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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
April: That Face
April 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from September 1999]

The moniker the man toted nearly all his life was “Babyface,” and like most pool nicknames, it made very little sense. If any baby ever looked like that, it would truly be the cliched baby only a mother could love, and even then, as B.B. King would so poignantly add, she might have been jivin’ too.

Not that the late Alton Whitlow was especially homely; the fact was, his looks were just plain. But babies generally look like Winston Churchill or W.C. Fields, and he resembled neither of those — although the proverbial 15 minutes of fame accorded him in Sports Illustrated (in an article written about his tournament-player wife at the time, Madelyn) described him thusly: “Madelyn’s husband, Alton, a man with the mannerisms of W.C. Fields, is playing in the men’s division.” O, irony.

Babyface Whitlow was born and, except for road trips, lived his entire life in Detroit, instantly transforming him into material for the Nobel Prize if not outright sainthood. His introduction to pool took the form of a toy-size table he received while still in grade school, and he made that school’s permanent history within a year for full-time pool. He was thus in poolrooms many years before he was legally entitled, no doubt the true derivation of the nickname.

One of his boyhood pool chums had an unusual approach to hitting the ball which ’Face liked, so he adapted that style too, and since both had considerable natural talent, it was soon very difficult to distinguish between their strokes. The friend in question was Jimmy Moore, a Billiard Congress of America Hall of Famer, remembered far more for that luscious slip-stroke than anything else. Could Whitlow have achieved the same acclaim had it been he who donned the boots, Stetson and string tie, since he was at least as much of a “cowboy” as Moore, which was none whatsoever? Not likely; he had the shape of a potato dumpling, and of such stuffs are western heroes decidedly not made.

But he sure did have that identical beautiful stroke, and he was in fact not that far behind in talent. Alton Whitlow had credibility with Mosconi himself, who, in one of his many putdowns of Minnesota Fats, said, “He used to carry the cue of a real player from Detroit named Whitlow. That’s the only reason they let him into the poolroom.” It was not uncommon to see ’Face slip-stroke maybe 14 inches to move the cue ball a mere two or three. The real treat, though, was to see him creating unintentional but brilliantly creative advertising at the bar box. He’d pick up one of those severely circumcised cues they give you to negotiate cramped spaces, and that slip-stroke would go whistling right past the end of the butt. The butt would hit the floor, the salivating suckers would hit their wallets, and it would be a beautiful world.

Well, maybe semi-beautiful. Al Whitlow (few could remember more than the first two letters of the stately first name) lived the quintessential hustler’s scuffling, survive-at-any-cost existence. He played every form of pool, although one-pocket was probably his best game; unabashedly, he told of sharing a double bed with fellow road players at night and busting them the next day. Alton and honest labor were about as compatible as Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms all his life, and there was the bottle to deal with too. Unlike many in that all-too-common specie of pool player, though, he was highly pleasant company, refreshingly telling stories on himself instead of the dreary hustler’s route to recalling his many and mighty conquests. “I’m playin’ for my case $2,” he related to me once, “and my shirt’s so dirty I’m wearin’ it inside out because it looked a little whiter that way. And I finally catch a decent roll and run 34 and out, and some black guy watching the game says, ‘Lookit dat white boy dere, runnin’ de balls wid his shirt inside out.’ Never felt smaller in my life.”

Babyface actually caught two rolls in life that you’d have to say were well in excess of decent. First came the good fortune, if one could call it that with a straight face, to be born and live in a city that, for all its other problems, has always supported pool magnificently. At all times he had the fabled Detroit Recreation (100-plus tables at its peak) and other fertile spots to haunt, and with the aid of backers even got a small taste of the real Detroit action of the early-to-mid-’70s, when the FBI confiscated a cool quarter-mil in cash in a single night from the hot spot called the Rack and Cue. The second fortuitous roll, which the cynical would have no trouble referring to as an outright miracle, was Madelyn, and, of course, love. What draws a symphonic-caliber violinist to a drinking, uneducated pool hustler three decades her senior? Let her tell it:

“Someone took me to the Rack and Cue, and here was this entire room full of killer players, and still within a shot or two I could tell that man had something extra going for him, on many levels. And I sorta went after him! Except for his drinking, we were very close for our eight years together. He was an extremely gentle man, he had a really outrageous sense of humor, and he was absolutely the greatest judge of human nature I ever saw in my life. That’s what really attracted me, and that’s what kept him going. Know what he really wanted to be? First, a hoofer [dancer], and then a magician. And in a way, I guess he succeeded at both.”

Now he is gone, just like the hustler’s era that somehow sustained him. What Al taught those who cared to learn is that there is much wisdom you simply can’t glean from school. His hardy brand of survivor will not likely be coming around again soon.