KINGS (AND QUEENS) OF THE RING
Early Days of the US National Marbles Tournament
By Stan Flewelling
Not many people today have heard of the US National Marbles Tournament. Not much is written about it anymore. Sometimes it pops up as a feature in a kids’ magazine or TV show. A handful of newspapers run back-page stories about the finals in June each year. But playing marbles these days usually comes off as something cute and quaint – and obsolete. For all the enthusiasm that spins around marble collecting in our time, there’s just a small core of fans who still play the game and pass it on to new generations. It wasn’t always so.
The National Marbles Tournament is probably the oldest surviving nationwide contest for kids. It was wildly popular years before juvenile favorites like Little League, the Soap Box Derby, or the National Spelling Bee ever got going. From the start, the national tournament was open to any kid that fit its age limits, without gender restrictions (though marbles was generally considered a boys’ game) or color barriers. It was integrated a quarter-century before Jackie Robinson’s famous debut with the Dodgers. In 1929, one New Jersey official praised the role of his Chamber of Commerce in the tourney by assuring them, “There is no convention that I know of, outside of possibly the great national political conventions, that attracts so much attention and so much publicity as does this tournament.”
Today, even most marble enthusiasts know little about this heritage. Whatever they do know is often cloaked in myth and misinformation. In its heyday, the tournament inspired massive amounts of prose in the form of newspaper copy. That literature is still around, but hard to reach, buried in microfilm in countless libraries (and increasingly, online news archives). Unlike the flood of collectors’ information now giving attention and publicity to the objects of the game, the focus in those days was on the players – the “regular” kids from all walks of life who, through their marble-shooting skills, became heroes to children and adults alike.
Marbles, after all, are toys – some of the oldest and simplest ones known to humankind. And toys are the tools of childhood. Popular around the world in one form or another since ancient times, marble games were always the domain of children – “a game so simple that it can be played by any[one], yet so skillful that no adult ever yet has been able to win consistently, if at all, from a player half his age,” claimed one writer nearly 100 years ago. (Rolley Hole fans in Tennessee and Kentucky have good reason to argue with that writer today.) Mature sports like golf, bowling, and billiards evolved from marbles, not the other way around.
Marble lore claims that spheroid toys were almost universal playthings for generations of American youth. Native Americans played marble games for ages, as did people of all backgrounds who migrated to the New World. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln – they all played marbles. Didn’t Tom Sawyer play marbles? Anyone could play, since a budget of pennies would buy all the supplies you’d need, which could easily be carried around in pockets or clacking draw-string sacks. Any fairly flat piece of dirt or pavement would do for play space. Kids everywhere thought up dozens of different marble games, with “rules” that often varied from neighborhood to neighborhood. Even the word “marbles” had regional variants (mibs, migs, megs, nibs, dobes, dawbs, ducks, taws, tors, hoodles...), layered by nicknames for marbles made from assorted materials (aggies, glassies, steelies, chinies, commies...).
But marble games also had a mixed reputation at the turn of the 20th century. Kids usually played “for keeps,” meaning a winner’s prize was the right to cop the mibs he or she had won and take them home. It was gambling, plain and simple, and in the prevailing atmosphere of reform – which had brought issues like abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and child labor before the public – gambling was a sure road to ruin. Concerned parents and educators tried to discourage marbles, or at least see that the games stayed safe and fun for everyone.
Several urban playground directors around the country organized marble tournaments in the early 1900s. They stressed sportsmanship and the honor of winning – or losing – with no more reward than a cheer, a pat on the back, and maybe a modest trophy.
Then in 1922, the Jersey City (NJ) Commissioner of Parks, A. Harry Moore, was inspired to turn his town’s local playground tournaments into a series of playoffs for a city-wide championship. (Four years later, Moore was elected governor of New Jersey.) The winner was a burly, street-wise kid named Charles “Buster” Rech who claimed to be 14 years old. (Census records show he was actually 16.) Probably inspired by an epic boxing match recently staged in Jersey City starring heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, Buster and Commissioner Moore wasted no time daring anyone else “in the universal earth” to come and try to beat him.
