The old man with the custom cue knocks the balls off the table as if he were a schoolboy with a slingshot and the stripes and solids were so many crows perched on a telephone wire. Click click click. When the pool table has been cleared. 74-year-old Willie Mosconi shrugs and says, "Nothin' to this game." He's playing in front of the Sears store at the Northridge shopping mall in Milwaukee; the pool legend is making another exhibition appearance.
"I could arrange it so she doesn't make a ball," Mosconi tells the audience while setting up a trick shot for a young woman he has selected from the crowd. Almost 200 people are watching, if you count shopping-weary passersby and ascending escalator riders. It turns out the woman can't make a ball, even though Mosconi has arranged it so that a simple shot should pocket six at once. After three failed attempts and as many tedious setups, the Showman grows impatient and the Shark in Mosconi surfaces.
"Ever play this game before?" he asks her. (By his tone he is clearly saying, "You have played this game before, haven't you?")
"No," the woman says.
June 5, 1988
The Shark takes—yanks, really—the cue from her hand and the woman slinks back into the crowd, disappearing behind a potted palm. Then Mosconi the Salesman catches himself and remembers that he's here to pitch pool tables and make friends for Sears.
"Thank you," he says to the potted palm. "Uh, let's hear it for the young lady."
For two decades Mosconi was the best pool player on earth. He won the world title a record 15 times between 1941 and '57 and once ran 526 balls without a miss during an exhibition in Springfield, Ohio. "I never did miss," he says. "I got tired and quit." The Shark is cool. He is impeccable. Today Mosconi is dressed in a silver-gray suit with matching silver-gray breast-pocket handkerchief, matching silver-gray tie, matching...hair. In short, he's damn near perfect, if you overlook his impatience with women who can't handle a cue stick.
When a teenage boy thrusts forward a copy of Willie Mosconi on Pocket Billiards, the Shark becomes the Showman again. "I had black hair then," says the author, glancing at a photo in the book of himself in his 20's. "Hell, I had hair then." (He still does.) Mosconi signs the title page and the Showman swiftly becomes the Salesman.
"Still a good book, huh?" Mosconi asks his fan.
The kid nods.
"Damn good book," the Salesman suggests loudly enough for everyone to hear. After all, he says later, "the book's still being sold."
Shark, Showman, Salesman. The first fits Mosconi like his well-tailored suit; the latter two are the necessary baggage he hauls with him on his tours of America. For the world's best pool players can't make a living by exclusively doing what they do so well. Pool has no professional tour, so for 50 years Mosconi has hit the road—"the highway," he calls it—to front for table manufacturers and to delight audiences in exhibitions of his game.
"I learned to play pool in dancing school," says Mosconi, who was trundled off in the summer of 1919 to the South Philadelphia dance academy run by an uncle. There his older cousins Charlie and Louie, vaudevillians who shuffled-off-to-Buffalo with the Ziegfeld Follies and headlined at the Palace Theatre in New York City, practiced their hoofing. While waiting for his father to retrieve him after dance class, young Willie would watch his uncle shoot straight pool. "He kept a table in the corner [of the studio]," he says. "You know how kids are—I said, 'I can do that.' First I just picked the balls up and threw them around, but by the end of the summer I was running the whole table."
Willie also had access to pool tables close to home. His father, Joseph, ran a five-table poolroom, and when Joseph wasn't looking, Willie would sneak in to play. Joseph put a stop to this by keeping the balls and cues locked up, but Willie was determined. He retreated to the kitchen and used a broomstick to poke potatoes across the floor, leaning into his shots from atop an apple crate. Joseph, assessing the odds, relented, and Willie was soon on his way to becoming a pocket-billiards prodigy. In the fall of 1919, the six-year-old Showman was performing for Charlie and Louie's friends at the Friars Club in New York City.
In 1933, long after he had permanently left the linoleum for a baize-covered bed of slate, Mosconi "hit the highway" for the first time. He had placed fifth in the world championships in Chicago that year—"Not bad for a 19-year-old kid," he'll tell you—and Brunswick Corp., makers of pool equipment, hired him to demonstrate its products for $600 a month, good money at the height of the Depression. He barnstormed the Midwest, doing four exhibitions a day and sharpening the trick-shot routine that over the years has become as much shtick as stick.
In the shopping mall, Mosconi twice fails to pocket the last ball of an elaborate trick shot. Two times the cue ball scurries around the table, shooing all but the solid yellow 1 ball from the surface. Finally the Showman makes eye contact with the audience and says again, "Nothin' to this game." As he speaks, everyone can see Mosconi brush the 1 ball into the pocket with the cuff of his shirt.
Forty years ago, in the middle of his two-decade choke hold on the game. Mosconi found himself at the Strand Theatre near Times Square, waiting to begin an 8 p.m. straight-pool match with 13-time world champ Ralph Greenleaf. "I had tickets to Abie's Irish Rose that night," Mosconi says. The revival, which was playing at a nearby theater, had an 8:30 curtain time. "Greenleaf broke the balls; then I got up and ran off 125 points and did 10 trick shots in 17 minutes," says Mosconi, who was in his seat riffling through the playbill when the curtain rose for Rose.
