'em up with
Jaffar 'Patch Eye' Basheer
Jaffar Basheer is a living example that you do not need to set aside your deeply held values when you enter a poolroom. Born Henry Burnett, Jaffar converted to Islam back in the 50’s. Of course he is best known today as ‘Patch Eye’, having lost an eye in an auto accident in 1958.
© 2007 Steve Booth, OnePocket.org
1P: Thank you for agreeing to chat with me for a few minutes. On my website [OnePocket.org] I am trying to record some of the game’s history, and we have established a One Pocket Hall of Fame.
JB: I don’t want to be in the Hall of Fame.
1P: No, I didn’t mean to suggest that. I am trying to gain insight into the history of the game and the players, and I am very interested in your point of view.
JB: Pride and vanity I resist. If I am walking down the alley or walking somewhere and a guy snapped my picture then I have no problem with that but I am not going to pose.
1P: All right, but you don’t mind talking about other people and recognizing their accomplishments?
JB: I know what an accomplishment is.
1P: Where did you grow up?
JB: Jenkintown, PA.
1P: And are you still living there now?
JB: I live in Elkins Park, which is about a mile from Jenkintown. Where are you from?
1P: I am from up north of Boston; it’s a different world up there.
JB: Especially in Boston.
1P: Have you been up that way?
JB: Yeah, I’ve been in Boston, quite a while ago; it must have been 30 years ago. My brother lives in Massachusetts.
1P: Where did you first start playing pool?
JB: In Jenkintown, PA. They had a barbershop and next to the barbershop they had a poolroom with two tables in it. I would go there not for a haircut; well, I would pretend to want a haircut but I would stand next to the door and every time they would open the door I would look in to see the pool balls. That’s how I began to like pool. I liked it at an early age. I used to play marbles all the time. I would get on the rug at home and shoot the marbles with a broom handle and I would have my sister at the end of the rug throw the marbles back. She talks about that all the time.
1P: That’s funny because Squirrel [Marshall Carpenter] mentioned that when he was a kid he started with marbles also. As you began to develop as a player, do you remember some of the players that you learned from?
JB: Well, you learn something from every player that you play whether it is good, bad or ugly. But as far as learning is concerned, the one who was most valuable to my learning process was Ed Kelly. He’s Grace Kelly’s uncle but he was like a black sheep of the family from what I understand, because he wanted to be a pool player instead of a lawyer of a doctor. But he represented what the Kelly clan was all about at the time. When I was in high school I used to come to 11th and Chestnut. I would leave school, I’d catch the subway down to 11th and Chestnut and for a dollar a game or two dollars a game I would play George Kelly everyday I came in. He started off playing me One Ball. There was a game called One Ball. He would play me six pockets. I could make the one in any pocket, he could only make it in the side pocket. Over a two-year period it went from six pockets to a side to six to a back, the back pocket being stronger than the side pocket by itself. It went from six to a back, five to a back, four to a back, three to a back, and anyway to cut it short eventually George and I would play dead even and he could not win. That’s why I say I learned more about playing pool from George Kelly than anybody else. I played George Kelly more times for a longer period of time than anyone else I can remember.
1P: So George Kelly was Grace Kelly’s uncle?
1P: Okay. Now I thought you said Ed Kelly?
JB: I did say Ed Kelly but it was George Kelly. You’re right.
1P: I got it now. He was a white guy?
1P: So when you came up you were in a mixed poolroom?
JB: In Philadelphia at the time, this was in the 1950’s, late 40’s and 50’s. I graduated high school in 1950; I should have graduated in 1949 but I didn’t. Poolrooms in Philadelphia were segregated mostly.
1P: I was wondering about that.
JB: I knew of two rooms that a black guy could go in and play. That was 8th and Chestnut and 11th and Chestnut. When 11th and Chestnut became owned by Jimmy Caras, I went in there; that’s why I always have so much respect for him. He was born in Wilmington, Delaware, which at that time was a very segregated city, but when he bought 11th and Chestnut his only prerequisites were that you be a gentleman, and pay, and the doors were open. Those were the two places we could go to. In 1956 two black pool players went to court in a suit against segregation in the poolrooms and all of the doors of the poolrooms were open after that, after 1956.
1P: In Philadelphia?
JB: In Philadelphia. And even after that there were some in which you were welcome and some in which you were not.
But I’ve been in white poolrooms in segregated towns by invitation. Johnson City, Tennessee was one. I was invited to a white poolroom to play pool. I played 9-Ball with a young man and I won. There were policemen there, people in white shirts, grey flannel suits. The place was packed with people so I know everybody in Tennessee got to hear about it.
