[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.]
[Reprinted from February 1992]
Loyal readers of the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning Mike Royko, of which I've been one for decades, are charmed annually by his pre-season Chicago Cubs Trivia Quiz. (Typical question: "Which Cub was nicknamed 'Slits?'" Answer: None; that was the way the late then-manager Leo Durocher mispronounced Schlitz in the beer commercials he was doing.)
But a season or two ago, Royko was brought up short by one of his favorite scapegoats, 1940s shortstop Lenny Merillo. For years, Royko had been tweaking Cubs fans' long-suffering memories in the quiz by fondly recalling how vendors a good 15 rows in back of first base would scatter in terror whenever Merillo prepared to throw. On this occasion, though, Merillo wrote Royko after the annual quiz, admitted that he looked forward to and enjoyed the quiz each season, and added that in his ears, players didn't make much dough but played largely for love. Whatever the result, Merillo said he was extremely proud to have made the major leagues, even during the war years, and always tried his hardest. Royko not only published the letter, but, uncharacteristically yet sportingly, acknowledged that Merillo was right; that he (Royko) had forgotten that any ballplayer who ascends to the majors, no matter how dismal his performance, is still a sensational player by all practical standards. After all, of the millions of young men who play baseball at any level, only a few hundred reach the bigs each season. Lenny Merillo would not be poked fun at any further, Royko declared in his annual Cubs column, and he has been as good as his word since.
Pool, it seems to me, is not dissimilar from that assessment. Most of us have heard players gripe that of all the spectators who groan on seeing missed shots, few if any are fit to carry the chalk of the shooter in question. And that's valid enough. Any player, no matter how obscure, who ponies up some hundreds of dollars to play in a tournament these days and gets barbecued is, in all probability, still a terrific player and an odds-on favorite to hand you your head, especially on his home turf.
Back in the early '70s, when the U.S. Open 14.1 tourney was an annual Chicago event, Jim Mataya once tormented a low-key Ohioan named Tom Parker in a very few innings that included a run in the mid-80s. Parker's long run in that game barely reached double digits; he could be seen shaking his head sadly in almost every one of his rare turns at the table, and you could sense the entire bleachers thinking as one: "What is this guy doing here? And how can I get to him?" Yet, in asking around, a near-unanimous consensus came forth from those familiar with the man, that Parker was a bona fide 300-balls-plus runner who absolutely ruled his roost back home. Even Mataya was gracious enough to opine, "He didn't handle the tournament pressure too well, but you play him on his table for $3, and you won't like it."
Top hometown players are not at all unusual in the game: sometimes their legends leak out, sometimes not. For the 35-plus years I've been around pool, I've always heard road-caliber players advising one another to take a pass on New York and California. There was simply too much depth of legit players in those locales, too many rooms where you might get hot and beat the best only to have some third-rate shortstop leap up and clean your clock. Nor were metropolises the only areas to avoid; numerous small towns, especially in the South, were also candidates for a heavy X-mark on your road map.
Naturally, one wonders why such talent doesn't hit the road in search of fortune, but the question is largely unanswerable. The most obvious guesses are shallow pockets and lack of ambition, but it's almost equally likely that the players in question simply don't bring the same confidence level to foreign felt. A high percentage of top Southern players foolhardy enough to stray to the East Coast, especially during the advent of tighter-pocket tables, had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, and collect telephone calls, to find their way home; and it was rare that they were busted by the same players. Only Luther Lassiter and the fabled Eufala (Alabama) Kid were universally recognized as unbeatable anywhere. On the flip side of the same scene, Gene Nagy of Queens, N.Y., a truly world-class artist, was either so smart or so agoraphobic that he could only rarely be talked into playing as far away as another of the five boroughs. Right in the same borough with him, backers of the late Mike Eufemia would boredly bet that he would run a practice 200 before the Golden Cue closed that night. Jacksonville had the late and awesome Sam Blumenthal, who was so deadly on home turf that any stranger coming through the door could get the 5 and the break. The list is indeed long of home-court players who are best left to themselves.
Minorities also foster fearsome home-turfers. In the early '60s, when the East Coast was more landlordish about owning pool than ever, only the very top New Yorkers were willing to drive the 40-plus minutes to Lodi, N.J., to take on the many-storied Fifth Avenue Red. Here in Chicago, Lefty Chapman and Javanley (Youngblood) Washington hardly ever left the South Side, and it was usually fruitless when they did. Just 30 miles south of them, a local terror dwelled by the name Hammond Hank, who was said by many to be better than either Chapman, Washington or, later, Len (Bugs) Rucker. And in tougher parts of the city, gang-infested and openly hostile to visitors, there undoubtedly are killer players whose names have never come to light.
The entire home-turf philosophy was summed up interestingly, of course, by Chicago's mercurial and insightful Fred Bentivegna, a few years ago. In a major 9-ball tournament held just 35 miles or so west of town, Freddy flayed Jean Balukas mercilessly in an intimidating two of the 13 games they played. "It would seem," he sighed reflectively, later, "that I don't travel well."