Memory of a Champion
Cecil Tugwell at Red's in Houston Texas, 1983-84
after he had made the switch to left-handed
Cecil Tugwell, Lou Butera & James Rempe at Red's
photos courtesy Bill Porter/Mike Haines -- All rights reserved
Interview with Cecil 'The Left Duke' Tugwell
This interview was recorded March 13, 2008. Cecil told me he was born in Helena, Arkansas, January 1, 1944. Cecil Tugwell died in Los Angeles April 20 (?), 2011.
Early 70's Stardust publicity photo, shooting righty
Photo courtesy Mark Griffin
1P: I knew a lot of your pool career was in California, but I didn't know if you had migrated there or were born there. A lot of pool players went out there.
CT: Yes, but I've been here in California since the second grade.
1P: So you pretty much grew up there. What part of California was that?
CT: Well, L.A. We stayed in Watts for a little while, but it was basically L.A. We lived in the city; I went to the 52nd Street School. There was a little pool hall on 47th and Vermont; that's where I started playing pool.
1P: So you got right into pool when you were a teenager?
CT: No, no. I was into sports and an athlete. They wouldn't let me in pool halls until I was eighteen. I had two older brothers that went to the pool hall, and they wouldn't let me go. Neither would the people that ran the room. At eighteen I walked into the pool hall after school one day. I was prepared. You know, our father was a pool player. They say he was a real good player.
1P: Oh, really?
CT: Yes, and he passed away when we came out here.
1P: So he had been a pool player back in Arkansas?
CT: Yeah, and in Michigan and St. Louis.
1P: Was he a stay-at-home pool player ?
CT: No, he traveled and played pool.
1P: So he was road player, a professional, really.
CT: Not a professional, but he played good.
1P: That was his main way of making money?
CT: I don't really know. I never knew him. I can't remember because I was so young.
1P: But he was a good player.
CT: Yeah, this is what I hear. It's amazing. I met one guy on a road trip to Detroit and one guy recently when I was in St. Louis. Both of them could identify my game with his game.
1P: So they saw some similarities in your game.
CT: Yeah, even though I never knew him.
1P: Because you didn't start playing until after he died.
CT: Right. I don't remember knowing the man, period.
1P: I'll be darned. But he still influenced you like that and you didn’t discover that until later. That's great.
CT: Yes. And see, I had to find out. I had to find out for myself. And all of my other brothers can play pool, too.
1P: And they were older than you?
CT: Two older and two younger.
1P: Did your father have a nickname?
CT: I think it was 'OC.' 'OC' Like zero, and then a C. Oscar Cornell Tugwell. They called him 'OC' for short. [Cecil’s sister told me recently that OC was actually their father’s given name]
1P: And do you have a nickname?
CT: Oh, I have so many nicknames.
1P: You've picked up a few over the years.
CT: And I've got one now.
1P: Which one's that?
CT: I am now the 'The Duke of Eastwood.'
1P: 'The Duke of Eastwood.'
CT: I didn't come up with it. They did it. I'm also the 'Stackmaster' in here.
1P: 'The Stackmaster.'
CT: Man, they've got so many nicknames for me. As a matter of fact, the first time I walked in a pool hall the first time I played, a guy in there called me 'Snapdragon.' And he kept doing it. I said, 'Look man, people don't like to be called something other than their name. And you're calling me 'Snapdragon.' I don't like that. And I just remembered that. I just remembered that this week.
1P: And that's when you were like eighteen.
CT: Yeah, when I was eighteen. And you know what they had me doing? They had me rolling a cue ball between the side pockets to one of the end rails for a dollar by the rail. Part of it was up under the rail. So I had to roll the cue ball, and if it hit some of that dollar I'd get the money.
1P: Oh, yeah?
CT: That's where I started, right there that day. I was rolling the ball on the dollar and collecting money. And then they'd move back to the line and get the money back. I remember that. That was something else. That was a trip.
1P: So you were an athlete?
CT: Oh, yeah.
1P: A lot of you guys that are real good players are also natural athletes; natural athletes at other sports, besides pool.
CT: Yeah, it takes aim, hand-eye coordination, and concentration, and being used to competition helps.
1P: Oh, yeah; holding up under pressure of competition.