After that match was over the man who owned the poolroom across the street invited me the next day to come over to play him. And I went over and played him. And these poolrooms were legally segregated, I mean lawfully segregated. But by invitation I went to each one and played and I was treated well in each one. Very well treated in each one.
James Caras publicity photo
1P: You mentioned Jimmy Caras’ room and how you had to be a gentleman. You obviously are a gentleman and you have a high sense of values; I could hear that as soon I started talking to you. Is that something that you would say came from your family background or do you feel that you learned that partly in Jimmy Caras’ room because that’s the way they treated you?
JB: Well, I would say it’s a combination. Some of it came from my family. I would say that it’s a third resolution, the determination to be what you are came from my mother. My searching for truth, well, everything comes from God. You may have intermediaries or avenues, you understand?
JB: I’ve learned, in poolrooms, many things about manners and courtesy. When I was in high school in Philadelphia, living among the blacks in Philadelphia, I had a chance to do some things because of a man that I met in a poolroom. For example, I went to a Cotillion.
1P: A Cotillion?
JB: They would have a dance and then they would have all your Masons and all your social groups would have a parade down to the dance room. It was very big, very inspiring. It was called a Cotillion. You had all your fraternities and things. And if it had not been for that man I met in the poolroom I never would have been able to go there and experience that.
But I’ve seen the differences between the highest of society, because after that I became an officer in the army and I know what society is. And being in poolrooms and wandering around and there is not a state I haven’t been in except Alaska and when you’re in poolrooms and around poolrooms, even though everything doesn’t occur poolrooms, you know what a den of iniquity is, you know what crack houses are, you know what card houses are, you see people on the streets looking like they are going to fall over but as soon as they look like they are going to hit the ground they straighten back up and get high on heroin. You see people high on all kinds of drugs. You’re exposed to so many things, the high, the low and the in-between.
|One of the reasons why I find it so exasperating that people automatically assume such derogatory things about the game of pool, when actually there is no game that is comparable to pool. It requires more human ingenuity, more human faculties than any other game than you can name. You must not just be able to see, you must have hand to eye coordination. You must have coordination between your mind and all of your other muscles. You must be able to analyze. You must be able to predict. You must be able to invent. You must be able to control your imagination because if you imagine losing or missing out of fear you may not shoot or you may do something out of that fear or that imagining. See this table [pointing to a coffee table], there is hardly a man that can’t stand up on this table and walk from one end to the other. But put that table 500 feet in the air and you couldn’t get him to stand on the table. It’s the same table, it’s just his imagination that has control over him at that particular time and he doesn’t want to get on the table.
1P: That’s a very good point.
JB: And pool makes you exercise every aspect of human nature. You have to face actuality; it teaches you to avoid fantasy. You have to be conceptual; you have to be able to concede and you have to be able to proceed. But there’s all of that. However good you get at playing pool, if you do not become a better person then you’re throwing it all away, because you can’t take the pool table with you. You can’t take your cue stick; you can only take your character into that next world, if you believe it’s there. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter. The fact is you know that you can’t take it with you.
Jaffar Basheer at the 2006 Derby City Classic
Diana Hoppe photo
1P: When did you start getting involved with One Pocket?
JB: When I first got beat at it. I think it was back in, I would say it was back in 1949. There was a young man, I beat him playing 9-Ball, I beat him playing 8-Ball and he introduced me to One Pocket and beat me really bad. I couldn’t understand it. I said, ‘well he’s doing things that I don’t know anything about’ when I saw him play One Pocket. Now, I prefer playing One Pocket over the other games. Not that I find the other games derogatory or anything like that, it’s just my preference.
1P: What you were describing about pool, how it requires this and it requires that, there really isn’t a game besides One Pocket that requires more, except maybe Three Cushion. It’s certainly the best game for imagination.
JB: That’s the truth. It is a true test. It is a test of the best to me. That’s my opinion.
1P: When you described how you started out playing that guy, where you could score in any of the pockets, until you worked your way down to one. That sounds like the way the game of One Pocket probably was invented. Somebody must have been giving a handicap like that where they’d take only one pocket and they’d let you have the other five. But then one hustler bumped into another hustler who was stalling and they tried that and pretty soon they would have adjusted from five pockets to three and pretty soon they were playing a pocket apiece.
JB: I had no idea how it was invented. I never even stopped to think how it may have been invented, but I enjoy playing the game.
