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Rack ‘em up with

Norm 'Farmer' Webber

© 2004 Steve Booth,

While known more for his trick shot exhibitions than for his One Pocket game, Norm spent eight years plying the tables at Cochran's in San Francisco from 1955 to 1963 -- just as One Pocket was coming out of the shadows and into the public eye under the bright lights of the Johnston City tournaments. Norm was inducted into the New England Pool and Billiard Hall of Fame in 1994. I had the pleasure of playing him regularly when he lived in Laconia, NH.

1P: I really enjoyed all the material you sent me, Norm. So you grew up in Maine and your father had a bowling place with a poolroom, and that's how you got started…

NW: Yeah, a small poolroom up there in Sanford. I first saw pool when I was about seven. My mother, who was a very devout Catholic, didn't want me hanging around the poolroom. They had hired Jimmy Caras, Irving Crane and Ruth McGinnis to do an exhibition. It was back in about 1934, depression time, and he got those three in a package deal. Jimmy Caras at the time was World's Champion. I squawked and belly-ached until I got my mother to let me go in to watch this exhibition when it came to town. When I went down to that poolroom and saw all them pretty balls rolling around on the table it intrigued me. I just got all strung out on pool.


1P: Was it mainly Straight Pool they played up there at that time?

NW: Back then they played a lot of 3-6-9, with those being the pay balls in 9-Ball. That was the game, and they played a lot of Kelley Pool, with the pills. And Straight Pool of course, was a major game.

1P: You got to be a pretty strong player by the time you were a teenager…

NW: When I was thirteen we moved to Portland, when the War was on. My father took a job in the shipyard with everybody else. I wound up in a city with five rooms with twenty or more tables in them, and soldiers, and sailors, and Marines, and welders with their welding caps still on, all coming into the poolroom, and they all had money. I wound up winning the state tournament at fourteen. I could beat anybody around Maine at fourteen, and I wound up winning all kinds of money in those poolrooms.


(l-r) Tiffany Nelson, Norm, Allison Fisher and Grady Mathews

Norm made a guest appearance at one of Grady and Allison's 'Battle of the Sexes' challenge matches  (photo courtesy Grady Mathews)

1P: I've heard you were on the road with your father at first – stories of you as a teenager, dressed in overalls, mud on your boots and everything, showing up with your father at different poolrooms…

NW: Well I went on my own, too, or with a buddy from high school, but after the shipyards closed my dad really got into it when I was about 17 to 20. We had a pickup with a little camper on the back – didn't cost us nothing on the road. Once in a while we'd go to the ‘Y' to take a shower and that was it. Until one time down in Waycross, Georgia, something went wrong with the truck and we had to wait four days for parts, and I had hustled the town so I didn't have any action. So I said to the old man, I'll see you up in Washington, at a joint we used to hang around on 14 th Street, where I'd been hustling with him. He said he'd be there when he got the truck fixed. I ended up getting hold of ‘ Squirrel' and beating him out of eight hundred. Then I left a note there that I'd see him in Baltimore at another joint we'd been to. But when I got there nothing was happening, so I said to hell with it, I'm going back to Portland, Maine. So I left him another note there that I'd see him at home. So I went home and like the next night went to a dance and met this girl, and I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. So by the time he got home about five days later, I was getting married the next day.


One time just before Christmas, I went with my father to Portsmouth, NH, and I was playing the guy that ran the room there – the best player in town. Something happened, and I missed a shot I wasn't supposed to miss, and my father waved his hands at me as if to say ‘you're a bum'. He got disgusted and went out to the car. At the time I needed 48 and the guy needed 16 or something like that. Well right after he left, I ran out on the guy the very next shot. We were betting everybody in the joint – we had about two hundred on the game. So I picked up the four hundred and went downstairs to where my father was sitting in the car, all disgusted. I didn't say anything to him, and we took off and headed back to Portland, Maine. Finally he pulled over at a diner and said ‘You want a piece of pie or ice cream or something?' So I said sure. Then when it came time to pay the check I pulled out the four hundred and said, ‘I'll take care of that, dad,' and handed him the money. He couldn't believe it, he thought that money was gone – that was Christmas money, and back then four hundred was four hundred.


1P: Wow, that happened fast.

NW: He was hot because I was bankrolling him and the whole family at that time, so he lost his provider. That's how I wound up on my own, I hit the road on my honeymoon on a Greyhound bus. We went to Boston first, and then all over the place on that Greyhound. It was a tough life, but I just couldn't help but make money everywhere I went. Christ, walking into a poolroom was like walking into a bank, it was just a question of how much I was going to draw out. It was like I had an account in every poolroom.


