Mosconi & Fats, The Great Pool Shoot-Out

Posted

Twenty million Americans tuned in to ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Valentine’s Day, 1978 to watch a champ and a hustler duke it out. Dressed in a tuxedo and holding the mic, renowned sports announcer Howard Cosell made the ringside introductions and delivered the play-by-play. The event wasn’t a boxing match, but a billiards competition between Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats.

White-haired and in their mid-60’s, the old-timers racked it up at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in front of the largest TV viewership ever for a cue game. Mosconi and Fats were vestiges of pool’s glory days in the 1940’s and 50’s. Both came up during the depression and played in an era of smoke-filled parlors and basements that were home to rogues and gamblers.

In their day, only a few establishments offered elegance and ambiance for discerning players. Philadelphia’s Allinger’s was one of those plush venues that was known to draw top talent, including Mosconi and Fats. Allinger’s even provided ‘rack girls’, or young women who would reset the balls after each game.

Mosconi grew up in that town and learned his craft at a young age. His father ran a pool hall but locked up the cue sticks so his son will pursue other interests. But young Wille found a way to hone his skills by using a broomstick to shoot potatoes on the pool table.

Around the same time, Rudolf Wanderone Jr. roamed his upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan, looking for pool action in bars and saloons and earning the nickname New York Fats. Later on, he managed a gaming hall in southeast Washington, DC, cued balls and talked big in the Mid-West, and hustled cash from sailors in Norfolk, Virginia.

An irrepressible showman with a flair for windbag stories, Fats was more of a trickster and entertainer than a great champion of the art. Always carrying wads of hundred dollar bills rolled in his chest pocket, Fats never won a major pool tournament. But his sideshow verbal antics nonetheless made him one of the most recognizable and colorful figures in the circuit.

Mosconi couldn’t have been any more different. Dapperish and all-business, he was synonymous with the table sport itself. He won the World Straight Pool Championship 15 times, the most of any other player. At an exhibition game in Springfield, Illinois in 1954, Mosconi officially sunk 526 straight balls, a record that still holds today.

The two mixed like oil and water. A consummate professional, Mosconi tried to elevate the recreation of pool above its sordid image and he disdained Fats for perpetuating its negative stereotype. Mosconi’s game was straight pool (using all 6 pockets), while Fats preferred the one pocket (just a single designated pocket for each player).

For his part, Fats’ feud with Mosconi stemmed from the 1961 film “The Hustler”. Mosconi was the billiards consultant on the movie set, which starred Paul Newman as ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. After the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, New York Fats rebranded himself as Minnesota Fats, arguing that Gleason’s screen persona was fashioned after him.

But Mosconi always refuted that claim, pointing out that the character was taken from the original novel “The Hustler”, written by American author Walter Tevis. Mosconi joked that Fats had never even been to Minnesota.

In front of national TV, the celebrity duos were now squaring off in a 5-set tournament showdown. At stake was honor, legacy and a $15,000 cash prize for the winner. It was artistry versus bravado, discipline versus theater.

In his characteristic style, Fats tried to distract his opponent by drawing laughs from the audience with his comical quips and banters. At one point, Cosell edged him back to his seat, petted his girth, and urged him to be a “good boy”.

It didn’t take long for Mosconi to prove his superior skills. He won the shoot-out in the first three sets: Nine Ball (5-3), Eight Ball (5-2) and Rotation (5-2).

Mosconi died in 1993 and Fats followed three years later. Leaving a rich legacy, their rivalry and different styles only served to enhance the popularity of pocket billiards in America.

Other articles enjoyed: Barney Ross: Ganster, Boxer, Hero, Jack LaLanne: I Can't Die, It Would Ruin My Image, Last Bare-knuckle Champion

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

BOXING  September 26, 2009  Vitaly Klitschko defeats Chris Arreola in the 10th round after the latter calls it quits. It was the 40th professional bout for the Ukrainian fighter who retained his WBC heavyweight title. Klitschko retired in 2012 with a record of 47-45-2, including 41 knockouts. Two years later, he was elected Mayor of Kiev, a position he still holds.

20 years ago

GOLF  September 26, 1999  Americans defeat the Europeans at the 33rd Ryder Cup, which was held in Brookline, Massachusetts. Winning by a narrow margin of 14½ to 13½, the Americans were trailing 10-6 before rallying in the final day to claim the tournament. Rude behavior by spectators on the course was heavily criticized by all media outlets.

30 years ago

TENNIS  September 16, 1989  Six days after losing the US Open final to Boris Becker, Czech tennis player Ivan Lendl marries Samantha Frankel; they would have five daughters together. Lendl turned pro in 1978 and held the #1 world ranking for 270 weeks in the 1980s. A baseline power hitter, he won eight grand slams during his prolific career.

40 years ago

BASEBALL  September 24, 1979  In his first year with the Philadelphia Phillies, Pete Rose reaches 200 hits a season for the 10th time; he was previously with the Cincinnati Reds from 1963-78. A 2x World Series champ, Rose won his 3rd Fall Classic with the Phillies. The Ohio native retired in 1986 as a player and remains MLB’s all-time leader in hits (4,256).