Washington, DC took the challenge. Politicians around town, including President Harding, expressed interest in the contest, as did the news media. Park directors scrambled to organize District playoffs. A few weeks later, 14-year-old Mike Troiano emerged as the DC winner and was escorted to Union Station, where he and a reporter boarded a train for the big showdown in Jersey City.
A crowd of some 10,000 fans, a 50-piece brass band, 40 news reporters, and several movie cameras flocked to Pershing Field on May 13, and Buster Rech won hands down (but not “knuckles-down” – his skill was lofting his shooter from hip or knee level). His ecstatic sponsors now declared Buster the world’s first and only marble champion. They evidently didn’t know about the centuries-old British marble championship tradition in Tinsley Green.
Meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia, PA was running its own city-wide tournament, involving thousands of kids in playoff games. Before their own winner was even decided, Philly organizers invited other municipal champions to join them in an “inter-city match.” (Contrary to common folklore, Macy’s Department Store had nothing to do with it.)
This challenge was picked up by three other cities: New York City, Baltimore, MD, and Newark, NJ. The first two ran municipal contests of their own. Newark’s mayor, however, simply put out a call for a boy to represent the town in the inter-city match. No one stepped forward. Then a spunky 17-year-old girl named Margerie Ruth – known as “Babe” to her sports-loving friends – wrote a letter to the mayor, bidding for the honor. Once the surprised city fathers could verify her shooting skills, Babe Ruth was sent off to Philadelphia with their blessings.
Next-door in Jersey City, Buster Rech and his mentors scorned the inter-city contest. He was already the world champion, they insisted, and all challengers should meet him on his own turf. They wouldn’t budge, so on Saturday, May 20, 1922, the Philadelphia tournament got underway at City Hall Plaza without him. In a round-robin series of duels, an unflappable 12 year-old from Baltimore, Frank McQuade Jr., edged out Philadelphia’s William “Red” Stoddart for the victory. (With apologies to writer Paul Dickson and many others, the exalted McQuade “half-marble shot” of marble mythology never happened!) Babe Ruth was a distant 3rd and New York’s hapless Nicky Markoff last.
Snubbing Jersey City, they christened Frank McQuade the “national champion,” which kept the feud going between his Baltimore boosters and Buster Rech’s crowd. The two champs threw some friendly barbs at each other through the press, but never scrapped. Meanwhile that spring and summer, marble championships became all the rage. Several more towns held their own playoffs, and winners were plugged like prizefighters.
The contests were fun, but the bragging got more and more out of hand. For one thing, different games prevailed in different cities. Home towns decided which game would be used in their own tournaments, unleashing arguments about which game was superior. Buster Rech, for instance, specialized in “Fats,” a warlike game full of risk and drama; Frankie McQuade’s strength was “Ringer,” considered a “scientific” game of skill and strategy.
A solution to all the chaos finally came from a news organization. Editors of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain met for a conference, and one item they discussed was how a national marble shooting championship could be settled. They decided to sponsor a truly national tournament in 1923, inviting winners from contests all over the United States to participate. Any boy or girl could enter, but none could be older than 14. The official tournament game would be Ringer. Qualifying tournaments would be sponsored by Scripps-Howard newspapers, or other papers, or city recreation departments. Sponsors would pay the way for their champs (and adult chaperones) to get to the national championship site, which would be the spectacular seashore amusement center of Atlantic City, New Jersey – “America’s Playground” – the Disney World of its day.
From the outset, the national playoffs idea was a hit. 40 cities signed up by the spring deadline, including eight from Pacific Coast states. Each sponsor began to recruit participants, usually through newspaper ads and articles. Thousands of kids in each town responded. Hoping to improve on his 1922 Inter-city Champion title, Frankie McQuade entered, excelled, and then lost to another boy in the Baltimore city finals. Throughout the spring of 1923, as other local champs emerged, reports and photos beamed out through news wires to the entire country. The excitement snowballed – which, of course, was noted and exploited by each sponsoring paper. Nothing of this scope had ever been offered to the nation’s youth before.
