Friday, July 7, 2017

The "Babe Ruth" of Table Tennis

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I have a vivid memory of the first time I went into a Masonic Lodge. I was 15 years old and had arrived with my dad for my DeMolay initiation. The room, a magnificent leather-chair filled lounge, was bustling with activity. In the back were a pool and a billiards table in full use. To one side was a table tennis table with a match going on and a big crowd watching. I worked my way over to the table tennis match and joined the crowd. A wiry man, the Chapter Dad, was playing one of the older DeMolay boys. The DeMolay youth was a tall, thin, athletic type. He was quick and clearly good at the game. But the older man was, as they say, cleaning his clock. "Wow," I recall thinking, "that older guy is pretty good." Oh, he was pretty good all right. In fact, as I later learned, he was... and remains... the best US table tennis player ever, known, in fact, as "The Babe Ruth of Table Tennis." His name was Jimmy McClure.

Born September 28, 1916, Jimmy was a superstar right out of the gate. He was a quick learner and a great dancer. So good, in fact, he occasionally performed with the likes of Dick Powell — without ever having had a single dance lesson.

As a youngster, he began playing tennis and at age 12, and won many championships over the next few years.

Likely on his way to a budding tennis career, a rainy day in 1932 changed things for him. That day, Jimmy's tennis game with friends was rained out. About to call it quits, one of the boys suggested they all come over to his house where he had what he called a "ping-pong" table in the basement. Jimmy and the others followed their friend downstairs, where they found the table. Jimmy picked up one of the strange looking paddles. It was the first time he had ever seen one. In a sense, he would never put it down again.

Only a year later, he stood in another venue holding something just as unfamiliar – the US Open Championship trophy. In practically a single step, he had advanced from a complete beginner to being the best table tennis player in the country.

Jimmy's first US championship was no fluke. His slight build, extraordinary coordination and lightning quickness were ideal for the sport. Up until the time World War II interrupted his career, Jimmy won no less than six additional major championships. He was a legitimate superstar.

To top it all off, in 1937, Jimmy was selected for the US Swaythling Cup team. The Swaythling Cup is roughly the table tennis equivalent of golf’s Davis Cup, given to the world championship team each year. With Jimmy as its anchor and best player, that 1937 team won the United States' first and only Swaythling cup.

As with so many other athletes of the era, World War II put an end to the fun. Jimmy put his career on hold and enlisted in the Navy, serving as a radioman in the South Pacific.

When the war was over, 29-year old McClure resumed his career. Aging by table tennis standards, Jimmy competed for ten more years, winning his final championship in 1956. By the end of his playing career, Jimmy had six national titles and five world championships to his credit. Without the war, there would certainly have been more.

Once settled back home after the war, McClure opened a sports and trophy shop, and then looked back to that seminal year of 1932. That was not only the year he first played table tennis, but it was also the year his uncle, James Hodgson, introduced him to the Masonic fraternity. At his uncle's suggestion, Jimmy joined Indianapolis Chapter, Order of DeMolay, where he eventually served as Master Councilor.

After WWII, given his positive experience in DeMolay, he decided to join the Masons. Together with his father he joined Oriental Lodge #500, the Indianapolis Scottish Rite and Murat Shrine. In 1966, he became Oriental’s Worshipful Master.

After his playing career was over, Brother Jimmy served as a sports administrator at the highest levels, including the board of directors of the US Olympic Committee, where he single-handedly mounted a successful campaign to distribute the money equally among large and small sports

Jimmy passed away in February, 2005. He remains the only United States player in the Table Tennis Hall of Fame.

The years Brother Jimmy McClure spent traveling the world representing the US Olympic Committee, his country and, indeed, Masonry, earned respect all around the globe. He is recognized throughout the world for his efforts on behalf of sports, but remains relatively unknown in his own country. Still, for those who know table tennis, his legacy remains intact as the United States' greatest player.

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