My Table Tennis Racket

The rewards of nonpublication are sometimes greater than what a successful article, widely circulated in print, will produce. In the tale that follows, an energetic magazine writer shows how a half-dozen fees can be made to blossom where only one was expected. BRUCE BLIVEN, JR., is the author of many articles and several books; Atlantic readers will recall his account (May, 1954) of the fantastic high-speed typewriting contests which were prevalent around the turn of the century.



THE year was 1946. Joe Louis was the world’s heavyweight champion. Ted Williams was the American League’s most valuable player. Jack Kramer was monarch of men’s lawn tennis. I was nearing the end of my first year as a full-time free-lance magazine writer.

I’d won no titles or honors. But I did hope to go on doing what I was doing. I liked it. I’d sold eight articles, which seemed to me to be an amazingly large number. Yet it was becoming increasingly hard to ignore what looked like a definite threat to my hope: my living expenses had been considerably larger than my total receipts. The money I had saved in the Army was almost all gone. And since I was already working seven days a week, as fast as I could urge my fingers to go, I felt I needed some improvement more subtle than promising myself to work harder. Even the beaver’s eagerness has some natural limits.

For instance, I felt it would help to get better prices for articles. My biggest, most remunerative sale had been a piece for Life. I called on Robert Coughlan, then Life’s text editor, thinking that it would be nice to wangle a second assignment from him. A sports personality close-up — an article about somebody on the order of, say, Louis, Williams, or Kramer —was the kind of thing I had in mind.

Coughlan looked profoundly bored. “We’ve got an awful lot of sports articles already in the works,” he said. “On the other hand, we might be able to use something offbeat. Something light, on the amusing side.”

My hopes were raised, if by less than one full millimeter. We talked for a while, trying to think of minor and peculiar sports. One of us — I don’t remember which — brought up ping-pong.

“Is there a national ping-pong champion?” Coughlan asked.

“I think there must be,” I said.

“Why don’t you check?” Coughlan said. “It’s just possible that he — if there is such a he — might make a piece.”

It was an excellent suggestion, although it has taken me ten years to appreciate the value of Coughlan’s advice. He was inviting me to latch onto as good a subject — in a way—as any freelance writer could desire. I fear I may never find another in quite the same class.

Ilis name is Richard Miles. I found him in the Public Library under “T” for “Table Tennis.” The champion, according to the magazine Table Tennis Topics, was a twenty-year-old New Yorker who had won the national men’s singles crown in 1945, had defended his title successfully in the spring of 1946, and was favored to win for the third time in 1947. I asked Miles to have lunch with me, and in an offbeat way he was great. Not many national champions at any sport are likely to joke about their game. Miles, a small, trim fellow with the indefinable air of titleholder about him, took a delightfully mocking view both of himself and table tennis. He said he thought that his game, for its size, was a lot of fun, but that for real challenge he recommended golf. While he enjoyed being champion, he said he preferred reading James Joyce or listening to Beethoven quartets.

When I turned in my article about Miles, Life seemed pleased with it. They promptly sent me a check for $1000 that made my bank account look markedly less forlorn. They scheduled the piece for an early issue and assigned Gjon Mili, one of the magazine’s top photographers, to take multipleexposure photographs of Miles in action. Everyone involved seemed happy, including the United States Table Tennis Association, which felt that the game was about to get an unusual but richly deserved publicity break.

A day or two before the article should have gone to press, Miles and I were summoned to inspect the photographs. The champion’s strokes, which were very fast indeed, had been too fast even for Mili’s stroboscopic lights. The pictures were fascinating as abstract compositions of light patterns against a dark background. But there was simply no telling what, they showed.

“They look like X-ray plates to me,” Miles said, “and I’m afraid I may have broken my collarbone.”

It was too late to take another batch of photographs in time to make the issue. The Miles story had to be held out. Coughlan thought it might be rescheduled after the forthcoming tournament — provided, of course, that Miles managed to keep his title.

Miles hid his disappointment well. “I’ll do my best to win — just for the article’s sake, of course,” he said.