1P: When you were a young man were you around older guys that had been playing One Pocket for years?
JB: Well, One Pocket didn’t come into prominence until the late 50’s or early 60’s. That’s when it became very popular.
1P: Especially in the pool traditions of Philadelphia and New Jersey.
JB: But there is another thing why I say pool should not be considered derogatory. There are many things that children should learn from older men. But it’s one dimensional. If you are learning from your father or your older brothers or your uncle or your next door neighbors then it becomes more than one dimensional. But if you are learning from older men from different social levels from life, different professions in life, like I played pool with judges, lawyers, college professors, preachers and politicians and these are people that you relate to in poolrooms. It’s not just a relationship like in a bowling alley or a football field. I mean you relate to them on a personal level. You can hear conversations. You can be asked questions, you can ask questions. It’s a relationship that’s not quite the same as in other sports as it is in pool. I’ve learned many, many things in poolrooms, good, bad and ugly. But the other avenues I have learned in my search for truth, that you must establish yourself on a moral level or a virtuous level, where honesty is the best policy. I think I heard that in a poolroom before I heard it anywhere else, and that I’ve come to believe; I’ve come to know that. I’ve learned also that it’s better to match up on the fair to square then it is to have it one-sided or lopsided.
1P: So you’ve made your living playing pool but you don’t do too much of the stalling and so on?
JB: No, I won’t do that, anymore.
1P: That’s very impressive because a lot of guys…
JB: Let me rephrase that. There was a time when I first started learning, you know, you listen to what other players say, especially the better players, and many times they say, ‘Stall a little bit,’ or ‘Don’t make this shot,’ or ‘Don’t run too many balls,’ or ‘Don’t do this.’ But I’ve come to my own terms with that; I’ve learned and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to be as close as you can to a fair and square game than to be in a lopsided or one-sided game because you’re not accomplishing anything.
1P: You still want a game where you figure to have a good chance to win though…
JB: Or lose. If you don’t play your caliber, you will lose. And even if you play your caliber, if that guy plays over his, you could lose. But if the other guy has a legitimate reasonable chance to win it is better because then you’ve accomplished something. If he has no chance to win at all, even though you’ve collected money, what have you accomplished? Not a thing.
1P: Nothing you can take with you that’s for sure. I would like to ask you about some players. Did you ever meet James Evans?
JB: I met James Evans in 125th in Harlem. He had the Golden Cue there. I never had a chance to see James Evans play. But I have talked to guys like Cueball Kelly, Jimmy Caras and a few other very good players who’s names I can’t recall. I’ve had many of them say that James Evans played as good as Mosconi, Greenleaf and Emmett Blankenship.
1P: That is elite company! How about Blankenship? Did you bump into him?
JB: No, I never knew Blankenship. That was only the word that I got from a pool player who I know had seen every pool player in the country from that age. He was called Rotation Slim.
1P: So you knew Rotation Slim?
JB: I knew Rotation Slim very well. I traveled with him on the road for two years. He was with me when I had the invitation to go to play in Johnson City, TN. Me and Slim were together at that particular time. Slim, in his opinion, Blankenship was the best pool player that he ever saw, and Rotation Slim saw Mosconi and he saw James Evans, and many say James Evans was the greatest pool player they ever saw. My opinion, of the ones that I have seen, was Ralph Greenleaf was the best. And one thing that I do know about him that distinguishes him from others is that he was a professional pool player at the time on a pro tour and he would accept a challenge from black players. I saw him play Chick Davis twice. I saw him play Rotation Slim. I saw him play the Masked Marvel from Detroit. Chick Davis just died in Philadelphia about a month ago, 99 years old.
Photo from The Bank Shot an Other Great Robberies
by Minnesota Fats and Tom Fox
1P: Do you know who the Masked Marvel was at that time?
JB: I can’t recall his name but he was called the Masked Marvel. He would come in and play pool and he had a mask on. He was originally from Nashville, TN, that I do know. But Ralph Greenleaf would definitely play black players, many others wouldn’t. But one that did play James Evans and in that article that I read about James Evans, this was something that was never mentioned, the game that he played with Irwin Rudolph. Anyone that does a biography about James Evans and doesn’t find out about that game between him and Irwin Rudolph did not do a good job.
1P: What happened in that game?
JB: Are you the author of that article?
1P: No, I didn’t write the article.
JB: Well, I’ll tell you. The article was in a pool magazine. What was it called? “Championship Denied”.
1P: Yes, I read that. Tom Shaw did that, in Pool and Billiard Magazine.
