Somewhere out there in Brooklyn, that New York fastness seldom visited by tourists or anybody else, there is a public high school called Fort Hamilton that for the past two years has won the New York City Girls' Basketball Championship. This year Fort Hamilton has a freshman guard, a lean, lanky, poker-faced girl named Jean Balukas, who may help the school win a third title. She may not, either—for the last couple of weeks Jean has been busy elsewhere and has missed a lot of practices. It wasn't exactly time wasted.
In 17 days of action at Hollywood's American Legion Post No. 43 Auditorium, 14-year-old Jean Balukas proved she is the champion woman pool shooter of everywhere in the whole world except for the holy city of Kyoto, Japan. She also won $1,000, which did not quite pay for her trip and may cause problems with her amateur status at Fort Hamilton. If she had not made one error—a safety that didn't prove safe at all—Balukas might have been the champion in Kyoto, too, and she would have won $2,000.
The mysterious, often hidden, sport of pocket billiards is presided over by such exotic figures as Lou Butera, Irving Crane, Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red Breit, Joe Balsis, Ray Martin and Cisero Murphy. Balukas is not quite a full-fledged member of this pantheon—no woman thus far is—but she has had modest hopes. "I guess I'll never be able to beat guys like Lassiter and Crane," she says, "but maybe I'll get good enough to at least play 'em."
Until the very last day of the First Women's World Championship, Jean Balukas was undefeated—no great surprise, since she has been the U.S. Open champion for the last two years. The only other unbeaten player was Mieko Harada, a highly scrutable Japanese professional who has held her country's title since 1968. Balukas was scheduled to play Harada that sad Sunday night in what everybody attending the tournament was certain would be a confrontation of flawless records. But Jean had a match to make up on Sunday afternoon with Marcia Girolamo, a 21-year-old graduate of the State University of New York at Oswego, who last spring captured her second national college championship in three years.
At that point Balukas might have profited from hearing the oldest clich� in sport—just play them one at a time. Girolamo, whose record in the tournament was 6-3 and who therefore had nothing to lose (nor win), upset Balukas 75-52. (Women play to 75 points in 14-1 pocket billiards, otherwise known as straight pool; men play to 150, and on the men's side in the Hollywood tournament two players already had run out games in which their opponents never got to pick up their cues after the initial lags.)
That night the musty old Legion hall, with its familiar flags and its aura of days long gone, was nearly full, and despite competition from Lassiter, Balsis, Butera and Alan Hopkins, many of the spectators ranged around table No. 4 to see if Jean Balukas could pull it out. Harada now stood 10-0, Balukas 9-1. A victory for Balukas would necessitate a playoff. Harada had only to win the one match. Although Albert Balukas, proprietor of the Ovington Cue Lounge in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge, had declared earlier that "there is absolutely no problem for Jean in beating Harada," his daughter stalked the table with the wariness of a panther.
As it turned out, Albert Balukas was right. After the usual safeties to get clear of the rack (a "safety" in pool is a soft shot designed to put your opponent in worse position than you), Harada tried for a pocket and missed. Balukas promptly ran out the rack. She played safe, Harada missed and Balukas again cleared the table. Score: 28-0. Although Harada rallied after that, she was not able to put together a consistent run, whereas Balukas was steady if not brilliant. With the score 64-41, Balukas ran seven, missed and then ran out when Harada's safety was not really safe. Final standing: both 10-1.
The women sat down to wait for the remaining men's matches to end, and most of the spectators probably would have stayed for the playoff if Promoter Fred Whalen, who was in the process of losing $25,000 on the tournament, had not cleared the hall and demanded an additional $2 to witness the championship. About 100 spectators came back. During the intermission Harada received intensive coaching from Kazue Fujima, the men's champion of Japan. Balukas slumped in a chair beside her father, her expression bleak, her face pale with the strain of the daylong struggle.
As they often are, the playoff was anti-climactic. At first, however, it was promising. After half a dozen innings Harada blew a safety and Balukas ran 14, one shot a dazzling four-ball combination out of the rack, to make the score 20-6. An inning later Harada put together a run of 18 to take the lead, but Balukas countered with a run of 15 to move out front 36-25. After Harada ran seven, Balukas lost the championship with a single shot, a safety that was poorly placed. Harada got a handle on a slightly protruding ball that she could "see," ran out the rack, the next rack and one ball besides—29 in all—to gain a virtually unsurpassable 60-36 lead. Balukas fought back tenaciously and Harada, visibly flushed with excitement by her spectacular run (Balukas' longest in the tournament was 25) became a little careless, but the margin proved to be too great. With the score 68-55, Balukas missed a last-chance combination on the three ball and Harada dropped the seven balls she needed to make the final score 75-55.
It was a tremendous win financially for Harada, who earns only $4,000 a year in Japan despite her long incumbency as champion (Balukas recently received $2,000 for a TV commercial). Where did the loss leave Balukas, aside from the backcourt at Fort Hamilton High? Well, a little worse off for money and badly hurt in pride, but in no way irreparably wounded. As Albert Balukas said, "This stuff is mostly just fun for Jean, and I don't really envision her having a career in billiards." Why not? Because there is no real money in it for women.