CT: Right, but if you've been in a lot of competitions, it's a lot easier.
1P: What were your sports when you were growing up?
CT: Oh, all of them.
1P: Baseball? Football?
CT: Yeah, baseball, football; basketball was my first love, and gymnastics. I was an All-Around gymnast.
1P: Now, I understand you switched from right-handed to left-handed play at some point. So were you always coordinated with both hands like that?
CT: No. As a matter of fact, I had a wiggle and a crook in my stroke that was worse than 'Cisero' Murphy's. Remember 'Cisero' Murphy?
CT: You ever seen 'Cisero' Murphy's stroke? You see how it goes, like that?
1P: Yeah. A little herky-jerk.
CT: Yeah. Mine was worse than that.
1P: Was that your right-handed or your left-handed stroke?
CT: My left hand.
1P: Oh, yeah. But your right hand didn't have that?
CT: No. My right hand, it was something else. I could depend on it.
1P: So your right hand was smooth.
CT: Well, I was in a car wreck, but people, they've got so many tales about me. I was in a wreck on Florence and Eucalyptus after winning, beating a great player, Marvin Henderson. He won everything in those days. And when he came back from a tournament I took the money I had and borrowed some more and said, 'I want to play the first world champ that I know even-up.' And I went on to beat him.
That night on the way home a car hit me. As I was coming up the street there, he was running red lights and the third red light, I was there. Sixty miles an hour. Bam! I was making a left turn. I was paralyzed and couldn't use either one of my hands. I had a concussion and I couldn't see out of my right eye for a long time.
1P: What year was that?
CT: I'm not sure, but I think it was in the early seventies.
1P: Seventies, yeah. Now before that, when you were playing right-handed, did you get in tournaments or were you ducking the tournaments and just playing for money?
CT: I mostly played for money, but I played some tournaments. I would go to the tournaments and just pick the youngest player and try him. I'd give him a game or have him let me break the balls. That was my thing. That's when I started to begin to play a little. I figured if I could break the balls in One Pocket, I'd have a good chance of beating them. And Richie Florence was the first one who sent me packing. That was the first time. The next year I came back and tried him again, and oh, boy, I killed him.
1P: So the first time you played Richie, he got you.
CT: Yeah, but I had him, though. I would get the breaks. When I was first learning One Pocket, I started getting two balls and the breaks from people. Then I thought I should try to get the champion players, especially coming from a little pool hall. I had beat Ronnie like that, and then I beat Marvin Henderson like that.
1P: Ronnie Allen and Marvin Henderson…
CT: 8 to 6 and the break. Richie was supposed to have been the worst of the One Pocket players. He was known to have been. I had him $3,700 loser, and he came back. The greatest performance I have ever seen in pool shooting. As far as One Pocket shooting, I've never seen what Richie did to me again. I mean, it was incredible.
1P: He outran the nuts…
CT: If you and I were at a table, I would draw for you the shot that I was good at. See, I could shoot a ball and cross it if it's on a long rail; bank it right into the middle of the table; put my cue ball on the end rail and line that ball up where you couldn't see the balls inside my pocket.
And Richie went to shooting that ball, cutting it backwards into his pocket, hitting up by the side pocket and busting the balls and running out. It was the greatest shooting performance I ever saw.
1P: So he made a back cut there and broke up the balls.
CT: Yes. I had the cue ball frozen to the rail. See, I could freeze that ball on the rail and line that other ball up where you can't see the ball…
1P: You doubled him up on the balls by your pocket…
CT: I lined them up and froze the cue ball so he'd have to shoot off that rail. It was something else.
1P: Yeah, so he could really catch a gear, could he?
CT: He sure did. I was a young guy and it was something new to me. I thought pool was so much fun, and it still is fun for me.
1P: So you're about the same age as Richie Florence would have been.
CT: Oh, yeah. But they started playing way before I did. They were all champions, and I was just starting.
1P: When you started, you didn't start with One Pocket, right?
CT: No, 8-ball.
1P: Yeah. 8-ball and 9-ball?
CT: 8-Ball and last Pocket 8-ball.
1P: Oh, yeah. Last pocket. Well, that gets you thinking right there, a little bit.
CT: Right. But then we also played '1 and 15' 8-ball; they were playing that, too.
