SI Vault
Barry McDermott
August 28, 1972
Pool prodigy Jean Balukas, 13, breezed through the best women players to take the crown from 57-year-old Dorothy Wise
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August 28, 1972

The Kid Hustles To A Title

Pool prodigy Jean Balukas, 13, breezed through the best women players to take the crown from 57-year-old Dorothy Wise

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One who does wager on her break shots is Madelyn Whitlow, an erstwhile classical musician who is now given to playing cushions instead of the violin. She and her spouse, Alton, a man with the mannerisms of W. C. Fields, make a fine husband-wife team. Alton is also a professional and was among the 32 men who qualified for the Open this year. "People think that a pool hustler is immoral." said Mrs. Whitlow. "The fact is that anybody who goes up against a hustler is not pure either. He has a little larceny in his heart. I gamble to improve, and out of a certain amount of financial necessity."

Mrs. Whitlow was in trouble right from the start in Chicago. She was upset by Joyce Sykes of Trenton, N.J. in the first round. She moved into the loser's bracket, where she would need to win six straight to reach the finals. Mrs. Wise, despite being bothered by fuzzy eyes and arthritis in her hands, won her opening match as did the other favorites. Mrs. Titcomb and Miss Balukas.

"The kid," as Miss Balukas is called by her peers, was the compelling figure of the week—a taciturn, shy, freckle-faced girl who played with a set expression and little emotion. "Her main interest is baseball," explained her father, Albert, the owner of a billiards lounge and an eager, enthusiastic man who smiles readily when talking of his child.

There is an Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy quality to a conversation with Miss Balukas and her father. Perhaps because she is shy or cannot fathom why anyone would want to hear a 13-year-old girl's opinion of anything, Jean answers inquiries in monosyllables that are usually amplified and embellished by her father.

He will tell you how Jean finished second in a national junior bowling tournament when she was nine years old, rolling a 211 in one game. He will tell you how she can throw a curve with a baseball. He will tell you how she ran 38 balls while practicing pool at the age of 10. He will tell you how the boys at summer camp let Jean play in their all-star softball game and how she pitched and hit a triple to win the game. He will tell you how she has a repertoire of 15 trick shots and how ho gives her half-dollars to reward practice.

"Tell the truth now, tell the truth," he says to Joan, who had been asked how often she practices pool. Then he says, "The actual practice is about a week before a tournament. In between that, it's baseball. For a girl, it isn't a game that they want to play. But being in the billiards business, I'd like to build it up so that they want to play.

"I'm going to start her in golf. She'd be a beautiful golfer. She hits the ball well for a girl. You even parred a par-4 hole once, remember?

"I always try to get her down to my place for practice, just to keep her in stroke. If she would practice like a true champion, no one could touch her today. But I don't like to force her to play because she's too young for that."

Because her father is so vocal, proud and always present, rumors persist that Jean hates pool and plays only to satisfy her parent's whims. "I don't approve of the whole situation," said a woman professional. "I know the girl pretty well and she doesn't want to play pool. She wants to play baseball. She's been forced into pool by her father."

Once last week Jean told a writer that she didn't "love" the game. She likes it. ("Don't mind me talking." quickly interjected her father. "She likes it at tournament time. When she wants to play in a tournament, she'll go down and practice.") Later, in a private moment. Jean said she enjoyed pool as much as any other sport and said her father did not push her toward the game. "They're all the same," she said. "I like them all. With pool, I've got a chance to be a world champion."

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