On the final day of the World's Pocket Billiard Tournament in New York a week ago, Luther Lassiter had breakfast in bed and then walked west on 42nd Street to the Hudson River. He had been down to the Hudson earlier in the week to see a friend off to Europe and now, in the misty morning hours of a lonely Sunday, the river seemed a likely place to relax and take the air.
Lassiter had fared poorly the first six days of the week-long championship event. Fighting a balky sinus that made him gasp instead of breathe, the defending champion played listlessly, lost three matches and was all but mathematically eliminated on Saturday. "Everybody saw it. I played the worst pool of my life," he said. "I had to get off alone and have a li'l talk with myself. Pool players talk to themselves, you know."
Somewhere between the Lincoln Tunnel and Pier 84, Lassiter broke into a cold sweat and, for the first time in a week, began breathing with his mouth shut. There was a crisp breeze off the river—fresh and invigorating like the country air of his native Elizabeth City, N.C., he said later—and Lassiter filled his lungs with oxygen as if it were going out of style. "Lawdie," he explained, "my head cleared mightily and my nose began running like Niagara Falls. Ah, sir, there is nothing like nature."
During that afternoon and evening, in a crowded, smoky ballroom of the Hotel Commodore, clear-headed Luther Clement Lassiter made a rousing comeback to keep his world straight-pool title. To do it he had to first beat front-running Art Cranfield, a former national amateur champion from Syracuse, N.Y., and then three-time former world titleholder Irving Crane, of Rochester, N.Y., thus forcing a playoff. That accomplished, he swished his cue stick through the ever-thickening smog that was glooming up the entire scene, arched his aching shoulders, ignored the blaze of network TV lights and beat Cranfield 150-43 in an 11-inning showdown for the title and the $3,000 first prize.
Never before has an athlete credited a whiff of the Hudson River with saving a championship, but Luther Lassiter is not an ordinary athlete. He is a lean, handsome man with a shock of curly gray hair, a soft smile, impish blue eyes and expressive face. He likes to laugh and laughs a lot, especially at himself. New York Fats (Rudolf Wanderone, of Dowell, Ill.), the peerless pool hustler, also is a good storyteller, and one of his best is about a young Luther Lassiter.
"There was this tomato from Norfolk," says Fat Man, "and she had the sweets real bad for Wimpy [Lassiter's name among the hustlers], and Wimpy had weak knees for this dolly, too. They would sit in a corner for hours, like a pair of lovebirds, and then it would happen, I tell you, it would always happen.
"Wimpy would come running over with his mouth covered up and say, 'Fat Man, I got the swolls.' I'd look at the kid and his lips would be all puffed out. At first, I thought it was from wiping off lipstick, but Wimpy wasn't the kind of boy to smooch much. Back then if he was to bump into Elizabeth Taylor in a bikini he might recite the Declaration of Independence or Invictus, or something like that. I'd have to say he was more Little Lord Fauntleroy than Errol Flynn.
"The way women affected him was unbelievable, and it wasn't only this tomato from Norfolk. If any tomato put the sweet eyes on Wimpy he weighed in with the swolls. There was nothing he could do about it, so finally he just had to give up on the tomatoes."
Now 45, with a gracious, courtly, Old South manner and a quiet, disarming charm that women find appealing, Lassiter remains a bachelor. "I'm in love with pool," he says. "It's been my life for 32 years. I never had a job. I've just been a pool player and I tell you, sir, it's been a lonely life. But it's my profession and, as its champion, I hope to make some money at it."
Lassiter, probably the finest straight-pool player alive, spoke with hope, but not a hope born of experience. He has finished on top in four world championships, winning at Philadelphia in 1954, Brooklyn in 1957 and at the Billiard Room Proprietors Association of America events in New York the past two years. Yet not until this year did the Billiard Congress of America, the letterhead society that governs legitimate pool, recognize even one of Lassiter's titles.
"The trouble with pool," says Lassiter, "is it's never had an active governing body. The pro golfers have tournaments every week because the PGA is a good association. The players can make a decent living. But pool has had nothing. There just has to be a monetary reward. The good player has never had anything to work for. That's where the gambling comes in. Oh, they tell us not to mention gambling, that they are trying to elevate the sport. But, lawdie, sir, it's there unless you want to stick your head in the sand so you won't see it. To stop the gambling they just have to have more tournaments.
"There are a lot of new tournaments today—Johnston City, Ill., Tampa, Rochester, this one in New York and two new ones in Washington and Detroit. I hope they all come off. If not, I'll go home to Carolina and forget this mess. I've been burned before."
Lassiter is a breed apart from the backroom element the moralists have always associated with pool. He has a rare talent that separates him from the crowd at the cue rack. He is a loner in a loner's world, an individual who speaks his mind. He does lean to outrageous understatement—the hallmark of the hustler—but he shares little else with the sharks and the soft con. "There's my name, Wimpy," he says. "Those hustler rascals gave me that nickname. When I was a young'n I always had a handful of hamburger and a bottle of orange sodie pop. So they called me Wimpy. I know them all, I do. But I've never been a hustler myself. No sir, I have not." And the hustlers concede this is true.
"The hustlers' game is one-pocket. I'm a nine-ball and straight-pool man," says Lassiter. "In one-pocket you sneak up on people, disguise your game something awful and when the money is right, run the table. It's a game of moves and dodging, not a game of pocketing balls. The lesser player can win in one-pocket, but not in straight pool. That's why I've never been a hustler. Now, I'm not opposed to a friendly money game, no sir. I'm no choirboy. But I've never suckered anybody. Primarily, I'm a player beater, I mean the good players, for money, and the better the player the better I play."