By late June, 1923, 40 city champs, all boys, were en route to their Washington, DC rendezvous point with parents or older siblings, plus reporters in tow. They came from many backgrounds, cultures, social classes. Two were African-American (New York & Chicago), two Hispanic (Los Angeles & San Francisco), several Jewish, or orphans, or the sons of recent immigrants. Most of them traveled by train, some for the first time in their lives. West Coast contenders rode cross-country for four continuous days and nights, practicing their game in the aisles of the cars.
On Sunday, June 24, after a whirlwind tour of the nation’s capital, the entire party boarded another train to Atlantic City. They were received like royalty, and then dispersed to several of the finest resort hotels around. Whenever they ventured out to eat or to try the hundreds of amusement arcades made freely available to them, they were celebrities. Tourists from “back home” stopped them on the boardwalk, expressing congratulations and encouragement, offering shooting tips, begging autographs, slipping cash gifts into their hands.
The single-elimination competition began on Tuesday at the beach, where five dirt rings had been compressed and smoothed into octagonal forms. After two days of playoffs, regional champs from five cities reigned: Allentown, PA, Columbus, OH, St. Louis, MO, Ft. Worth, TX, and Tacoma, WA. After Thursday’s semi-finals, two contenders were left: Harlin McCoy (14) from Columbus, and Sammy Schneider (11) from St. Louis. One of the youngest, shortest (at an even 4 feet), and most gregarious boys in the tourney, Schneider was a crowd favorite. His parents ran a department store at home. McCoy, the son of a railroad switchman, was known in his neighborhood for a whole medley of traits: “school sports hero,” “regular fellow,” “100 per cent American boy.”
In the dramatic finals played out before some 5000 spectators, Harlin triumphed. His calm consistency seemed to rattle the younger boy, and Sammy’s sharpshooting fell apart. Once it was all over, fans rushed the champ and hoisted him on their shoulders, chanting “He’s the King! He’s the King!” Nearly lost in the crowd, Sammy wept. Pulling himself together, he squirmed through the mob and shook the victor’s hand – a show of sportsmanship the organizers loved to see. But despite their efforts to promote fair play and prevent gambling by the participants, bets totaling thousand of dollars were reportedly passed between grownup hands in the crowd.
All of Columbus celebrated. When Harlin McCoy’s train pulled into town a few days later, some 10,000 citizens greeted the hero. He was entertained every day for two weeks. “Columbus is the home of monarchs,” claimed the local paper. The previous September, a Columbus teenager, Katherine Campbell, had been crowned the national “Queen of Beauty” in Atlantic City. She was only the second young woman to win that title, the first since it had been opened to candidates around the nation. She won again in 1923, and in time the contest became better known as the “Miss America Pageant.”
|THE MARBLES CHAMPION|
What with beauty contests, dancing, flying and prize-ring contests we’re pretty well supplied just now with champions of all classes, sexes and nationalities. Yet we have plenty of room to accept one more, a boy of fourteen, into the Hall of Fame. Harlin McCoy, of Columbus, Ohio, has won the national marbles tournament at Atlantic City, and is hailed as the first marble shooter of the land.
|Editorial Alden (Iowa) Times July 12, 1923|
The 1924 National Marbles Tournament was even bigger. More than half a million kids took part in local playoffs. Eventually, 54 regional champions converged on Atlantic City, including several from New England, upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia (none of which were represented the first year). The reigning champ, Harlin McCoy, was brought back to crown the new winner, a tradition that holds to this day.
The single-elimination element was replaced by round-robin playoffs in six separate leagues. Once all the dust had settled, victory went to dark horse George Lenox (14), from Catonsville, MD (near Baltimore), who edged out record-setting marble wizard Tommy Wright (14), from Chicopee, MA (near Springfield).
