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
Mar: One Road, Two Joes
[Ed. Note: George was nine months ahead on his Tips & Shafts column at the time of his death. Billiards Digest wouldn’t deny his faithful readers the joy of seeing those columns in their rightful place on the last page.]
Not that you’ll ever need to know this, but it’s perfectly possible to drive from Chicago clear to Boston without ever changing lanes; the same highway (Route 90) takes you all the way. Just outside Cleveland, though, the highway swings left instead of the more expected right. One year, driving my son to Emerson College in Boston, I missed that turn and stupidly added 200 miles to the trip. I don’t even remember exactly what number the wrong highway was, but I did note, to my son’s increasing exasperation, that it passed both Minersville, PA and Gloversville, NY. And both are fairly well known pool birthplaces, among the oddballs who study such things.
Minersville gave us the late Joe Balsis. The town took its unimaginative name from its main industry, the mining of anthracite coal. Its young men were raised, for the most part, by fathers who had worked, or were still working, the mines themselves, and logically expected their sons to do the same. But John Balsis ran a five-table poolroom in that town, in the hopes of keeping his two boys above ground and in school, and seeing them become doctors. His vision was half-correct. Joe, the younger of the two, learned to play at four, was a Philadelphia Boys’ Champion at 11, won four consecutive world junior titles over the next four years, and would eventually be national champion (in ’73) and a member of the Hall of Fame. He may be best remembered as the victim of Irving Crane’s stupendous 150-and-out run for the ’65 national championship, but Balsis was also considered the best pure shot maker among his peers and a terrific guy.
Gloversville is where the older, and somewhat more obscure, Joe Procita was born. Many readers of this magazine will not be old enough to remember him, but his long-run record of 182 (on a 5’ x 10’ table) stood for decades until Darren Appleton plowed it under in the fall of ’13. Procita also enjoyed a few years when he was considered to be one of America’s top three in both pool (back when 14.1 was the only game that counted) and billiards.
Nothing is known of Procita’s youth; he apparently did nothing with his life but play the cue games, parlaying meager tournament winnings, infrequent action, and occasional gigs as a house pro into an existence. The first time I saw him play, the opponent was no less than the great Willie Mosconi, and it was also the only time I ever saw Mosconi play anything but an exhibition. This was a challenge match for the U. S. title, which at the time amounted to the world championship. The particular block I witnessed is not difficult to remember at all. Mosconi ran 46 off Procita’s break, missed an easy side-pocket shot, and did a full 360-degree spin of fury. Procita made four before getting frozen off-angle to an object ball, missed a hopeless masse shot on that ball, and Mosconi went 104-and-out in his next inning.
Joe did serve as house pro at Chicago’s Bensinger’s for a while, which basically meant he was available for lessons. I tried one — he charged $5 — but was disappointed in his inability to explain what made the “right shot” the right shot. “You’ll want to shoot the 3 ball here,” he’d say, “That’s the right shot.”
“OK, but why is it the right shot?” I’d asked, thinking that was really what I was spending my $5 to learn. His laconic “It just is,” obviously taught me precious little.
My grandfather also took me to see Procita give an exhibition at his private club in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks away from Bensinger’s. The place seemed to have few members much less than 75 years of age, and I recall the excellence of their creamed spinach, which was highly appropriate because teeth inventories among the members were drastically limited. Joe fit right in because he was as toothless as the members; if you saw him play on a night when he was chewing gum, the combined frenetic activity of his deserted jaws and his pump-handle stroke could lead you to think he was about to come apart, like Mr. Potato Head.
The opponent that night was the club champion, a man named Jess Jacobs. I distinctly remember that he had a head of hair like patent leather, had been married 5 times, and had also taken the worst beating in the annals of championship 3-cushion play (50-3 to the great Willie Hoppe). But that night, he played brilliantly — the gallery even creaked to its feet for his dazzling reverse-english, up-and-down-the-table bank shot —and beat Joe 50-46. Afterwards Joe did do some impressive trick shots, including the “juggling” of all 15 object balls, rolled by hand three rails around the table one after the other and all kept in constant motion. (By comparison, Tommy Kennedy used to do the same thing in trade-show exhibitions a few years ago, only with about 10 of the balls.)
Years later, I actually drew Joe Procita in a local tournament. He was down-at-the-heels by then, just about totally broke except for what few students he could find to teach or when somebody put him in cheap action. Someone had posted his entry fee for this competition. I suppose he could be designated as “the best player I ever beat,” except at that point he couldn’t play at all anymore. I won easily with a long run of about 20. You’d have to call it bittersweet, if that.
And all this came up because I couldn’t follow Route 90 through Cleveland.