate, at great inconvenience, will take over the Center when Si leads the 1959 U.S. Team to Germany. At Dortmund, Bobby Gusikoff, especially, was grateful for the opportunity to play under this Captain/Coach. He’d pleaded with Si to let him play the tie against Hungary, for he felt he could beat former World Champion Sido—and he did, a great competitive moment in his life.

Si’s coaching results over the years are evident when, in sampling his students’ accomplishments, we see that in 1957 Sharon Acton and Valeri Green Smith (later Bellini) win the first of their four U.S. Open Women’s Doubles titles; that in 1958  Lenny Cooperman  takes the Junior’s; that in 1959 Charlene Hanson, later to be Bobby Fields’ wife, wins the U.S. Open Girls; that in 1960 Acton wins the U.S. Women’s Open (after twice being a finalist), and also wins the Mixed with Gusikoff, and that Richard Card takes the Junior Singles and Doubles. Yep, all of these Champions have been helped by Si. Quite something, eh?

No surprise that Wasserman, so into coaching, will contribute to a “Coaching Canopy” column for the USTTA magazine. He’ll also author a booklet, “How To Improve Your Table Tennis.” It will later appear in hard-cover book form in 1971 as part of the Athlete Institute’s Sport Series.

In the beginning 1960’s, Si gradually relinquishes his many USTTA positions, then makes the “heartbreaking decision” to give up the Center.

“One day,” he says, “I learned that one of the leading players—a fellow I’d been having trouble with for years—was breaking into the Center after it was closed for the night. He was coming in through the skylight and would invite his friends to a post-midnight round robin party. They helped themselves to soft drinks and pilfered bats and balls from my inventory. I contacted the police but was told that unless the culprits were caught in the act nothing could be done. Of course they came only on nights that suited them, and after a long, tiring day, I was in no condition to stay up after midnight in a hit-or-miss effort to catch them.”

Finally, this, along with other daily burdens, was just too much, so regretfully, [Photo #24] he turns the keys over to “two strong young players, Stuffy Singer and Mike Ralston, hoping they will run a decent operation,” and thereafter never returns to the place that for 10 years had been his second home.

After that, he plays sporadically for a few years then takes “a 30-year sabbatical” from the Sport.

In 1994, Si is asked to serve on the Board of Directors of the newly organized California Hall of Fame, and is inducted into the Hall as a charter member.

During the past 20 years, Si’s been involved in research and presentations for the California Hall of Fame’s inductee banquet, and has participated in Over 70 through Over 90 events in yearly tournaments, winning again, as he had in the past, trophy after trophy, and enjoying himself socially as well as competitively. In 2006, he was inducted into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame, and, as Steve Isaacson pointed out in welcoming him, was honored to have in the audience some of his former students who well remembered how much he’d done for them.

Si, of course, is a writer, and something of a poet--he put his friend Patty Martinez’s  Miracle Win in the Women’s final of the 1965 U.S. Open over U.S. superstar Leah Neuberger from 20-15 down in the fifth to pen. Because this year is the 50th Anniversary of that historic match, our Hall of Fame President Donna Sakai is now presenting a plaque to Patty. It reads: “Patty Martinez…in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of your 1965 U.S. Open success as a 13-year-old, the youngest Women’s Singles winner of what for 40 years we called our Nationals.” Also embossed on the plaque is Si Wasserman’s commemorative couplet poem, which I’ll read to you: 

              “PATTY’S MIRACLE

Shock waves crushed the calm in 1965,

Caused by a feat that may forever survive.

 The site was Cobo Hall in Detroit’s Downtown,

At stake the National Women’s Singles crown.

Upstart Patty Martinez, barely thirteen,

Faced Leah Neuberger, table tennis’s mighty queen. 

A legend battling a child seemed so cruel,

A lamb led to slaughter was hardly a duel.

But plucky Patty was unbowed by Leah’s great fame,

Her aim was to hammer her foe’s stonewall game.

Patty’s insolent relentless resistance

Extended flustered Leah the full distance. 

Down five match points with but a prayer of hope,

The Lass, as if led by the hand of the Pope,

Stroked every ball with unerring precision,

Nailing seven straight points and the decision.

Patty’s heart-stopping climb caressed the sublime,

And crowned her Youngest Champion of All-time!” 

Having always been interested in words, Si’s been appreciative of my History books, writing a very positive review of my Vol. III, while I in turn dedicated my Vol. XI to him. He’s given me financial assistance, as he has others, to help us continue to do the work he finds valuable. Most recently, in a great show of generosity, Si’s donating $300,000 in his estate plan to our Hall. That’s right—$300,000.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, I don’t think I need say more. It must be easy to understand why I’m now honored to present the 2015 Mark Matthews Lifetime Achievement Award to Si Wasserman.