I interviewed several experts about the Mosconi-Greenleaf question. Pool historian Charlie Ursitti, a keeper of many records, tells me that Mosconi was the best. He eagerly cites various facts and figures to bolster his position (see illustration, pg. 47). Author J.D. Dolan, a Greenleaf expert, says it was the Jazz Age sensation who was the better player. Although Mosconi might have the very slight edge statistically, Dolan urges would-be voters to consider the context of their rivalry, and the totality of their circumstances. "There wouldn't have been a Mosconi without a Greenleaf," says Dolan.
Greenleaf and Mosconi played more than 100 individual games against one another, including six tournament matches in world championship competitions. Here's a sampling of noteworthy tournaments, including some of their key match-ups.
1915: Ralph Greenleaf, then only 15 years old, finds himself pitted against the greatest players of the age in a world qualifier pool conducted in Kansas City. He finishes fourth, which allows him to compete in the world tournament the following year.
1919: Greenleaf wins his first world tournament, amassing an incredible 9-0 record.
1920: Greenleaf wins his second world title, going undefeated 3-0. Mosconi also faces Greenleaf in an exhibition match in 1920. Mosconi is 7 and Greenleaf is 19 or 20. It's the earlier documented game between Greenleaf and Mosconi.
1921: Greenleaf wins his third world title, again going an undefeated 9-0.
1933: Mosconi mounts his first serious assault on the world championship. He does well in the event, while Greenleaf turns in the worst performance of his career. The Chicago Tribune's Charles Bartlett had reported shortly before the tournament began that the main attraction undoubtedly would be Greenleaf, a man who had "won the world's title so many times it has ceased to be amusing." But Prohibition comes to a close during the tournament and, according to news reports, Greenleaf's wife attacks him with a hurled ash tray. If Greenleaf became the main attraction during the tournament, it was for all the wrong reasons. It becomes clear that he spent most of it drunk.
"All but two other opponents found [Greenleaf] an easy mark," reported Time magazine. "To pool enthusiasts the spectacle was pitiful, particularly the afternoon when Greenleaf, always the well-mannered sportsman, appeared for his match with Jimmy Caras in no condition to play. Apparently drunk, he loudly protested that Caras had shoved rather than shot the cue ball in making one point. The referee waved Greenleaf away. When he continued to argue the referee disqualified him."
1934: Greenleaf and Mosconi go on the road together as part on an exhibition tour for Brunswick Billiards. Greenleaf wins most of these matches - the final tally was 57-50 - despite playing many of the games while intoxicated.
1941: Mosconi wins his first world title - and does so in grand style. The tournament includes most of the great champions of the day, with the very notable exception of Greenleaf himself. Mosconi buries the competition, ending up with runs of 100 or more in one-fourth of all the games he played. It's unclear how he would have fared if Greenleaf had been in the field.
1945: Greenleaf and Mosconi meet one another for the final time in world competition. Mosconi, then near the top of his game, beats Greenleaf 5,498 points to 3,738 during a long, multi-city challenge match.
Looking at the stats, Ursitti notes that Mosconi had a 76.6 winning percentage in tournaments, while Greenleaf won at a rate of 71.4 percent. However, Greenleaf played exclusively on the larger 5-by-10 tables, which Mosconi himself conceded were the more challenging tables. Mosconi also played on the larger tables, but only for part of his career.
Mosconi has the edge in head-to-head world tournament matches, having beaten Greenleaf four times out of six in recorded world tournament confrontations. However, if one discounts the 1933 event - that is, not counting the event in which Greenleaf was out-of-his-mind drunk - then the record would stand at 3-2.
As far as head-to-head exhibition matches, Greenleaf might have the edge. However, the historical record here is much more spotty. In fact, there's no independent confirmation of the famous "Willie and Ralph" road show of 1934 beyond the comments of Willie himself.
And finally there's the matter of Willie's famous high run. In 1954, Willie Mosconi ran 526 balls consecutively on a 4 by 8 in a room in Ohio. There are said to have been higher runs, but none have been verified by the BCA.
I asked Dolan, the Greenleaf expert, about this impressive accomplishment. Dolan notes that Greenleaf didn't give a flip for high runs. "Greenleaf didn't care about any of that," he said. "When he got through with a game, the game was over. The idea of carrying on was ridiculous. He wanted to go get drunk."
OK. Now go vote.
R.A. Dyer is the author of "The Hustler & The Champ" and "Hustler Days." Find his pool history blog - and the online Mosconi-Greenleaf poll - at untoldstoriesbilliardshistory.blogspot.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.