One by one they came to the little railroad town on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. Mostly they were slender young men, easy and open. But when they began to play, their eyes turned to agate and their faces were carved from stone. They are the breed that has been tagged pool hustlers, and they were in Burlington last week for the $25,000 World Nine-Ball Championship. That, plus the unofficial big-money games that went on all night in the practice room at the grand old Hotel Burlington.
Jersey Red was there, and The Deacon and Captain Hook and Baltimore Buddy. So were Fast Eddie (not Paul Newman, but Ronnie Allen) and Freddie the Beard, who showed up nicely clean-shaven. Wimpy Lassiter didn't make it, and the Machine Gun was tied up by other business in Japan, and while The Glove had called to say he was coming, he didn't appear either.
"It was a weird phone call," said Dick Coffey, one of the tournament co-promoters. Coffey runs a family-type pool room in Galesburg, Ill. and is not familiar with many of the sport's top guns. "This voice said, 'This is The Glove and I'm on my way.'
"Oh, Mister DeGlove?" I said.
" 'No, no. The Glove, and I want you to put all the loot in one big pile. I got a month and I'm leaving now to hustle my way north. I'm gonna win it all.' "
Somewhere en route The Glove must have dropped his $175 entry fee because Coffey never heard from him again. Still, at final count going into the four-day, double-elimination tournament, 80 of the world's top speeds had come for a run at the $10,000 first prize, which is the biggest tournament score ever offered. St. Louie Louie even brought in his secret weapon, an inspirational tape recording cut for him by a hypnotist; he turns it on just before falling asleep.
But Jimmy Rempe, who is sometimes known as Hippie Jimmie and who really is a clean-cut 27-year-old out of Dixon City, Pa., had the answer for Louie's strategy. "What I'm going to do," Jimmy said, "is to cut my own tape, and when Louie's asleep I'm going to sneak ~in and put it on his recorder. It will say: 'Louie, you are a dog. Louie, you can't win tonight. Bark, Louie.' "
And then Rempe laughed, just as they all laugh, usually with bitterness, at their image as hustlers. To a man—well, almost to a man—they regard themselves as athletes, the finest of their profession, and they find it frustrating that they have to make their living as gamblers because the tournaments are too few and usually too poorly financed.
"What's a hustler?" demanded Jersey Red, a delightful free spirit by the name of Jack Breit who now lives in Houston. "I go into a town and say, "Hey, I'm the greatest nine-ball player in the world and if you got anybody you think can beat me you can make a bet.' Sometimes when I bankrupt a town they get a little hot, but I say, "Look, I told you.' That cools them. We may be gamblers and we may be promoters, self-promoters, but we aren't hustlers."
And then Jersey Red and Dick Courtney, an ex-SMU tackle and Coffey's partner, got into a debate over the world's greatest promoters.