Surviving images of our Namesake

Ralph Greenleaf is on YouTube. It is optimistically called a “Highlight Reel.” It is not. It is an odd assemblage of a few newsreel clips and outtakes. They are snapshots of a great champion, wishing he were anywhere else, going through the motions. We, the audience, are never engaged. We stumbled upon something we were not meant to see. The first clip is of a world’s straight pool championship final between Greenleaf and the “Chicago Wizard,” Erwin Rudolph. Likely from the mid 1930’s, held at Dwyer’s Billiard Club in New York City. Rudolph defeats Greenleaf. Greenleaf seems defeated from the start. Rudolph opens with a classic safety. Greenleaf thinks he sees a dead combination and fires at it. It is not dead. The shot misses, Greenleaf slouches back to his chair and Rudolph begins his run. Spliced in with Rudolph’s great pattern play are some absurd shots probably meant to show us his “Wizardry.” The Chicagoan gets the trophy and we see little else of Greenleaf. Greenleaf’s single shot is hard to watch. He doesn’t even LOOK at it. He just takes a couple perfunctory strokes and slaps at it. What was he thinking? Was he overconfident against the “Chicago Wizard”? Did he not care? Was he thinking of his next drink? It is puzzling. In our sweet, forlorn game, Ralph Greenleaf owns a mythic stature. His name is a spoken talisman. This crappy clip of a disinterested man in a sharp looking suit just makes me sad.

We can see the ‘Aristocrat’ bored, frustrated, pandering to a movie camera that has already dumbed down and recast our heroes as ‘celebrities.’

The film’s next segment is of Greenleaf shooting trick shots on an empty sound stage. He is tall, with a handsome, boyish face. The sharp suit is there and the hair (perhaps somewhat anachronistically) is slick with pomade. He goes through the basic canon of the time; the “Hat Shot”, the “Handkerchief Shot” and the “Rack Shot”. He makes three rail lags, finds disguised combinations and strokes a beautiful masse. End results. All well and good.  Next, however, we see process. This is not so good. Greenleaf tries and fails multiple times to execute the shots (not uncommon), gets fidgety and gestures in annoyance (again, not uncommon). Here’s the thing; players hate doing trick shots. The very name connotes something of the trained monkey. Players labor for years, honing their skills in this most subtle game and then, when they get truly great, they are asked to perform a bunch of nonsense to an often wildly uninterested public. We can see the “Aristocrat” bored, frustrated, pandering to a movie camera that has already dumbed down and recast our heroes as “celebrities.”

The final clip offers the sad, staged, denouement. Greenleaf is in Hollywood performing his shots for a glittering, politely applauding, small crowd. Most everyone feigns a good time except a slender dude with his arms folded at the far left. He is resolutely unimpressed and even seems disdainful of the champion. Asshole. The film literally ends with an extra doing a dopey, slapstick, pratfall.

Pool has always straddled purity and shtick. Indeed, a great part of its appeal is found in the con man, the shameless self-promoter, the American original. It is as true today as it was in the Roaring Twenties. The game is hard and there is such little reward. Our champions have to shill all the time. I get it. Not too long after Greenleaf performed for the selection of Hollywood B-listers he had a stomach ache, went to a hospital in New York City and died in the waiting room at age 51. The historian loves the information found in the “Highlight Reel.” The poet does not.

 

Byzantium

The photo is posed. A newspaper wants "local color" and a pool player (like every one of us) is secretly flattered to be singled out. He is self-conscious and will not directly engage. His eyes are distracted. Maybe a mark just walked in. He's got five o'clock shadow and is surely a "night person". He sports an expensive haircut and a fancy new shirt. What a shirt! He wears it open at the collar where an ornate cross inhabits a mossy, pre-manscaped world. His pinky ring glistens in the Pool Room's fluorescence.

He is a welder, drives a Dodge Charger and has a sexy girlfriend named Suzy. The balls are racked for a game he does not play. This guy plays Nine-Ball. He plays for money and snaps off local tournaments. Growing up, I knew guys like him. I idolized them. I listened to them. They taught me how to spin my rock, how to ease into a score and how to avoid being trapped into a bad bet.

He plays in the kind of joint of my youth. Mine was in Southern California but they were ubiquitous. They were in strip malls and had unimaginative names like Rack and Cue, Cue and Cushion, Rack 'Em and The Eight Ball. Their cheap wood paneling served as backdrops to rows of pin ball machines on a line to infinity (I see one is named Luna Beach) that in turn served as backdrops to each day's drama. They sold toasted sandwiches in plastic baskets and Cokes in frosted mugs. There was nowhere finer in all the world.

