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
January: Small Portions
THE LATE Burton Spain's name came up the other day, not in conjunction with the making of cues - the man's lifetime output was just 42 sticks of his own - but with his immersion in Mensa, the high-IQ society. Burt's devotion to the organization went far beyond mere membership; he was a regional officer whose entire social life revolved there. He had few friends other than his fellow Mensans, or, as they're called, M's. In the two Chicago billiard rooms he frequented, he preferred caroms to pool by far because he felt that side of those rooms offered him access to a much nicer class of guy.
Not that I'm one to talk, but Burton was one isolated dude. The reason Mensa was formed in the first place was to give people whose intelligence had made them virtual pariahs since childhood a place where they could finally fit. Burt attended one of Chicago's better public high schools, but he was so bored there that by his own admission he barely finished. Although we played in the same rooms, I cannot remember that we ever competed, although he seemed to enjoy conversing briefly. He knew I had been an M myself for a short time - I lost interest when the people I met seemed to be far shyer than I was, which I would not have thought possible - and our mutual attitude ran something like, "I wouldn't expect to find a guy like you here, but I'm sort of glad I did."
Burt's reputation was for more widespread among America's cuemakers than the playing public, and it was unrivaled, in good measure because there were so few with the same sub-specialty. His living depended on assembling, splicing and giving the cue butt in its original, rectangular form, points, veneers and all. That's called a blank, giving rise to all sorts of God-awful bedroom jokes which we will not be revisiting, and nobody made blanks better than Burton Spain. (He even wrote the definitive, by default, book on the subject.) He also created his own "butterfly" splice, but he did not have the benefit of fourth-axis, Computer Numerically Controlled software programs, or any other of today's top-of-the-line cuemaking toys (although he eventually added computer skills). Once that blank was completely put together and dried, Burton would turn it down to the approximate diameter of the rod from which your clothes hang in the closet. And that is what he would sell to the finest cue artists of his time, including the late George Balabushka and Gus Szamboti. Thus, in near-total anonymity, Burton Spain enabled some of the finest cues ever made.
Burt lived and worked mostly alone (except for a longtime friendship with fellow cue artist Craig Peterson, who was his original inspiration, and partner John Davis) in a three-flat building he owned in a nondescript part of town, with no real expressway route to it. But I still went out there a number of times for very modest cue repairs, such as new tips or an occasional re-wrap; I met the one woman he allowed into his life, to the extent of moving her in. He had found her, naturally enough, through Mensa; she was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and fully looked the part, with horn-rimmed glasses, a face that absolutely radiated (what else?) intelligence, and mostly black outfits. The relationship didn't quite make two years, and when I innocently asked one day where she was, he merely shrugged, "Aaaah I'm a bachelor," as though that were somehow meant to be.
There was a modest-sized gorilla in the room when I would visit Burt: once he turned from making blanks to creating entire sticks of his own, I didn't want one. For the joints of his cues, he chose (and may even have had a hand in developing) a plastic he called Delrin. Someone let me hit a few balls with a Spain cue once; there are few aspects of the cue games more subjective than the way a given cue feels, and while my opinion as a player isn't worth postage, I simply didn't care for Delrin's hit. Maybe it was just that I was too accustomed to metal-jointed cues; I wasn't all that analytical about that back then. But on the day when he finally said, "George, I get it by now that you're not interested in one of my cues," I was hard-pressed for an explanation. As I recall, I stammered something lame, like I just couldn't afford to add another wand to my collection at the moment, but my behind squirmed all the way through it.
Burton partnered up with the esteemed cuemaker and broker Joel Hercek for a while, and it was during that time that he built a lot of those 42 cues; it was also in that period that he announced he was going to stop. His name came up recently because an associate at the city college where I teach has a sister who's heavy-duty into Mensa herself; I asked him to ask her, just for kicks, if she remembered a guy named Burton Spain, which of course she did. They had been friends, and she kept the last birthday card he ever sent her as a remembrance. She also revealed that when Burt died, he had no family except Mensa, so he left them all his assets, his building, equipment and inventory. Accordingly, Mensa named a fellowship for him, called GOBS: Good Old Burton Spain. Thus the man left behind not one but two unflawed legacies.
And yet there's something hauntingly sad about Burton beyond his being only 54 when cancer claimed him. Just 42 finished cues ever made, a following that numbered handfuls instead of hundreds, not even two years of romance, hardly any money earned compared to what today's cuemaking stars get, and that narrow, narrow window of a social existence. Burt Spain was a brilliant guy, all right. But he sure did take small portions of things.