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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: ‘Wrong Ball, Joe!’
September 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 2003]
Who knows why men do and say some of the things they do. Does that loon who perches at the top of the fence of the Wrigley Field bleachers screaming, “Woo, woo, woo!” make any sense to you? Does it make sense that this nation made a multi-millionaire out of a fat souse whose basic talent was the nightly ability to call “Hey-O?” Do you find “Sup?” an appropriate greeting?

Thus, I really can’t explain to you why I feel compelled, every time I catch Jose Diaz cueing the red ball, to bellow across the room — and I do my best to time this so as to catch him at the top of his backswing — “Wrong ball, Joe!” I suppose the act’s charm, if such does indeed exist, is in its redundancy. But the expression is just so mindless that it really doesn’t deserve that expert level of scrutiny.

What I can do instead is to tell you a bit about Joe Diaz, who rewrites every known standard of the phrase “nice guy.” For several decades commencing with the late 1950s, Joe was one of the best 10 or 12 three-cushion players in town, regularly averaging .7 to .75 and even fashioning runs of eight or 10 now and then. While he never won a city crown, his entry money was generally the first in at those tournaments, and generally he would finish middle-of-the-pack in the round-robin competition. At his peak, he as equally comfortable rolling fairly high or playing split time; later in his life, he would beseech his split time opponents who sought a measly $5 side bet someplace, “Don’t ruin this.” But it’s hard to believe that a player ever breathed who loved billiards more — nor one in whom that love was easier to read.

Joe was raised in Chicago by a totally Spanish-speaking family. At that point, Chicago’s wretched public school system was even worse than it is now. Languages were not taught until high school, and it never occurred to anyone to teach English as a second language. Thus, Joe sat mostly mute through his grade school days; no one at school spoke Spanish, and no one at home spoke English. Finally, when he was 16, they told him to go home. It’s been well over 60 years, and yet the frustration and humiliation he must have felt as a kid make you wince today just thinking about them.

But not even that frightful foundation could sour his outlook on life. Joe served honorably in the U.S. Army, married, had five kids and many grandkids. He was a reasonably skilled club boxer as a young man and learned karate many, many years before it became topical in this country. For his living, he drove a cab and occasionally tended bar. When one of his bartending gigs landed him at Chicago’s commuter train station, he charmed the pants off many of the advertising types on their way home. Many times I would hear from near-strangers, “Who’s that terrific guy behind the bar at the Northwestern Station? He sure knows you!”

In short, Joe effortlessly made friends everywhere he went. Even today, he customarily addresses you directly as “My friend.” But nowhere was he better liked that in Chicago’s famous billiard room Bensinger’s. Joe would address his shot so patiently and tenderly as to suggest an ongoing apology to the cue ball for disturbing it in the first place. Even after Bensinger’s moved to Chicago’s north side in the early 1960s, there were at least eight caroms tables available, with plenty of either sociable or formidable competition, and Joe seldom if ever missed a night. What he will be remembered for longest, however, will not be his stellar play, nor even his astonishing likeability. Instead, it will be his laugh. Joe has a voice that makes James Earl Jones sound like a candidate for the Vienna Boys’ Choir. And when he would laugh, which would be frequently, it would frequently be enough to stop play on every other table in the room. Fun was really all that was behind the laugh, too. The men with whom Joe played and kept company were not all that witty, and the game of three-cushion billiards, while certainly capable of grotesque heartbreak, rarely offers innate humor either. It was just that Joe was so euphorically happy to be in that room, with those men, playing that game. You could have told him, “Good evening, ladies and germs. I just flew in from Lost Wages, and boy are my arms tired,” and Joe would have still erupted.

Not that it was always laughs. One of Joe’s sons, Porfirio, age 21, surprised a burglar in his home one night. Any cop will tell you that burglars are seldom, if ever, predisposed to violence. It was just Porfirio’s luck that this one was. He was shot and killed. The detective who caught the case happened to be another sociable billiards player and nice guy named Phil Roda, who swore he would not sleep again until the killer was brought in. For 36 hours or so, every thief and fence was greeted courteously by the lapels and advised to give this one up, and Phil Roda kept his word. It’s a fitting statement to Joe Diaz’s love for billiards that he came to the poolroom directly from the funeral service.

Joe is close to 80 now. Predictably, he does not play as he once did, and in fact plays mostly alone. But he still scores billiards. He fights not only time, but the condition known as fibromyalgia. Although the condition presents itself mostly in nuisance symptoms, it’s still debilitating. The last time I asked his age, I told him that I wished him at least another 20 years, and Joe snapped back with terribly quick sadness, “Not like this!” But typically, he then added, “But thank you, my friend.”

I’m mighty proud to be your friend, Joe. You go on cueing any ball you damn please.

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