Irving Crane, who is one of the best straight pocket billiards players in the world, could be the now slightly aged prototype of the original 97-pound weakling. A friend once gave him a playful bear hug and cracked a rib, and Crane himself says, "I must be made of tissue paper." His once-brown hair has long since turned to a slightly frazzled, anemic gray. His dress tends toward the rigidly conservative—gray hats, gray overcoats, expensive but colorless suits and sports coats. Despite his status, there is no electric anticipation before he enters a parlor; after he leaves there are few regrets. He is a shadow in a darkened room.
In fact, at the age of 55, when most first-rate athletes spend idle hours regaling their grandchildren with apocryphal stories of their halcyon days and otherwise rest on laurels won long ago, Crane probably is better known in his home town of Rochester, N.Y. as a car salesman (Cadillacs) than as a master with few historical peers in the demanding world of pocket billiards. He has won four world titles, the last in 1968, and scores of lesser ones in a 32-year career. Recently—in Rochester, no less—Crane was passed over for a seat at the head table at the annual Hickock Belt awards dinner in favor of a local horseshoe player and he has yet to be accepted into Rochester's own sports Wall of Fame.
This lack of recognition is due in part to the fact that his sport has never enjoyed wide public acceptance. Its ranks have been split since the game was invented, in the time of Anthony and Cleopatra if you believe Shakespeare or in the 14th century if you believe Frank G. Menke's Encyclopedia of Sports. On one side are the colorful hustlers with names like Harry the Horse and Little Augie and personalities to match, who say that some tournament players tend to choke when there is money on the line, especially their own. On the other side, the tournament players contend that the only true test of ability is round-robin competition or a 1,500-point match game. Though tournament players—Crane especially—do not like to be called pool players at all but rather "professional pocket billiards exhibitionists," there is often more money in sight in the back room of a pool tournament than there is in the tournament pot.
The nature of the game also offers itself far more to personal participation than public spectating. Unlike most other sports, straight pool does not produce a direct confrontation between offense and defense and the drama that affords. From the lag, pool is uneven: the only thing the player not at the table can do is sit and stew and curse his luck. "You sit there," says Crane, "and you hate your opponent. You hope he misses every shot or breaks a leg. You can't win sitting in the chair and you can lose badly without ever missing a called shot."
In such situations great animosities are formed and, of necessity, large egos. An old hustler named Don Willis said recently, "Every player's an egotist. You get four drinks in a guy and he's never lost a game; you get 10 in him and he's never missed a shot."
Crane drinks only an occasional highball, but suffers from a grating professional personality which has alienated him from most of the other tournament players despite his obvious skill. If nothing else, Crane is consistent. As a youth in Livonia, N.Y., where he was born and grew up, he was sardonic, outspoken and egotistical, traits not entirely surprising in a lad who had been given a toy pool table at 12 and two years later had a run of 89 to his credit on the then-regulation size five-foot by 10-foot table. In middle age he retains all three traits. During the 1947 world tournament, in which he unsuccessfully defended the title he had won for the second time a year before, Crane said, "Pool is the poorest paid sport in the world," a truism that unfortunately still holds. Then he added, "There are lots of people in this game I don't care to associate with. I'm decent to them and they don't know it, but Jesus, when I see some of those crumbs in the poolroom, sometimes I say to hell with it."
After he had won his fourth world title and backed that performance by winning the International Pocket Billiards Championship, Crane showed that the intervening years had not softened him a bit. The occasion was a minor tournament in nearby Syracuse that he had agreed to enter only if he received a small amount of expense money. Crane didn't like the double-elimination format—he prefers the more demanding round-robin play—nor did he like playing 125-point games, figuring correctly that the standard 150-point games favor the better player—namely him, of course. He first lost, despite a high run of 87, to a talented youngster named Alan Kiehle. After the match Kiehle shook Crane's hand and said, "Irv, I hope there's no hard feelings."
"Of course not," said Crane. "If you hadn't taken advantage of the chances you had, I wouldn't have respected you."
The following day Crane lost again, to Joey Canton, who was once quite good but now is nowhere near Crane's class. Crane was furious. He had played poorly, but in short order he bemoaned his luck, rapped the tournament format, questioned the saints ("Why do dead men wake up to shoot well against me? Canton hasn't played like that in 20 years") and, finally, knocked his opponent, saying, "I'll play Canton 1,500-1,000 anytime."
To his credit, or at least in his defense, Crane grew up in an era of large tables, small pockets, ivory cue balls and Belgian clay object balls, conditions that made a run of 100, some say, comparable to a run of 300 with today's equipment. Today the tables are smaller (4�' by 9'), the pockets are larger (5�" vs. 4?") and the object balls and the cue ball are made of plastic. "The ball skids like an ashtray when you hit it," Crane says. "It's not supposed to skid, it's supposed to roll. These plastic balls are pretty. They don't ever chip, they don't ever break, they hold their color forever—and they're the worst balls ever made. The old mud balls were far superior. With the smaller table and the bigger pockets, any meatball can throw a run of 100 at me. I don't worry about guys like Joe Balsis or Steve Mizerak or Luther Lassiter. I know I'll win and lose my share against them. But one of these guys who can't play at all will suddenly come to the table and run a hundred—against me. Always against me. Lassiter once went 112 games without a run of 100 against him. I'd call that luck, wouldn't you? Yes, I was lucky to win those two tournaments last year, but my luck was bound to change. It had to."