JB: I went to Chicago, it must have been late 70’s. I had heard a lot about James Evans and his match with Irwin Rudolph. A lot of times I know what you hear does not have to be 100% true; some truth, but not 100%. So when I went to Bensinger’s, I made it my duty to look for that plaque that they said was on that wall and sure enough there it was. It was large and it was sectioned together, that’s how big that sign was, ‘The greatest pool game ever played, Irwin Rudolph vs. James Evans, Irwin Rudolph 148, James Evans 150.’ But that is not the primary concept of that poster of being the greatest pool game ever played. It’s just an indication of the circumstances and conditions of why that was considered the greatest pool game.
Irwin Rudolph needed two balls, he missed. When he came back to the table, the balls were racked up and the cue ball was sitting on top of the rack. James Evans ran 152 balls and out. That plaque was right on the wall in Bensinger’s Billiard Parlor. Freddy Bentivegna knows it because I played Freddy. Boston Shorty knows about that sign because Boston Shorty played in Bensinger's. Eddie Taylor knows about that sign because he played in there too. And these are people that he mentioned in that article and they never told him about that. James Evans, a ‘Championship Denied’ and there it was right there, the greatest pool game ever played.
1P: You traveled with Rotation Slim?
JB: Yes, I did for two years.
1P: And they called him that because he specialized in the 15 ball game?
JB: In the 15 ball rotation. In other words, that was his primary game when he walked into a poolroom. He couldn’t win in the 9-Ball so he would play Rotation. That’s how he got the name.
1P: They say that that’s Efren’s favorite game, too. Of course, he plays a pretty good game of One Pocket, too. How did Rotation Slim play One Pocket?
JB: Well, pool today is different than in those days. The cloth is different, the balls are different and cue sticks and the cue tips also. The balls were made of a different material, which I think were better than the balls they make today. The cue balls were somewhat lighter but the game is different.
For instance, I never saw Mosconi bank the balls. I saw Mosconi play 9-Ball and then he banked the balls but in Straight Pool you never saw people bank the balls. It’s something you would very seldom see. Now, the bank is a crucial shot in One Pocket, Straight Pool, 9-Ball or whatever they play. You not only must protect yourself from the straight in shot you must protect yourself from the bank as well. Because they bank more balls now than they ever did, except of course when they were playing Bank Pool. It’s a different game altogether.
I would say that Rotation Slim was a pretty good One Pocket player, a good Rotation player, a good 9-Ball player, a good Straight Pool player. If you’re not a good player you can’t be a hustler across the country and survive; you can’t do it. There are too many good players around. I guarantee you that if any of these players was to venture across the country playing 9-Ball or Straight Ball, they are going to be beat by people they have never seen in their life or never heard of. There are a lot of good pool players out there. I’ll give you a good example. The pool player from Canton, Ohio.
Patch Eye at the Derby City Classic 2007
Steve Booth photo
1P: You mean Don Willis?
JB: Don Willis. He played 9-Ball better than Wimpy.
1P: Did you bump into Don Willis?
JB: Yes, I did. He beat me in Cleveland when I first met him. I think they sent for him because I was beating so many people there. How many pool players have been around the world that you can’t beat? For instance, Don Willis and Wimpy Lassiter both went to Honolulu to play a man that I used to play every Sunday because I couldn’t believe what he was doing. I was stationed in Honolulu at the time and I used to go there every Sunday and play that man, a Chinaman. And Don Willis and Wimpy went there and couldn’t beat him. That’s back in the 60’s.
1P: Do you know who that was?
JB: I don’t know his name. But he owned a poolroom in downtown Honolulu. It was one of the few poolrooms I could go into because Hawaii at that particular time was as segregated as Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
1P: In the 50’s?
1P: So he was called ‘The Chinaman’?
JB: No, he was a Chinese man. He was a Chinese fellow. What his name was escapes me; I don’t remember. But I used to go there every Sunday and watch the band play and play him. I would play him 9-Ball for $2 and straight pool for $5. I just used to watch and see what he does on the pool table. It was amazing. Then, while we were traveling on the road, when I told him about that man, Rotation Slim told me how Wimpy and Willis went over there and couldn’t beat that man. So there are people all over the country that you might not be able to beat. There are a lot of good players. I know I’ve been beat by more strangers than I have by people I know.
1P: When a player is learning how to play pool I notice they practice their shot making a lot. They practice, they shoot, they miss, and then they get up and practice that shot again. I think they often practice the wrong thing. Maybe they should be looking at how they got out of line, so that they ended up with the shot that they were going to miss. What do you think?
