Category Archives: Billiards
Jean Balukas (Billiards. Born, Brooklyn, NY, June 28, 1959.) Rarely, if ever, has any individual dominated a sport the way Jean Balukas dominated women’s billiards. She was so good that she literally played herself out of competition. This astonishing young woman entered her first U.S. Open straight pool tournament at age nine – and finished fifth. This, however, was just a preview of things to come. By 1972 (when she was 13), Balukas won the tournament to become the reigning national champion of women’s billiards. Not only that, she won the tournament for each of the next six years until it was discontinued after her 1978 victory. Having learned the game from her earliest days in the family’s Brooklyn poolroom, Balukas combined skill, dedication and hard work into a game that is probably the strongest ever developed by any woman player in billiards history. During the first eight years that Billiards Digest selected a female Player of the Year, Balukas won the honor five times (1980, 1983-84, 1986-87) and the years she missed seemingly were awarded to others just to break the monotony. In addition to winning the Billiard Congress of America U.S. Open crown seven straight years (1972-78), Balukas also won six World Open titles and by the time she was virtually forced to stop playing due to lack of competition, she had won more money than any other woman. She had also turned in the highest known runs in the history of women’s play (over 150 balls). Balukas was not only proficient at billiards but also excelled at baseball, basketball and tennis. But it was at the pool table that she attracted her greatest attention.
Irving Crane (Billiards. Born, Livonia, NY, Nov. 13, 1913; died, Rochester, NY, Nov. 17, 2001.) A Christmas gift when he was 11 years old helped launch Irving Crane on a spectacular career as one of the world’s great billiards players. The gift was a toy pool table and it helped him to a career in which he won the World or International pocket billiards championship eight times. Crane also won 14 other major titles and finished first or second in the world’s major tournaments 18 times, more than any other player. Another aspect of Crane’s great career was his longevity. He first moved into the professional ranks at age 23 in 1937, became world champion for the first time in 1942 and won a major tournament (the World Series of Pocket Billiards in Arlington, Va.) in 1978 when he was 65. He followed his first world championship with another in 1946, and repeated in 1955, 1968, 1970 and 1972. He was also the U.S. national champion in 1950 and 1955, the U.S. masters champion in 1964 and 1975 and the International champion in 1965 and 1969. Crane was the first player to run 300 balls without a miss, a feat he achieved in an exhibition in Layton, Utah, in 1939, when he ran 309, an exhibition record. He subsequently had exhibition runs of 334, 350 and 353 balls. In 1951, he ran a record 160 balls in a sanctioned championship match. He is the only player to ever win the world championship in four different decades.
Minnesota Fats (Billiards. Born, New York, NY, Jan. 19, 1913; died, Nashville, TN, Jan. 16, 1996.) Rudolph Wanderone (originally Wanderon) was a unique American original. He was perhaps the most famous billiards player in the world, even though he never won a formal world championship. Yet he was almost solely responsible for the resurgent growth of interest in the sport over the last 30 years of the 20th century. Born in Manhattan, Wanderone began at a very tender age a career as a pool player. He acquired the nickname of “Brooklyn Fats” as a youngster owing to his size. As his orbit increased during his jaunts around the world, he became known as “New York Fats.” Married in 1941, Fats went into a retirement of sorts in 1951. Ten years later, “the Hustler,” a movie he claimed was based loosely on his adventures, was produced, starring Jackie Gleason as “Minnesota Fats.” He became a major television celebrity and returned to his familiar haunts in pool parlors around the world, hustling and promoting non-stop. Billiards received its biggest boost when Fats engaged former world champion Willie Mosconi in a match on national television in 1978. While he was never a tournament champion, no other individual did as much to promote and popularize billiards as “Minnesota Fats.”