Miles’s best was exceedingly good. He won the title for the third time, a feat only one other player, Lou Pagliaro, had ever managed. But Life, by late March, had cooled toward table tennis. Coughlan was very gentle in explaining to me that the editors had decided to forget, about my piece.

“You can have it back. You can keep the money, but the article is yours. We realize that the manuscript is highly perishable, but there’s certainly a chance that you can place it somewhere else.”

That seemed more than fair — although I did hate to tell Miles, who would have to inform the Table Tennis Association, that our joint hopes had taken a severe jolt.


I TOOK the article to Tim Cohane, sports editor of Look, and told him what had happened at Life. He didn’t believe me. I got a written statement from Coughlan saying that the manuscript was all mine, free and clear, and that Life had no intention of printing anything about Dick Miles in the foreseeable future. Cohane still looked suspicious, feeling, I think, that some obscure inter-picture-magazine joke was being played on him. But to my delight he bought the article. Its text was just the same as originally, but I had updated it, of course, to include Miles’s third victory. I got a check for $500.

“We want some good pictures to run with it,” Cohane told me. “Frank Bauman, one of our top photographers, is going to take them.”

I felt good. The extra check, for just a few hours spent on revision, was wholly welcome. But my pleasure was more than purely commercial. By this time, Miles and I were friends. I’d watched him practicing, worrying, winning for a year. I’d hung around with table tennis buffs long enough to agree with them that the reading public hardly ever appreciates how very good a national champion has got to be. I was anxious to see the piece in print for Dick’s sake as well as my own.

Bauman’s photographs turned out beautifully — especially a posed shot of Miles, shot upwards from around his ankles, with his teeth bared, in which the mild-mannered champion looked positively tigerish. The picture was so dramatic, in fact, that Look turned the whole project into a one-page, one-picture feature, which it ran shortly before the 1948 championships. My deathless 3800 words of prose had been boiled down to a succinct 200-word caption. My by-line had been omitted.

While I was trying to console myself with the thought that at least the spread was good publicity for Dick, he was battling his way to his fourth successive victory. That set an all-time table tennis record. I reread the carbon of my article. And for the first time the low, sneaky thought crossed my mind that perhaps there was an advantage to having magazines not print the Miles story. For there was the champion, his luster brighter than ever. And there was I with a readymade manuscript — slightly dog-eared, but virtually intact — telling all about him.

By this time my fortunes as a free lance had improved. I was breaking even. Still I listened with greedy fascination whenever more successful magazine writers explained their professional strategies. It sometimes seemed as if there were as many “how to” theories as there were surviving freelancers. I had heard that the secret was to specialize doggedly in one narrow field in order to get a maximum wordage out of a minimum of research and reporting. I’d been advised to get out of town (“Any New York editor will buy anything if the dateline is Lawton, Oklahoma!”) and to stick as close as possible to the New York Public Library (“After all, every magazine article is just a rewrite of stuff in the back-issue files!”). One well-fed writer told me that numbers were the trick of the game; if you couldn’t work a number into the title (“Seven Sure Mays to Success”), then, at the very least, you should make a minimum of three numbered points, in boldface, in the body of the piece, and that three, ten, and one hundred, in his experience, were the best numbers to use. Another craftsman assured me that, when in doubt, a free-lancer should always do a test-yourself quiz (“Are You a Considerate Spouse?”); for it, he said, is the basic staple of magazine journalism.

I’d heard countless other systems explained, yet no one had mentioned my particular racket: the imperishable manuscript. For all I knew, I had stumbled onto an original tactic. I began to think, giddily, that if I could sell the Miles story once or twice every year . . .

At any rate there could be no harm, all pipe dreams aside, in trying one more time. All my article needed, as far as I could see, was minor updating.

Esquire’s articles editor, when I suggested the idea of a piece on Dick Miles to him, looked intrigued. He had been looking for an offbeat sports personality story. What had happened at Life and Look, I gathered, amused him. I added the latest Miles news to the old text structure, retyped, kept my fingers crossed, and in late June, 1948, Esquire bought the article for $400.

