One would suppose it to be a routine gathering of the forgotten, the forlorn, the wasted, the scorned. For they came to Chicago to play pool, a game that challenges dexterity, concentration and logic, but scarcely one's ranking on the social scale of sport. Pool. That wicked game of degenerates, no-accounts, grandmothers and little girls.
That's right, America, grandmothers and itsy-bitsy pretty girls. Granted, many of those who convened for the Billiard Congress of America's men and women's U.S. Open Pocket Billiards Championships didn't quite fit either description, having drifted in from the smoky, dank back rooms that are the soft underbelly and cursed heritage of the sport. But there also came the seed of future respectability, a new breed of players groomed on melon-colored tablecloths in bright, modern family lounges.
And what could be more respectable and reassuring than having as your women's defending champion a gracious 57-year-old grandmother, Mrs. Dorothy Wise, or as her challenger a shy 13-year-old moppet named Jean Balukas? Even the men were in the spirit of things. Their defending champ was a 27-year-old schoolteacher, Steve Mizerak. It made polo seem almost risqué by comparison.
For years now the world has been hearing how pool was shedding its old, racy hustler's image and moving into its rightful niche as a popular and demanding sport. But acceptance in the headier reaches of suburbia has continued at a pace approximately equal to that of a man on his way to the IRS office. And until wives can be assured that sending their husbands off for a night of shooting pool is somewhat safer than having them do odd jobs for the young widow down the street, the sport seems doomed to remain a furtive, nocturnal pastime.
Recognizing this, the BCA, an organization of billiard equipment manufacturers that hopes to promote pool as a pursuit as healthy as swimming, only less dangerous, increased the 1972 women's field from eight to 16 players and their prize money from $2,000 to $5,000. The organization also promoted the anticipated showdown between the old and the Dew, East and West, defense and offense and any other disparate terms they could find to describe the battle between Mrs. Wise of San Francisco and the challenger-prodigy, Miss Balukas of Brooklyn.
A pleasant, matronly woman given to wearing i limestone brooches, earrings and silver-rimmed glasses while she plays, Mrs. Wise came to the tournament having lost only one other major event, the National Pro-Am in 1970. There she had been upset by Mrs. Gerry Titcomb, who was also in the Open field. Mrs. Wise, a widow since 1968, took up the game at the aye of 30 after her husband brought her to an exhibition between Willie Hoppe and Welker Cochran. Instant addiction. From then on she helped her husband operate billiards parlors in the San Francisco area and began to perfect her own game.
Miss Balukas was no neophyte, having made her first pool shot at the age of four. She played in the U.S. Open when she was nine, winning two games, and last week came to Chicago with a string of 46 straight tournament games without a defeat.
Besides their skill with a cue, the women players had other qualities evident to the galleries that filled the Crystal Room of the Sheraton-Chicago Hotel for the five-day, double-elimination tournament. For beauty, there were Sandra Peters, an attractive blonde; Palmer Byrd, whose striking looks well might help land her the job she seeks in billiards public relations; and Jean Tomasello, who looked as if she belonged on a California beach. For brains, there was the thoughtful Miss Balukas, a straight-A student. For beauty and brains there was Donna Ries, a 24-year-old brunette who has a master's degree in clinical psychology and a swimsuit figure.
But the galleries had a certain style, too. The betting action was vigorous, which is not unusual for a pool setting. "It's no big thing getting a bet down in a poolroom," explained a leggy young blonde galleryite in hot pants and granny glasses. "You just ask the person next to you." To elaborate, she told how she had recently returned from a trip to the West Coast financed entirely by what she had called "farmers"—a breed of unwary competitors who mistook her gender for an indicator of her pool-playing skill. In "a cow town in Wyoming," she said, one of her victims threatened her with a pair of six-guns. A couple of nearby gallants jumped the troublemaker and took him outside for a thrashing, but the twice-beaten opponent came up for the third time, putting a few slugs through the poolroom door. "I threw down my stick and quit," she recalled disgustedly. "The rest of them went outside and beat on him some more."
