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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
 
February: Un-blasting
February 2024

By George Fels
[Reprinted from June 2004]
It comes as complete news to me that I “blasted” Rudolph Wanderone, Luther Lassiter and Jack Breit in a recent column praising R.A. Dyer’s fine book on the three men, “Hustler Days.” What I thought I was doing was using my column to compliment another writer. And to be truthful, a number of readers have asked me what the complainants were even talking about.

Well, bewilderment rules the day here at Seniors-Blasting Central. On those rare occasions when I do want to blast someone or something, there isn’t much room for doubt. But I had no such intentions here and I’m still unconvinced that I did anything of the kind. To say that the three were all pool bums is nothing more than the unvarnished truth. Breit worked off and on in poolrooms as a young man; the illiterate Wanderone was in his 50s when he finally obtained a Social Security card so a line of playing equipment bearing his nickname could be marketed; Lassiter, in his latter days, sold billiard supplies part time in Virginia Beach, Va. But all three owed their existence to pool — and of the three, only Lassiter claimed any love for the game. In all three cases, the players clearly were drawn to the game because it offered survival without honest work.

I will certainly concede that I had very little respect for Wanderone; he achieved his fame, after all, by stealing from writer Walter Tevis, and that in itself would be ample reason for me to dismiss him outright. At the man’s passing, no less than Sports Illustrated itself declared him to be “something of a slob.” He was frequently also a blowhard, bore and boor. I did not know Lassiter in the least, and except for his constant whining about his health (some of which was legitimate), there is not a single negative to be turned up about the man. Everybody liked him personally, there was not debate whatsoever about his talent (he virtually ruled professional pool from the early-to-late ’60s), and the consensus is near-unanimous that he was among the most fearless pool gamblers who ever lived; that’s certainly good enough for me. (I wrote mini bios of both men in my “Legends of Billiards” series and challenge any of my critics to come up with anything disrespectful in either piece.) As for Breit, I considered him a fringe friend. I wrote of him often, he called to say goodbye just a week or so before he passed, and any bleating about my “blasting” him in any way is just off base.

But we do everything we can to keep our readers happy around here, so let us now praise Wanderone (you won’t find me legitimizing him as “Fats” in this lifetime) to the extent that we can. Just about everyone who knew the man and saw him play agrees that he was very good, but well-removed from great; it would have taken a top shortstop or better to set the man down. The catch was that Wanderone very seldom competed with anyone that good. And while the same Sports Illustrated, in the article that helped bring Wanderone fame, somehow reported that he finished fourth in the inaugural Johnston City tournaments, famed player Danny DiLiberto — who was there — swears that Wanderone came in fourteenth, or dead last.

Thus, it’s away from the pool table that we find a highly praiseworthy man. He was very proud, for instance, of his gambling credo, which firmly barred all family men. Virtually all Wanderone’s scores came at the expense of mooches who fancied themselves, not Wanderone, the hustler. He was also uncommonly generous with other players, a bonafide soft touch for $50 or $100 to anyone down on their luck. And he was far more expansive than that when it came to animals; at any given time, his home in southern Illinois hosted 20-plus dogs, cats and birds, and he never turned away a single stray.

There is one story, however, that really stands out in illustrating just how nice — and generally misunderstood — a man he was, retold by WPBA pro and former BD columnist Fran Crimi. Wanderone was in attendance at a women’s tournament when top player Mary Kenniston took an extremely tough loss in a close match. Usually stoic about such things, Kenniston this time was disconsolate to the point of being near tears. Wanderone suggested that the two of them take a short walk out back. Once outside, the porcine one simply said, “Let’s dance, Mary,” and supplied the music himself by whistling (he considered himself to be world-class at both endeavors, and just about everything else). As Kenniston was close to six feet tall and rail thin, the two of them must have looked like a giant number 10. But I truly wish I had been there to see it, Kenniston breaking down in giggles as they whirled and twirled happily to the rotunda’s shrill trills. Now who the hell else would do that for a pool player? Who would do that for anybody?

With all three men gone, I suppose it’s understandable that there would be objections to speaking ill of them. But that’s not what I did, any more than Dyer did. In his marvelous retelling of the three men’s lives and their intertwining paths, and in my column praising his work to the skies, there is very little being passed along other than facts. But nobody, no matter how great or allegedly great, gets to disown his past and reinvent himself. That just isn’t the way the game goes.

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