1P: Who did you run into in Boston?

NW: ‘Boston Shorty' was already hanging around the poolrooms then. He was three years younger than I was. He was already the top player around there, along with a few other guys that played real good Straight Pool. But I was just going around all of the rooms – back in those days you could get on the subway and for a transfer you could go to any place in Boston for ten cents. ‘Shorty' and I had a lot in common, we both started out as kids pin-setting. We used to get three cents a string, and it allowed us access to the pool tables, too.


1P: When you first went to Boston you were playing Straight Pool and 9-Ball – you didn't get into One Pocket there did you?

NW: No, mostly 9-ball.

1P: Did you ever play Bob Ingersol? I've read where ‘Shorty' credits Bob Ingersol for helping him learn One Pocket…

NW: Oh yeah, we played a lot of pool together, but I never played him One Pocket. He and I got inducted at the same time into the New England Pool Hall of Fame down at Mike X's joint in New Bedford, Mass. The best One Pocket player I saw around Boston was Hayden Lingo.


1P: I didn't realize he spent time in Boston – maybe that's who Bob Ingersol learned from.

NW: He was only there hustling a short while.


(l-r) Bob Ingersol, 'Boston Shorty', Herb Lehman and Norm were inducted into the New England Pool and Billiards Hall of Fame in 1994


1P: So when did you first really start running into the game of One Pocket?

NW: Well I saw the game, but I didn't play it for a long time. Matter of fact, when I was on the road, I never played One Pocket. I didn't really take it up until I got to ‘Frisco. I love the game, it's such an interesting game, but I never had the intensity for it that I devoted to 9-Ball or Straight Pool.


1P: I imagine when you first discovered One Pocket, not being experienced at it, it might have cost you a little…

NW: It never cost me a dime; I just ran out. I didn't know the game, but I ran out real good. You give me a shot, I'd break them balls like it was a Straight Pool break. I played real good Straight Pool; I was running a hundred when I was about fourteen.


1P: Andrew St. Jean was another real strong early player in the area; did you ever bump into him?

NW: Oh yeah, we played a match together in Portland, Maine at Dube's Billiard Parlor in 1944 or '45. He came to play an exhibition, and I played him Straight Pool and beat him.


1P: I understand he traveled as a ‘Masked Marvel' for a few years – an incredible talent but had a lot of trouble staying sober…

NW: He was sober at the time I played him. I only beat him by one ball, 100 to 99.

1P: Did you ever see him shoot one-handed?

NW: Hell yeah, he was probably the best one-handed player in the world.


1P: Ronnie Allen plays pretty good one-handed, too. You saw them both; how would you say he compared to Ronnie?

NW: Ronnie wouldn't compare with St. Jean.


1P: I have heard St. Jean ran a hundred balls one handed.

NW: No, he couldn't do that – that's a lot of crap. Pool players tell a lot of stories. Hell, I've been on the road and had people telling me stories that they didn't know I had originated – only they embellished them.


1P: But he was strong enough one-handed that you rank him above Ronnie Allen?

NW: Yes he was. I rank him above anyone I ever ran into playing one handed. There was a Puerto Rican kid that used to come up from LA that robbed Ronnie Allen one-handed .


1P: You remember his name?

NW: They called him ‘Miami'. He was a friend of this guy Chico, from Puerto Rico. Remember him? He was a hustler from New York City. He used to say, “I'm Chico from Puerto Riccccco.”

1P: Did you ever get to the Johnston City tournaments?

NW: Just once in 1968; Danny Jones and made the trip. Danny came from Kennesaw. Ever hear of Kennesaw? It's just outside of Atlanta. Well they called him ‘Handsome Danny'. Well Danny and I were about the same age. He died unfortunately. He got into an automobile crash that really hurt his game. But in 1968 we played together in Johnston City. I had just come from the US Open that year, and I had knocked Danny out of the US Open. I got knocked out of the tournament in Johnston City and Danny Jones went out and won the all around that year – in 1968; he was quite a player.


'Boston Shorty' and Norm Webber at an exhibition challenge match in 1995

1P: Did you get into all three divisions, the One Pocket too?

NW: Oh yeah. Yeah, I lost a game – honest to God – I needed one ball and the guy needed eight, and I lost the game. I never went through such a grueling game in my life. I forget who the hell it was – oh yeah, ‘Cornbread Red'.


1P: Yeah, he had a knack for hanging in there by a thread.

