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
February: Second Fiddle
THE CONCEPT has been around at least since Shakespeare: one role, often comic, is clearly around primarily to create a few minutes of relief, and draw attention briefly away from, the lead. Broadway and vaudeville later referred to that unselfish soul as “second banana”; the westerns turned him into a sidekick, a la Gabby Hayes, Pat Buttram, Fuzzy St. John, and even Tonto. (Butch and Sundance don’t count; they were equals.) If you want to be cynical about it, the principle lives on today in Keith Richards.
In sports, the idea usually translates to one competitor or team that either has the so-called “Indian sign” on another or consistently gets more limelight. America’s first bona fide tennis hero, Big Bill Tilden of the ‘20s, beat his doubles partner, Little Bill Johnston, in something like six consecutive national finals. Baseball’s immortal Roger Maris had just one season in which he got more attention than his teammate and buddy Mickey Mantle; the Yankees themselves had the Brooklyn Dodgers to kick around in the Series, at least until the mid-‘50s.
And since literature, the stage, the screen and sports are all indestructible icons of our time, why shouldn’t pool be on that same list? The catch is that those one-way relationships aren’t all that easy to find.
For instance, you can’t readily designate anybody as second fiddle to Ralph Greenleaf, because everybody was. The man simply beat the bejesus out of everybody except the plodding Frank Taberski, with whom he shared almost all the national titles of their era (the two men split every single championship from ’16 to ‘26). Oddly, when asked later in his career to name his most formidable opponent, Greenleaf nominated the almost-invisible Arthur C. Woods. Given the champion’s dismal legend, one must consider the man’s condition at point of query.
Pool’s other superhero, the even greater Willie Mosconi, was another story. Although he, too, was a dominant champion just before and after World War II and well into the ‘50s, Mosconi had not one but two cronies who spent most of their careers in his shadow. The logical choice would seem to be Irving Crane, whose career comprises an eye-opening 10 second-place finishes in world- and national-class events, most of those to Mosconi. But his fellow Hall of Fame member Jimmy Caras earned equal status (if you can call it status) as second banana to Mosconi; not only did he beat him even less than Crane did, but both men held fine exhibition contracts with Brunswick, making the comparison even more handy. Brunswick’s own promotional literature actually asserted that Caras was better known for shot-making than the champion. (Crane’s approach to pool truly seemed drawn from his ornithological namesake; he was tall, angular, stately and graceful. His table demeanor was pristine, and of course he played an elegant game of 14.1, especially in defense. Yet with all that said, he was about as entertaining as your average candlepin, thus saw less than overwhelming demand for exhibitions.)
The late Steve Mizerak’s constant second fiddle wasn’t hard to pinpoint; in fact, for years he was family. Peter Margo was then easily one of the five best 14.1 players in America, yet at pool he would forever play Sancho Panza to his brother-in-law’s Don Quixote no matter what, everybody on the east coast knew it, and he knew they knew. In one tournament, Margo averaged an astonishing 75 balls an inning over his last five matches — and still did not win. After opening the final match with yet another 75, Margo watched gloomily as the Miz went 150-and-out on him. (Margo eventually did get an upper hand of sorts, as at one time he owned two Staten Island poolrooms to Mizerak’s singleton in Jersey. He also left pool to get in on the ground floor of the movies-on-video industry and made several gazillion dollars, if that counts for anything.)
And even I once had an opponent I could count on drilling, my best buddy Jack Gunne. Whether I was slightly better or his luck was far worse, I’d give him odds on both the game and the money and yet he went close to 20 months without winning a single session (“I make more champions than Wheaties!” he’d lament). In most sessions, he didn’t win a game. When his business center finally shifted from LA to New York, he spent time in both Margo’s and Mizerak’s poolrooms, and turned things around in embarrassingly short order.
Are there pairings like that today? Not really, because you need to begin with somebody dominant, and that will forever be elusive as long as 9-ball remains the tournament game of choice. Today’s fields may not be as humongous as promoters would like, but they’re deep, really deep, in talent, and a medium-length 9-ball race can be one hideously fickle dame (which makes Earl Strickland’s many U. S. Open championships all the more remarkable). Good rivalries, sure: Rempe/Sigel, say, and Strickland/Reyes. But there’s nothing consistently one-sided, as in days of yore.
Not in America, anyhow. The most dominating player of the last generation other than Strickland is Efren Reyes, and when he was at the top, every other Filipino player on the rise attested that most of the trouble in beating Efren came out of having once idolized him. (This is not as fanciful as it seems; the Philippines have done all but add “Almighty” to Reyes’ surname. The horny version of Tiger Woods never got that kind of adulation here. Nobody did.) Presumably the two finest players from that nation who were admittedly secondary to Reyes were Francisco “Django” Bustamante, who at least also attained Hall of Fame status, and Jose Parica, who has not. The dour Parica, a charm-bracelet sized replica of Asian action film star Chow-Yun Fat, has a string of second-place finishes almost as impressive as Crane’s.
Literature, the stage, the screen, sports, pool. Wherever you find it, second fiddle really isn’t much of an identity. But it beats no identity at all.