I asked his permission to post them via my blog, and he graciously said yes.
What is TRULY amazing about these two stories (today's will be about Johnson City and next will be about a jaunt to Las Vegas), Michael wrote these only TEN years ago - yet he made the trips in 1965!! He was around 21 years old and even 50 years later, he was able to recall all of these amazing details!
JOHNSTON CITY– 1965
By Michael Vaught
I had the good luck to attend both of these tournaments for a few days. These are some of my memories of those trips. My friend Jay Helfert took me both times, to Johnston City and to Las Vegas, and I will always be grateful to him. We drove up and out from Oklahoma University in Norman, OK.
We walked into the Cue Club in Johnston City about 7 AM and the place was pretty full, with games everywhere. The first table we came to had a four-handed one pocket game with Jersey Red, Boston Shorty, Marcel Camp, and someone else I’m not sure of now. At the time, I barely knew what one pocket was. I was 21 and a good snooker player and nine-ball player, but I was scared to death of all these guys. I remember Cuban Joe asked me to play pretty soon after we came in, and of course I said no. I watched him play several guys like me later on and he beat them all. Jay pointed out The Jockey to me, and Cornbread Red, and Handsome Danny. It was fantastic.
I watched the four handed one pocket game for a while and noticed that nobody had made a ball and that they had all 15 balls pushed up to the head of the table and nobody could get a shot. Finally Jersey Red made the first ball – a fantastic table length bank shot – and got no shape at all. Jersey Red had dark circles under his eyes and looked like he had been up for a week. There was a boxing match going on that he asked me about when we came in. I think I told him who won. I learned who he was when he turned his head to respond to someone who said, “Hey, Jersey Red”.
There was another guy, a big guy with a southern drawl, in a suit and cowboy boots. This was U.J. Puckett. I didn’t know who he was at first, but later on, I watched him practicing a shot and learned something right away that has stayed with me since then. He was freezing a ball to the end rail one diamond out from the pocket on each end of the table, and freezing the cue ball to the rail a few inches away from one. Then he was trying to make them both with one shot. I didn’t understand what he was trying to do at first, but as I watched, amazed at his power, I understood what he was doing. He didn’t make the shot, but he was hitting the second ball, just missing running it down the rail. I’ve never seen anyone make the shot. Except for me, I’ve never seen anyone else even try this shot.
A quick list of players I remember – Weenie Beenie, Johnny Ervolino, Danny DeLiberto, Joe Procita, Cornbread Red, Boston Shorty, Handsome Danny, Jersey Red, Marcel Camp, Cuban Joe, U.J. Puckett, Babyface Whitlow, Daddy Warbucks, Omaha Fats. There were several other players whose names I never got and who played super.
I saw Cornbread Red (Billy Burge) shooting around and doing some shots such as putting a ball in the center of the table, cue ball in one corner pocket, jacked up, fires the ball into the long diagonal straight-in corner, a super shot, and also draws the ball back a foot or so. Jay was standing there with me and said, ”And he drew the ball!”. Red makes the shot the first try, then says, “I can do that on a 6 by 12 snooker table with them little bitty pockets. Draw that cue ball back and scratch.” Yeah. Then he sets up a table length bank shot, hits it so hard it travels most of the way to the pocket in the air, and smacks into the corner with a sonic boom. He says, “I can hit those mother****** as good as anybody”. I guess so. Then he says, ”Not a lot of people know it, but I play pretty good banks.” Then he fires in two or three more banks. It was fun to watch.
He was so approachable, I set up a shot for him to make. It was a ball in each corner pocket, with another ball in the middle of the rail to go around as you tried to make both balls in one shot. I could do it – I knew it required a lot of English, and I just wanted to see him do it with his stroke. However, instead of putting the cue ball over close to the side rail to start the shot, he placed his cue ball almost two feet out in the center of the table, which made the shot a heck of a lot harder. He tried several times and kept missing it, with his cue ball catching and stopping rather than moving toward the corner ball. I could see what the problem was, but who was I to correct Cornbread Red? Finally he had to go and, frustrated, he really gave it all he had and the cue ball made a wicked hook and darted down and made the second ball, and had enough juice to follow it in. He noticed all that and made a comment about it as he left.
Then there was the guy with the 21 ball rack and his gambling game. He was offering odds of, I think, 10 to 1 to all the pros, and let them “team up” on shots. He didn’t care. He had devised a very tough game to beat. They would roll dice and come up with a number before they started a game. That number of points had to be run in one pocket without missing. The break was a free shot. You added up the numbers on the balls to get your total.
I saw Harold Worst, Weenie Beenie, Daddy Warbucks, etc. team up on shots and figure out what to do next, and it was fascinating to listen to them. Once Harold Worst mentioned playing a billiard on one shot and Danny DiLiberto piped up and said, “Do you play billiards?”. Joking, of course, since Harold was world 3-cushion champ at the time.
