At the table, Greenleaf never had trouble attracting a crowd.
Houle had that childhood encounter clearly in mind when he happened again upon Greenleaf in that down-and-out dive in Boston. Houle recalls again mustering up his courage, again gingerly approaching the great champion, but this time he would actually befriend him. Houle said that before long, he and Greenleaf were actually running around together. And out of a sense of charity (or perhaps because he was simply star-struck), Houle embarked on a campaign to get Greenleaf cleaned up.
"The way he was dressed, nobody would take him in - so I got him washed up, and got him some clothes and shoes, and he looked decent," said Houle. "But he was in terrible shape. I took him on a trip across-country a couple of times. And I had the money. We would go into the place - he had to have the best clothes on - and I'd lose him. I would wait in the hotel until he could find his way back - if he could. Sometimes he couldn't and somebody would have to go find him.
"Ralph Greenleaf was an alcoholic and he was on drugs of all kinds. I met him when he was a raggedy-ass thing, and he was a mess. I met him when he was in the last throws. So I cleaned him up and bought him clothes, and we just toured around the country. Every time I went into a poolroom, I would give him money."
Houle said Greenleaf could be smart and lucid when he was sober. But Greenleaf's personality could change abruptly and unpredictably. "He was very volatile," said Houle. "He could explode at any minute." He said Greenleaf then had no friends and was unrecognizable to most people. He also seemed to have become somewhat slow-witted, as if the years of abusing his own mind and body had begun to take a toll.
And yet even in that addled state, Greenleaf could perform amazing, magical feats. For instance, who else but Ralph Greenleaf could consistently hit combination wing shots? He said Greenleaf would slow roll two object balls down the table, and then shoot the combinations on the fly. Houle was so flabbergasted that he accused the former champion of using some sort of trick - of having some special technique for rolling the balls.
"You roll them yourself then," said Greenleaf.
Houle would then slow roll the two object balls, and Greenleaf could still hit the combinations. "But still he would go off kilter," said Houle.
Houle recalled that sometimes Greenleaf would lay his head on the table, between two balls, right in the middle of someone else's game. He'd be near passing out, perhaps near vomiting, but still insist that nobody in the room, nobody, could play worth a damn. That he could beat any man standing.
And this from a man who couldn't even stand.
"I never knew what he was going to get into - I had to be very careful when we went into a poolroom. Most people, if they had alcohol, they didn't play so well. But with Ralph it didn't matter. He was just like that. And when he started to play, he was irritable."
After awhile, Houle simply gave up. It was too much. Greenleaf drifted off, went home, disappeared. The great champion died at age 50, while waiting treatment at a hospital in Philadelphia. The cause of death was given as an internal hemorrhage. He had been ill for several days, but never sought treatment.
R.A. Dyer is the author of "The Hustler & The Champ," a biography of Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi. He is also the author of "Hustler Days: Minnesota Fats, Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red, and America's Great Age of Pool," now available in paperback. For more information, go to www.poolhistory.com.
Since 1978, Billiards Digest magazine has been the pool world’s best source for news, tournament coverage, player profiles, bold editorials, and advice on how to play pool. Our instructors include superstars Nick Varner and Jeanette Lee. Every issue features the pool accessories and equipment you love — pool cues, pool tables, instruction aids and more. Columnists Mike Shamos and R.A. Dyer examine legends like Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats, and dig deep into the histories of pool games like 8-ball, 9-ball and straight pool.