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TV Fiasco Spawned Mosconi-Fats Duel

Before ABC-TV's popular "Pool Shoot-outs," Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats had an ugly shouting match on an unaired show.

By R.A. Dyer

When the dust cleared, Ursitti (right) had a hit with Mosconi (left), Cosell (middle) and Fats.
With all that cue-waving and shouting, tournament promoter Charles Ursitti figured he might lose an eye - or at the very least get bopped in the head. In one corner was Willie Mosconi, the mightiest, most kick-ass pool player this world has ever known. In the other: Minnesota Fats. And we all know about Minnesota Fats.

And man, did it get ugly.

"They were screaming and yelling back and forth, they were in each other's face,'' recalled Ursitti. "I got in the middle and separated them. Fats had his cue in his hand. Willie had a house cue. And they were waving the cues like batons, and I'm worried that I'm about to get popped."

Welcome Back to Untold Stories. I am devoting this month's column to one of the most important made-for-television pool events never to make it onto TV. Seen by approximately no one, poorly produced, an unmitigated disaster - this important non-event nonetheless set the stage for a colossally successful series of pool showdowns to follow.

For this month's installment, I've interviewed pool promoter Ursitti; I spoke with Bill Mosconi Jr., the son of the late great Willie Mosconi; I chatted with Mosconi's widow, Flora; and reviewed press clippings from Rolling Stone magazine and National Bowlers Journal and Billiard Revue, the predecessor of Billiards Digest.

Now first, a bit of context: As many readers know, the popularity of pocket billiards has flowed and ebbed over the years. The 1961 release of the movie "The Hustler" sparked one famous renaissance, but then pool's popularity tapered off after a few years. The sport rebounded again during the late 1970s - at least with regards to television coverage - through a series of widely-viewed challenge matches between Mosconi and Fats, the sport's two best-known players.

The first came on Valentine's Day, 1978, and was moderated by the legendary Howard Cosell. ABC-TV shot it on the Starlight Roof of the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City for the "Wide World of Sports" program. According to published reports, more than 10.9 million homes tuned in. With the exception of the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks rematch, no other "Wide World of Sports" program that year had better ratings. And remember: This was before ESPN and ESPN 2; this was when "Wide World of Sports" was king.

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Since 1978, Billiards Digest magazine has been the pool world’s best source for news, tournament coverage, player profiles, bold editorials, and advice on how to play pool. Our instructors include superstars Nick Varner and Jeanette Lee. Every issue features the pool accessories and equipment you love — pool cues, pool tables, instruction aids and more. Columnists Mike Shamos and R.A. Dyer examine legends like Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats, and dig deep into the histories of pool games like 8-ball, 9-ball and straight pool.

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