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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
 
August: Jocks
August 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1989]


About the only disappointment I’ve ever had concerning my book, “Mastering Pool,” was the discovery that bookstores were selling it under “Games,” rather than “Sports.” Not only was I convinced that more potential readers would be looking there, but I felt that our game was easily noble enough to deserve the “Sports” category.

For all the stale accusations you hear that pool players are a bunch of lazy louts, the truth is that pool players are generally quite good athletes; and they probably know more about competitive fire and drive to win than their critics ever will. The reason is that even in a game rated by its experts to be as much as 80 percent mental, there are still the physical demands to be met — and what ultimately makes or breaks you there is hand/eye coordination, the cornerstone of all athletes.

I’m no great example of this, but I was good at tennis long before it was fashionable to be, good enough to make the frosh team at a Big 10 school. And I might as well admit that my fresh young love affair with pool was a factor in keeping me from the varsity. I suppose my values are open to question, but I was only a teenager then and I recognized that the furthest tennis would ever take me was the ass end of the varsity; but pool was a friend for life, and I could ascend just as far as I wished. And I’ve since proved out my own theory, of course, by rising all the way to mediocre.

But even at pool’s highest echelons, some real jocks have emerged. The balloting for pool’s top athlete wouldn’t appear to be close; the lock here is Danny DiLiberto, who once bowled a 300 game and ran 200 balls on the same day. DiLiberto also had a tryout in AA baseball and went undefeated in 14 pro fights. Only an unfortunate case of “glass hands” held him back in boxing.

Other visible player/athletes have included:

Steve Mizerak: Golfs to a handicap of five or less; until a few years ago, was considered quite formidable at one-on-one basketball.

Jean Balukas: Offered at least two scholarships to college (basketball and tennis); excellent softball player and bowler; never finished lower than third competing with world-class athletes on the national TV agility contest called “Superstars.”

Brooklyn Jimmy: Baseball, as a howitzer-armed outfielder, first in the Navy and two years in the farm system of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Jack “Jersey Red” Breit: A southpaw and first baseman, reportedly just as talented as Brooklyn Jimmy.

Larry Liscotti: Captain of his high school basketball team.

Peter Margo: All-league third baseman in a tough New York baseball league.

Dave Bollman: Frosh basketball at University of Iowa and PGA-level golfer.

Earl Strickland: Another low-handicap golfer who also hit comfortably with tennis-teaching pros.

Eddie Kelly: Semi-pro baseball. Ex-Marine Kelly also taught dancing for a while, in case further proof is needed as to how vital rhythm is in building a championship game.

Jimmy Mataya: Golden Gloves boxing.

Looking at things the other way around, any number of visible athletes are self-proclaimed pool players, too; but their actual credentials are highly specious. NBA genius Michael Jordan is supposed to be good, but that’s probably as much due to the press’ general idea of what “good” is as to his real talents. One genuine article was baseball’s Leo Durocher, who, as a weak-hitting infielder, also played tournament pool and rumoredly won a billiards game from Willie Hoppe once.

It’s not so surprising to find good pool players who golf; the parallels are fairly obvious. You attack an inert white ball upon a green surface; you play against the game rather than an opponent; you win by playing within yourself; and there is a juicy universe of suckers to gamble with.

But why so many good baseball players amongst pool pros? White balls and green playfields again. But a “hustler” in baseball is a good thing and equal opportunities on offense are provided no matter what.

A closer look shows that both games really represent ultimate kids’ fantasies and just how fiercely we struggle to return to them. Baseball calls up visions of summer, green grass, early hero worship and the warm comradeship of being “chosen in.” Those visions are keen enough throughout our lives that we support a multibillion dollar sport and industry on them.

As to pool, most of us learned to play as kids, and whatever the game meant to us then has stayed with us, snowballed into humongous size with multi-strata of skill and love. Pool probably started out as something to do when you couldn’t play baseball or any other kind of ball, and went on to overtake whatever your favorite pastime used to be and left it in the half-sad dust of things past. Also, a lot of pool players will tell you (assuming you can get them to talk) that deep down, when they really hit their competitive stride, they’re taken back mentally to whatever their original sport was.

Today’s top pool players are considerably younger men, and far better athletes, than were the stars of a generation or two ago. They may have a better chance of making more dough. But more significant is that there’s an even better chance that the game will keep them young.

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