Ralph Greenleaf (Billiards. Born, Monmouth, IL, Nov. 3, 1899; died, Philadelphia, PA, Mar. 15, 1950.) Considered by most historians to be one of the greatest pocket billiards players in the history of the sport, Edward Ralph Greenleaf became the world professional champion for the first time when he was only 20 years old. Greenleaf ruled the world of pocket billiards from 1919-24, again in 1926, from 1927-28, 1930-32 and for a final time in 1937. He was the world champion 19 times in all before losing his final challenge match to Willie Mosconi in 1945. During his dominance of the sport, Greenleaf set numerous world records, including the high single-game average (63) and high grand average (11.02) in tournament play on a 5-foot by 10-foot table. He set both of these marks in 1929. He also set a record for high run (126) in 14.1 pocket billiards. Greenleaf was one of the great players who helped bring pocket billiards to popular prominence in the 1920s and 1930s when the world tournaments earned intense press coverage. Even after his final championship loss to Mosconi, Greenleaf continued to be one of the major competitors on the tournament circuit and frequently played well-attended exhibitions against other renowned players. He was preparing to depart for New York for just such an event when he was sticken in a Philadelphia hotel. Greenleaf was debonair-looking and a colorful performer who was also often combative. In 1946, he sued for $300,000 when he was barred from the championship tournament.
Willie Hoppe (Billiards. Born, Cornwall, NY, Oct. 11, 1887; died, Miami, FL, Dec. 14, 1959.) William Frederick Hoppe first broke into the sports headlines in 1906. He was only 18 years old, but he was confident. And all he did was win the world 18.1 balkline championship in Paris. This youngster was later to become, perhaps, the best known of the world’s top three-cushion billiards players, holding sway over that style of billiards for about the last dozen years of his active career. In 1940, Hoppe entered the international tournament in Chicago against the world’s best three-cushion players. He won all 21 of his three-cushion matches and emerged as the undisputed champion, the very best in his game. From 1940-52, Hoppe won the three-cushion championship 10 times in 12 years and became world-famous through appearances and exhibitions. After the 1952 tournament, Hoppe retired from active competition. He did perform exhibitions for a short period, but his magic touch was left for others to challenge.
Wimpy Lassiter (Billiards. Born, Elizabeth City, NC, Nov. 5, 1918; died, Elizabeth City, NC, Oct. 25, 1988.) His full name was Luther Clement Lassiter but he was known universally on the billiards circuit as “Wimpy,” which name derived from his childhood habit of devouring hamburgers (as did a character, named Wimpy, in “Popeye” cartoons), not because of lack of nerve. Lassiter was considered one of the greatest nine-ball billiard players who ever competed and once earned $11,000 in a single night at his specialty. In the 1940s and 1950s, Lassiter played in tournaments throughout the world and when not engaged in tournament play, could be found in billiard parlors giving exhibitions or hustling up games. Wimpy took up the game of pool when he was 13 years old and three years later dropped out of school to pursue his hobby as a full-time profession. After service in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, he became a professional and first came into prominence when he won an unsanctioned tournament in 1954. When the international championships were restored in 1963, Lassiter became one of the leading challengers. Over the next dozen years, he captured six world championships. Lassiter “thrived on the game of pool,” said Willie Mosconi, a 15-time world champion. Such was Lassister’s dedication to the game that he played daily after ill health forced his retirement from the billiards circuit and when he died he was found a few feet from his table on which remained his cue stick, a cue ball and seven balls.
Willie Mosconi (Billiards. Born, Philadelphia, PA, June 27, 1913; died, Haddon Heights, NJ, Sept. 16, 1993.) Seldom, if ever, has one individual dominated a sport the way Willie Mosconi dominated pocket billiards for the better part of 20 years. Mosconi was a gifted player even as a youngster. He began giving pocket billiards exhibitions when he was seven years old. He won his first world title in 1940. Then came a series of tournaments in which Mosconi repeatedly turned back every challenge as he won again in 1942, 1943, and 1946. After World War II, many observers expected Mosconi to be defeated because an upsurge in interest in billiards had drawn more competition into the sport. But they were wrong. Mosconi not only turned back all challenges in 1946 and 1950, but by 1955 (when he again swept through the tournament), he was left with virtually no competition. Mosconi retired in 1957. He periodically returned for exhibitions. In 1974, at the age of 60, he toured across the country playing against Rex Williams, the British world champion snooker player.