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
April: Personality Transplant
THE LATE Eddie Laube probably alienated the operating room in which he was born, if not the mother from whom he had just emerged. He was probably in his mid-40s when I first encountered him, but he was so abrasive and unbearable that I really didn't learn much about him until 10 or 12 years later. The stories I overheard him telling (loudly) made extensive use of the three-syllable epithet that the late Lenny Bruce made famous as "blah-blah-blah" (sometimes, in advanced anger, pronounced "blah-blah-blah"). They were stories mostly without characters, except for This Blah-blah-blah Here and That Mooch Blah-blah-blah Over There.
The very first thing I knew about Laube (rhymes with "howdy") was that he could really play. He had won a city 14.1 championship; he had authored several 150+-ball runs on 5-by-10-foot tables, which were plentiful in his era; he even once won a billiards game over the great Harold Worst. But what was nearly miraculous about the man was how on earth he ever got anybody to agree to play him. Most of the games I saw him get took place only after he browbeat some poor sap for 30 or 40 minutes first. He only accepted pool matches he was absolutely certain he would win, and even then he verbally bullied his customer from beginning to end. Laube was a good-sized man, but with very little muscle and even less heart; it's the eighth wonder of the world that he never did get a hairstyling by Dufferin for his fat-mouthed efforts.
Somehow Eddie Laube had managed to get through one of the city's better technical high schools, where he learned enough to become a genuinely excellent tool and die maker when he felt like working at it, which fell somewhere between seldom and never. By Laube's own admission his family had some money, not filthy rich but they did own some apartment buildings. When they realized that their misfit son was never going to become a bona fide tradesman, they put him to work managing a building or two. Unfortunately, his zest for that was a matched set to his fondness for tool and die making; all he really wanted to do was play pool and billiards.
Complementing his miserable mouth, Laube wasn't much to look at. He wore glasses and was portly and balding, with a pencil-sized space between his two front teeth. Still, he had somehow found someone to marry him, and had a couple kids; not surprisingly, the woman did not feel that her husband's full-time pool and billiards playing was part of the bargain, tossed him, and "poisoned the water" as far as his kids were concerned. "Once they got old enough to tell me, ‘You're a bad daddy,' I gave up on them too," he told me once.
Laube's home base for recreation was a place called Stadium Billiards, right where Chicago's United Center stands today, across the street from the old Chicago Stadium. I was never inside the room myself, but according to reputation, Stadium Billiards had more action on, say, a typical Wednesday afternoon than the far more famous Bensinger's ever hoped to host on a Saturday night. Eddie Laube was probably the best white player in town and the room wouldn't admit any other color; there he met his hustling partner, the late Ray Maples, a fat transplanted southerner who, astoundingly, was even more obnoxious than Laube. As a hard drinker, Maples wouldn't keep company with anyone who wasn't; worse, he seemed to like to fight. When the two men waddled into a room together, it wasn't just their opponents who were going to go home unhappy, it was more likely the entire room.
When a changing neighborhood folded Stadium Billiards, Eddie had to shift his theater of operations to Bensinger's. Pool action for him there was either too cheap or non-existent, so he turned almost exclusively to caroms. Some Saturday nights he would forsake the poolhall for a local ballroom; in that era, that was where middle-aged men would go in the hope of meeting someone. Once away from the mercifully dead Maples, he had no further reason to drink the way he had. He attracted and married a woman who, despite being nearly his age, called him "Daddy." And he decided to turn his tool-and-die-making talent into making cues.
His first few sticks sold for $55 or $60, unwrapped un-inlaid models in maple or rosewood. When Woody Allen, who was appearing in a Chicago cabaret near a poolroom, asked about one, Eddie jacked the price up to $125 and showed everybody Allen's personal check. Within a few months, he was pricing his cues at a multiple of what the immortal George Balabushka was charging; since the brilliant Ernie Gutierrez (Ginacues) had not yet surfaced, Laube was very likely the first cuemaker ever to get $1,000 for his product.
And most surprising of all, he mellowed out. No more Blah-blah-blah stories. No more insults. He even offered good playing tips. A good 55 years into his life, Eddie Laube had finally done something that people thought was good, liked him for doing, and told him so. He was totally remade.
Laube and his wife retired to Arkansas; seemingly as a reward for doing good deeds, oil was found on his property, no major strike but enough to put a few more bucks in his pocket. When we last talked, he told me he had been diagnosed with cancer and had less than a year, and made it fairly clear that he would prefer to say goodbye right then rather than have people tracking his infirmity. He asked about my friend Freddy the Beard, too; years before, we had probably both been his personal blah-blah-blahs, at least in the retelling. But this time, miraculously, he told me that he loved us both.
I've seen better players; I've met way nicer guys. But I've never seen a transformation like that in all my days.