From the dignified Lassiter such outbursts of immodesty are rare, yet justified. Last year he won the world title in New York City, losing only to Jimmy Moore of Albuquerque, N. Mex., the runner-up. He went on to defeat Moore in a 600-point challenge match last August. He proved his over-all mastery in Johnston City the past two years by winning the All-Round Tournament, consisting of nine-ball, straight pool and the hustlers' strong suit, one-pocket.
Crouched over a pool table with cue in hand, Lassiter is a showman. In a loss to 67-year-old Onofrio Lauri of Seaford, N.Y., in last week's world tournament, Lassiter scratched after a run of 37 balls. Drawing back in disbelief, he wailed: "Oh, Lord, Thou hast forsaken me. I have been thwarted by a mere amoeba of our species."
The next day he played Crane, a complete player in the classic sense, tough, smooth, adaptable. Gone were the kittenish touches and the Biblical references. With a dramatic run of 98 balls, Lassiter managed a crucial win over Crane. "I'm really a player beater," he announced. But one with problems.
Facing Eddie Taylor (The Knoxville Bear) in a playoff at Johnston City last fall, Lassiter squirmed nervously throughout the match. Midway through a run of 68 balls he cried out: "Oh, Lord, the gates of hell shall prevail against a man foolish enough to wear an undershirt when he's playing pool." He excused himself, went to the men's room to shed the offending undergarment and returned to run out the match. "The undershirt," he said, "is the most foolish item in a man's wardrobe. I shall never wear one again."
The clothes almost unmade the man again last week. Participants were obligated to wear tuxedos during title play, and the starched white collar and bow tie made Lassiter uneasy. "It's mighty bothersome," he said. "Yes sir, mighty bothersome. But these other poor souls are wearing undershirts."
Sitting over a steak recently, Lassiter reflected upon his 32 years in pool halls and hotel rooms. "It started when I was 13," he said. "A doctor friend down home had a li'l four-pocket homemade table. It was the first one I ever played on, and I fell in love with the game right then. When I was 14 I played at the YMCA, and at 15 I started sneaking into pool rooms. I was 16 when I first met Fat Man. He had a three-table room in Anacostia, near Washington, D.C. Oh, Fat Man was beautiful in those days. At his place I saw the good ones. I watched the play and sneaked off and practiced. I learned by trial and error. Soon I was playing the good ones for money. It's been a long, lonely road. Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life behind the eight ball, sir.
"I almost married once, I almost did. It was mighty serious. I bought furniture, a refrigerator, a stove. She had me going home early to get my rest. She knew I wasn't stepping out on her, but I didn't know she was stepping out on me. When it was all over I couldn't do a thing for days. I didn't even go to a movie. I just couldn't talk about it, and. my lips swelled up something awful." He was laughing at himself and inviting the listener to laugh with him. Maybe.
"So I just stayed home with Mama and Daddy. When they died, my brother Charles, he's 39 and an old bachelor, too, we just went on living together. He works for the government, and I don't work at all." And unemployed Luther Lassiter pushed the steak aside.
"I shouldn't be eating this," he said. "The gall bladder will get to acting up again. I'm always a dead man around tournament time, anyway. This year it was the sinus, last year I was out of the hospital nine days before the tournament. Doctor wanted to take the gall bladder out. Why, the first world tournament I played in out in San Francisco in 1953, I had bleeding ulcers and was too dumb to know it until my doctor told me I was bleeding to death. He took half my stomach out."
Lassiter now keeps in shape what the doctors have left him by playing golf—"I shoot in the 90s," he says, "which is a pretty high run,"—and riding an English bicycle across the North Carolina countryside. "Nothing beats riding for good healthy exercise. But you've got to watch the traffic and those barking dogs. Dogs are a lot like people. They try to tell you how to live. But I'm 45, and I've got to live my own life.
"I think about my wasted life a lot. I could have done many things, many things. I could have been a rich man. Walter Davis, a boy from back home, went to Texas. He wanted me to go with him. Walter got into oil. Today he's a millionaire. Walter was in town this week, sailed for Europe on the S.S. Constitution and wanted me to go with him. He's going to fly to Egypt, the Netherlands, Australia, all over the world. He said, 'Come with me, Wimpy. Let's go over there and whoop it up. Have a ball.' But I told Walter I'm still in love with pool.
"Pool is back big now so I'm going to give the game one more chance. I want to be an active champion, I mean play the best. I'm not hungry for that exhibition money. Why, I only played 20 or so dates last year. People just want to see trick shots and, so help me, I can't remember all of them. I'm going to try to make an honest living at my chosen profession. If it doesn't come off I'll forget the whole mess and do something else. Maybe I'll join the Peace Corps. Or maybe I'll call Walter Davis and say, 'Walter, I've fallen out of love with pool, so let's go to Europe and Egypt and the Netherlands and whoop it up.' And you know what Walter will say? He'll say, 'Sure, Wimpy, sure. When do you want to leave?' "
But if Luther Lassiter keeps winning world championships with the flair he showed the other night at the Hotel Commodore, then Walter Davis better resign himself to traveling alone. It's many a mile to the Netherlands, and Wimpy isn't ready.