1P: Now '1 and 15' is where you've got to make the one in a certain pocket?
CT: Yeah, in the side. And the other guy makes the fifteen in the other side.
1P: And you have to do that before you make the eight, so you've got to make that at some point?
CT: Yes, that has to happen before you can make the eight. There's no way you can get around that. You want to make it as quick as you can. It’s regulation 8-ball, but you have to make your 1 or 15 in your side. The first time it's crazy.
1P: I've heard of that game, but I haven't seen it played.
CT: I love it. I still love that game.
1P: Can you find people that still play it?
CT: Oh, very seldom can I get somebody to play it, but I try to make somebody play it just for the sport of it. I'm always looking to play that game.
1P: And then you said you looked to play the younger guys...
CT: In the tournaments. In the world tournaments; to see how my skills stood up…
1P: You wanted to test yourself against them?
CT: Yeah, right.
1P: But usually, when you're trying to learn a game like One Pocket, you try to play some of the old-timers so you can pick up some tips?
CT: Oh, but I learned the game quick, because that's what my interest was. I thought shooting the shot and keeping the opponents from doing anything to you was something else.
1P: One Pocket is one of those thinking kind of games, and it's a game that appeals to people that have a knack for strategy and so on.
CT: Yeah, once you understand what you're doing, the games are going to go out the window. But very few people understand the game of One Pocket. I mean, it's such a powerful game because it requires thought. You play the game with thought.
CT: Yeah, thought. Instead of just making moves, it gets you in thoughts. It gets you thinking something. That's what I like.
1P: So you kind of fell into it yourself. Was there an older player that took you on the road and taught you the game?
CT: No, no. I never traveled with many pool players, but I'll tell you who did help me quite a bit. My older brother and 'Rags' Woods.
1P: I was wondering about 'Rags' because he was local there, right?
1P: And he was a great player.
CT: I learned so much when I met 'Rags' and started watching him in big tournaments and different places. See, I went to him before I started playing Ronnie Allen and Marvin when they gave me that 8 to 6 and the break game. 'Rags' ran the place and stayed open all night. I would be in there all night and it would just be me and him.
I said to him, 'Rags. Come on. I'm going to give you a few dollars and I want you to just beat on me, because I want to learn something from you. I watch you play and I understand some of what you're doing, but I know I have a lot to learn.' And we'd just play.
So I would give him thirty or forty dollars at two or three dollars a game. Nobody was there. I'd lose to him in the games and I'd give him the money, and he appreciated it. But he would want to give me 8 to 5 and the break or something like that. And I would always say no. I knew when the time came… I remember it just like it was yesterday.
It was a Sunday. There was nobody there during the night. It was just the two of us just doing our thing. We started playing and I won seven straight. He told me, 'Look, boss man. Listen. This is what I'm going to tell you. Your lessons are done. And guess what? Now all you gotta do is go outside and find somebody that thinks they can beat you. And don't you worry about a thing.' So, I really put him at the head of my list as far as influencing me in pool.
1P: Did you see him competing with other players?
CT: Yeah. When I found out there was a tournament, I'd be there watching. Nobody even knew I was there. Oh, I love the game. The competition I love. It's a sport of competition. I like the competition. Yeah, I just like competition.
1P: And this is a good kind of competition, for sure. There's also a little money involved, and it's one-on-one.
CT: It is; the skill in pool is really something. Pool is really an underrated sport as far as skills and money.
1P: Skills under pressure.
CT: There's so much pressure if you allow pressure to come into your game. It can be tremendous.
1P: Another thing is sometimes those sessions are long. Did you get into those long sessions, too?
CT: Loved them. Al Romero. That was his thing. He would play for two or three days, and about on the second or third day, he's shooting stronger and most of his opponents are getting weaker. I've played long periods of time.
1P: So that's another element of athleticism.
CT: Oh, you've got to be in condition to play. See, that's part of my thing, now, trying to get back to playing and getting this body into condition. After that wreck, I have so many ligaments and tendons and things that have been damaged. It always comes back, and I have to keep my exercise going; otherwise, I feel like spaghetti and real weak and I don't like that. That's horrible. I've got to do something physical to try to get myself back into good shape.
1P: Did you ever go back to playing right-handed or did you stay lefty?