Many of the women professionals are reputed as good gamblers. One who does not gamble is Mrs. Wise. She thinks that betting, along with smoking and drinking and not smiling at people, is evil. "So many of them try it and they wind up broke," says Dorothy. "You just take stock of these fellows, and then take a look at them 10 years from now and see where they are."
One who does wager on her break shots is Madelyn Whitlow, an erstwhile classical musician who is now given to playing cushions instead of the violin. She and her spouse, Alton, a man with the mannerisms of W. C. Fields, make a fine husband-wife team. Alton is also a professional and was among the 32 men who qualified for the Open this year. "People think that a pool hustler is immoral." said Mrs. Whitlow. "The fact is that anybody who goes up against a hustler is not pure either. He has a little larceny in his heart. I gamble to improve, and out of a certain amount of financial necessity."
Mrs. Whitlow was in trouble right from the start in Chicago. She was upset by Joyce Sykes of Trenton, N.J. in the first round. She moved into the loser's bracket, where she would need to win six straight to reach the finals. Mrs. Wise, despite being bothered by fuzzy eyes and arthritis in her hands, won her opening match as did the other favorites. Mrs. Titcomb and Miss Balukas.
"The kid," as Miss Balukas is called by her peers, was the compelling figure of the week—a taciturn, shy, freckle-faced girl who played with a set expression and little emotion. "Her main interest is baseball," explained her father, Albert, the owner of a billiards lounge and an eager, enthusiastic man who smiles readily when talking of his child.
There is an Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy quality to a conversation with Miss Balukas and her father. Perhaps because she is shy or cannot fathom why anyone would want to hear a 13-year-old girl's opinion of anything, Jean answers inquiries in monosyllables that are usually amplified and embellished by her father.
He will tell you how Jean finished second in a national junior bowling tournament when she was nine years old, rolling a 211 in one game. He will tell you how she can throw a curve with a baseball. He will tell you how she ran 38 balls while practicing pool at the age of 10. He will tell you how the boys at summer camp let Jean play in their all-star softball game and how she pitched and hit a triple to win the game. He will tell you how she has a repertoire of 15 trick shots and how ho gives her half-dollars to reward practice.
"Tell the truth now, tell the truth," he says to Joan, who had been asked how often she practices pool. Then he says, "The actual practice is about a week before a tournament. In between that, it's baseball. For a girl, it isn't a game that they want to play. But being in the billiards business, I'd like to build it up so that they want to play.
"I'm going to start her in golf. She'd be a beautiful golfer. She hits the ball well for a girl. You even parred a par-4 hole once, remember?
"I always try to get her down to my place for practice, just to keep her in stroke. If she would practice like a true champion, no one could touch her today. But I don't like to force her to play because she's too young for that."
Because her father is so vocal, proud and always present, rumors persist that Jean hates pool and plays only to satisfy her parent's whims. "I don't approve of the whole situation," said a woman professional. "I know the girl pretty well and she doesn't want to play pool. She wants to play baseball. She's been forced into pool by her father."
Once last week Jean told a writer that she didn't "love" the game. She likes it. ("Don't mind me talking." quickly interjected her father. "She likes it at tournament time. When she wants to play in a tournament, she'll go down and practice.") Later, in a private moment. Jean said she enjoyed pool as much as any other sport and said her father did not push her toward the game. "They're all the same," she said. "I like them all. With pool, I've got a chance to be a world champion."
"If she doesn't want to play pool," says her father earnestly, "she doesn't have to play. I don't believe in that."
He further explained that the great Willie Mosconi told him never to push his daughter. "Mosconi had a daughter who played pool and he said he pushed her a little bit and now she won't pick up a stick."
Miss Balukas' chances for the world championship were threatened on the second day when she fell far behind Miss Byrd. When Miss Byrd ran into some bad luck, however, the 13-year-old rallied and won. "She's got the guts to shoot any shot," commented Donna Ries.