NW: He really did. He banked out on me; I'll never forget it.

1P: Norm, did you know he died just last year?

NW: Really? I didn't know that. Were you telling me Larry Lisciotti died?


1P: Yes, Larry died, too.

NW: Jesus, I can't believe it -- all these guys kickin' off.


1P: It's been a tough year. Steve Cook died last year, too.

NW: What? Jesus Christ, he was a good friend of mine from Tampa. He and I played a lot together. Him and ‘Junior' Goff. Ever hear of him?

1P: He was another one of the early Johnston City regulars. How about the Stardust, did you go there?

NW: No, I was in the siding business at that time – I was making big money selling vinyl siding. Christ, I loved it.


1P: Something tells me you could have sold just about anything, Norm.

NW: Well I turned out to be one of the best salesmen in New England at the time. When I was out in Frisco I got together with a guy named Bill Johnson, who was the best vinyl salesman in the world. I wound up fronting him; knocking on doors and making appointments for him. He guaranteed me three hundred a week and I was kind of burned out hustling. So I took a job with him and I went in on the ‘sits' with him that I had set up and just listened to everything he said. I did that for a couple years. Then I went back to New England and became a closer and I had two or three front men fronting me in. Man, I was grabbing a grand a deal and I'd only work two days a week. I'd make two grand and call it a week. It paid real well -- a lot better than hustling!


Norm had a sponsorship arrangement with Miller lite on his exhibition circuit

1P: So, when you got to San Francisco in 1955 you were near the top of your game at that point, weren't you?

NW: Definitely.


1P: And One Pocket was big out there at that time...

NW: Yeah, and I started playing with a guy that was so knowledgeable. He was the most knowledgeable guy that ever played One Pocket. His name was Phil Rodriguez; they called him ‘Bananas', from San Antonio. He's running a room there now, or was a year ago.


1P: Norm, unfortunately I don't think he's alive either.

NW: Really!


1P: Yeah, I hate to bring you all this bad news.

NW: God damn!


1P: I'm sorry.

NW: How about Irving Crane?


1P: I'm not sure about him – I tend to know more about the One Pocket players...

NW: I wonder if he's alive or not. I saw him on that legends program on television recently with Jimmy Moore and Mosconi and everybody, but of course these guys have been dead a long time. I'm kinda thinking that maybe ‘The Deacon' is dead, too. [Editor's note: Irving Crane died in 2001]


1P: So you learned a lot playing ‘Bananas'…

NW: Oh, definitely, but the thing was, this guy was the slowwwest player. I could go use the john between shots waiting for him to decide what to play! We'd play eight hour sessions sometimes. When nobody was in the joint I'd play him for short money, and I picked up the game from him. He was a hell of an instructor, without him knowing it, he was really teaching me the game.


1P: He probably played that more conservative style though, and that's not really your style…

NW: Definitely. But if you could capture his moves, it would enable you to get into shots. You know, putting the guy on defense all the time.

1P: At what point did you figure that you had really caught on to One Pocket?

NW: Well, when I was beating him. When I was beating him steady, why then I decided to play guys like ‘Little Phil'. Ever hear of ‘Little Phil'?

1P: No, I haven't heard of him.

NW: Well ‘Little Phil' was one hell of a One Pocket player. He was from LA originally but he hung around ‘Frisco while I was there, and nobody wanted any part of him at One Pocket.


1P: Do you mean ‘Mexican Phil'?

NW: Yeah.


1P: Okay, I have heard that name.

NW: ‘Leetle Pheel' they call him. He was a hot ticket – nice guy, and man could he play One Pocket.


1P: At what point did Ronnie Allen show up out there in San Francisco?

NW: He was already there when I got there, in '55. He and Richie Florence – a friend of his from LA – came up; Ronnie brought him up. There were all kinds of guys out there at that time. I've got a trunk full of names that I've put down – hustlers – just scribbled down just so I wouldn't forget, because every one that I put down reminds me of a story. I figure that when I got around to doing a book, that I would get into these names and recall.


Norm still gets out to perform an exhibition now and then


1P: Do have any ‘Mexican Phil' story or a Ronnie Allen story?

NW: When I knew Ronnie he was a young guy. Once in a while he and I would get together and play a little One Pocket, but most of the time, 9-Ball. He never got by me at 9-Ball. He backed me a couple of times -- but I lost. He backed me one time down in Johnston City against Jim Mataya, and we played a set – a race to nine. I'll never forget it, he bugged me so much during the course of the game that I got agitated and couldn't play. Mataya had about nine guys from Detroit with him, all cheering and hollering and carrying on – you wouldn't believe it. You never went down there did you?

