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.
Best of Fels
May: Sailing, Sailing
MONIKERS AMONG pool players have been around for so long that the ones we see today seem almost shoehorned into their players' personas. Who, for instance, decided the genial John Schmidt should be "Mr. 400"? Hall of Famers Allen Hopkins, Jim Rempe, Earl Strickland and Dallas West - none of whom ever sported any nicknames that really stuck - have all run that many balls; so have a handful of European competitors. So why does that handle fall to Schmidt? Just because there was nothing else handy?
Sometimes nicknames can grow out of wardrobe (e.g. "Cowboy Jimmy" Moore, who was actually from Michigan and was in his mid-50s before ever donned boots, Stetson and lariat tie). Sometimes they come from predilections (Luther "Wimpy" Lassiter actually loved hamburgers; it is unknown whether Billy Joe "Cornbread Red" Burge ever really had any). The source can be geography ("Jersey Red" Breit, "Detroit Whitey" Beauchene, "New York Blackie" Bonife). Or it can be appearances (Irving "The Deacon" Crane, Wladislaw "Choirboy" Radikova), or, in those exceedingly rare cases where a pool player actually worked, vocation (Joe "The Meatman" Balsis).
But nobody has ever been quite sure how the eminent Wisconsin pool player/teacher/cuemaker/photographer Frank Stellman came to be "Sailor." Yes, he did in fact serve an honorable hitch in the Navy, but the nickname is reliably reported to be pre-enlistment. Did it spring from his love of travel? Hardly; except for military service, he was rarely known to leave the Midwest. Did he surround himself with friends of military bearing? Not exactly; his traveling buddy and backer, when I used to see him at Bensinger's, looked like he ran con games at carnivals, and did indeed speak that doofus-like "carny talk" ("Hey, See-iz-ailor!") that most of us got bored with before the end of grade school. (Actually, his 12-year-old buddies called him "Sailor" because everybody in their crowd had to have some nickname; like the late President Harry S. Truman's middle initial, it stands for nothing whatsoever.)
What Sailor was surrounded by was nearly every Midwest regional pool champion, and not a few world-class players too. Dallas West, Willie Munson, Tom Spencer, George Michaels, Jeff Carter, George Pawelski, Bobby Hunter and countless others came to his poolroom and cue shop to glean advanced-technique info. Sailor demanded that you already be able to run 50 balls before asking for his help; this magazine's Mark Wilson bluffed his way past that lofty standard, but was allowed to stay on - and profit tremendously - because his interest and dedication were so evident. Wilson, in fact, notes that most of his early 100-ball runs occurred on days following Sailor's teachings.
The man is something of an eccentric purist - for many years, he even shunned a home telephone - who would not only follow but actually chauffeur the late, immortal Willie Mosconi around the Midwest for days at a time, analyzing, questioning and taking notes on the best way(s) to run balls. ("Sailor, step back; you're crowding me!" Mosconi was often heard to complain.) As a player, Stellman utilized an extremely fast pace, a welcome relief to Chicago onlookers who had grown all too used to dawdlers. One night he took on the late Ray Dooley, who used to write an advice column for this publication, in some $3 9-ball (actually not a bad bet at Bensinger's in the '60s). In the first rack, Sailor came to the table on the 3 ball and ran out in less than 60 seconds without ever sending the cue ball to a single rail. "Any a you guys wanna bet on this?" he asked us all, wide-eyed and eagerly, and apparently serious. At least he couldn't be accused of stalling.
Despite his seven decades around pool and an estimate 600-plus runs of 100 or more, Sailor has played exactly one tournament in his life, a Chicago 14.1 competition in 1964. For the most part, he played so well as to be outright intimidating, with the meet's long run of 88. His opponent in the final was an unheralded suburban barber named Frank Marks, who played an unspectacular, steady game and even furnished the match's best run of 48. But by then Stellman was laboring under the imminent loss of both his poolroom and his marriage, and, by his own admission, just gave the match away. Those who witnessed the dull spectacle had to endure patter so corny it fairly seemed to conjure up Homer and Jethro ("I'm gonna run out [beat; beat; wait for it] that door!") Somewhere along the line in his sojourns to Chicago, though, he did beat the bejabbers out of a North Carolina 9-ball legend named Bill Lawson (who was called "absolutely unbeatable" by none less than a fellow legend, Billy "Wade Crane" Johnson), a story that still begets skepticism from other of Lawson's fellow Carolinians.
Frank Stellman is in his early 80s today, recovering from diabetes complications ("It's bad news, Frank," the doctors told him. "You won't be able to play pool for two weeks.") but still active as a photographer and teacher. He's frequently seen at regional tournaments, especially 14.1 play, and when he visits Chicago he often brings fantastic kringle pastries, from Racine's most famous bakery, for his friends. (I personally prefer cherry cheese, but other flavors are available; Frank Stellman is nothing if not eclectic.) His cues, with their distinctive bottle-shaped butt plates, are probably the most recognized brand this side of Southwest. "I'm forever grateful and beholden to him for all that he has shared and inspired in me," Wilson says. "In return, I must do all that I can to repay his investment by 'keeping the flame.' I'm honored to do this in his name."
So let's hear it for the Sailor, one of pool's few bona fide flat-top crewcuts. He's spent his life bringing out the best in pool. And the game has done the same for him.