In February, 1949 — to my astonishment — Esquire printed almost the whole thing, with photographs, under the title “Young Man on the Ball.”

All of us were pleased: Miles, the Table Tennis Association, and I. For even though my desk drawer did look strangely empty, and though it was with a certain twinge that I crossed the note to myself, “Miles piece, where? off my memo pad, I felt I ought to be realistic about the matter. No champion, after all, can win forever. Now that Dick was twenty-four, he had taken to calling himself “The Grand Old Man" of table tennis and to predicting his imminent dethronement. “I’m beginning to like playing as much as winning,”Miles said. “And of course, in a champion, that’s fatal.” Prudence suggested that I close my books on Miles as an article subject. Three sales on what was, in substance, one article were clearly as good mileage as a writer could want from a manuscript.

Miles defaulted in 1950, after winning in 1949. He made a comeback in 1951. But in 1952, for the first time in eight years, he was beaten in the nationals. It was just for old times’ sake, he said, that he entered the 1953 tournament. When he won his seventh championship that year, I wondered. In 1954 he raised the total to eight. Counting back on the calendar, I realized that it had been five years since a piece (mine) about him had been printed in any of the general magazines.

Then Dick appeared as a guest on the television show “I’ve Got a Secret.”His secret was that he was the national table tennis champion. The panel was almost stumped. Even after it had learned that Miles was a champion at something that had to do with a table, the experts were making wild guesses. “Champion pie-eater?” somebody asked.

T saw that Miles, despite my best efforts, was less celebrated than he deserved.

Sports Illustrated was getting ready to start publication. I dropped in to see Andrew Crichton, one of its editors.

“We’re interested, among other things, in offbeat sports personality pieces,” Crichton explained. I couldn’t resist. Crichton thought it sounded like a funny idea.

I hurried home, dug out all my old carbons and notes, and tackled the Miles story for the fourth time. It was a completely new manuscript. For one thing, a new racquet surface (sponge instead of pebbled rubber) had been invented since the last goaround, so I had to bring the article abreast of the game’s technological changes. Yet the piece did bear some unavoidable similarities to the three earlier versions. There was nothing I could do, after all, to vary the facts about Dick’s birthplace, schooling, and early sports career.

Crichton liked it. I got a prompt letter of acceptance and a check for $750. I wrote back and said that while the article ought to stand up for a good six months, I did hope Sports Illustrated would run it before the 1955 tournament, since I naturally couldn’t promise that the eight-time winner, good as he was, would pull off a ninth victory.

Crichton advised me not to worry. The piece wasn’t exactly scheduled, he said, but it was well liked.

A couple of months later I got a call from a Sports Illustrated researcher, a girl with a mellifluous voice. “We were wondering,” she cooed, “whether anybody has taken any good photographs of Miles.”

I felt it was a bad omen. I was hardly surprised, when the weekend of the 1955 nationals had passed, that Sports Illustrated confined its coverage to the results, printed in its smallest type size. The winner (for the ninth time): Richard Miles.

Not long afterwards, I saw Dick. “I sure am sorry about the Sports Illustrated business,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,”Dick said.

“That’s magazines for you,”I said.

“It really makes no difference to me,” Dick said. “Although I imagine that the Table Tennis Association is sort of disappointed.”

“Of course,” I said, “there’s a chance that something can be salvaged. You are still the champion, after all. Now if I were just to bring the article up to date . . .”

Dick looked at me reproachfully. “I hate to tell you,” he said, “but I’ve decided to let the title go.”

I hated to hear it.

Miles didn’t enter the 1956 championships, which were held in March at White Plains, New York. The men’s singles title went to the junior champion, Irwin “Ginger” Klein. It’s conceivable — hard as it is for me to face — that Dick has really and truly ret ired.

And yet I wonder. A man who has won a championship nine times must be tempted — if only for tidiness’ sake — to try to make it a round number like ten.

I’ll admit I’d like to see Dick try. I wouldn’t be surprised if he could do it. A man who has sold an article four times naturally wonders whether he couldn’t make it five.