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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
January: Glory Days
January 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from June 1993]

Most of us have done things in our lives that were either well ahead of or behind their times; I’ve done both. Tennis exploded in the ’60s, but I was at my best in the ’50s. In the mid-’70s, “Pumping Iron” did for weight-training what I still wish someone or something would do for pool; I had been at it for close to 20 years by then. But when it comes to the billiards realm, I was decades too late for the really good stuff.

Not that there’s anything wrong with today, of course; we’re seeing some record numbers, at least in dollar terms, and it’s a great thrill to see the industry finally get a genuine spurt of growth. But even though we’ve grown to between 5,000 and 10,000 commercial rooms in the U.S., there was a time when there were an estimated 5,000 rooms in New York alone.

Those were the glory days of the game’s being played between lush carpeting and glitzy chandeliers, when porters and table maids brought fine two-piece cues to your table as a courtesy of the house. As the wonderful character actor Jack Albertson said in an episode of “Gunsmoke” that dealt quite well with pool playing, “Pocket billiards was a gentleman’s game then.” Naturally it still is, but Albertson was speaking of a different species of gentleman, one who may have played expertly, yet without giving his life to the game, a droll decision by any standards.

A few years ago I did a cover story on pool hustling in the ’30s and ’40s for a short-lived magazine called Sports Heritage. The glory days, of course, were even before then, and it was hard enough rounding up witnesses to the ’30s and ’40s who had good stories to tell. First-hand witnesses to the ’20s, after the charismatic Ralph Greenleaf had burst upon the scene and pool tournaments rated the front page of the sports section and the game was everywhere, are mostly dead. The rest are incoherent.

As the number of rooms declined during the Depression, then, those that could hack it actually saw increasing crowds, as the nation’s unemployed scrambled frantically to escape the machinations of a cruel world, their woes and their wives. It was the game’s version of “Musical Chairs.” A gag line of that glum era was, “Poolrooms Burn Down; 5,000 Men Homeless.” You can almost hear the rim shot from the orchestra pit.

Quite naturally, with the proliferation of players — even those who played 200 points for a bowl of soup — some rooms assembled hellacious lineups of killers. The legendary Philadelphia room Allinger’s only packed the one-two punch of Ponzi and Mosconi, and there were many more rooms boasting murderers’ rows of considerably lower profile players. That mesmerizing aspect of the game went forward through the late ’60s; today it’s probably only New Jersey that can claim multiple rooms with multiple national-class players in attendance.

Most players and hangers-on have not only favorite stories, but favorite periods from which to draw them. John Ervolino, for instance, is fond of the aforementioned late ’60s, when, as he puts it, “The room where I spent time then [The Golden Cue in Queens] had a lineup that could rob any tournament field today, guaranteed! We had Onofrio Lauri, Mike Eufemia, Al Gassner, Joe Balsis, me…”

Just a few years before that, the Times Square room known as 711 could toss a paralyzing parlay at you too: Jersey Red, Boston Shorty, Ervolino, Brooklyn Jimmy, New York Blackie and others, and a pirahna pond of shortstops just beneath them.

Short and Red played Ames, of course; Red was even manager there for a while. And many of the same players put in appearances at McGirr’s as well; the three rooms were not much more than a mile apart.

I’d estimate that my own rendezvous with the game, in 1953, coincided with the very tail end of pool in that richly talented mode. At least, that was true in Chicago, where I had only the downtown Bensinger’s from which to judge. Knowledgeable people there were still declaring even then that both New York and San Francisco were way too tough for smart hustlers, but Bensinger’s was no cupcake either. There was seedy little Joe Sebastian, accomplished enough to challenge Mosconi at 9-ball, with a pasted-back pompadour parted just off-center that was an authentic throwback to the ’20s. Ed Laube was there, a city straight pool champion with a lone run of 165 on a 5’x 10’ who merely sent Harold Worst to the rack at billiards. Pony Rosen, reduced to $2 status, had once paddled Greenleaf. Javanley (Youngblood) Washington, the first top black player I ever saw, not only hustled short games but defeated Mosconi in a 14.1 exhibition. I was 15 then, not even old enough to be in my neighborhood room legally, and Bensinger’s was little short of awesome. Floor-to-ceiling drapes shut off the rest of the world, and you indeed felt that you had left that world for another. One of the local room players clicked off a perfect 14, and we adolescent two- and three-ball runners whispered, “Look at the position!” and giggled in joy.

As thrilling as today’s room boom is, these rooms are filled with ferns and yuppies who are even money to miss an object ball completely, miscue and/or scratch, and leave balls live in the middle of the table to go drink or dance. Sometimes the ubiquitous jukebox offers Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” certainly an ironic selection in any room where pool is being played.

With all due respect to ferns and yuppies, they will not be replacing hundred-ball runners and serious play as the factors that make a room permanently hypnotic. And it’s all too possible that we will not be seeing the likes of that particular kind of glory days ever again.