Si Wasserman first met his good friend and soon-to-be doubles partner Austin Finkenbinder in 1948 at the downtown Los Angeles YMCA table tennis club, and it was Austin who introduced Si, as he said, to “the mecca of table tennis in California,” the California Table Tennis Center, opened in Apr., 1949 by a 24-year-old building contractor and leading local player, Charles “Chuck” Feldman. Si wasn’t good enough, he thought, to play in the 1949 California State Championships (a.k.a. Golden State Open), but Austin persuaded him to do so, and from then on, he said, “I was hooked.” Early on, he 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 CATTA Membership Chair interested always in new members, and that August at the Santa Monica Open the Boys winner was 11-year-old Erwin Klein who’d been discovered by the current CATTA President Bob Lupo playing at the local Poinsettia Park Playground. Funds were found for Erwin to travel to and play at the California Center (thanks to Feldman he could play for $.70 all day) and here the conditions were ideal—“11 elegant, neatly aligned tables graced by excellent, overhead lighting, [and] a hardwood floor with generous runback space.” This facility, perhaps the best in the country, helped him to hone the game that would enable him to become one of the greatest of U.S. Champions.
Si, hooked indeed, was taking on, and would continue to take on, more responsibility. He became Tournament Chair for the Dec., 1950 Greater Los Angeles Championships, but because of the Korean War was then called back into the Air Force. In early 1952, after his return from Service, 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-tome job, plus wrestling with a three-year lease at $350 a month.” Fortunately, to help him with this “7-day, 40-hour weekly operation,” he had the help of a reliable player, as well as his younger brother.
In preparation for his first trip to a U.S. National’s (he would play in every one of these U.S. Opens from 1952 through 1964), Wasserman entered the Mar., 1952 Greater L.A. Open and defeated 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 to watch Pagliaro beat Miles in the final, and Erwin win the Elmer Cinnater Sportsmanship Award, as well as “a bicycle, a wrist watch and three trophies.”
From 1952 to 1955 Si was President of the Southern California TTA (also known as CalTTA). 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. All through the 1950’s and into the early ‘60’s Si would Chair many CA tournaments and serve on a number of the CA Association’s Executive Committees. In addition he’d serve for a time as West Coast Regional Director.
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 $1.40 admission.” 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, Hubenthal had 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 interview portion was live but the table tennis was filmed.” The $150 they got for the show, Si said, would “help defray some of Klein’s expenses to the National’s [where he’d win the first of his three straight Junior titles].” The two also put on an exhibition “between halves of the UCLA-Stanford basketball game.”
Biggest surprise at the 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 turns with Erwin driving the Volkswagen Erwin’s mother had bought him. After winning his first three matches, Si astounded everyone by leading perennial Canadian Closed Champion Max Marinko, 2-1, before succumbing. Understandably, with this showing and his continued strong CA play, Si was called “the most improved adult player of the year on the Coast.”
In 1957 Wasserman was named the USTTA Disciplinary Chair and as such was automatically made a member (later Chair) of the Selection Committee. He felt that only U.S. citizens should represent us in International Matches, and his primary consideration was not playing ability but how an individual would represent the USTTA (such a judgment, so speculative, had to be fraught with controversy). In 1958, Si, unopposed, became the Association’s Executive Vice-President. Later, he’d continue to serve as a Vice-President.
An especially big year for the 36-year-old Wasserman was 1959. Maybe, since he was about to be on the USTTA Ranking Committee, and for the next several years would be the USTTA Coaching Chairman, he was taking on too much responsibility? But, withal, how could he resist being appointed Captain of the U.S. Team to the Dortmund World’s? Table Tennis for him was an avocation? It was consuming his life.
But because the National’s were awarded to nearby Inglewood, he was encouraged to continue keeping his Center—and was greatly helped by his brother Nate. Indeed, what would he do without him? While Si gave “between 12 & 15 lessons a week,” Nate handled the desk. In fact, said Si, Nate “runs the place himself all day Sat. and Sun. afternoon then works with me on Fri. nite & Sun. nite & sometimes [on] a Tues. or Thurs.” At great inconvenience, Nate would take over for Si when he led the U.S. Team to Germany. In doing his job in Dortmund Wasserman was much liked by the Team members, especially Bobby Gusikoff and Norby Van de Walle.
Si’s coaching results over the years are evident when, in noting his students’ major accomplishments, we see that in 1957 Sharon Acton and Valerie Green Smith (later Bellini) win the first of their four U.S. Open Women’s Doubles titles; that in 1958 Acton wins her first U.S. Open Junior Miss, and Lenny Cooperman defeats Mike Ralston to take the Junior’s; that in 1959 Charlene Hanson wins the U.S. Open Girls, and Danny Cohen the Boys; that in 1960 Acton wins the U.S. Open Women’s (after twice being a finalist) and Richard Card the Junior’s; and that in 1960 Acton, again a Women’s finalist, wins the Mixed (and will again in ’61), and Card the Junior Doubles. Yep, all these Champions had been helped by Si. Quite something, eh?
No surprise that Si, so into coaching, will contribute, and urge others to contribute, to a “Coaching Canopy” column for the USTTA magazine. He’ll also author a booklet “How To Improve Your Table Tennis.” It will become an essential part of the Athletic Institute of Chicago’s “color, sound, sidefilm kit” on the Sport that features demonstration photos of 15-year-old Chicagoans Ken Oler and Pat Havlick (later Danny Pecora’s wife). This beginner’s booklet will later turn up in hard cover book form (1971) as part of the Athlete Institute’s Sport Series.
In the beginning ‘60’s, Si gradually relinquishes his many USTTA positions then makes the “heartbreaking decision” to give up the Center. He turns the keys over to “two strong, young players, hoping they will run a decent operation,” and thereafter never returns to the place that for ten years has 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. Again, he’s hooked.
During the last 13 years, Si’s been involved in research and presentations for the California Hall’s yearly Inductee Banquet, and has participated in Over 70 through Over 85 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 USATT Hall of Fame and, as Steve Isaacson pointed out in giving us his background and welcoming him, was honored to have in the audience some of his former students who well remembered how much he’d done for them.