Rack’em up with Sonny Springer

Exclusive OnePocket.org Interview

For years one of the South’s best kept secrets at One Pocket, Sonny Springer was known for betting high back when ten dollars was equal to more like fifty today. To paraphrase Professor RH Gilmer, a lot of people would say they were looking for Sonny, but they didn’t really want to find him, because they knew that if they did, the talk would stop and it was time to step to the table. OnePocket.org spoke with Sonny at Grady Mathews’ Gulf Coast Classic event in December, 2004.

OnePocket.org: Sonny, I’d like to start by asking how you got introduced to One Pocket…
Sonny Springer: Well, when I first got into One Pocket, there’s a little story in front of that. I didn’t know anything about One Pocket; I’d never played the game, but I was a heck of a 9-ball player. I was young and I didn’t think anybody in the world could beat me.

Word got around that I played, and UJ Puckett came to my Daddy’s poolroom here in Mississippi. He missed me the first time he came, but then he came back a second time. So they got a hold of me and I came down to the room and said, ‘Well, this is the second time you’ve come in to play me; you must play pretty good. Let’s try some 9-Ball for a hundred a game. ‘That was a lot of money back then, about 1960. He said, ‘No, but I’ll play you some for twenty.’ So I said, ‘Well come on, I’ll see how you play.’ I won the first six games, and then we played about six more hours and I was still six games winner, and I quit. Well it made him mad and he said, ‘Let’s go to Memphis and play on the big tables; I’ll play you for a hundred up there. ‘I said, ‘No; hell no, you can play for a hundred here; I’m not going to go to Memphis to play.’

An early photo of Sonny practicing at the little country
barbershop/poolroom — on the very table he played UJ Puckett

I knew the people in Memphis up there at Rex Billiards, down in the basement; it was a real nice room with 30 or 40 tables. The next time I was up there I was telling the owner or manager — or whoever was there at the cash register — about this guy. So he pulled a magazine out from under the cash register and said, ‘It sounds like this is the guy you played.’ And there was his picture, right there on the cover of the magazine, where he just won the national tournament down there in Atlanta! I said, ‘That’s the son-of-a-gun! So he said, ‘Sonny, you ought to go to Johnston City; that’s where all the action is.’ I didn’t even know anything about Johnston City. So a little later I boogied on up to Johnston City.

When I got up there, I’d match up playing 9-ball and I’d win every time I matched up, just about; I made out good at 9-ball. Then we’d match up playing One Pocket, and hell, they’d get their money back or break me!

OnePocket.org: That’s funny, that’s a lot like what Danny Di Liberto said about his first trip to Johnston City.
Sonny Springer: I don’t know if you’re interested in that little deal when they strapped that thing on my leg…

OnePocket.org: Oh yeah, that’s a great story. Was that the first year, when they just played One Pocket?
Sonny Springer: It probably was; I don’t know for sure, but this was back when there was just one pool table in the back behind Jansco’s nightclub. There was a hell of a lot of action on that one pool table.

OnePocket.org: Well I know there’s a picture that’s supposed to be from that first year and you’re in that picture.
Sonny Springer: Probably, but I don’t really know. I was there two or three years or so. I know the last year I was just south of there at the penitentiary, and Fats and Beenie came down to visit me.

OnePocket.org: But it took place fairly early, before you really learned the game.
Sonny Springer: Yeah, this was when I was learning.

I remember Danny Di Liberto pulled up in an old convertible car all they way from Florida, and God damn, it didn’t look like that car could go five miles! Anyway, I busted him playing 9-ball; I didn’t know him. