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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.

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Best of Fels
September: Wanted: A Hero
September 2017

By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 1981]

Universality at Last! It had to be the first time in at least 50 years that any mention of pool, in any form, made the front pages of all the newspapers. The date was January 22, 1981. The speaker was former top White House aide Hamilton Jordan. He was issuing a statement about the successful negotiating process on behalf of the Iran hostages. And he declared that the agreement for the hostages’ release came together “like a Willie Mosconi pool shot, where you have to hit the balls perfectly, and if you do, 10 balls fall into the pockets at one time.”

I wouldn’t look for the game to be completely reborn as a result of this free publicity. But Jordan’s statement really is rather remarkable for the way it reflects the total stranglehold Mosconi had on the game. Most of Willie Mosconi’s competitive heyday took place before Hamilton Jordan was born. Mosconi’s world titles number well into the teens. Among all sports, his only competition for consistency at the championship level comes from billiards. But what Willie Mosconi did besides run balls and win was to elevate his game in the eyes of the masses. He rose to prominence in the ’30s and continued through the 40s, and even a casual check of the billiards industry will show you that the game never had it so good. The number of commercial rooms was at an all-time high, fathers still took their kids to play in them, and audiences for the game numbering in the thousands were not unusual, especially when Mosconi played. He wrote two books, made film shorts, entertained troops. Even in the last little flurry of success the game enjoyed, in the next year or two following “The Hustler,” Mosconi was still in great demand for exhibitions, and the advent of plastic balls and sharp-angled pockets confounded him so much that all he could do was run 150 and out, just like he had always done. Willie Mosconi’s stature as a champion was not lost on the media. A full generation ago, writing of his championship block with the late Joe Procita, Time magazine said, “…Mr. Mosconi looked like a banker surrounded by characters out of a banker’s nightmare.” That was the last time I saw him play with anything more than pride on the line, and he went through poor Procita like water through shampoo lather. But it wasn’t the mere winning that made seeing Mosconi magical; after all, it was a foregone conclusion for the entire universe that he would win. What was special was the man’s carriage and demeanor and sense of himself. The beauty of the game always came out when Mosconi played, and once the show was over, there would be a virtual stampede to get to the tables, because he made it look so easy and everybody had championship fantasies of their own to act out. If you were into the game at all, you played several notches above your customary speed right after watching Mosconi.

We haven’t had a player like that, or anything remotely close since. Oh, I know it’s the rage among some of today’s top young players to issue open challenges to Mosconi, and maybe they could win today at that; Mosconi has not played competitively since the early ’60s. But a comparison between Mosconi in his prime and anyone else is nothing more than a comparison between lions and Christians.

And, despite an occasional sneer you might hear, Mosconi played pretty fair for cash whenever somebody was maniacal or masochistic enough to challenge him. He didn’t bet anything that would make the GNP shift one way or the other, but he won what he did bet. In a 9-ball session with Chicago’s Joe Sebastian, a seedy little man but a brilliant player, Willie ran the first 13 racks out from the opening break. Joe’s backer, fast approaching coma, threw in the towel, and Joe indignantly lamented, “Whaddya mean, quit? You ain’t seen was I can do yet!” And the legendary Minnesota Fats, for all his blustery hype about his one-pocket superiority, booked a loser with Mosconi in the famous Allinger’s room in Philadelphia.

What’s more important by far is that we haven’t had that kind of champion since. When you took your kid or some other novitiate to see Mosconi, you could assure that person that they had a pretty good chance to see a guy run 100 balls, and there isn’t a living human you can brag that way about today. And most of all, there was that magical thrill of knowing you were watching the best there ever was. Like the beer commercial says, “…it doesn’t get any better than this.” Willie Mosconi was clearly the last champion we ever had with the potential to do for our game what the Beatles did for rock or Schwarzenegger did for bodybuilders; create a bridge to the masses, invite millions in cordially, elevate the game. We have had a merchandisable player since Mosconi. Steve Mizerak does not compare either as a player or as an electricity-generator, but he’s still a rare talent with an amiable personality, and those are awfully good beer commercials, the best promotion shot in the arm the game has had in 20 years. So how has Mizerak’s organization (the Professional Pool Players Association) gone about sponsoring him? By putting petty grievances first and running low-prize fund tournaments. In the meantime, they have not produced a player whose name will be bandied about in relation to world news events in 20 years.

It’s not the PPPA’s fault that we have no dominant, visible champion today. But I tend to agree with Danny DiLiberto, who said, “It takes more than just gathering a bunch of hundred-ball runners together.” Damn right. What it takes is a real champion. Don’t look for our great game to go too far without one.