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The man with the gunfighter's gray-green eyes, the banker's head of silver hair and the sharp silk threads was insistent. "Watching a billiard game," he said, squinting into the pool of light on the green table before him, "is like going to a wake. Billiards lack the color, the character, the glamour of baseball and football. We need young men." The place was a flyblown ex-supermarket in Burbank, Calif., the occasion the World's Invitational Pocket Billiards Championship and the man was William Joseph Mosconi. He was only partly right.
The game also needed Willie Mosconi, and it got him, in that tournament, with all of his old skills intact. At the age of 52 and after a 10-year absence from the tables, the once and probable future king of straight pool was deadly. Arrayed against him were some of the best sticks in the country: Joe Balsis, the 1965 Billiard Room Proprietors champion from Minersville, Pa.; Cicero Murphy from Brooklyn: Johnny Ervolino, another Brooklynite; Jack Breit, the Houstonian who is called Red Raider; William (Weenie Beenie) Staton out of Alexandria, Va.: Harold Worst, the tall Grand Rapids stylist; Eddie Taylor (The Bear) from Knoxville, Tenn.; ageless Onofrio Lauri from New York; the hulking Jimmy Moore from Albuquerque and the oldtimer, Irving (Deacon) Crane. Mosconi put together the 56-inch cue he has owned for 20 years and began shooting them down—click, click, click. He won eight consecutive games before losing for the first time (to Murphy). In the end Balsis narrowly defeated him for the championship, but by then Mosconi had stamped himself as the best gloom-chaser and wake-breaker to come along since he came along the last time.
Mosconi had spectators standing in the aisles in a building scarcely worthy of its name, the House of Champions. The pool tables rested on a drab carpet, and the crowd watched from garish blue bleachers. A blonde in black velvet pants and sneakers padded up and down through the stands hawking beer to the customers. Overhead the lookout booth once used by the market manager gave the place the feel of a speakeasy, and sheets of green plastic, masking the ceiling lights, swayed dismally.
No matter. When Mosconi played, the crowd ignored the d�cor. With an actor's presence, he arrived for each game precisely 15 minutes beforehand, warmed up crisply and began play in the cool, rhythmic style for which he was famous in the almost forgotten days when he and the man he most admired, Ralph Greenleaf, played memo � memo on transcontinental tours.
Mosconi quit tournament pool in 1956 after suffering a severe stroke. After his recovery, he became a kind of goodwill ambassador for pool for the Brunswick people. He was a technical consultant on the film The Hustler, which sent a new generation of young Americans into the pool halls and into the supply houses to clean the racks of pro-style two-piece cues.
Mosconi says he has never been a hustler himself. Except once, he reflected last week, when the New York restaurateur Toots Shor persuaded him to pull a little con on Jackie Gleason (who was later to be a star of The Hustler). Posing as a Philadelphia dress manufacturer named Shuman, Mosconi gulled Gleason out of $100 in their first game and in the second ran 75 balls right-handed and then 75 left-handed to flatten Jackie's ego as well as his wallet.
This was the Mosconi who held the world pocket billiards title every year but two from 1941 to 1956, the Mosconi who, as a child, had sharpened his shooting eye by cueing potatoes with a broomstick when his father temporarily ruled out the real thing.
Why had he come back to competition? "I had a gnawing ambition," he said, "to show these people that I am still the champion. I've been a fighter all my life. This is my game. I had to take a shot at it."