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Willie Mosconi, the genius on the opposite page, probably is the greatest pool player who ever lived. One could say it unequivocally except for the immortal Ralph Greenleaf, the Bobby Jones of pool, who in his prime was unbeatable and who held the world's championship 13 times. Mosconi so far has won it only 11 times. But, like most sports, pool has improved since the legendary golden age, which Greenleaf adorned along with Jones, Dempsey and Ruth. Today few of Greenleaf's records remain: Mosconi has beaten almost all of them and—barring occupational disasters, such as bursitis of the right elbow or arthritis of the left thumb—seems likely to go on to beat the longevity record as well.
Having defended the title in a challenge match with Joe Procita only last January, he is preparing to put it on the line again a few weeks from now in Philadelphia against the whole field of leading players. No one can say that he will win, for pool is a game not only of skill but of psychology, and a nuance of emotion might make the difference. But in the nation's pool parlors, where sportsmen are accustomed to back their opinions with bets, the odds are running 3 to 1 on Mosconi on form.
As a matter of fact it is not competition that causes Mosconi to worry these days, but the lack of it. Very few new players of real stature have come up in the last 10 years or so, and Mosconi finds himself perpetually matched against a few familiar top-seeded veterans, which is bad for the game and hence for him. Perhaps his own excellence has something to do with this: why try, the argument runs, when nobody has a chance against the champion? But serious students of pool know there is a deeper cause, or rather a complex of causes: the baneful growth of outdoor sports, the rise of bowling as the chief indoor sport, the invention first of radio and then of television, even the easier relationship between the sexes—such things have progressively lured young men from the pool halls and thus from the opportunity to improve their game.
Thirty years ago, for instance—according to a contemporary source—the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., the General Motors of pool and carom billiards, each year needed the tusks of 3,500 elephants, a whole forest, a whole slate quarry, several mills and thousands of men to supply the demand for balls, cues and tables. There were an estimated 80,000 rooms in those days, frequented by 3,000,000 players who played on the average 5,000,000 games a day. The 400,000 tables (mostly pool) then in use would have stretched from New York to Chicago, if anyone could have spared them. Now, according to BBC, there are only 43,000 rooms and about 164,000 tables, of which two thirds are pool and the rest carom billiards and snooker. How many players remain nobody knows, but obviously there aren't as many as there used to be.
To the reasons cited there must be added another, and it is one that arouses in Mosconi a sense of wounded indignation. "It's supposed to be a bum's game," he says. "Notice every gangster movie—they all show a bunch of thugs hanging around a poolroom, plotting what job they're going to pull next." Just how this misconception started is hard for pool players to imagine, but it has been current for a long time. Even more inexplicably, carom billiards has always been considered a "gentlemen's game." As a result, the industry has been trying for decades to get players and room operators to refer to pocket billiards instead of pool.
Back in the 1920s, when the game was advertised as "good for the brain and stomach fag," The Billiard Reporter wrote, with perhaps more confidence than it felt, of "The game of pocket billiards, formerly known generally as pool, a name which has been eradicated from the game because of the odium which attached for some years to poolrooms." Some towns even outlawed pool, by any name. When this happened, the Reporter pointed out, "...young men hearken to the call elsewhere...Who knows where to find them?...Both young and old crave this form of amusement. It is better to let them have it in the full gaze of the old home town than to compel them to go...for it where they cannot be seen."
In recent times Brunswick-Balke-Collender, using all the brain-washing skills of modern advertising, has led in attempting to associate pocket billiards with the idea of clean, wholesome, family-type recreation. As part of a lavish campaign it put up a super-billiard room in Springfield, Illinois at a cost of $100,000. But the Cue & Cushion, as this was called, closed in-gloriously after a year and three months. In spite of everything, except at official tournaments, pocket billiards still is known as pool and still is played in poolrooms. Like many other four-letter words, it seems to have an ineradicable vitality.
Mosconi has done more than his share to raise the social tone of the game. A rather small but exceptionally handsome man, he is always well mannered, well groomed and very well dressed. His suits are tailored; so is his language, which has a modulated dignity. He conveys sincerity, sobriety and responsibility. He could be—and has been—mistaken for a successful haberdasher, and in his darker moments regrets that he isn't in some such line of work. He often declares that he is tired of the game. But the chances are almost nil that he ever will retire. Pool has an obsessive charm for those who know how to play it well. There is nothing, as any pool addict knows, quite so satisfying as putting the eight ball in the side pocket; and nothing, conversely, quite so frustrating as almost doing so. This has led to another common misconception, that most great pool players are crazy. The truth is that they only seem to be.
For instance, anyone who has ever mis-cued on the game ball will understand the feelings, and revere the memory, of Louis Fox, who died a martyr's death in 1865. He and John Deery were playing for the championship that year, and Fox—needing only a few more balls to win—was at the table when a fly settled on the cue ball. He waved it away with his cue, but it returned before he could shoot. This happened again, and then again. The third time Fox accidently jostled the ball with his cue tip, which cost him his shot, and Deery came to the table and won the championship. Fox, it is said, ran from the hall and leaped into a nearby river, where he drowned. This tragedy was almost repeated in 1951, when the national championship tournament was being played at Chicago's Navy Pier. The veteran and distinguished Onofrio Lauri was matched against a Cleveland player named Wallace, whom he figured to beat easily. But Wallace was inspired: he ran 86 balls and out, including—witnesses declare—70 Harrigans, the term for shots considered almost impossible. Lauri, cue in hand, rushed for a doorway that opened onto Lake Michigan and was halfway through it before three friends could subdue him.
Suicide among players is rare, but suicidal impulses are not. A Broadway figure known as Tony the Weasel has the disconcerting habit, when betrayed by the cue, of running full tilt down the aisle and diving headfirst against the wall. Once he made the mistake of doing this with a thin composition-board wall and landed, like a spent shell, halfway through: allegedly it took the fire department to extract him. Another player goes to the men's room, upbraids himself in the mirror and then knocks himself out.