JB: First of all there is no pool player that can give a perfect description of pool and the way it should be played because as many things that human beings have in common there are too many variations that make us individuals. What may be conducive to the improvement of one man may not be conducive to the improvement of another. Because of this, many pool players are disoriented, because they assume as truth what others describe and tell them what to do and what not to do. It is human nature.
Human beings most of the time will tell you anything rather than say, ‘I don’t know.’ I can’t say it’s a faculty because a faculty is used for good, but it is a capacity, and that human capacity so many times disorients so many people, especially at pool. For instance when you see a girl, a girl comes to a poolroom, someone who should really pursue the game, everybody wants to instruct her, which is not good at all. It’s like when a child comes out of kindergarten to first grade, then they go from grade school to junior high school; if you eliminate kindergarten and eliminate grade school and put that child right into junior high school, he’s disoriented. This is what happens so many times with pool players. In other words, a person has to meet a certain level of performance before he can even accept or understand instruction by certain people.
1P: Yeah, we only really learn what we are truly ready to learn, and that’s true with pool, too. Did you get around to any of the jamborees or Johnston City?
JB: I think I was in Johnston City twice. That’s the old Johnston City; Johnston City, Illinois, when the Jansco Brothers had it.
1P: Were you there during the first couple of years when they were segregated; when they let the black guys gamble but they wouldn’t let them in the tournament?
1P: You were there at that time?
JB: I don’t know; I know there was a time when they would not let you in the tournament.
1P: I think John Henry told me that James Evans went to the first one, along with some of the Chicago guys as well, but it wasn’t until about ’65 or ’66 when it opened up. I guess that was a fairly segregated area, that part of Illinois.
JB: Right. When I went there, I went there for the tournament. I remember I got there for the tournament with John Winters, I think Truman was there.
1P: Truman Hogue?
JB: And there was another fellow there, Eric. We drove down to Johnston City at one time and then we rode down again when there wasn’t a tournament. That time I went down there I played Minnesota Fats. We broke even.
1P: What game were you playing?
JB: One Pocket. We broke even; we stopped playing because someone else came in and Fats had to play that guy and it was something that was set up before I got there.
|1P: Who were some of the players over the years that you’ve most enjoyed watching?
JB: I’ve enjoyed watching Greenleaf. I was talking earlier about the relationship with younger men coming in poolrooms and their association with older men. If it had not been for the older men there is no way I would have been able to see Greenleaf play in those exhibitions or play in those tournaments. The older men would ask me to go. I didn’t have to worry about paying for food, admission or anything.
1P: What was so impressive about Greenleaf’s game?
JB: The way he stroked that ball was so graceful. He walked around the ball as if he were an adagio dancer. Have you ever seen an adagio dancer?
1P: I don’t know what that is.
JB: You don’t know what an adagio is?
1P: Maybe if you spell it.
JB: Have you ever seen ballet?
1P: A couple of times maybe, a long time ago.
JB: Well, the males in the ballet have these young ladies twirling through the air and they are adagio dancers. Have you ever seen how graceful they move? Not just strength, but grace. The fluctuation of the muscles and their movements; it’s like symphony and harmony.
1P: So Greenleaf had that kind of grace?
JB: Yes, he did. And he seemed to be the kind of player that was going to do something eventually to excite the audience.
1P: Like Efren does?
JB: Yes. Let me tell you this. Now, people still refer to white players and black players. I don’t buy that. Even black players say he’s the best player. But of course when you are talking about a certain person realistically you must refer to them as white or black because it makes a difference socially.
Photo courtesy Ray Dessell
Now, at Mercantile Hall Bennie Allen was playing at a World Championship Tournament; the only time I would ever see Ralph Greenleaf play would be playing a black guy would be at Mercantile Hall, which is on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. The audience was over 90% black. Greenleaf would always set the balls up, which is referred to as ‘setting a table’. In other words, he would see where a good shot was, he would select a great shot after he broke the balls but he always wanted a ball right there by that side pocket so when he shot that side pocket it would stay right there in position for the break shot. Not just straight but where he can go down and get close, because it is different playing on a 5 x 10 than on a 4 ½ x 9. But it seemed to me that one time he deliberately played out of line for a break shot. Instead of the cue ball going directly into the pack the cue ball had to come over and hit the side rail but there wasn’t a very acute angle there where the ball was going to hit the rail and bounce back over into the stack. It was an off angle. He hit that ball in that pocket, the cue ball hit the rail, came out to the center of the table and charged straight down to the stack. It looped! It looped. Five minutes it took for him to be able to shoot again because of the applause and the laughing and the shouting by that black audience. They loved it! His facial expression expressed appreciation that they loved it.
