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
October: Woofing at Willie
BEFORE I was published at pool, I coauthored two books on fitness (specifically, weight training) with Governor Schwarzenegger’s best buddy, who at the time was also one of the strongest bodybuilders who ever lived. Unfortunately, I had to sue him over book No. 3, and while he settled out of court, it was a bittersweet victory, because I had a lot of idealism built up in that friendship. But I have to admit that it was an interesting psychological exercise to “get tough” with one of the world’s strongest men.
And I relived that experience in a minor way not long ago, when I came across not one but two accounts of men associated with pool that had actually mouthed off, in varying tonalities, to the immortal Willie Mosconi. Now when it comes to pool, that represents a very high order of heresy. Mosconi was one haughty dude. He fell somewhat short of the late Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former head of the International Olympic Committee who insisted on being addressed as “Excellency,” but otherwise he insisted on every single one of his conditions being met and was virtually always accommodated. Talking back to the man was just about as rare as beating him — and one of the two men evidently did that too.
Southern pool followers were saddened this past January to hear of the passing of Mr. Ben Katz, a lifelong resident of Starkville, Miss., and a graduate of Mississippi State University in that town. Among those who know of such things, Mr. Katz’ name is generally mentioned right alongside that of former U. S. Open champion Reed Pierce as the finest pool players that that state has ever produced. He’s also considered one of the game’s “great unknowns,” largely unheard of outside his home state; he did not pursue the game professionally, instead becoming a vice president of two separate businesses and a thorough success. But the one story everyone who knew him seems to tell — and all my online friends from the South insist they’ve heard the same story all their lives — concerns the 1962 Starkville exhibition he played against Mosconi.
It isn’t clear whether the match was played on campus or in his dad’s poolroom; Mr. Katz would have turned 24 that year, which seems somewhat long in the tooth for college (not that I’m one to talk). Mosconi was retired from competition at the time, having suffered a stroke a few years before, but was still active in exhibition play. The score of the match isn’t talked around much either, but to cut to the chase, it seems Mr. Katz ran 150 and out on the champion — and it gets even juicier from there. Facing a difficult break shot for No. 151, Mr. Katz, according to reliable reports, turned to Mosconi and asked, most irreverently, “Why don’t you hit a few balls? I’m getting tired.”
The story still consistently drops jaws. Woof at Willie? You might as well splash graffiti onto the Sistine Chapel. With both men gone, the story obviously cannot be authenticated, but it can’t be denied either. And I can tell you for certain what Mosconi’s response would have been, because I saw him lose once too (to Chicago’s remarkable African-American player Javanley “Youngblood” Washington): he would have nodded his head in respect and immediately gathered the balls to segue right into his trick shots. Had this indeed been a match on campus, you can be equally sure he would have demanded a new opponent for the next game, if there were one scheduled.
The other story is better known but usually exaggerated in the retelling. In the mid-60s, his retirement notwithstanding, Mosconi was included in an invitational 14.1 tournament in Los Angeles. He demanded a $10,000 appearance fee, which in today’s dollars would probably buy a corporate jet, and as usual was accommodated. Not only did he not win (finishing second to the late Joe Balsis), but, as generally told, chased tournament promoter Arnie Satin around the tournament hall brandishing a cue.
Not even close, according to Dan DiLiberto, who was also part of the tournament field. Dan didn’t have much use for the great champion, and with good reason (“Great player, though; I never knocked that”). Mosconi once cancelled an exhibition between the two men as they were preparing to lag for break! On another occasion, Mosconi put the kibosh on an attractive deal being prepared for Dan by Fuqua, then the billiards arm of AMF. But there’s still no reason to question DiLiberto’s account of the celebrated event. Satin wasn’t even the tournament promoter; that was a man named Arnie Rizen. Satin was a tournament official and referee whom Mosconi didn’t like, and even barred from refereeing his matches. When Mosconi had lost the final match, it fell to Satin to ask the champion to stick around for his runnerup-trophy presentation. Mr. Mosconi told Mr. Satin exactly what he could do with his trophy.
“I don’t care how many balls you can run,” replied Mr. Satin, adding an anatomical reference of his own. “You’re not talking to me that way. Nobody does.”
The actual ensuing dialogue between the two has been lost, but DiLiberto, seated barely arms’ length from them, clearly remembers what did happen. “They both put up their fists in the classic John L. Sullivan pose, looking like miniature imbeciles,” he says (neither man was particularly large). “Then people stepped in between them, probably to the relief of both. No cue was brandished, nobody was chased, nobody ‘hooked’ anybody. In fact, nobody even threw one punch.”
So apparently the great man did have a bit of clay beneath his socks. All we really know of him, after all, is his competitive greatness and his disdain for the game he dominated; his autobiography of a few years back, “Willie’s Game,” was about as revealing as a nun’s pole dance. These stories may horrify some, just as I was once read the riot act for reporting that Greenleaf was a drunk. But if you want the truth, I find them quite refreshing.