While I watched, the team of players trying to beat the game was letting Harold Worst break for them, and he was doing a good job, I thought. The break needed to be one-pocket style, and if you could make a ball, good for you. Worst was moving the balls toward the corner pocket and leaving the cue ball well placed, but he wasn’t making one on the break. Hubert Cokes walked up and said he didn’t like that kind of break for this game. Harold let him break to show how. He placed the cue ball slightly differently, hit the rack in a different place, and promptly made a ball on the break. Jay said, “He knows something, huh?”. The only one I saw beat this game was Johnny Ervolino.
They had a bar table set up out in the open in one of the areas. I saw a big guy challenge Cornbread Red to $25 a game 9-ball if he got to break. Red agreed, and the big guy broke like thunder and made the 9. Rack and go again – this time he makes 5 balls on the break and runs out the rest just like that. Red Says, “If we play anymore, you’re breakin’ from right here.” Then he froze the cue ball to the middle of the end rail at the head of the table. Game over. I never knew who the big guy was.
It’s been written that Minnesota Fats stopped coming to Johnston City pretty soon, and that was true. But he did make a brief appearance this time – the night we were there he gave a little show in the tournament area and told some funny stories. At one point somebody in the crowd called out, “Tell ’em about Willie the wop”. So Fats launched into this story about a pool player named Willie (He may have been making fun of Mosconi, I don’t know).
It went something like this: Willie was playing Joe a straight pool game for money. Joe just happened to have a glass eye. Anyway, Joe gets the first good shot and starts to run out. He gets to the game ball and has a choice of shots. He decides to humiliate Willie. He says, “I could shoot this shot, straight in, or I could bank this one. I’ll shoot the bank if you’ll sing “ Ave Maria” in the middle of the pool hall”. So, says Fats, “Willie got up and sang Ave Maria – his throat was dry, he was nervous, but he did it. “ So then Joe shoots the bank shot, according to the bargain, but rushes it and misses it. Fats demonstrates this by setting up the layout, and hitting a cross-table bank so that it just goes back and forth across the table, but doesn’t go.
So the story continues, “Now it’s Willie’s turn. He gets up and runs out down to the game ball, and darned if the same layout doesn’t come up. So he says, “Joe I could shoot this one, straight in, or I could bank this one. I’ll shoot the bank if you’ll take out your eye and roll it on the table.” Joe considers this and then takes out his glass eye and rolls it on the table. Willie looks at him, then fires in the easy shot for the game, saying, “Oh, Joe – not a THAT A ONE!”. Wrong eye. It got a big laugh. You can argue all you want about how good Fats played or didn’t, but one thing is for sure: he was quite a showman - really natural showman.
I remember watching the evening tournament matches, featuring players like Danny Jones, Weenie Beenie, U.J. Puckett, and Boston Shorty. George Jansco introduced U.J. Puckett as “Ugly Puckett” and I still think it hurt U.J.’s feelings a little bit because of the look I saw go across his face right then. In fact, the Johnston City program available listed him also as “Ugly Puckett”. In his match, he missed a shot and stood up and drawled, “I just dogged it”.
I don’t remember the scores or who won the matches. I do remember they were playing straight pool. Danny Jones ran 51, Beenie ran 37. I was just swimming in all of it. I had never seen anything like this. Everyone in the crowd seemed to be a player. Time and time again I saw somebody from the crowd step up and make a game, then display this smooth stroke and start running balls. It was amazing.
The best “hustler” I saw was some kid about 16 or 18 who fooled around on the practice tables time and time again and just looked like he couldn’t run 3 balls. He was very consistent about keeping up this act. Finally he got the game he wanted with someone and naturally, cleaned up. I remember Danny Jones coming around and asking about the results of the game. He then said, “The kid don’t make many bad games.” Guess not.
Jay had the moxie (to use an old word) to make a couple of small games while we were there. I forget who he played or how he came out, but he could play and knew how to take care of himself.
I was watching Danny DiLiberto play straight pool and he set up a break shot with the break ball right up against the pack and the cue ball in a seemingly tough position. He said to someone, “How do you break from there?” Then he fired into the break ball, kissed it off the pack and into the corner pocket, and scattered balls everywhere. What a shot. This is the kind of stuff I got to see by just hanging around and watching these guys.
We sleepily drove back to Norman in Jay’s Corvette sometime late Sunday, taking turns at the wheel. One final note – there really is something to the concept of seeing something done correctly and then doing it yourself. The next time I played, which was pretty soon after we returned, I noticed that my stroke seemed just a little bit smoother, just a little better after watching those fine players all weekend.