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
November: Pool, Meet TV
IF THERE is one aspect of the cue games that I never really got into (other than playing them decently), it would be memorabilia. I have neither the space for display, nor the interest for acquisition. All the way through school, my very lowest grades were reserved exclusively for history. And when it comes to pool and billiards history, the entire universe runs a hopeless second to my brilliant colleague Mike Shamos in the first place.
Not long ago, though, I was given two little booklets (barely 6-by-4-inches) commemorating pool’s very first encounter with television, dating back to the late ’50s. The show was called “Ten-Twenty”, a 30-minute program that ran, as I recall, 13 weeks. It was created by a man named Frank Oliva, but he shared its copyright with the late sportscaster “Whispering Joe” Wilson. (Hard-core trivia players will note that Wilson was the original TV voice of the Chicago Cubs, and he was also in the booth for Irving Crane’s famous 150-and-out on Joe Balsis in the 1966 14.1 U.S. Open.)
Eight of the booklets’ 12 pages are devoted to the rules of Ten-Twenty, but for those already initiated to pool, they were considerably simpler than that: The two contestants played the equivalent of ten-and-stop straight pool for seven innings each. Since a player’s inning ended immediately upon his pocketing a 10th consecutive ball, that shot was also played defensively. In his eighth inning, any player reaching a run of 10 was permitted to try for twenty more, giving rise to both the title of the game/show and a potential perfect score of 100. The late Oliva wore the multiple hats of show producer, referee and player recruiter; I can’t remember the entire roster, or close to it, any more, but I definitely recall that future Hall of Fame players Crane and Jimmy Moore appeared, as did renowned practice player Mike Eufemia, who, as usual in formal competition, lost.
Not that pool is much of a threat to “NCIS” or any other successful TV program, but I’d say the game is nevertheless in the debt of Oliva and Wilson. Frank Oliva was one of five brothers from the pool-rich town of Rockford, Ill. The king of the hill in that town, in the Oliva brothers’ era, was a man named Joe Diehl, who finished as high as second nationally in both three-cushion billiards and 14.1, then the only recognized pool game, and even accomplished that in the same year, when national championship play was the equivalent of world championship play. Another top player and peer to the brothers, Charlie Cacciapaglia, went on to mentor yet another future Hall of Fame inductee, Dallas West. But all five Olivas were hundred-ball runners who played what meager tournaments there were in the ’40s and early ’50s.
Frank was not the best of the brothers; most insiders gave that laurel to his older sibling Nick. But he was surely the most dedicated to pool, which paid off in his forming what has become the longest-running women’s league in America. (It still runs today at Chris’s Billiards in Chicago, although dwindling membership has motivated the league to open its rolls to men as well. In the Oliva tradition — the good man simply wanted everybody to play pool — the league accepts new members at any time, regardless of skill level. It’s run by the diminutive Pat Hays, Chicago’s last cop to carry the official, and way politically incorrect, title of “Policewoman”; it was she who gave me the booklets.) Fate was hideously unkind to poor Frank Oliva and his love for pool; by the time I met him, arthritis had crippled his right hand so badly that he had to shake hands with his left.
As for Whispering Joe, he was a certifiable pool aficionado too although I never saw him play. His moniker came from, of all sports, bowling; he was that sport’s pioneer broadcaster too, and the sotto voce catchphrase which became his trademark was, “Don’t worry, folks; the bowlers can’t hear me.” His enthusiasm for all three sports — baseball, bowling and pool — was not only infectious but barely controlled. I remember stopping him at random on Michigan Avenue not long after Crane’s great run, introducing myself, and thanking him for the fine job he was doing for our game. He could not have been more gracious.
Not long after Crane’s landmark run, the local Fox outlet which carried it was bought by a bigmouth named Sterling “Red” Quinlan, and among his bloviatings was the pronouncement that there would never be any pool again on Fox. But imagine the courage that Oliva and Wilson — and, for that matter, the programming executives who approved their idea — must have had. Their copyright date was 1958. That means there was no “The Hustler” except in fiction form, where it barely created a ripple. There was no Johnson City or its hustlers’ jamborees, therefore no “Minnesota Fats” in the national eye, nor his fabled rivalry with all-time champion Willie Mosconi. In other words, the two men had absolutely no momentum of any kind going for them to support the pitching of their idea. All they had was a bottomless passion for a game and the courage of their convictions.
Fifty-plus years later, the game is in the same doldrums it was then. Our last real link to TV, excluding trick shot competitions, speed pool and other aberrations, was the women’s pro tour. For whatever reason(s), they have no new tournament telecasts to offer ESPN, and that will most likely be our last chance. The last time I even saw pool in ESPN2’s listings, back in mid-May, they decided to show us bowling instead.
The booklets are destined for Mike Shamos’ much-heralded archives. “Ten-Twenty” is destined for oblivion. I couldn’t begin to tell you where pool is headed.