By George Fels
[Reprinted from Sept. 2004]
The most colorful thing about the late Billy Joe “Cornbread Red” Burge, at least to me, was that nickname. True, I did know people who thought he was a laugh riot, but the fact was, if you weren’t part of his circle, he had hardly any personality at all. In the late ’60s, he appeared on the TV show called, “Minnesota Fats Hustles the Pros.” After he whomped the stuffing out of the show’s star, Rudolph Wanderone, in all three forms of pool played, emcee “Whispering Joe” Wilson naively attempted an interview. “Yeah, tough match,” was as insightful as Red would get during those tortuous few minutes, and he barely got his jaws apart for that. “Hmmm,” murmured my wife, who could be one highfalutin’ snob when the mood suited her, “Articulate.”
As for pool outsiders in general, that moniker was the one thing about him they could remember. Moreover, it was the only such nickname they did remember. If Burge did, indeed, have some kind of Jones for cornbread, it sprange from his myth; no one can be found who ever saw him tear into any. But in his era, almost every pool player of note claimed a nickname, almost all more creative than the contrived nicknames of today. Some were inspired by occupation (“Pots and Pans” Rogoff, “Meatman” Balsis) in those rare scenarios where players were employed; some by physical traits (“Handsome Danny” Jones, who really wasn’t, except by pool player standards); and some by habits (“Wimpy” Lassiter). Cornbread’s, on the other hand, was the only one that rhymed, and unlike the other Red from Jersey, his hair was legitimately red, at least as a young man.
If you followed Red’s doings on a daily basis, I gather he could be pretty entertaining, especially if you were betting on him (I never got the opportunity). He was one tough little mutt, having survived both throat cancer and open-heart surgery, and it naturally followed that there wasn’t much on a pool or snooker table that fazed him in the slightest. He was primarily a 9-ball and one-pocket hustler, but forayed into the first few Hustler’s Jamborees in Johnston City, Ill., in the early ’60s. His tournament play was indifferent, and it was there that Wanderone beat him somehow in after-hours play and uttered the memorable line, “Now he’s just plain No Bread Red.”
In general, however, Red booked few losers. Unlike most of his hustling peers, he had no “leaks” for the money he won. He drank, but was not into other addictive drugs, and no form of gambling other than pool interested him much. He was married; he had a gorgeous daughter who, through the wonders of genetics, looked nothing whatsoever like him. And the money he won went to his wife and daughter, without exception. Red didn’t even particularly need road trips; he did just fine at the Rack & Cue, the fabled money room just outside Detroit, where an FBI raid one weeknight netted $250,000 in cash. Virtually every money player in the country showed up at the Rack at one time or another. If they were foolish enough to take Red on — especially in anything played on a snooker table — they mostly came in second.
I only saw Red play once, from just a single table away, and would not find out who he was until much later. This was at the old Bensinger’s room in downtown Chicago, in one of its last respectable years. I arrived at the poolroom from the harness races with exactly two cents in my pocket. I had gone to the room because I just didn’t feel like going home yet. But I ran into two guys whom I knew and had gambled with before. I’m not overly proud of this, but I was tired, pissed and most of all infected with the malaise that grips so many late-night losing gamblers: “I just don’t care any more.” So, with my $0.02 bankroll, I made a game with the pool player of the two: 50 points for $20. I had a checkbook with me, but whether or not there was any money in the account was highly problematic. But they knew me, and didn’t make me post the money. I was back in action.
I wouldn’t have made the game if one of Bensinger’s very few 9-foot tables hadn’t been open. Red was on the next such table, playing $5 9-ball. At that point, I had been around pool for not quite six years, had a long run of not quite three racks and was dumb enough that I could probably still have been hustled. But something about the redhead in the truck driver overalls on the next table didn’t add up. If he was enough of a rube to shoot off an open thumb, as he was, then how come he confidently gunned the 9 ball so hard it seemed like he was trying to tear the pocket off the rail?
As for my match, I utilized an open-thumb bridge too, not because I was hustling, but to disguise my quaking on a very hard day. The game was close and quite poorly played from both ends. Finally, I got a warm smile from Dame Providence: My opponent got out of line sufficiently that his 49th point required him to re-break the balls from a less-than-optimal angle. Sure enough, he buried the cue ball in the swamp, called some near-hopeless combination shot and missed. With the table wide open, I managed to poke in the five or six I needed. I then predictably drilled the guy in a second game. Showing considerably more candor than I had, he and his partner implored me to indulge them in some $2 9-ball for their last $8, which I also won in the minimal number of racks.
Flushed with victory and a restored bankroll of $48.02, I watched Red continue his carnage. And at one point, we made eye contact. While we had absolutely nothing in common except pool, I swear we each had the identical thought: “You’re on the grift too, aren’t you, you sly bastard?”
That moment alone is reason enough for me to miss him.