Still growing, the 1925 tournament hosted 64 champions. One of them, Marie Lawley (13, Harrisburg, PA), was the first girl ever to win a city championship. Throughout the contest, Marie cheerfully endured a barrage of doting media attention and teasing from the mostly-male crowd. Nearly all subsequent National Marbles Tournaments included one or more girl champions, and no boy wanted to lose to them. (Separate girls’ and boys’ national titles were finally created in 1948.)
In what was billed as a “Blue-Gray final,” Howard “Dutch” Robbins (13, Springfield, MA) overcame Thomas Raley (13, Owensboro, KY) – and a severe case of homesickness – to take it all. Dutch was welcomed home by a crowd of 35,000 and the biggest parade in Springfield history. His victory anchored what could be called the first marbles “dynasty.” Between 1924 and 1927, a boy from the Springfield area was in the finals every year, and the town produced another national champion in 1934 (and again in 1963).
By 1926, some 3 million kids – as many as now participate worldwide in Little League Baseball each year – were said to be vying for the national championship. Early 1926 media attention focused on Chinese American Francis Kau, the Hawaiian champ, whose passage to Atlantic City was by ocean steamer and cross-country train. Sponsored by the Honolulu Rotary Club, Francis was hosted by Rotarians in San Francisco and Chicago, and taken to meet President Coolidge in Washington en route to New Jersey.
In another Blue-Gray final that year, a coal miner’s son from Muhlenberg County, KY beat Springfield’s Danny Gore. At age 11, Willis Harper was the youngest national champ to date, a record that stood for over 25 years. No marbles champ has ever hailed from a smaller hometown: unincorporated Bevier was so tiny, it was absorbed by the neighboring town of Cleaton (pop. 300) and no longer appears on most maps. Two weeks before Willis’ victory, a Kentucky girl living just 50 miles from Bevier won the 2nd National Spelling Bee, its first female champion. Pauline Bell (13) attended a one-room schoolhouse back home.
In 1927, Teddy Walag (14, Ludlow, MA) was beaten by little Joe Medvidovich (13, Clairton, PA, near Pittsburgh). The champ’s Croatian parents ran a pool hall, where “Gypsy Joe” had spent long winter evenings pegging shots at marbles he arranged on top of a pool table. In 1928, Alfred Huey (12, Kenmore, OH, now part of Akron) burst into tears when he beat Dominic Cartelli (12, New Britain, CT). Adult champions also cry in the joy and relief of victory, and Al had never been more than 30 miles away from home before. The runner-up was a 3-year veteran of the tourney whose Italian family had moved to America just 8 years earlier.
OCEAN CITY TO WILDWOOD
In 1929 the National Marbles Tournament took a new turn. After a three-year promotional campaign, Ocean City, NJ (just south of Atlantic City) was picked from more than a dozen candidates as the new host town of the tournament. For “America’s Greatest Family Resort,” it was considered a huge publicity coup. Ocean City was the tourney’s home for eight years.
Charles “Sonny” Albany (12) took the 1929 crown for Philadelphia, PA, where the 4-way inter-city match had once taken place. For the first time ever, the finals were broadcast live to the nation, with the legendary Graham McNamee giving the commentary. McNamee was already radio’s most famous voice and known as “the father of play-by-play sports broadcasting,” He later wrote, “After taking in the [biggest national championships and conventions], a marble tournament gave me just about the biggest thrill of my career.”
|THE UNEXPECTED THRILL
By Graham McNamee
I suppose a radio announcer sees about as many exciting events of all kinds as anybody in the world. A sports writer takes in sports, and a political writer politics, but the radio kibitzer is not limited to any one field. I have had my share of orchestra seats at the big national shows – world series, football championships, national conventions, derbies, rowing races, tunnel openings, boxing championships and all the rest of it, and, stacking them all up together I have a confession to make. Don’t shoot, but I am here to say that after taking in such big doings as the above, a marble tournament gave me just about the biggest thrill of my career.
July 21, 1929
In 1930, another Columbus, OH boy, Jimmy Lee (14), was victorious. His bonus prize was an extensive ocean cruise from New York to Los Angeles via the Panama Canal. 1931 saw the first ever finals between champs from the same state when John Jeffries (12, Greenville, KY) beat Harley Corum (12, Louisville). The next year, Harley fought to the finals again and won – the first national runner-up to do so. That achievement has often been matched since then. The two Kentuckians also brought home the first consecutive victories for the same state.