1P: No, I didn't.

NW: You would have really enjoyed that.


1P: Well I never made it there, but I have been to the Derby City Classic, and I'm told that has a little bit of the Johnston City flavor. Do you want to tell us about some of those other characters…

NW: Well there was Marshall Carpenter, he started out as a kid selling peanuts in a poolroom in Tuscaloosa, that's how he got the name ‘Squirrel'. And ‘Nashville Sam' -- he played One Pocket pretty good. They called him ‘Okey Sam' out there in ‘Frisco – but where I ran into him was in Florida, and he was known there as ‘Nashville Sam' at that time. Then when I got out to the west coast they were telling me about this ‘Okey Sam' and I went in to trap him, and it was ‘Nashville Sam', an old friend of mine. He stayed out there a while and then wound up down in LA around the same time I went down there. I had got together with Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance – baseball players for the Angels – in the off-season.


1P: How about Marvin Henderson, you must have bumped into him…

NW: Henderson was the best colored player in the country that I ever saw, and I played them all – everywhere.


1P: He was an awful strong One Pocket player I understand.

NW: Yes he was, and he played very good Straight Pool, too – very good. He was a great all-around player. I ran into him everywhere, New Orleans in the French Quarter, other places in the South, and of course he was around the whole eight years I was in ‘Frisco.


1P: Did you play in any of the San Francisco tournaments?

NW: Aside from that one time at Johnston City, the only tournament I ever got into was the US Open, and I finished tied for fifth with Crane.

1P: That was an excellent finish…

NW: They gave Crane fifth and put me down as sixth because he finished a half hour after I did, or some damn thing. He had just won the World Championship in New York City just prior to the US Open. But I was delighted to finish that well. I lost my first match – I drew him for my first match. Jesus Christ, of all people out of 54 entrants, I had to draw Crane. I lost to him and then won seven in a row. I beat Butera, Danny Jones, Danny Gartner – ‘Young Greenleaf' they called him; he was from Newark and a hell of a player. I safetied them all to death, I even made the record book. Then afterwards Danny and I went down to Johnston City together and he knocked me out – I drew him for my first game after I drove down with him in his car!

1P: That seems to happen a lot; two guys travel together then they draw each other in the tournament. How about Don Willis, did you ever run into him?

NW: Don was a good friend of Joe Canton's and Joe was the reason I went to ‘Frisco in the first place. Joe Canton and I were good buddies from when I lived in Albany. He and I went out to ‘Frisco hustling together. I liked it so much I came back and moved my family out there. Well Joe and Don Willis were buddies, and so was Dean Chance. They were both from Canton, Ohio where Don Willis lived. Don Willis was Dean Chance's hero, so we got talking about him a lot. I never did play Don Willis, but I saw him play, and I saw him go through his trick shot routine. He was quite a character, and a hell of a 9-ball player. I don't know if he's still alive or not, but I know Joe Canton's dead. Joe was the 1950 national champion – he won it on the Navy Pier – he beat Crane.

Belinsky was a half-assed pool player and evidently I had gone through Trenton, New Jersey where he came from when he was a kid and I had robbed him. Then I ran into him in Vegas, and he talked me into going to LA and living in his spot and hustling all of these places that had robbed him, as a ball player. He got a picture taken of Dean Chance, himself and me in the middle with an LA Angels catcher's outfit on, and it said Bo Belinskey, and Red Saxby, scrub catcher and Dean Chance. So when I'd go into these joints with him, and they'd accuse him of bringing in a hustler, he'd whip out the photo and say, ‘Hell no, that's our scrub catcher!' They'd be sitting at the bar betting twenty a game on me playing 8-Ball, and I'd be playing for ten or something, and they're betting all they can bet! We wound up going to every gin mill that had a table in LA. I was there for six months; it almost broke up my family. I'll never forget it.


An early exhibition poster with Norm in the background setting up a shot, and baseball star Bo Belinsky in the foreground.


1P: So Norm, who would you say the top One Pocket players you ever saw were?

NW: ‘Clem', ‘Rags' Fitzpatrick and Eddie Taylor – I'd say those three guys – and Ronnie. They were all in the same category; any one of them could win at any time.


1P: Did you ever see Jack Breit play?

NW: I never actually saw him play One Pocket, but I saw him play Straight Pool. He was the protégé of Danny Gartner in Newark. He had a joint on Bridge Street I used to hustle. I played Danny Gartner several matches for thousands off and on, down there in Newark. He taught Jack Breit how to play.


