Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
(from January 1983)
MILWAUKEE LOU HODOR is 82 now, and I'd like to have his hair, to say nothing of his metabolism. The vigor can be partly explained by Lou's never having come very far forward into the present; his pool, always a disproportionate part of his still-unmarried life, seems stuck with leaden boots in the halcyon days of Ponzi, Rudolph, Mosconi. He talks of them often, if not incessantly, and just in that order. "I played Ponzi, I played Rudolph, I played Mosconi…" For once, flamboyance has found a man it suits well: his cheeks flush as though rouged, his eyes twinkle the way you always thought Santa Claus' would, and Milwaukee Lou returns to center stage of his past.
You can bet even money that this Milwaukee has never even seen Wisconsin. The moniker's roots are instead Chicago's Milwaukee Avenue, one of the city's few streets that run diagonally, cutting across ethnic and blue-collar neighborhoods, notably Polish and Puerto Rican, for much of its length. Lou's wardrobe always reflected both these tastes strongly, a stunning gang-bang of plaids and checks and polka dots. But the clothes were always clean and well pressed; exotic though he may be, Lou Hodor has always been a gentleman.
Ponzi, Rudolph and Mosconi are but the three first barrels of the fiery Gatling Gun that is Milwaukee Lou spewing pool history. As a younger man, he frequently took these monologues to the practice table with him, and if you happened upon him as a stranger, stalking balls and quoting the greats, you'd have sworn you were in the presence of one. To say that Milwaukee Lou was flashy would be like calling Arnold Schwarzenegger husky. There was enough gingerbread on Lou's stroke to create an army at Christmastime, juicy delicious mounds of deep tip-dipping in front and gaudy slip-stroking to the rear. His body moves were the ultimate in theatre, or perhaps "vaudeville" suits them better, all struts and strides, somewhere in between Cagney doing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and Jackie Gleason bellowing "And awa-aay we go!" to his esteemed Traveling Music. Complementary to that, Lou sounds almost exactly like the salesmen who chant the prologue to The Music Man ("No, it ain't; no, it ain't; but ya gotta know the territory!"). "Ponzi shot! Ponzi!" Lou would bark to anyone who cared to listen, setting up the break shot where the cue ball follows through three rails behind the rack. He ran many practice balls without looking like anybody else alive, one of the deceptive symptoms of greatness, and it was easy for a gawky young sweator to imagine that he had the whole package.
Such was not the case, unfortunately, nor even within shouting distance. Good, sure, but he played only one game, straight pool, and it took classic salesmanship to talk him into playing that on anything but a 5'x 10'; Lou's pool, like the man, was firmly imbedded in Yesterdays. His personal blue-dot cue ball was a must, as was his maximum bet of $25, and then only with players he knew. Still, in his time he shot down the redoubtable Atlantic City Red, and Norman (The Jockey) Howard, and I saw him win games from both Joe Batchelor and Joe Procita. He may have been the most notorious front-runner in pool history - when the game was close or he fell behind, those body moves metamorphosed into seizures, and tip-dips and slip-strokes degenerated into a staccato twitch delivered without warning, as though the cue were spring-loaded - but give him a thirty-or-more-balls lead and he was one glorious sight to behold.
"Glorious" doesn't even begin to pay proper tribute to the night Lou bleached the great Jersey Red. No rooms of the early 60's ere opening with 5'x 10's, of course, so Lou was reduced to small-table play and the bet kept to $10 for 100 points. Jersey Red played more like Jersey Dead, and sure enough, Lou shot out to his precious 35- or 40-ball lead. He was in full dance and dead-stroke alike when the textbook Greenleaf side -pocket break shot came up for him, cue ball and object ball just about parallel, mere inches from the top of the rack. Lou cocked his straw sailor hat at a rakish angle (why did he always wear sporty if mis-matched hats, with all that wonderful hair?) shifted his cigar around, jigged into his shooting stance, and announced, through the just-vacated side of his mouth, a masterly "Try it in da side."
Jersey Red did a double-take that should have been freeze-framed for the Billiard Archives, and possibly for all time. He laid his cue on the table directly in the shot's path, turned in shock to the sweators who were standing six-deep, and gasped, in that marvelous foggy croak, "He's gonna try it in the side!" And the room just melted with laughter. The desk man threatened to turn out the lights.
When Red finally lifted his cue, Lou made the shot, and most of the rack. Soon after, Red tried a safety into the side of the stack, and nothing went to the rail; Red thus had the first scratch. 65 balls ahead, Milwaukee Lou now executed a table scratch that looked more like a javelin toss. He began a full six feet from the table, cocking his rear hip, arching his pelvic; then, in one quick sprint - two proud full strides, a smart half-step, and three teeny-weeny steps up on his tippytoes-Lou was upon the balls, cue elevated at the correct angle for stabbing toads, the tip descending ever so slowly to touch the beloved blue dot of his personal cue ball, gentle as a nun's lips upon the Cross.
I know there are Easteners who will guffaw skeptically when I say Red was speechless. But I was there, and trust me, he was struck dumb. He managed another doubletake - if anything, better than the first - and finally, to an audience weak from laughing, "Dis guy's a pip, ain't he?"
He sure is. He's still around today, although he's still around mostly yesterdays; and he greets me with a corny but sincere fingertip salute, and says, "Geez, George, ya shoulda seen dat Greenleaf!" We are in Chris' Billiards, for my money Chicago's best room, on, of all streets, Milwaukee Avenue. The audience, the game, the past, the best room in town, even the street, are all his again, and Milwaukee Lou Hodor, at once 82 and ageless, is truly home.