He always wore a pocket square. Say that for Willie Mosconi: The man could fill a pocket with style.
The (under)world of pocket billiards was once peopled by stylish legends, cartoonish men like Alvin (Titanic Thompson) Thomas. His eye was so sharp, it was said, that he could pitch a key into a lock from across a room and shoot bullets through washers flung into the sky. When not shooting pool, Rudolph (Minnesota Fats) Wanderone engaged in eating contests. Fats, it was said, began one contest by swallowing an entire ham and telling his opponent that he wouldn't count it toward his total. That's what they say: Fats spotted the man a ham.
Such impossible stories were told of Willie Mosconi as well, but with Mosconi there was a difference—the stories about Mosconi were true. He really did win the world championship of straight pool 15 times, between 1941 and '57. He really did run 526 consecutive balls in a straight-pool exhibition in Springfield, Ohio, calling the ball and pocket before every shot. "I never did miss," Mosconi said. "I just got tired and quit."
Mosconi (at right, in 1957) left this world last Thursday, suffering a heart attack at age 80 in his New Jersey home. He took with him one more remnant of that Runyonesque era around Broadway, commemorated on Broadway in the musical Guys and Dolls. Is it a surprise that the show's composer, Frank Loesser, was Mosconi's Army bunkmate?
Mosconi learned to play pool (elegantly, he always called the game "pocket billiards") in a South Philadelphia dance academy run by an uncle. His father owned a poolroom from which the young Willie was banned, so he practiced by poking potatoes across the kitchen floor with the butt end of a broomstick. At the age of six, Willie was playing exhibitions at the Friars Club in New York City, performing for its members, including his cousins Charlie and Louie, vaudevillians in the Ziegfeld Follies who had once headlined at the Palace. Mosconi's own most memorable Broadway performance came in 1948. At the Strand Theatre his match with 13-time world champion Ralph Greenleaf was to begin at 8 p.m. Trouble was, Mosconi had tickets to Abie's Irish Rose across Times Square that night, and curtain time was 8:30. So after Greenleaf broke the rack, Mosconi rose from his chair, chalked and ran off 125 points and 10 trick shots in 17 minutes. When the curtain rose on Rose, Mosconi was in the audience, reading his playbill.
More than a decade later Mosconi served as a technical adviser on the set of The Hustler, which starred his friend Jackie Gleason as a character named Minnesota Fats. The pool scenes were shot in the Ames Billiard Academy, near Times Square. After the film's release Wanderone began calling himself Minnesota Fats and saying the character was based on him. (It was not.) Alas, last week Fats, believed to be 93, was hospitalized in Nashville, having been discovered on a city street, disoriented once again. ("He thought he was Nebraska Fats," said new Broadway resident David Letterman.)
Fats always called the game's great players "legendaries." Pool lost a legendary last week. Runyon is gone. Gleason is gone. The Ames Billiard Academy has been gone for years. And now, gone as well, is Mosconi.
He didn't die. He just got tired and quit.