Like an ambassador to Byzantium from a distant land, a newspaper photographer sought and found the exotic. He got a glimpse of finery, pomp and ritual. He took back for us an icon, a small souvenir from a courtly world.

Danny Barouty's induction to the game's hall of fame

Pool is not golf. Golfers make money. In golf the players we see every weekend on TV are the world’s best. The purses and perks of sponsorship are so high it is fair to assume that anyone who has game and can handle the pressure is sure to be rich and famous. The monolithic structure of the PGA Tour and powerhouse companies like Nike and Titleist have partnered (colluded?) to create pervasive brands for the game’s greats that posit an American myth for us to vicariously participate in.

In his game resides something like genius. His intellect, creativity and grit have inspired a generation of players. Every time Danny plays it is an insight into the highest reaches of our game.

Pool has no Nike. Pool players make no money. They bargain away their amazing skills for a pittance. Prize monies in top events are chillingly low and the best a top player can hope for from a sponsor is a kind of indentured servitude. The game’s beauty, its subtlety, is a tree falling in a forest, a shout into the wind. Pool players have real jobs and do not ski in the off-season. There is no off-season.

For some, this is lamentable. I believe it is our game’s great strength. Pool lives in rumor; tales of local players never flushed out by big purses and promises of corporate jets. Our history is populated with tantalizing footnotes. Guys who rarely left their home rooms and were as good as any, guys like James Evans, Mike Eufemia, Abe Rosen, and Gene Nagy live in lore, in testimony as surely sworn to as it is inaccurate.

At last month’s World’s Straight Pool Tournament in New York City one of these guys was inaugurated into the game’s hall of fame. Danny Barouty is a legend among New York straight pool players. In his game resides something like genius. His intellect, creativity and grit have inspired a generation of players including George “Ginky” Sansouci, Steve Lipsky, Mika Immonen, Tony Robles, Michael Yednak, and this writer. Every time Danny plays it is an insight into the highest reaches of our game. I can personally attest. One night at Amsterdam Billiards he poured a 245 ball run over me. It was awesome. Danny is tough. He teaches by example and commands respect.

L-R: Jim Gottier, Danny Barouty

L-R: Jim Gottier, Danny Barouty

Congratulations Danny. Although you will never be fitted for a green jacket, hoist a Claret Jug or be filmed lingering upon an old stone bridge at St. Andrews, or any other crap that golf dreams up, and history may record you as a footnote, for all of us who call you teacher and friend, the beautiful present we live in is enough.

“Machine Gun” Lou Butera, 1937–2015

Lou was a pool God. In the early 1970’s he ran through everybody. He played fast. He was charismatic. He was the 1973 World’s Straight Pool Champion.  He ran 150 balls and out against Allen Hopkins in twenty-one minutes in that same year. Or was it against Frank Mcgown in 1969? Some say it was against Johnny Ervolino in New York City. Cheyenne Pete swore Lou did it to him at Paramount Billiards in Long Beach, California. 

Pool existed then in the spoken word, in conflicting eye witness accounts, enthusiastic fabrications, in downright lies. All things were fugitive and posterity was a scrapbook your daughter made. Only fragments have come through. Lou and his generation of great players exist in lore. American men. Guys who fought in, or avoided fighting in, wars; guys who had jobs and brought up families; guys who needed extra cash and played jam up pool. They bloomed late. After them the beautiful game of straight pool died.

This Lou Butera was a magical being. Ball after ball. Rack after rack this creature, almost in passing, revealed to me the known laws of the physical world.

I knew Lou. He became a friend and mentor. As a teenage pool player I had two heroes. Lou was one.

In 1970 my Dad and I went to the World’s Straight Pool Championships at the fabled Elks Building, an Art Deco Masterpiece near Macarthur Park in downtown L.A. In the practice room we saw a man warming up. My Dad saw a bald man in a sharkskin suit, chatting and running balls. My Dad was a Cold War engineer. He designed missiles. He lived in Pomona and had bills to pay. He didn’t see the obvious. This Lou Butera was a magical being. Ball after ball. Rack after rack this creature, almost in passing, revealed to me the known laws of the physical world. 

