USA Table Tennis

Topics first mentions Graham Steenhoven when he’s 30 years old and a representative of the Michigan TTA. At the Detroit train station, he has courteously met St. Paul, Minnesota’s Helene “Tiny” Moss, perhaps not yet a teenager, for, unaccompanied, she’s come to play in the Feb. 8-9, 1941 Western Open. Thirty years later, Graham, still with Chrysler in Detroit, will have quite a year or two in the sun, for, as President of the USTTA, he will head the U.S. “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” Team to “Red China”—will be meeting Premier Chou En-lai, and later at the White House U.S. President Richard Nixon.

By the fall of 1944, Steenhoven has become President of the Michigan TTA and under his direction this affiliate would win both membership contests the USTTA was conducting that season—one was for the largest membership, and the other was for the largest percentage increase in membership. Prizes were “high quality pre-war balls and paddles.” In Oct., 1944, the Michigan affiliate had 110 USTTA members; four months later they had 222, a 100% increase, and were ambitiously ready to hold the 1945 National’s. How’d they get so many to sign up? The fact that Steenhoven was opportunistic helped. At the Feb. 3-4, 1945 Michigan Open, Graham “displayed a large poster with names of players in Military Service in the left hand column. The right hand side, reserved for names of sponsors, was quickly filled in by stay-at-home members who volunteered to buy a membership for the soldiers and sailors (TTT, Mar., 1945, p. 4).

At the 1945 Detroit National’s, it was Steenhoven, in his role as Michigan TTA President, who presented the Men’s Singles award to Dick Miles. Dick remembers Graham handing him the trophy, but does not recall the presentation fondly. “Here,” said Graham, “I hope you behave like a Champion—alluding presumably to what he’d earlier found objectionable in Miles’s demeanor on or off court. “These guys in the Midwest were the real ‘Americans,’ said Dick. “We were the New Yorkers, the wise guys, the Jews.” Acidity, humor, pride—50 years later, Dick’s voice held all in equilibrium. Both Miles and his friend Freddie Borges were absolutely stunned when, at the USTTA Open Meeting at these National’s, the question was raised whether Negroes should be allowed to play in sanctioned events. Was it mere chance that President Steenhoven’s opening match here paired him against Lynel Overton, the only black man in the field?

Marty Reisman, entered in the Junior’s at these National’s, wrote in his fact-cum-fiction The Money Player that, preparatory to playing South Bend whiz-kid Gordon Barclay, he made an innocent mistake. He went up to a man who he thought was the bookmaker he was doing business with, for he wanted to bet on himself against Barclay (bet, uh, $500 Marty says entertainingly), and was shocked to learn that this man was Graham Steenhoven.

Steenhoven was aghast to find this 15-year-old juvenile (juvenile delinquent?) blatantly gambling, a USTTA no-no, so he responded, according to Marty, by allowing him to play the match, and by then having a policeman escort him out of the Hall (p. 48). Borges—protector of youthful, pained innocence, as well as New Yorkers and Jews—adds to the story by saying it was he who rescued Marty, got him reinstated when (in tears?) Marty came to him and said he’d been thrown out of the tournament.

With Elmer Cinnater coming in as USTTA President for the 1946-47 season, Steenhoven remained for one more year as V.P. He was considered “a very sincere worker who never quits until success is assured in any job assigned to him.” At the June, ’46 Meeting, Graham suggested that $100 be advanced by the sponsor of the U.S. Open so that $50 could be awarded to both the Men’s and Women’s winner to help defray expenses incurred in defending their title the following year. This was passed unanimously (but likely not retroactively, for then Miles would receive one of the stipends).

Graham also felt that the current $5 entry fee for inter-city teams was way too low, and the E.C. agreed unanimously that teams “pay an entry fee of $25 per team to the host city and that 25% of the net profit be given to the USTTA. Sanction fee for the event shall be 25% of the net profit in addition to the standard sanction fee of $25.”

Graham wasn’t ever a strong enough player to be even considered for the Michigan Inter-city team, but he could play a little bit. At the 3-star Central Open, held Mar. 20-21, 1948 at Detroit’s Northwestern High, he was runner-up in the Senior’s to Pontiac’s Perc Secord. Graham’s real calling was of course as an official, and by the 1948-49 season he’d succeeded J. Del Wheeler as Michigan TTA President (with Associate Topics Editor Ed “Dick” Dickinson as his Vice President).

 Whether he then continued to be involved in local city or state leadership or not, Steenhoven is given little or no attention in Topics, or the USTTANewsletter that beginning in 1955 took its place for six years. Then, in 1961, we see that Graham is back as Michigan TTA President (with Herb Schindler, Jr. as his Vice President) and that, in connection with the Apr. 7-9, ’61 U.S. Open they’re hosting, Detroit’s brand new 9,000-seat Cobo Hall Convention Arena has its official opening Friday night, Apr. 7th–with table tennis as the very first sports activity to take place in this mammoth hall.

Graham was General Chairman of this event, and it was quite successful. It drew a purported 500 or so participants—and that had to be the largest entry yet for a U.S. Open. The 19 events were played on 24 tables, the most thus far that had ever been used in a tournament. Graham, in waving entry fees for the talented Foster kids from Jamaica, helped 11-year-old Joy to come and successfully defend her U.S. Open U-15 Girls’ title.

The 1961 Men’s National Team Championships were also held at Cobo Hall, though not in the amphitheater proper. By the mid-60’s, the Hall would begin to be the almost perennial site for these NTC Championships, as well as repeatedly through the middle and late ‘60’s the site for the U.S. Open.

Graham and his Michigan TTA officers put out a Newsletter, more a brochure actually, summarizing the State’s t.t. activities for the ’61-’62 season. From this we learn that the 1962 Michigan Closed, played Mar. 24-25 at the Cobo Hall T.T. Center (yes, locals could play there weekly), was the largest in history: “Over 175 players entered 22 events with 61 trophies awarded.” Herb Schindler, Chair of the MTTA Board of Directors, received a telegram from Michigan Governor Swainson wishing the players and officials success with the tournament. President Steenhoven was given “a gold-plated and marble desk set, inscribed: ‘In tribute to his unselfish devotion to, and his untiring work for, the cause of table tennis.”

And lest anyone think that the gift above bespeaks retirement, as we’ll see in Part II Graham’s involvement in U.S. Table Tennis hasn’t yet even begun to peak.