1P: Apparently there's an old game called ‘Corners' that was played on a special table with just two pockets and was a lot like One Pocket . In all those years getting around did you ever come across a table that had just two pockets instead of six?

NW: Never seen it.


1P: I was wondering because you certainly got around a lot…

NW: I was everywhere, man – that's all I did my whole life. I came to Laconia once when I was about seventeen and I never thought I'd wind up living there, or marrying a lady from there. Jesus I wound up living there for twenty years – that's longer than I ever spent anywhere! While I was there I went on the road with my wife and we went to 46 states playing exhibitions – all the way to Blaine, Washington, which is right on the border with Vancouver BC.

1P: When I was playing you up in Laconia you used a rail-first break now and then – how did you get started with that?

NW: I don't recall that. I always used to split those two top balls. I had the break down real good, I'd make a ball a lot of times. I'd hit just a little more of the second ball in, and lots of times the corner ball would go right in my pocket. Hitting that second ball with a lot of spin I got a lot of action. Those tables at Mike's joint were the easiest tables I've ever seen. I couldn't miss on those tables!


1P: Did you start out on 5x10 tables?

NW: No, I graduated to them when I left Sanford and moved to Portland. There were a lot of 5x10's in Portland, Maine at that time.

1P: And in San Francisco when you got out there…

NW: Oh yeah, a lot of 5x10's and a lot of 6x12 Snooker tables. We'd play twelve handed 6-Ball on a Snooker table at two dollars a ball and double on the run, and if you ran out -- and there was a huge crowd in the joint all the time – you'd be lucky to collect your money, there were so many people mixed up in the crowd!

1P: Did you get involved in any of the Golf games on those 6x12's?

NW: Sure, I played a lot of Golf. I played good Snooker, too. I wound up beating everybody out there except ‘The Canadian'. They called him ‘The Canadian' because he came down from Canada and was a real top notch Snooker player. But outside of him, nobody could beat me on a 6x12 – including Ronnie .


1P: So One Pocket never really developed into your favorite game, but you found a place for it…

NW: I liked it. I liked the game but it was too slow for me. I was always a 9-Ball player because the quick action was there, and everybody played it.

1P: Do you have any advice for anybody trying to improve their One Pocket game?

NW: Sure – just play a lot of it; the more you play the better you get. And work on your break. The break is the strongest part of the game. It's everything if you can get a good jump off the break.


I was a real strong lemon man when I was hustling the game; I had it down. I learned it from another guy that was on the road with Earl Shriver. Ever hear of Earl Shriver? He was from Washington. Earl used to travel with this kid from Uniontown, Pennsylvania -- I've got his name written down but I can't recall it offhand [later recalled as Billy Mullins] – but he was the best lemon character I ever saw. Man, he was something else! He'd walk in a joint – a strange joint – and within a half hour he'd be getting the seven from somebody. He'd play them a couple games, then really flatter them to death and they'd love it. Then he'd hang up and go sit down and they'd come over and ask ‘What's the matter? What are you doing?' They'd want to hear a little more flattery and he'd lay that flattery on them and they'd wind up giving him the seven, and he'd just ride the seven and nine. He was too much.

1P: Some people say if you only play One Pocket you won't fully develop your pool game. What would you say is the best game to combine with One Pocket to build a good all-around game?

NW: I always liked 9-ball. You have to move the cue ball all over the table and you have to be able to come with a shot. Straight Pool would be the best teaching game, though. If you play good Straight Pool it helps in every game you play. It improves your position to a point that you really need if you're going to play good One Pocket. Plus you learn how to break the balls properly to get balls going your way. You're always trying to get a good break shot in Straight Pool. Well, if you put that idea together with One Pocket then you're always trying to look for an angle to make a ball and break the balls in such a manner that you get an open shot at your pocket. Once you learn to do that you're going to run out.


1P: Now that's a Ronnie Allen specialty – to shoot a ball and have the cue rake the balls a little to loosen stuff up…

NW: Yeah, he picked that up from me because that's the way I played One Pocket. I really ran out most of the time. Those tables in ‘Frisco were quite similar to those in Mike's joint in Laconia – they were old-fashioned big pocket tables.


1P: So you're saying those tables fostered a more aggressive game?

NW: Absolutely.


1P: That's interesting. Well, Norm, I think I took more than half an hour...

NW: I could talk pool forever!

All photos courtesy of Norm Webber unless otherwise noted


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