To tell you how much of showman he was, at one time he had a show on Broadway where he played pool. You could play admission and they had mirrors set up looking down on the table. That’s how much of an entertainer he was.
1P: That is one difference between Efren and Greenleaf, because even though Efren can make fantastic shots like that, he seems to be more of a shy person.
JB: That’s why they call him ‘The Magician’ because every once in a while he is going to do something that is uncanny. But it’s not always a matter of showmanship; it’s a matter of that’s the way we see it.
1P: So Greenleaf was the most impressive; how about others that you enjoyed watching or that you enjoyed competing with.
JB: I would compete with almost anyone if I connected, if I could match-up a fair game.
1P: Did you ever play Bugs?
JB: Bugs and I never played. Although Bugs challenged me when I first went to Chicago but I didn’t accept his challenge. He knows why and he respects me for that. If I happen to beat Bugs who else is going to play me?
1P: How about a fellow named Country?
JB: Yeah, I know Country. Country is from West Virginia.
1P: Sharp dresser?
JB: Yeah, I know Country. I played Country.
1P: What kind of player is he?
JB: Country at one time was a very good player. He was a good player. I wouldn’t say very good. What I’m saying now, is back in those days. The game is different now. Not just the game, but the way the game is played is different and the equipment is different. If the equipment was the same, the game may not have changed. But the game and the equipment has changed. There are things that people shoot at now that they would not have shot at before. You get a different response out of these balls than out of the old balls. For instance, these balls many times you have a delicate little cut with or without english, you hit the ball and the ball will skid. The older balls would never skid on you like that.
1P: I think I heard that but I have no idea why.
JB: It’s the plastic balls. Another thing about these plastic balls, that never would have happened with the older balls, is that the plastic balls will not break like the old balls would break, which is one of the reasons you went to the plastic balls. Those other balls would eventually break. But so many times -- say you had your cue elevated, even slightly elevated and you’re going to hit with a full hard stroke -- your ball will jump. Even though you don’t perceive it, the cue ball is going to leave the bed of the table. When it hits the object ball that will leave the bed even though it’s imperceptible. As many times as you hit the ball the right way, but because it takes that hop it diverts the direction the ball is going to go.
1P: You see it in bank shots too because if the ball has any English and it leaves the table it seems it may not be spinning the same way when it comes back down so it goes off in a different direction that you don’t expect.
JB: That happens a lot. When that ball comes down and strikes that ball, that ball is going to go forward before it starts going in the direction it is supposed to. In other words, it diverts the direction of the ball. It’s imperceptible but theoretically you know it’s there.
1P: With the mud balls, the clay balls, did they usually use an ivory cue ball with those?
JB: No. Some people did. The only one I know who would carry an ivory ball with him because he knew that most people weren’t used to the ivory ball and he felt that would give him an advantage. But there are many people who wouldn’t use ivory balls. You can use ivory balls when playing pool but they are heavier than the regular balls.
1P: Who was that that would use the ivory cue ball?
JB: I can’t remember his name. He was an older fellow. He would open his case and he would have that ivory ball, and say, ‘We’ve got to play with this.’
1P: He must have grown up with that and felt like it gave him a little advantage.
JB: And it did, until the other guy got used to it.
1P: That’s the thing about good players, they can usually adjust to different conditions. How about Gene Nagy? Isn’t he from your area?
JB: The Gene Nagy I know is from New York; a pool player of accomplished ability but unpredictable.
1P: Cicero Murphy?
JB: An accomplished player, Straight Pool; his other games I don’t know.
1P: Of the great pool players that you have been exposed to over the years, who would you say you admire their character as a human being?
JB: Jimmy Caras.
1P: That’s right, you mentioned that right up top. And it seems that rubbed off on you a bit.
JB: Well, Jimmy Caras, there was a poolroom in Glenside, PA, where there was a fellow named Steve Yurksy (sp) who owned a poolroom over the top of a bowling alley. Blacks could not bowl in the bowling alley. They could set up pins but they could not bowl in the bowling alley. A young man named Steve Yurksy owned a poolroom upstairs and he would let you come in and play pool. One time I came there to play a young man and Jimmy Caras was there giving an exhibition, and I was over on the other side of the room playing pool, he of his own free will and accord came over to the table where I was playing. He said, ‘You are one of my customers. You have come down to my poolroom, I recognize you. I want to give this to you,’ and he gave me a copy of his book. He didn’t have to do that. In fact, he didn’t have to let blacks come into his poolroom. I have a lot of respect for Jimmy Caras. And the last time I was in Florida I was in the Jacksonville area and I was told Jimmy Caras just left and I said why don’t you call him on the phone. But I missed him because I got a phone call and I had to go home.
