January 31, 2014
This month-January 19, 2014, to be exact-marked the 101st birthday of Rudolph Wanderone, better known to most as Minnesota Fats. He’s possibly the most famous pool player of all time, a reputation that makes some people think he’s the greatest pool player of all time. He was very good, but there were a lot of other players who were better. Wanderone was a hustler and a gambler, a player who, when his talent for pool wasn’t enough, would pull any trick he could to win. In short he was everything Willie Mosconi, born a few months later, on June 27, 1913, hated. Mosconi’s triumphs include a world record for running five hundred and twenty-six consecutive balls in a straight pool exhibition. One of the highest honors in billiards is the Mosconi Cup. He’s probably the greatest player of all time. Both grew up in a world where billiards was serious business, but shady business too, a world where Robert Preston could scam a small town by convincing them that a new pool hall meant trouble with a capital T. Minnesota Fats profited from pool’s shady side while Mosconi tried to redeem the game, to make it a sport of gentlemen, a game that should be treated with dignity, elegance, and respect, where fair play was valued over money. When he went up against Minnesota Fats in 1978 in a widely watched episode of ABC’s Wide Wide World of Sports Fats tried to rattle him by refusing to dress up for the occasion and playing to the audience. Mosconi won the game, and yet it was Minnesota Fats who won the crowd. A few years later Minnesota Fats moved into the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lived until 1993, playing anyone willing to pay a dollar a game. The average person is likely to have heard of Minnesota Fats, while Mosconi remains known mainly only to students of billiards.
I played a lot of pool in college, but I think my real fascination with the game goes back to when I was nine or ten and would stay up late watching reruns of The Twilight Zone. One episode, "A Game of Pool", fascinated me and stayed with me. Jack Klugman plays Jesse Cardiff. Alone in a pool hall he praises his own skill, then complains bitterly that everyone says he’s not as good as the deceased Fats Brown. "I’d give anything to play him!" Cardiff shouts. The scene then changes to a pool table surrounded by mist. Fats Brown-played by Jonathan Winters, in a rare non-comedic role-moves around it, hitting balls. Offscreen a voice says, "Fats Brown. Report to Lister’s Pool Room…" Fats Brown appears in the pool room where Cardiff has been ranting. The stakes, he says, will be life and death. Cardiff balks, but agrees when Fats Brown dismisses him as "second-rate". Cardiff goes on about guys who were better than him at everything, who made him feel small. Brown chides Cardiff, who hasn’t seen a movie, dated a girl, or even read a book in years, for focusing only on the game of pool. Brown talks of enjoying life, of swimming in the ocean, making love, of going places "where they never heard of billiards". As the game reaches its conclusion Fats Brown explains that legends and champions serve a purpose, to inspire others, to drive others to make themselves better. When Cardiff wins the game he’s thrilled, so giddy he doesn’t understand when Fats Brown thanks him for winning. Then, as quietly as he entered, Fats Brown disappears. The final scene is a pool table surrounded by mist. Jesse sits at it slumped over. Offscreen a voice says, "Jesse Cardiff. Report at once to Mason’s Pool Hall…" In the original ending by scriptwriter George Clayton Johnson Cardiff loses, and is surprised to find he’s still alive. Fats Brown tells him he will die, eventually, "as all second raters die: you’ll be buried and forgotten." This ending was used in a 1989 remake of The Twilight Zone with Esai Morales as Cardiff and Maury Chaykin as Fats Brown. The original episode, and in particular its ending, is more poignant, and more memorable.
I did most of my college pool-playing in a place called Tom’s Pool Hall. It was in the basement of the student union building. Tom was a funny little gnome of a guy who barely came up to my chin. Bald except for a few tufts around his ears, with thick glasses that magnified his watery blue eyes, slightly hunchbacked, he nevertheless seemed perfectly at ease shuffling around among college students. He enjoyed talking to everyone, and was amused by things we did. When some students raised money for the pool hall by printing up t-shirts that said "Tom’s Pool Hall–Naked Co-Ed Billiards" on the front and "Get felt on the table" on the back he chuckled and said, "How’d they get away with that?" He took a special interest in me, especially when I told him I was from Nashville. Most of the tables in his hall were modern, and functional but not showy. There was one antique, though, with a brass plate that said "Made in St. Louis". The rails were thick and stained, with nicks worn smooth by hands on cues, and the legs were heavy and scrolled. Tom called this table "the Minnesota Fats special", and he always reserved it for me. A friend and I would play, and Tom would tell us stories. It only now seems strange to me that I never saw Tom play, because pool was clearly a passion of his. He told me about famous pool players he’d met, names that meant nothing to me but which I meant to write down and look up later. A lot of them, he said, were jerks, "but Minnesota Fats, now, he was a true gentleman. Always a gentleman." I don’t want to contradict him, even now, because I know it was meant as a compliment when he compared me to Minnesota Fats–my personality, anyway, since I wasn’t much of a player. I enjoyed seeing him outside the pool hall too. Once I ran into him in the grocery store across the street. "Buying food?" I asked. It was a stupid question that deserved a sarcastic answer, but instead Tom turned it into a joke about himself. "Yeah, I’ve gotta eat. I haven’t learned how to live without it yet." He then told me a story of a friend of his who never ate anything healthy. "Wouldn’t eat a vegetable unless it was fried. Wouldn’t eat most anything else unless it was fried either. One day the doctor told him he only had six months to live. He quit smoking cold turkey and switched to everything healthy. He ate all the vegetables he wouldn’t touch before." Tom’s eyes widened. "Would you believe he lived another seven months?" We both laughed. At the time I always wore a trench coat and a fedora, because I was a college student trying to affect a certain look. Tom wore a trench coat and fedora because that’s what men of his generation wore. When a woman came around the corner I wondered how we looked, two guys dressed like Humphrey Bogart, separated by only half a century, and laughing like children next to the pickled beets. Every day Tom had a new story to tell. One day he told me a man came in who was on campus for his class’s fiftieth reunion and asked, "Can I play pool here?" Tom asked, "Have you got your student ID?" Amazingly the man still had it. Tom said, "As long as you’ve got your student ID you can play here." I still have mine, in the attic, even though Tom and his pool hall are long gone.
It was early February 2000 when I got an email from the friend I usually played pool with. He had taken a campus job, so he kept up and kept me informed of goings on. This particular email was just four words: "We have lost Tom." I realized with regret that I’d never even said goodbye to Tom when I left. I simply disappeared as quietly as Fats Brown. When I started to ask around, though, if others remembered him I found that everyone I asked did. I even found out things he hadn’t told me, things I wish I’d known. Tom worked in advertising, and volunteered with Habitat For Humanity. He quietly inspired others. And he ran the best pool hall ever, because he was a first-rate gentleman, and he will not be forgotten.