On the final day of the World's Pocket Billiard Tournament in New York a week ago, Luther Lassiter had breakfast in bed and then walked west on 42nd Street to the Hudson River. He had been down to the Hudson earlier in the week to see a friend off to Europe and now, in the misty morning hours of a lonely Sunday, the river seemed a likely place to relax and take the air.
Lassiter had fared poorly the first six days of the week-long championship event. Fighting a balky sinus that made him gasp instead of breathe, the defending champion played listlessly, lost three matches and was all but mathematically eliminated on Saturday. "Everybody saw it. I played the worst pool of my life," he said. "I had to get off alone and have a li'l talk with myself. Pool players talk to themselves, you know."
Somewhere between the Lincoln Tunnel and Pier 84, Lassiter broke into a cold sweat and, for the first time in a week, began breathing with his mouth shut. There was a crisp breeze off the river—fresh and invigorating like the country air of his native Elizabeth City, N.C., he said later—and Lassiter filled his lungs with oxygen as if it were going out of style. "Lawdie," he explained, "my head cleared mightily and my nose began running like Niagara Falls. Ah, sir, there is nothing like nature."
During that afternoon and evening, in a crowded, smoky ballroom of the Hotel Commodore, clear-headed Luther Clement Lassiter made a rousing comeback to keep his world straight-pool title. To do it he had to first beat front-running Art Cranfield, a former national amateur champion from Syracuse, N.Y., and then three-time former world titleholder Irving Crane, of Rochester, N.Y., thus forcing a playoff. That accomplished, he swished his cue stick through the ever-thickening smog that was glooming up the entire scene, arched his aching shoulders, ignored the blaze of network TV lights and beat Cranfield 150-43 in an 11-inning showdown for the title and the $3,000 first prize.
Never before has an athlete credited a whiff of the Hudson River with saving a championship, but Luther Lassiter is not an ordinary athlete. He is a lean, handsome man with a shock of curly gray hair, a soft smile, impish blue eyes and expressive face. He likes to laugh and laughs a lot, especially at himself. New York Fats (Rudolf Wanderone, of Dowell, Ill.), the peerless pool hustler, also is a good storyteller, and one of his best is about a young Luther Lassiter.
"There was this tomato from Norfolk," says Fat Man, "and she had the sweets real bad for Wimpy [ Lassiter's name among the hustlers], and Wimpy had weak knees for this dolly, too. They would sit in a corner for hours, like a pair of lovebirds, and then it would happen, I tell you, it would always happen.
"Wimpy would come running over with his mouth covered up and say, 'Fat Man, I got the swolls.' I'd look at the kid and his lips would be all puffed out. At first, I thought it was from wiping off lipstick, but Wimpy wasn't the kind of boy to smooch much. Back then if he was to bump into Elizabeth Taylor in a bikini he might recite the Declaration of Independence or Invictus, or something like that. I'd have to say he was more Little Lord Fauntleroy than Errol Flynn.
"The way women affected him was unbelievable, and it wasn't only this tomato from Norfolk. If any tomato put the sweet eyes on Wimpy he weighed in with the swolls. There was nothing he could do about it, so finally he just had to give up on the tomatoes."
Now 45, with a gracious, courtly, Old South manner and a quiet, disarming charm that women find appealing, Lassiter remains a bachelor. "I'm in love with pool," he says. "It's been my life for 32 years. I never had a job. I've just been a pool player and I tell you, sir, it's been a lonely life. But it's my profession and, as its champion, I hope to make some money at it."
Lassiter, probably the finest straight-pool player alive, spoke with hope, but not a hope born of experience. He has finished on top in four world championships, winning at Philadelphia in 1954, Brooklyn in 1957 and at the Billiard Room Proprietors Association of America events in New York the past two years. Yet not until this year did the Billiard Congress of America, the letterhead society that governs legitimate pool, recognize even one of Lassiter's titles.