CT: Well, I stayed lefty. I couldn't use either one of my hands after the wreck. I had like monster hands. My arms, hands, head and body were so big that every pool stick was like a 2 x 4 on both sides of my hands. I couldn't bend over or do nothing.
The car hit me on the left, but almost everything on my right had twice the damage of the left. I've got a lot of scars on my hands and body, but most of the damage was done on my right side for some reason.
1P: So you mentioned Al Romero. Didn't Al also travel with 'Cannonball' for a while?
CT: I don't know. 'Cannonball' was one of my favorite players too.
1P: You were around him, too?
CT: Yeah, I was able to watch 'Cannonball.' As a matter of fact, I played 'Cannonball.' I liked playing people if they gave me the game I wanted.
1P: Now he was a monster banker.
CT: Yeah. There's some monster bankers. I've run into monster bankers all over the country.
1P: Like who?
CT: 'Bugs' Rucker, Romberg. Howard. Tony 'Miller.' Rooster.
1P: Rooster meaning Cornbread?
1P: I'm familiar with 'Bugs' …
CT: You're not familiar with Romberg?
1P: Yeah, well he died kind of young.
CT: Yeah, he did…
1P: But he was pretty smooth…
CT: He banked so many balls on me one time, he broke me…
1P: He was a pretty smooth player, I understand.
CT: Oh, yeah. Left-handed.
1P: But nobody was as smooth as Marvin Henderson, right?
CT: No. Marvin's stroke was so beautiful. I mean, the smoothness of it; the whole thing. That was one of my favorite people, too.
1P: When you're playing against a player like that and you see how smooth he plays, do you feel like you don't have a chance?
CT: No. I had a stroke that you wouldn't believe myself, but I camouflaged so much of what I was doing. People didn’t think I could play for years.
1P: Oh, so you had a little lemon in your game…
CT: I would call it acting. The best actor around the table wins the most money.
1P: But that was a part of how you did things.
CT: Oh, yeah; I had to. But it was hard for me because I wanted to learn to play. I wanted to play my best.
1P: Especially when you were young.
CT: Yeah, I started at eighteen. I was going to try and go for the Olympics and I messed my knee up, so I decided to go into the military. I went in the Navy. The first thing I went for was the pool tables on the base. Before I knew it I had won the Navy championship there.
1P: Oh, you did?
CT: I won it in an 8-ball game. I won it at '1 and 15'. That's what I won it at.
1P: I'll be damned.
CT: I was so thrilled when I came back home and told my brothers that I did that. I knew pool was tailor-made for me.
1P: It just came naturally to you.
CT: Yeah. I think I inherited it from my father, because I always could shoot pool.
1P: There were some other great old players. You mentioned 'Rags' Woods. What was special about his game?
CT: Well, being a young guy, you learn different things. I don’t know exactly what their strong points were, but I knew I could learn something from watching them play.
1P: And so you picked up quite a bit about One Pocket from ‘Rags’…
CT: Right. And straight pool…
1P: And he was another smooth player, wasn't he?
CT: Yes. And Mr. Fred Whalen wanted me to play with all the big guys, so that's when I got into that, and met Mr. Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Moore and Luther Lassiter later.
1P: When they came out there? Or you met them when you were on the road?
CT: I met them here.
1P: I know Taylor was out for a while for one of those tournaments at the Elks Club.
CT: And we played partners, me and Mr. Taylor.
1P: You and Taylor were partners?
CT: Eddie Taylor and I were partners, yes. Against Jimmy Moore and 'New York Blackie'.
1P: Oh, yeah. How did that go?
CT: Well, we won. But let me just tell you the story, here. Puckett, 'UJ' Puckett. Did you ever know him?
1P: I didn't know him, but I know who he is.
CT: Well, he was at Hard Times here when I won the One Pocket championship against Efren in the final. But Puckett, when I won, the game was over, but I didn't realize it was over. Anyway, Puckett got up and walked from the other side of the table. He was wearing that big white hat he had. And he said to me, 'Son, mighty good playing. Keep up the good work.' And when he said that, all the people clapped and just went wild.
