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What was Willie Mosconi to the game of pocket billiards? What was Babe Ruth to baseball, Michael Jordan to basketball, Jim Brown to football, or Jack Nicklaus to golf? Willie Mosconi was all that to the game of pocket billiards, and then some. He enjoyed that exalted distinction fifty years ago, when I was a lad first getting into the game, and in all the intervening years, no one has come close to supplanting him.
His achievements are legend:
- From 1941 through 1956, a period of 15 years, he won the world championship 13 times.
- In 1954, in an exhibition on a 4 ft x 8 ft table, he ran an unprecedented 526 balls.
- In 1956, he disposed of opponent Cowboy Jimmy Moore in a single inning, by running 150 balls on a 4 1/2 x 9 table.
- And to verify that Willie excelled on all tables, he also holds the record for high tournament run on a 5 ft x 10 ft table at 127. That distinction he shares with Jimmy Caras.
Willie Mosconi was born in Philadelphia in 1913 in the second-floor apartment in a house at Eighth and Wharton Streets. He appeared destined for a stage career as a member of the Dancing Mosconis, a troupe that included several family members and began dancing lessons at his uncle's studio at Fourth and Arch Streets.
When he was 6, he discovered the pool table in the corner of his uncle's studio and, almost immediately, he displayed an affinity for the game.
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In fact, he showed so much promise that his uncle took him to a club in New York to show off his skills. A poster dating from this period touted Willie as an 11-year-old ''Boy Wonder."
His father, Joseph, however, was not impressed by his son's proficiency. The elder Mosconi, a former boxer, ran a gymnasium on the first floor of the family home. In the back were four or five pool tables. But, the only chance young Willie got at the tables was when his father, a Phillies fanatic, locked up on Fridays and dashed off to the Baker Bowl to watch a game.
"I'd sneak down and play pool and eat up his pies and candy," Willie said in a 1979 interview. "One day I ripped the cloth on a table, and boy, did he give me a licking that night. After that he locked up the balls when he went out. So I'd get bags of potatoes and take them down and use them as balls (and sink them with a broomstick). When he'd find the tables all dirty I'd get more spankings. But I got pretty good."
He later recalled that he gave the game up for a few years but after he dropped out of school to help support his parents he heard of a pool tournament offering a $75 1st prize and entered it. He won. "My parents and I lived for a month on that money," he remembered.
He rapidly outgrew the local tournament scene and started playing against world class opponents. He came to the attention of Brunswick Corporation, and was asked to join the staff and travel around the country to promote Brunswick's products.
In 1941, he won the first of his fourteen world championships. Yet, though well known among pool aficionados, he was hardly a household name. He suffered a stroke in 1956 and, thereafter, competed less in world class events. Then, in 1960, he was hired as a consultant for the movie "The Hustler." It was actually Willie who suggested Jackie Gleason play the roll of Minnesota Fats. Gleason was known as a fair pool player in his own right. Paul Newman, who played Fast Eddie Felson, had never played before, so Willie coached him. It was largely through his association with this movie that Willie gained widespread recognition as the all-time greatest pool player.
While "The Hustler" brought Willie to the fore and popularized the game of pocket billiards it also provided a launching pad for someone who was far less skilled in the game of pool, Rudolph Wanderone. Known previously as New York Fats and Baltimore Fats, depending on where he was located, Wanderone claimed the movie was about him and hence forth went by the name of Minnesota Fats. Even though Walter Tevis, the author of the novel upon which the movie was based, denied the claim, Wanderone was persistent in his declaration. Though he tried to uplift his own legend and denigrate Willie's, no one who really knew the game was duped, especially Willie.
"Hustler is just another word for thief, and Minnesota Fats is just another word for phony," Mr. Mosconi once said of his rival.
Wanderone wasn't qualified to carry Willie's socks and everyone knew it. A televised challenge match was arranged in 1978, Mr. Mosconi showing up in his tuxedo and the lip flapping Minnesota Fats in baggy pants and polo shirt. Willie destroyed the fat man. Still, the media loved Fats and to this day his name is associated with pool and, fittingly, a variety of lesser quality pool products.
Willie was a great technician and teacher. Books by Willie Mosconi are still sought after by collectors and aspiring pool players.
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