Other players have other opinions. Joe Balsis said bluntly, "The equipment is the same for everybody." Another tournament player went further. "Crane's making excuses for all his past losses," he said, "and for all his future ones, too."
A few retain a strange affection for Crane. Lou (Machine Gun) Butera said, "Three years ago if you told me anything bad about the guy I would have jumped up to defend him. But in the last three years he's gotten so he can't stand to lose. I don't like it the way he talks about people, running them down. But he's helped me. I used to get upset when I lost. At the world tournament in 1966 Crane told me to play the game, don't play the opponent. So the next game I play, it's against him. I cut his heart out. He wouldn't speak to me for nine days. Then when he does say something he says, 'I thought you were lucky to beat me, but I've been watching you and you're a good player.' He's a strange duck, but deep down inside I think he's a decent guy."
In spite of Crane's agonizing, he still can say, "I've got some money—not a lot, but some—for the first time in my life, but if I had to make a choice between selling cars and playing pool, I'd choose pool. The only time I've ever been really happy is when I was at a pool table."
Happiness is compounded by victory, and Crane has won often enough over the past three decades to be considered by some the third-best tournament player in modern history. Pool's nonpareil was Ralph Greenleaf, who enjoyed most of his success during the 1920s. Greenleaf was a tempestuous man who would not play sober because he was too nervous and could not play drunk because he was too mean. He compromised, won 16 world titles (the last against Crane in 1937), and died at midcentury at the age of 50. The second was Willie Mosconi, the Boy Wonder from Philadelphia who was giving exhibitions at 7, played in his first world tournament in 1933 at the age of 20 and ruthlessly dominated the sport for the next 24 years. Therein lies the cause of much of Crane's bitterness. He and Mosconi are almost the same age and for decades fought each other for pool's top honors. Mosconi usually won, though Crane is loath to admit it. All Crane's efforts did little more than secure Mosconi's place in the sport's history.
Crane is doggedly colorless in his quest for perfection. He has neither the rumpled flair of Luther Lassiter, the pleasing exuberance of Joe Balsis, the youthful (but irritating) enthusiasm of Steve Mizerak nor the arrogance of Petey Margo. He walks around the table with the air of a man sorely in need of a smoke (he gave up a two-packs-a-day habit cold in 1951) or a Baptist preacher about to fall off the wagon. Crane says, "I like to play best when my hands are shaking just a little bit." If the game is not going especially well he will mutter, "It's brutal, it's brutal," but one has to be a lip-reader to hear him. Beyond that, the only expression he allows himself is an occasional slightly churlish grin.
He rarely breaks off a spectacular shot—not because he cannot make them, but because he rarely has the opportunity. At Crane's level of play, pocketing the object ball is the least of one's worries. What is important is knowing what shot to take to best continue the run, how to break up clusters and remove annoying balls near the rail that may cause future problems and, finally and most important of all, positioning the cue ball. Keeping whitey—the cue ball—on a string involves the application of spins (draw, follow, reverse English and such) to the ball with a 57-inch, 20-ounce custom-made cue stick that may cost $200, plus an acute awareness of the resiliency of the bumpers and the speed of the cloth.
"The good player is not the player who makes the tough shot," says Mosconi. "It's the guy who makes a lot of easy ones, because he's placing the cue ball in such a way that he's making every shot easy. And that's what Crane does best." He does it so well, in fact, that in the areas of position play and safety play—the latter meaning those occasions when a player must shoot not to pocket balls but rather to be sure the opponent is not left with an open shot—Crane has been called the best ever.
Crane won his first world title in a challenge match against Erwin Rudolph in 1942, and his second in an eight-man tournament in Philadelphia in 1946, defeating Andrew Ponzi 125-97 in the final match. But during the '40s and '50s Mosconi was winning everything that Crane wasn't, which was considerable—15 world titles before a stroke hastened Mosconi's retirement in 1957.
Mosconi refuses to say he was the better player but agrees that he was the bane of Crane's existence. "I think one reason I had more success against Irv was that right from the beginning I was a more daring player," Mosconi said. "If I thought I had a pretty good chance of making a shot, I'd just step up there and shoot the darned thing, but Irv would weigh the possibilities of what would happen if he missed. I never gave a thought to that. He's always been able to stand up pretty well in the tournament matches, but when he came head to head, at least in my own experience with him, it seemed he couldn't maintain the pace, couldn't run a lot of balls, especially if the match were a long one. Crane is very conservative. He wouldn't take that tough shot and that's what cost him a lot of games."
They met, the blitzkrieg vs. the Maginot Line, for the last time in round-robin world tournament play in 1955. The duel became a classic. Crane needed a victory to tie Mosconi for first place, but when Crane came to the table after Mosconi missed in the 150-point game, he trailed by 146-23. Sweating profusely, Crane methodically pocketed the balls and, after breaking the final rack, he needed but eight balls to win, all of which were open. "You can bet I was nervous and wringing wet," said Crane. "I took 30 strokes on each one of those shots, and when the last one went in it was the happiest I've ever been." In the playoff Crane and Mosconi jousted through 21 innings of safety play before Crane got the upper hand and won 150-87. That was world title No. 3, but Crane had to wait 13 years for his fourth, and even then it was anything but easy. Again, in the last game of round-robin play, Crane needed a victory to tie for first place, this time with Luther Lassiter, the defending champion and four-time winner. Lassiter opened with a run of 84 and at one point led 94-0. Crane did not give up, however, and won that game 150-98; after a 20-minute break he returned to the table and beat Lassiter in the playoff 150-24. The match ended at 5:13 in the morning, which in itself tells a great deal about the pressures of tournament pool.