I also have respect for Hubert Cokes, although a lot of people fear him.
When I first went to Evansville, Indiana they had a smoke shop in this poolroom. Women were not allowed. I was with my wife. Hubert Cokes told the owner to just make room for his wife in the office, not in the poolroom, let her go back in the office and sit so he could play pool.
1P: A gentlemanly thing to do.
JB: That’s respect. Whether he knew of me, I imagine he did because I was living in Louisville at the time and I imagine word gets back. I was playing so good in Louisville that everybody that came through there got action from me if they wanted to play.
JB: Yes. Pool players find out whether you’re on the square. I guess he heard that I would play him on the square and that’s why he paid me that respect. That’s a typical thing, you want respect, give respect. I respect Hubert Cokes for that.
Hubert 'Daddy Warbucks' Cokes
Photo from an old issue of National Billiard News
I was in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a black room and a young black man told me how much action they had over here at a place called Ray’s & Fay’s, on bar tables. He said, ‘They are betting money like it’s going out of style but they don’t want no black people in there, you can’t go in there.’ I thought about it and like I said, everything people said may be truthful to a degree but there doesn’t have to be 100% truth to it, and no human can tell 100% lie. There has to be a truth somewhere in whatever somebody says.
1P: You’re giving humans a lot of credit there.
JB: No man can tell a 100% lie.
1P: You mean because we all have a little element of God in us?
JB: An element of truth. Born with it, grow up with it, live with it, and die with it. So I went out there. I walked into the place. You could cut the tension with a knife when I walked into that poolroom. You could hear the tension. Finally somebody said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘May I speak to the owner?’ This guy comes up, he didn’t look happy at all. He had two mechanical arms, his name was Ray. I said, ‘Are you the owner?’ He said, ‘Yes, I am.’ I said, ‘Well, they told me over at the black poolroom that you did not want blacks in here.’ I said, ‘If you don’t, that’s all right with me. I have not come to integrate your place, I will exit in peace.’ I said, ‘But I am a pool player and I like to play for money and all I want is if I lose I pay and if I win I want to collect.’ So they had a pool table right there and they were playing ring 9-Ball. Jerry Brock, a guy named Squirrel and a guy named Glove.
1P: Squirrel Carpenter?
JB: No, not Carpenter. The other guy’s name was Jerry Brock.
1P: Was Glove’s name maybe Gene Catrone?
JB: It might be. So he says, ‘Get in that 9-Ball game; they are playing for $5 or $10 a game,’ I don’t recall which it was. Anyway, I broke the game.
1P: Those are pretty good players, too.
JB: Right. I broke the game. I didn’t just exit the place. I said, ‘May I speak to Ray?’ Ray says, ‘Here I am.’ I said, ‘Now, may I leave in peace?’ He said, ‘On one condition,’ and I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘You give me your name, your address and your phone number.’ So I gave it to him.
Two weeks later he called me and said, ‘Come on down I have someone for you to play.’ Now that place which didn’t want blacks in it, was all of a sudden inviting a black guy to play. So me and my wife, we lived together as common law, but she was my wife, we went up there. I’ve forgotten the name of the guy I started off playing, but I know he was from Alabama. We started off for $20 a game and he was beating me real bad. Ray asked me, ‘What do you think? Do you want to beat this guy or what?’ And I said, ‘Things are going his way a little bit,’ I said, ‘but I think I’m going to win.’ So he turned around to the guy and he said, ‘Do you want to raise the bet?’ And they raised the bet from $20 to $50. That was a little frightening to me. But anyway, I started to win. Now, somebody blurts out, ‘You all letting these niggers come in here and win this money and take it out of the town?!’ Ray got mad. In fact he had lost money up to that point.
1P: And he’s the owner.
JB: Not only that. He’s got four brothers in there and all of them were tough guys. So they shush the other guy and told him to shut up and they say to me, ‘Do you want us to put him out?’ And I say, ‘No, you don’t have to put him out; I’ve been black for 47 years. If I haven’t learned to deal with it, I can’t blame him.’ Those were my exact words. The whole place started to clap. It became a home to us. And even after we collected the money that same guy who said that came up to me and hugged me like I was a long lost brother.
