Anyone who knows anything about the history of pool would flip the script on this story in a heartbeat. Willie Mosconi was the ace, Minnesota Fats the pretender. In the flipped script, however, the category would be “pocket billiards,” not pool, and by that subtly revised measure, it’s true, Mosconi’s many world championships and unsurpassed feats on the felt would trump his rival’s loud mouth and unabashed self-promotion. But we are taking our cue, so to speak, from the state of today’s game where its more essential nature can be found, still and perhaps always, in smoky bars, or in basement rec rooms where the memories of smoky bars are never distant.
The barroom may not have ultimately been his preferred milieu, but Willie Mosconi knew that world well, having grown up above his family’s Philadelphia pool hall. His parents tried to keep him from the family business, preferring the son go into vaudeville. But young Willie was drawn to the game, shooting at potatoes with broomsticks when his father locked up the gear at night. In the face of that irrepressible passion, not to mention the burgeoning and bankable talent that had the youngster schooling much older players, his father relented. No more dance lessons. Willie was allowed to play.
Before he hit his teen years, Mosconi would go up against world champ Ralph Greenleaf in an exhibition match, stage his own trick shot shows, and win juvenile tournaments. Before age 21, he had toured the country promoting Brunswick equipment.
The 40s and 50s were decades of dominance. Mosconi established himself as the best pocket billiards player on the planet and, in the judgment of most, the best who ever was. He won 15 World Straight Pool Championships. He sank 526 consecutive balls in exhibition in ’54, a record to this day, and 150 straight in competition in ’56. Throughout that period, indeed throughout his life, Mosconi was determined to lift the game of pool out of the shadows of the pool hall, to rescue it from its reputation as a game of hustlers and con men and to help re-imbue it with the respectability it had when it was known as “The Noble Game of Billiards” in the 1800s, played by gentlemen and kings.
By the time of Mosconi’s post-war prime, those more seedy associations had started to predominate. Although the associations were longstanding (the name “pool” derived from the 19th century betting parlors at horse races where the collective bets − the pool − were aggregated and where bettors played billiards to occupy their time between races) in the first half of the 20th century, the game in America was popular and respectable. Players were featured on cigarette cards and tournament results were avidly followed in the news. Mid-century, the game went to war as a recreation for soldiers. When the men returned, however, they were more inclined to procreate in the suburbs than to recreate in the cities. The game’s popularity declined and the smoky barroom became the pool table’s natural habitat. Its natural champion, in that setting, was the hustler.
Enter Minnesota Fats. Born Rudolph Wanderone in 1913, the same year as Mosconi, Fats honed his game as a kid in Manhattan. He spent much of the 20s as a traveling hustler, racking up nicknames along with the gambling winnings − “Triple-Smart Fats,” “New York Fats,” “Broadway Fats.” Unlike Mosconi, Wanderone was a man of many words, a spinner of colorful tales and a charmer. He created his own myth, claiming in later life never to have lost a game for money—when “the cheese was on the table.”
While he became well known in the nation’s pool halls, he would have likely been a footnote in the history of the game but for the release of the movie “The Hustler” in 1961. In that classic, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, Paul Newman’s character Fast Eddie Felson wants to defeat the best player in the world, a character called Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason. Though Tevis always denied it, Wanderone claimed the character was based on his life. He simply adopted the new nickname as part of his rich personal mythology and rode the popularity of the film to great fame and wealth through exhibitions, promotions, TV appearances, and book deals.
Mosconi was a technical advisor on the film whose hands were actually seen performing Felson’s more difficult shots. Never close, Mosconi grew to hate Fats. The rivalry reached its apotheosis in a televised exhibition in 1978 called the Great Pool Shootout hosted by Howard Cosell and watched by nearly 11 million viewers. Though both players were well past their prime, the matchup was historic, the game’s two pole stars clashing before the largest audience to witness a pool match until that time, or since. It was more than Mosconi vs. Minnesota Fats, of course, it was billiards vs. pool, the gentleman’s game vs. the hustle. In video of the event, Mosconi can be seen making his way quickly around the table, pocketing balls with cool efficiency. Fats charmed with his easy-going banter and jokes. Mosconi won the match handily, but Fats won the audience.
They played several more times in the years that followed, none as widely viewed as the original shootout. Mosconi won all but one of their contests, but the real stakes had long since been laid and claimed. Mosconi was billiard’s king. Fats was pool’s most indispensable rogue.
Where Are They Now?
Mosconi died in 1993, Minnesota Fats in 1996. Both men are in the Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame.
Mosconi ranks second on Billiards Digest 50 Greatest Players of the Century (behind Willie Hoppe, a carom billiards expert active before 1952.) Rudolph “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone is not on list.
Minnesota Fats represented everything Willie Mosconi had sought to reform about the game of pool − the presumption of a standard of performance based, like an actor’s, on colorful lies, as opposed to a master sportsman’s, on skill. Maybe putting an end to those dance lessons was a mistake after all. If Willie had a bit of the vaudevillian in him, he may have captured the public imagination along with the shelf of trophies, and Minnesota Fats might have remained a footnote.