[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.]
Back in ‘94, when the disgusting creature known as Tonya Harding came to notoriety, the national news media couldn’t wait to tell America that she was a pool player too. In the lion’s share of all reportage, she was “…cigar-smoking, pool-playing Tonya Harding,” as though that were proof of something or other. (“Aw, well; what can we expect of her? After all, she’s ‘pool-playing’; I mean, Christ…”)
As our own brilliant Mike Shamos has pointed out more than once, there is apparently only one circumstance under which contemporary journalism finds pool, and its locales, fit for coverage: when it connects to mayhem. Accounts of shootings, stabbings, fights and gang activity rarely spare any billiard room anywhere in the vicinity from mention, whether the rooms were directly involved or otherwise. Chicago newspapers recently flunked the same dismal test, reporting at length on the complex process of having a fugitive extradited from Mexico. The problem was that the idiot had murdered his best buddy outside Marie’s Golden Cue, where both were frequent patrons. And there the two of them were, pictured in happier times, smiling together right in front of Marie’s — in full color, yet — with the room’s marquee sign, and its mindless message “Go Bear”, in full prominence.
ESPN’s news “crawl”, at the bottom of the TV screen, is considered one of the top three innovations in televised-sports history (the other two being football’s otherwise invisible first-down marker and PokerCam). In the entire history of that ESPN feature, there has been exactly one cue-games mention. At least it didn’t concern murder, but it did report a death, that of the late Steve Mizerak. So why can’t the cue games attract favorable ink in the mass media? Some theorize, matter-of-factly, that the stigma dating clear back to the Depression still exists. The legendary ABC-TV sports exec Roone Arledge has been quoted as saying, “Pool doesn’t draw flies.” (It’s to be noted that Arledge didn’t seem to mind when his network’s coverage of the first Willie Mosconi/Minnesota Fats encounter in ’77 drew ratings second only to that year’s Muhammad Ali/Leon Spinks championship fight.) Others, equally candidly, believe that the media might be more attracted if the players themselves were more interesting. “Look what Arnold did for bodybuilding” is a common rallying cry behind that notion.
(That comparison is only partly valid. It’s true that Schwarzenegger, sporting a high degree of intelligence and an even more rare sense of humor, was the very first in his sport to attract national media attention. And, roughly 30 years later, bodybuilding competitions indeed pay far better than they ever did, especially at the very top. But what Arnold was really promoting, in the main, was Arnold, obviously with colossal success. Only Lou Ferrigno, the star of TV’s “The Incredible Hulk,” and Arnold’s foil in “Pumping Iron”, the lively documentary in which both were discovered, has ever held anything approaching a similar mass public following. And the public at large still regards most competitive bodybuilders as a bunch of preening oiled freaks. At least pool players, with everything else they’ve ever been accused, beginning with alleged philosopher Herbert Spencer’s foolishness about a “wasted youth”, have never been called that.)
It’s been since the early ’40s that pool and billiards drew anything approaching regular news coverage. The New York Times had a billiards writer named Frank Kotch, who reported on tournament and league play — both were prominent back then — and, once in a great while, do a player profile. The old Chicago Herald-American featured the flowery-styled columnist Byron Schoeman, who was the great Willie Hoppe’s manager at one time and is widely believed to be the true author of Hoppe’s well-known book “Billiards As It Should Be Played”. (This publication’s Robert Byrne opined that “The book has driven at least 50,000 people to take up bowling.”) Yet it’s still hard to believe that either man made a full-time living at his paper reporting nothing else. Just about all major competitive play was suspended during World War II, though, and even once it resumed at the war’s conclusion, press coverage for the cue games was never the same.
A few years ago, Chicago newspapers carried a release from the Department of Justice, in the interest of a major drug dealer and fugitive named Mario Rivera. The DOJ flier claimed, “Rivera is an avid pool player who frequents poolrooms and plays for cash.” The thing is, not one Hispanic or Mexican-American player I know — and I know plenty — ever heard of Mario Rivera. So where does the DOJ get that info, and why did they think it would interest anyone anyhow? But aside from that, the last cue-games press coverage I can remember around here dates back to the early ’70s. An old-school hustler named Isadore “Pony” Rosen had dropped dead while shooting at game ball in a $2 one-pocket game — and somehow or other, that got a full column on page 1 of the Chicago Tribune’s sports section! That’s because the reporter in question, one Martin Wyant, was a pool wannabe himself; there was even a brief time when we worked together at a famous Chicago journalism training ground.
What a job Wyant did! He found not only Pony’s old-time players and peers, but family too; few even knew that Pony had one. Wyant, who also authored a few pieces for the old Bowlers Journal & Billiard Review, the forerunner of this magazine, played pool at maybe half my speed, and did not know Pony Rosen personally 1/10th as well as I did. But still, it was he and not I who was published on pool in the Tribune, and I remember thinking, “If he did it, maybe someday I can too.”
And not long ago, my home room, Chris’s Billiards (which has never actually been owned by anyone named Chris) was in the news too. No murders! No deaths! But no pool either. The article was about BYOB licenses.