February: “Mr. Byrne”
I’ve long said that the editorial quality of Billiards Digest over the years, in both style and depth, has had very little to do with the editor and publisher, and almost everything to do with the fact that a number of brilliant writers just happen to love the sport. If there were to be a Mt. Rushmore of billiard writers, I would argue that it would be incomplete if it didn’t include the busts of Robert Byrne, George Fels and Mike Shamos.
The most prolific, and quite possibly the most impactful, of that mighty triumvirate is Bob Byrne. He also, as the late George Fels constantly bemoaned in his writings, had the best head of hair of the three.
It was immediately evident to a 22-year-old fledgling billiard editor in 1980 that “Mr. Byrne,” as I called him from the day I started at the magazine until I was well into my 50s, was one of the sport’s treasures. He was a man of many parts — humorist, engineer, author, chess expert, magician, national class billiards player — but, thankfully for the cue sports, he had shifted the bulk of his attention to pool and billiards. By the time I met him, he had already penned the hysterical and revealing “McGoorty, The Story of a Billiard Bum,” a biography of famed San Francisco hustler and raconteur “Deadpan” Danny McGoorty. He had also already published his best-selling “Byrne’s Standard Book of Pool and Billiards.” His “Standard Book,” quickly did become the standard in pool and billiard instructional books. It combined incredibly detailed and precise diagrams (his engineering background coming into play), equally precise and well-crafted descriptions and heavy doses of Mr. Byrne’s famous sand-dry wit.
As a young editor, I read over his submissions to the magazine (Mr. Byrne was a regular contributor of both instructional and feature articles) in awe of their style and clarity. More than a little intimidated, I rarely altered a word in his manuscripts.
Because he was such a perfectionist, he insisted on submitting his own diagrams for every article. The diagrams always included an overhead shot of the shooter, which, as was immediately evident by the flowing hair, was a drawing of himself. Mr. Byrne submitted instructional articles for more than 20 years, and if you look closely at the drawings in each of those issues, the shooter never wore the same shirt twice. Mr. Byrne would painstakingly draw a different pattern on the shooter’s sleeve and back. He loved paisleys.
As those familiar with Mr. Byrne’s background and career often note, what made his billiard instructional books so good was the fact that he was an accomplished writer first and a player second. He published eight novels, five of them of the thriller/disaster genre, in which he could combine his engineering knowledge with his writing skills. If you thumb through those fictional books, you will come across many familiar names. He often incorporated the names of players and industry acquaintances in his novels. You’ll even find the name Mike Panozzo in his 1988 thriller, “Mannequin.” I was a sheriff.
Mr. Byrne also had an affinity for clever quotes and snappy retorts, which spawned seven books featuring large collections of quotes.
But it is his impact on the billiard community that is most relevant to readers of this magazine. His seven books and seven videos on the game have drawn scores of new players to the sport and have helped just as many established players improve their game. Mr. Shamos’ installment of “Chronicles” in this issue (pg. 42) does an excellent job of putting Mr. Byrne’s contributions to billiards into proper context.
For me, personally, his importance goes far beyond billiards. We were terrific friends for 36 years. He was almost 30 years my senior, but I’d have rather spent a night out with Bob and his wonderful wife Cindy than with anyone my own age. My wife and I visited Bob a few times when he still lived in Northern California, and many times after he and Cindy moved to his hometown Dubuque, Iowa, in the late ’90s. We were in Dubuque for his 80th birthday bash and again for his 85th.
For nearly 20 years, I hosted a dinner during the annual Billiard Congress of America Expo for Billiards Digest staff and contributors who were attending the show. They were fantastic soirees. The long evenings of food, wine and conversation with Mssrs. Byrne, Fels and Shamos made for memories that I cherish as much as any. Mostly, I would just sit back, sip my martini and laugh as the three of them used intelligence and wit in verbal battles that always reminded me of Errol Flynn swashbuckling scenes. The banter often went long into the night. I recall a trade show in Louisville, at which Mr. Byrne, Mr. Shamos and myself laughed well into the early hours, with Mr. Shamos paying a taxi cab to run out and pick up pizza for us.
I count my blessings daily that I was fortunate enough to land in the billiard business. People who get this sport and this industry into their blood rarely leave, which has helped me develop some of the longest and dearest relationships of my life.
Mr. Byrne was 86 when he passed away in December. I would love to have enjoyed his company for many more years, but I feel grateful and fortunate in knowing that I had the honor of his friendship for 36.