Watching women pool players, even good ones, is a tedious business. They often play safety shots because of poor position. "Like I don't know how to play position," admitted Jean Balukas. "It seems like men can think a couple of balls ahead." Consequently, the men are able to run more than 100 balls on occasion, while the best women are happy to run 20 (men play 150-out games, women only 75). Mrs. Wise once ran 82 balls in a match game but she admits that it has been over a year since she ran even 50 in practice.
"Men have been in the poolroom for 100 years," points out Madelyn Whitlow. "Women are still new to it. It's a little early for them to play as well as men. but I think they could. You don't need strength. You have to have a good mind. You have to have a lot of concentration and you have to have coordination. There's a future for women in pool, and right now we're at the point where it's just beginning."
Mrs. Whitlow's future, dim after that first-day upset, kept getting brighter as the tournament progressed. Not so for Mrs. Wise, who alternated taking off and putting on her glasses as she looked for a solution to her ragged play. Against Mrs. Titcomb, Mrs. Wise was helpless, losing 75-32. "My game isn't as strong as it used to be," she said. "I knew that before I came." She looked fatigued from the effects of several personal appearances she made during the week.
Mrs. Wise told how she had undergone acupuncture treatment by a Chinese physician in San Francisco twice in recent weeks to relieve an attack of bursitis in her shoulder. "Some people-back home didn't even want me to come here because they didn't want me to get beat. But I don't feel that way. If you get beat, you come back and try again next year."
The next day, against the tenacious Mrs. Whitlow, Mrs. Wise put on another shallow imitation of her true game and was eliminated. "You don't know how much I'm going to play next year," she vowed. "I guess I'm going to have to move to the East Coast so I can play more tournaments."
Meanwhile, Jean Balukas was slicing through the competition like a pigeon's cue stick through a felt tabletop. She beat Donna Ries, running 12 balls and out at the end of the match, and topped Mrs. Titcomb on Friday, breaking out to a 40-8 lead and coasting. At one point, she ran 20 balls. "Now they have to beat me two games," she said.
Nobody beat her even one. The finals in the loser's bracket matched Mrs. Whitlow and Mrs. Titcomb for the somewhat dubious honor of facing Miss Balukas for first place. Mrs. Whitlow moved ahead, rallying after Mrs. Titcomb had built an early lead, and won 75-69.
Over in the men's division, Mizerak was right where he should have been, too: undefeated going into the final round. But Mizerak's crown set shakily for a time. Danny DiLiberto of Miami, who relishes living by his wits and cue stick, made a series of fantastic shots in the first game and pinned Mizerak's first loss on him. But the showdown game, when each player had a loss apiece, proved to be hardly a contest. Mizerak scored runs of 37 and 87 on his way to a 150-18 victory and his third straight Open title.
Earlier in the day Miss Balukas realized the culmination of a dream that dawned for her father almost a decade ago. The teen-ager opened her match against Mrs. Whitlow by playing a safety shot on the break. On her first turn, Madelyn tried to cut the one-ball into the corner pocket, missed, and Miss Balukas was rolling. And rolling. She broke to a 70-16 lead by running off as many balls as she could, then playing safety shots when she encountered poor table position. "By the time I got my bearings," Mrs. Whitlow recalled later, "the game was too far gone to salvage."
Mrs. Whitlow has made dramatic improvement in her game the last two years, and she was not about to give up in the Open finals. She took to playing safety shots herself, hoping to lure Miss Balukas into fouling three consecutive times, which would have penalized her 15 points. Indeed, the youngster did become unnerved at one point, and Mrs. Whitlow, playing safe 13 times in her final 24 turns on the table, made up a little ground. Then Miss Balukas found an opening, ran off six balls and had an easy shot on the nine-ball in the side pocket to win. The crowd gasped when she missed. Mrs. Whitlow tried a shot, missed, and then her opponent put away the victory by stroking the seven-ball straight into the corner pocket.
As the crowd rose and applauded the improbable ascension of a 13-year-old girl to a world's championship. Miss Balukas stood mute and awkward. "I felt like I was going to cry," she said.
In a nearby chair, Dorothy Wise smiled as she watched the young champion, 44 years her junior, assume the throne. That rustling sound was the curtain parting as youth entered the hall.