Maybe it was an optical trick of the lighting or the sheen from the sharkskin suit but I swear he was cloaked in an aura. We watched his match. He won. We went back the next day. On the way from our car to the Elk’s Building we stopped in at a grocery store for Cokes. In line behind us at the check out stand, with a bag full of groceries, was the magical being. As I pondered how it is that something other-worldly needed a sack of groceries, “Machine Gun” Lou Butera introduced himself to my Dad and asked me if I was a player (at that point a wildly optimistic word for what I was). I was too awed to respond. 

I kinda never lost that around him. I learned much from this kind hearted, generous man. In a happy circumstance of owning a Pool Room I get to put myself next to him on our wall of beautiful portraits. As I still try to fathom this game I practice on Table 1, I look over at him and can’t help but smile.

The House Man

Kesner’s Billiards was downtown in my hometown of Pomona, California—a basement room across from the Southern Pacific depot just off of the town’s esteemed outdoor mall. In the time of my apprenticeship it had already become something of a relic. Progressive members of the City Council called it “an eye sore.” Women shoppers hustled quickly past on the way to their cars. As a teenage boy, it was a siren singing in clicks and cusswords. From Kesner’s I would learn all the applied laws of the known universe. I would learn courage and humility, anger and addiction; knightly virtues and worldly vices.

There was one problem. Mr. Kesner had a no-one-under-eighteen policy. That first evening I hung around outside the entrance by the fountain in the green neon glow for two hours building up the courage to bluff my way into the temple. Freight trains with hoppers filled with coal or sugar beets rattled by. Pool players came and went. No one acknowledged me though all who passed knew well the pent up fervor of a recent convert awaiting a sign. Each swing of the door hinted a mystery play was evolving. Muffled voices. Cursing. Woofing. A click and a scatter. A scrap of a dispute. The soundtrack that would accompany my life. Surely there was room for another actor. Too briskly I bounded down the stairs. Too casually I opened the door, frowning like someone old. Everything swirled. I saw and heard nothing. I fiddled with the cue sticks, rolled a few across the table to check if they were warped—something I once saw a guy do when I peeked inside the Rocket Room—selected one, went to the counter and asked for a “good” table. Mr. Kesner asked how old I was.

That was that.

He works the day shift and plays at night. He is never the best player. He is always one of the best gamblers. To get on his good side is paramount though he is no one’s friend.

There my bravado ended. The jig was up. A plan poorly conceived; I had no fall back position. “Fourteen” I said. He thanked me for being honest, said he admired my spunk and with a kind smile kicked me out. Eleven times. Over the next few months eleven times after school I would ride my bike to Kesner’s, risk alienating forever the goodwill of the proprietor and plead my case. One day the house man Ricky took my side. That day I learned the value of a great house man. Every decent room has one.

A great house man maintains the equipment, advises on rules of etiquette, settles disputes and facilitates the action. He re-tips the cue sticks, keeps the tables brushed and adjusts the lighting. At his own game’s expense he will interrupt his practice or hold up the ring game to help a customer. A house man takes care of his regulars. For them he saves the best balls—the Brunswick Centennials. He knows who prefers the blue dot or the red dot cue ball—the red dot is lighter, easier to draw—and twice a year recovers the tables. He is always there. He works the day shift and plays at night. He is never the best player. He is always one of the best gamblers. To get on his good side is paramount though he is no one’s friend.

Ricky was the perfect house man, amoral, neutral as a Swiss, for a toke he’d steer you into a good game, never queer anyone’s action, never give up information to road players and for big money matches, for a percentage from both sides, would keep the room open after hours.

Our house man — Jesse Rice

Our house man — Jesse Rice

I don’t know why he took pity on me but he became my intercessor and gained me conditional entry. He got me a coke, laid down the rules and took me to the cue racks. Ricky explained what to look for in a cue, that only an amateur rolls cues all over the table checking the warp and that all that really mattered was the tip. A cue could be heavy or light, crooked or straight, thick shafted or thin. None of that mattered much so long as the profile of the tip was the roundness of a nickel. Ricky taught me the correct way to chalk, to keep the tip scuffed so that it will grab Whitey, how to stand and how to stroke. Ricky showed me that no shot is straight forward; that even the simplest of shots merits respect. He told me of spin and speed; immutable laws of physics. He explained deflection. How, when english is applied, even a little off center, the path of the cue ball alters its course; how that must be compensated for or the result will be disaster. He gave me a table in the back. Earnestly, fully aware of my journey’s length, I hit my first ball. It slammed into the pocket. It was heroin.