One by one they came to the little railroad town on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. Mostly they were slender young men, easy and open. But when they began to play, their eyes turned to agate and their faces were carved from stone. They are the breed that has been tagged pool hustlers, and they were in Burlington last week for the $25,000 World Nine-Ball Championship. That, plus the unofficial big-money games that went on all night in the practice room at the grand old Hotel Burlington.
Jersey Red was there, and The Deacon and Captain Hook and Baltimore Buddy. So were Fast Eddie (not Paul Newman, but Ronnie Allen) and Freddie the Beard, who showed up nicely clean-shaven. Wimpy Lassiter didn't make it, and the Machine Gun was tied up by other business in Japan, and while The Glove had called to say he was coming, he didn't appear either.
"It was a weird phone call," said Dick Coffey, one of the tournament co-promoters. Coffey runs a family-type pool room in Galesburg, Ill. and is not familiar with many of the sport's top guns. "This voice said, 'This is The Glove and I'm on my way.'
"Oh, Mister DeGlove?" I said.
" 'No, no. The Glove, and I want you to put all the loot in one big pile. I got a month and I'm leaving now to hustle my way north. I'm gonna win it all.' "
Somewhere en route The Glove must have dropped his $175 entry fee because Coffey never heard from him again. Still, at final count going into the four-day, double-elimination tournament, 80 of the world's top speeds had come for a run at the $10,000 first prize, which is the biggest tournament score ever offered. St. Louie Louie even brought in his secret weapon, an inspirational tape recording cut for him by a hypnotist; he turns it on just before falling asleep.
But Jimmy Rempe, who is sometimes known as Hippie Jimmie and who really is a clean-cut 27-year-old out of Dixon City, Pa., had the answer for Louie's strategy. "What I'm going to do," Jimmy said, "is to cut my own tape, and when Louie's asleep I'm going to sneak ~in and put it on his recorder. It will say: 'Louie, you are a dog. Louie, you can't win tonight. Bark, Louie.' "
And then Rempe laughed, just as they all laugh, usually with bitterness, at their image as hustlers. To a man—well, almost to a man—they regard themselves as athletes, the finest of their profession, and they find it frustrating that they have to make their living as gamblers because the tournaments are too few and usually too poorly financed.
"What's a hustler?" demanded Jersey Red, a delightful free spirit by the name of Jack Breit who now lives in Houston. "I go into a town and say, "Hey, I'm the greatest nine-ball player in the world and if you got anybody you think can beat me you can make a bet.' Sometimes when I bankrupt a town they get a little hot, but I say, "Look, I told you.' That cools them. We may be gamblers and we may be promoters, self-promoters, but we aren't hustlers."
And then Jersey Red and Dick Courtney, an ex-SMU tackle and Coffey's partner, got into a debate over the world's greatest promoters.
"It's got to be Billy Graham," said Jersey Red. "He's the strongest one." "I think Oral Roberts is right up there," said Courtney.
"Oral Roberts!" scoffed Jersey Red. "Why, Graham could give him the six, seven and eight and the break and still beat him. I once saw Graham in a little town in Texas. He had 150,000 people sitting on a hill in the rain. He said, 'Come on down.' And they all came on down and dropped some money in his bucket. Now that's strong."
The city of Burlington met the pool players with some trepidation, but people were quickly won over. For one thing, the perils of this particular game over regular pool would make an admirer out of most anybody. While one-pocket is the chess game of pool, and straight pool is the most dignified and the dullest, nine-ball is where the excitement is, and the action. Only the first nine numbered balls are used, and the first eight of them are meaningless. He who sinks the nine wins. He can make the nine on the break, on a combination off another ball or by first, in order, cleaning up everything else.
"It takes courage to play," said one shooter. "You always have to be on the offense. The closer you get to the nine ball, the closer you are to winning. But at the same time, you are also closer to the other guy winning. I know guys who can make the first eight balls with great shots and then couldn't shoot the nine into a bushel basket."
There was no problem in understanding the tournament rules: win and advance; lose two games and you're out. The 80 shooters started on Thursday in a room set up in the Municipal Auditorium, an edifice built on the banks of the river in 1939 by the WPA. They went after each other around six tables in 21-game sessions, with the winner the first man to reach 11 victories.
Some of the sessions lasted only about an hour, the time it took Pete Margo to beat nine-time U.S. open champion Irving Crane, The Deacon, on opening day. Two days later, with the crowd holding at about 800 balcony sitters, Crane lost his second game, to Billy Cress, and was gone.
Saturday's play began at noon and rolled on past midnight in uninterrupted action, and the list of the twice-fallen began to grow. Gone were such top speeds as Buddy Hall, who fought a 2½-hour marathon in losing, and Dallas West, this year's open champ (who may have had a premonition; he had checked out of his hotel before the match). Ousted, too, were Jersey Red and Fast Eddie and Captain Hook and clean-shaven Freddie the Beard.
As play started on Sunday, only two men remained undefeated: Rempe, by then everybody's favorite, and Mike Carella. And only four were in the losers' bracket: St. Louie Louie Roberts, Richie Ambrose, Jim Marino and young Steve Mizerak, a cool-shooting New Jersey schoolteacher who had won four straight open titles.
When the last shot was fired, at 9:42 p.m., to be precise, it was by Rempe. He drilled the nine ball into a corner pocket to cinch an 11-6 victory over Ambrose, who had fought back from his one-loss handicap. The crowd had swelled to 2,000 for the finale, and its hero could have run for mayor.
The next big outing will come in mid-February, a $33,000 nine-ball tournament at an Oregon ski area called the Inn of the Seventh Mountain. Other plans are in the works for four more $10,000 meets, plus a $25,000 championship session for next year.
"When I started shooting pool back in Rochester, N.Y., I practiced 16 and 18 hours a day," said Mike Sigel, the 21-year-old Captain Hook. "I've worked hard to get where I am now, but now that I'm here, I find it's not what I thought it would be. You're one of the best, but what does it mean? Without a strong tournament tour, we'll simply never be accepted as anything but pool hustlers."
Fair enough. In fact, just about the only dissenting view, and a mild one at that, came from Chicago Freddie. Early in the week he had stepped into the lobby from the Hotel Burlington elevator, his custom pool cue broken down and fitted snugly into its black leather case. An old railroad type, in engineer's cap and bib overalls, spotted him. The aged gent eyed the case and said, "How's the pheasant hunting going?"
Chicago Freddie laughed. "Pops," he said, "this isn't for shooting pheasant. This is for shooting pigeons."