New changes in 1933 were designed to make the booming tournament more inclusive – and also cut down on long distance travel expenses in hard times. While Eastern states competed in Ocean City, a separate Western regional meet was held at Soldier Field in Chicago during the Century of Progress International Exposition. The winner was then flown to New Jersey to meet his Eastern counterpart in Ocean City. Passenger aviation service was still in its infancy. A year later there were three regional bouts, and by the early 1940s, the tourney had expanded to six (North, East, Central, West, South, and Midwest) in five separate locations around the country. Regional champs were always brought to the New Jersey coast for the national finals.
A boy from Throop, PA, Aaron Butash, won in 1933, launching a new “dynasty.” Kids from Throop, a small coal mining town near Scranton, won national championships twice more (1935, 1938) and runner-up honors twice (1937, 1941) before World War II erupted. Their Scranton partners also excelled (1938 runner-up, 1941 champ). The first ever African American champion was Leonard “Bobby” Tyner (Chicago, IL), an orphan whose 1936 victory over a boy from Birmingham, AL was celebrated in the Black press.
Wildwood, NJ became the official host city from 1937 to 1948. The first Wildwood champion, Bill Kloss from Canton, OH, was congratulated by, among others, Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer. The next spring Bill was featured in Life, the iconic news photography magazine. Subsequent early Wildwood champs hailed from Throop (1938), Landenburg, PA (1939), East Point, KY (1940), Scranton (1941), and Huntington, WV (1942). Due to the war, tournament play was canceled entirely in 1944 and 1945, and considerably trimmed tournaments went inland to Cleveland, OH in 1943 and 1946. Those two bouts were won by Pittsburgh brothers Richard and Raymond Ryabik – the first pair of siblings to earn championships. Many more have followed.
Another Pittsburgher, Ben Sklar, won in 1947 and was featured in both Time and Life magazines. The 1948 title went to Herbert Turman (Beloit, WI), the tourney’s first Native American champ. He shared honors with Jean Smedley (Philadelphia, PA), the first officially recognized Girls’ National Champion (who earned the best record of the 5 girls who participated). Jean had previously competed in 1947.
The 1949 boy “king” was Huntington’s George Wentz. “Queen” Emma Miller (Canton, OH), was Amish. In keeping with her community traditions, she wore a modest smock and head-covering throughout the competition, and then held her crown rather than having it placed on her head. 65 years later, Emma was still giving marble demonstrations at public festivals in Ohio.
Asbury Park, NJ became the tournament home for 11 years starting in 1949. It returned to Wildwood in 1960, where it remains today. (There was a one-time 1976 Bicentennial Year stint at Great Adventure Park in Jackson, NJ.) The National Marbles Hall of Fame, dedicated in 1993, is in Wildwood.
Alternatives to the established National Marbles Tournament were organized over the years. In the late 1930s, glass marble mogul Berry Pink sponsored city tournaments around the country. Known as the “Marble King,” Pink’s triumph was to culminate his many local contests into one huge national playoff during the second year of the New York World’s Fair (1940). Over 150 of the nation’s local champions competed on the Academy of Sports grounds at the fair. Sharpshooter Douglas Opperman (14) from Pittsburgh, PA won the coveted Marble King National Tournament trophy.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) organization also sponsored a separate annual marbles tournament of its own between 1947 and 1962. The first VFW Nationals were held at Father Flanagan’s famous Boys Town, near Omaha, Nebraska. The host city changed each year thereafter, and VFW tourney organizers strived to involve champions from every part of the country (and some US military installations overseas). But overall participation never rivaled the early popularity of the long-established National Marbles Tournament. Several local VFW tourneys continued for a few years, and some of the local VFW champs entered the Wildwood Nationals.