1P: Wow, so you changed those people.
JB: Or they changed me. People are people. And the same thing happened in Corbin, Kentucky. I was in London, Kentucky in a white poolroom and I said, ‘Do you anyone who likes to gamble?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, but they don’t allow black people in the room.’ This is what the white fellow said. I went over to Corbin, Kentucky and I told the owner the same thing, ‘They told me you don’t want blacks, but I’m not here to integrate your place. If I’m welcome, I’ll stay, if not, I’ll leave in peace. I have no argument with you about that.’ So he said, ‘Well, my customers, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll ask them.’ He said, ‘Do you guys mind if this black guy stays here and plays pool?’ One of them said, ‘It depends on what he wants to play and how much he wants to play for.’ That’s what occurred. So I started to play him nine ball one-pocket. He would break the balls coming around two rails and that end ball would go towards his pocket all the time. And he couldn’t understand how I would keep getting that ball out of there or I would keep him from shooting at that ball. I won some nice money. But there was a man that sat there and watched the whole time we played; Josh Crabtree was his name.
1P: I’ve heard of a Crabtree, but I think it was Harry Crabtree, a pool player.
JB: Well Josh knew pool but he never was a good pool player. He liked pool playing. I went a lot of places with him.
About three months later Josh came to Lexington and told me, ‘I was in Corbin when you played. I liked the way you played. I liked the way you handled yourself.’ He said, ‘I’ve got some places I want to take you.’ Josh took me around Illinois, Indiana, parts of Kentucky that I had never been to before, Tennessee, Alabama, and eventually we came back. We did real good together. We became such good friends, that whenever I came to Corbin, Josh made me stay in his house. This was Corbin, Kentucky, where there were no blacks at all. He said, ‘I don’t care what the neighbors say; you stay in my house.’
1P: That’s a great story.
JB: As far as red, yellow, black, white, blue, green or grizzly gray, male, female, whether you’re born rich or poor; there’s no human being who makes the decision to come into this world to be white, yellow, red, black or grizzly gray. There’s no one who decides what sex they will be. There’s no one who decides which side of the tracks they will be born on, what country they’ll be born in, and definitely no one decides what kind of capacities and abilities and talents that they’ll be born with.
1P: When we spoke earlier, you were telling me about the time you played Ted Elias. Could you tell me that again?
JB: I was in Michigan at a pool tournament, Farhat’s Billiards, and Carla Johnson asked me if I ever heard of Ted Elias. I said I’ve heard of him. She said, ‘You know he says that no black player can beat him playing Straight Pool.’ I said, ‘I’ve heard that, and I’ve heard that many of them have gone up there and they didn’t win.’ She said, ‘That’s true.’ Then she said, ‘Would you play him?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll play him.’ So she said, ‘Well, we’ll make arrangements to take you there so that you can play him. We’ll take care of all expenses; we’ll sponsor you.’
So I went down to Findlay, Ohio. Ted Elias was in construction, and he had a nice sized garage with a pool table in it, a brand new Brunswick Gold Crown. It was very nicely arranged with bleachers, almost like a poolroom, but just that one table. When I got there the place was crowded with people, so they knew I was coming. It was a social event; here’s a black guy coming to challenge Ted Elias.
Anyway, this is my recollection. I won the first game. I won the second game. Each time the price was increased.
1P: And this was Straight Pool?
JB: Yes; 125 points. I won the third game. Ted was racking up the balls for the fourth game, and his wife said, ‘Ted, no. No more.’ So Ted said, ‘Why? What’s the matter?’ ‘I don’t believe he’s black.’
1P: That’s funny. It just goes to show that underneath we’re all the same color.
JB: So after it was over Ted shook my hand and his wife congratulated me. All the people were very cordial, very polite; it was a very nice time. There was never a word out of politeness used. That’s the story of Ted Elias.
National Billiard News article from 1975
1P: Wow! Well I know I’ve taken more than an hour of your time. Any final word you want to share?
JB: Anything that was said, anything that was written, I just hope that it clears the minds of all Americans concerning the game of pool. Examine any city in the United States; when there were poolrooms in all the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods were safe. Now, there are no poolrooms in the neighborhoods and the neighborhoods are dangerous, because the young men do not have older men to relate to in a positive manner. If they get pool back into shape and recognize pool as the game that it is, it will help pick up America out of the zone of danger that she’s in.
1P: Thank you very much.
JB: You’re welcome.
Photos by Steve Booth (except where noted); all rights reserved.
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