News clipping from The Snap magazine, September/October 1990
I was going to 'CJ' Wiley's tournament in Dallas when I heard he had passed away. I was coming from Detroit, and I said, "I'm going to Puckett's tournament." So I went to his tournament, and I got there too late. And now I'm sitting in the roped off area there. And who's coming down the runway but Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Moore, Jimmy Caras and Mosconi.
Taylor has got the microphone in his hand, and he's talking to the people as they walk down the runway. I'm sitting in the roped off area and they walked right by me. So I jumped up and said, 'I want to say congratulations to these world champions and great players here. Let me just shake your hand, because you all are great players and I was able to watch you play so much.' And I sat right down. This wasn’t that long ago; it was about ten years ago.
Eddie Taylor says to me, 'Hm. You know what, son? You look familiar to me.' I said, 'Me? Oh, you probably saw me watching from the stands a lot.' So now Jimmy Moore says, 'No. He does look familiar. I know you from somewhere.'
And I said, 'Me, Mr. Moore? No. And that's Mr. Mosconi and this is Mr. Jimmy Caras'. So now he said to me, 'No. Don't kid me, he says. Don't you kid me.' So then I confessed. Mr. Jimmy Moore says, 'Oh, well I can't get your name. I'll think of it in a minute.' So I told him.
Whenever Mr. Moore would come to Celebrity Billiards for the tournament, he would take me to dinner, I think with his son or his daughter. We all sat downstairs from Celebrity Billiards and had dinner, and he would tell me all about pool.
Now, Mr. Fred Whalen wanted me to get in that, so, he gave a straight pool tournament and I was able to play in it and I won it . That's when I started with those great players, but I didn't play in many tournaments. I just wanted to play.
1P: So Taylor or Puckett, they kind of recognized you, like you looked familiar.
CT: Jimmy Moore…
1P: Jimmy Moore, okay. Do you think he saw your father play, so he was seeing your father?
CT: No, he remembered me. He remembered me from watching. He said, 'I'll tell you who he is. This is that boy from California that plays One Pocket so good. That's who he is.'
1P: They caught on to you.
CT: Well, I just had to say hello. I just couldn't help it. So, he used my stick. Mr. Taylor started banking balls with my stick, and didn't miss a ball. He had the microphone, and then he took his coat off. There's a crowd of people watching who followed him. I felt so thrilled. It's another time in my life where I've actually been overwhelmed with those feelings that I don't think I understand. And talking to you right now, I feel the same way. The last time I felt like this was when I saw my picture in that One Pocket book.
1P: Oh, yeah.
CT: Then I went to work in St. Louis for a company who made Breathalyzers for the police. The family of my boss, Max, invented them. I was there about eight months when he moved the factory to the suburbs near where he was living in St. Louis.
When they put in the conference table, it was a billiard table, but it had a top over it. I saw a tip tapper on a keychain of one of the movers. I said, 'Where did you get that tapping thing?' He said, 'Oh, I got this from Machine Gun Kelly. I said, 'You mean 'Machine Gun' Lou Butera? He said, 'Yeah. That's what his name was.'
Max was out there with me. He said, 'Cece, how did you know that?' I said, 'Look, Max, you'd be surprised. You should know. I used to shoot pool pretty good, at least that's what they say. Now I’m not shooting, but I used to shoot pool really good and I'm even in books.'
He said, 'You're in books? Tell me some more.' Me and Max were real tight. The first day we worked together, we went downtown and looked at all the office buildings. We went all out, me and him, well into the night.
He said to me, 'If you've got a book like this, go home and get it.' I just lived about two big parking lots away. I said, 'Max, no, I'm working.' He said, 'No, you're on the clock. You ain't doing nothing. I want you to go and get it and you're still on the clock.' So I went and got the book. He took the book to Europe with him and was gone for a little while.
What he did when he got back really got to me. When I walked in there with his son, he asked, 'Hey Cece, have you seem my dad?' I said, 'No, is he back?' This is Monday morning. He said, 'Yeah, he got back Friday.' I said, 'Well, no. I haven't seen him.' He said, 'Did he tell you what he did?' I said, 'No, what did he do?'
He said, 'Well, you'll find out.' He had the pictures blown up real big and put them up on a wall in the conference room. Giant pictures from the book hanging from the ceiling with the writing up under them.
[Interview ended when we lost our phone connection]
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