It was a stroke—not another pool shooter—that ended Mosconi's record run of world championships at 15 in 1957. "That stroke knocked me out for two-and-a-half years," he says. Upon his recovery, former Army bunkmate and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Frank Loesser told Mosconi that director Robert Rossen was looking for a lead for his 1961 film, The Hustler. Mosconi cautiously suggested Jackie Gleason. an accomplished pool player by most everyone's standards—though not the Shark's. "He was all right," Mosconi concedes. "I mean, he beat all those suckers who hung around Toots Shor's."
Mosconi, the film's technical adviser, now tells the folks in the shopping mall, "I'll show you the shots Gleason and [Paul] Newman made in The Hustler." He gives the actors credit for making the shots, but in truth, he made many of them, and the cameras simply cut from his arm to Gleason's mug or to Newman's eyes. Later, when Mosconi is asked who was stroking the cue in The Hustler, he just says, "Ah," and gives a wave of his hand. "Everyone gives them credit for makin' the damn shots anyway."
Appropriately, it was a couple of fight managers—the late Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton, guiders of Mike Tyson's career—who brought Mosconi and Rudolf (Minnesota Fats) Wanderone together for the long-awaited Match of the Century in 1978. Mosconi won that one, and the match led to a series of televised matches between the two. Mosconi describes Fats as a con man who changed his nickname, Chicago Fats, to capitalize on Gleason's Hustler character, and did little to elevate the game. Mosconi didn't particularly enjoy those matches with Wanderone, "but my wife loved them." he says. "She got the money." Nearly 35 years after marrying Willie, Flora Mosconi still gets the money. These days it comes from the Showman's exhibition contract with Sears and from an instructional video the Salesman will soon shoot "out in California." Willie and Flora live in Haddon Heights, N.J., just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, and only a short distance from the homes of his three children.
Mosconi tried the nine-to-five grind as an "executive host" at Atlantic City casinos for four years. But when you have had no superior in your previous profession, it's difficult to take orders from the casino bosses at Harrah's and Caesars.
"Thank God I got the hell out of there," Mosconi says. "I worked eight hours a day and was always subject to the whims of the managers. I needed that like a hole in the head."
Many of the young people in the mall seem merely to have paused on their way to the record store to see what all the commotion's about.
"I seen him on TV," says a teenager, and indeed Mosconi pops up occasionally on MTV, in George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone video. He also appeared with Milton Berle in a recent syndicated television special. But the old-timers on hand are oblivious to Mosconi's connections to rock 'n' rollers and unimpressed by his gig with Mr. Television. They remember Willie from his days as Mr. Pool.
A trio of Mosconi's peers are chatting with him away from the exhibition table. To be sure, it's only away from the table that they are his equals. As they talk, Mosconi unscrews the halves of his custom cue stick like an assassin disassembling his high-powered rifle. The four men are lamenting the slow demise of straight pool, the game Mosconi once played better than anyone anywhere. Straight is the pure and unadorned game, as in straight whiskey or "Give it to me straight, Doc." Its only object: Run as many balls off the table as you can without missing, while calling the ball and pocket on each shot.
"You used to have to know all the aspects of control—where the cue ball will go after you shoot—and defense. Plus, the tables we played on were 5 feet wide and 10 feet long," Mosconi says. But in the age of the automatic teller machine, hustlers want to collect their stakes more quickly, and nine ball, a game as fast and loose as the kids who prefer it, proliferates on tables as small as 3½ by 7 feet. In nine ball, players must pocket the balls in numbered order, and they can play combos off the proper object ball. Anything that drops, counts, if the cue ball hits the lowest-numbered ball first. Whoever sinks the yellow-striped 9 ball wins. "You can make the 9 on the break and win," Mosconi says. "Where the hell's the skill in that?"
It was Fast Eddie Felson, the character Newman played in two movies, who came right out and said in Walter Tevis's 1984 novel, The Color of Money, "I hate the punks who play nine ball." But the Shark is near perfect, and a near-perfect gentleman wouldn't be so uncouth. The Showman wouldn't risk offending part of his audience. And the Salesman knows it would be bad for business.
Mosconi, however, can't help but wonder aloud why he's in Milwaukee today; why he'll be in Atlantic City tomorrow, nine years past his 65th birthday; why he's still stumping for the game he loves when the game has somehow passed him by.
"They changed the rules on us," Mosconi says to the trio of gentlemen his age. "Today, it's all nine ball. These kids, they all play nine ball."
"That's right, Willie," a punker says while passing by. "For a hundred bucks a game."
Mosconi shakes his head and looks at the other old men. "See what I mean?" he says. "See what I mean?"
Steve Rushin is writing a book about pool, its characters, customs and cons.