Wide participation in the National Marbles Tournament recovered for a while after its wartime hiatus, but wavered in the mid-1950s. The plunge was usually blamed on the rise of TV and other new childhood fads. Smaller circles of “mibsters” still huddled around the game, especially in Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian towns where adult enthusiasts took time to coach youngsters in marbles’ arts.
By the 1970s, rude eulogies were being written for the game and the tourney. Death knells were premature, but the game had to struggle for respect. What made the difference, ultimately, were tournament alumni who stayed active in the game. Instead of deserting marbles at age 15, several former champs turned to coaching young players, and usually with great success.
New championship “dynasties” emerged from West Virginia (Huntington, Beckley), New York (Yonkers), Maryland (Cumberland, Frederick), and Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Reading, & Delaware County). Over the decades, no place has produced more National Marbles Tournament champions than Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, PA. The newer Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center (a Smithsonian affiliate) celebrates this heritage.
Champs from Kentucky, Tennessee, and New Jersey returned to Wildwood as regulars, joining perennial competitors from MD, PA, and WV. New states and regions have sometimes participated, but few stay involved for long. An exception has been Colorado (Gunnison & Mesa Counties), which has sent local champs to Wildwood since the late 1990s – a remarkable record, considering the expense of the trip and complexity of finding civic support. The 2000 Boys’ National Champion, Andrew Martinez (Grand Junction, CO), was the first one of Hispanic ancestry – and the first ever from anyplace west of the Mississippi River. Several more Colorado triumphs have followed.
US teams of former national champs flew to England several times in recent decades for the annual Good Friday World Championships at Tinsley Green. They were always serious contenders and drew wide media attention. And since 1994, the annual “US Marbles Championship” has involved adult marbles enthusiasts and past national champs (who are no longer eligible to compete in the Nationals, regardless of their age). The current boom in marble collecting has also kept interest in the game alive.
Whatever the future of the tournament, memories and records of its past impact on the nation’s kids are intact. For a while, participation in the National Marbles Tournament was, as one newspaper put it in 1925, “the highest honor possible in the sporting world of [youth].” That will never hold true again, but there are signs of lasting life in this venerable tourney.
The 2009 girls champion, Whitney Lapic (Berks Co., PA) was the first child of a former national champ (Debra Stanley, 1973) to win. Since her own 1972 debut as the Reading, PA girls contestant, Debra has also coached multiple national champions, served on the tournament board of directors, and attended every subsequent National Marbles Tournament – historically, half of them. And a fourth generation of Pittsburgh’s Lease-Ricci family is now continuing their tradition of coaching marbles champs. Several younger family members have earned national honors.
In 1986 Giang Duong (Upper Darby, PA) was the first Asian American national champ. His younger brother won the 1994 crown. The families of several recent finalists come from North African and Middle Eastern roots. As in its beginnings, the National Marbles Tournament may find fresh energy and enthusiasm in the children of immigrants who hail from different parts of the world where marbles games are still extremely popular.
[Periodicals:]American Boy (1922); American City (1922); Life (1938, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1950); Playground (1922, 1923); Time (1947)
[Newspapers]: Akron Times-Press; Atlantic City Daily Press; Baltimore Daily Post; Baltimore Sun; Chicago Defender; Cleveland Press; Columbus Citizen; Harrisburg Evening Telegraph; New York Times; Ocean City (NJ) Sentinel-Ledger; Owensboro (KY) Inquirer; Philadelphia Evening Bulletin; Philadelphia Inquirer; Pittsburgh Press; Pittsburgh Courier; St. Louis Star; Scranton Times; Seattle Star; Springfield (MA) Union and Republican; Tacoma Times; Washington (DC) Daily News; Wildwood Leader; online newspaper resources of the Library of Congress and Fultonhistory.com.
[Other]: National Marbles Tournament Committee; National Marbles Hall of Fame (Wildwood, NJ); Bert Cohen Collection (late of Boston, MA).
Free-lance writer Stan Flewelling has been researching the early story of the US National Marbles Tournament for many years. His home is in New England. Stan welcomes your feedback and any information you might have about early marbles champions and runners-up.
Click here to contact Stan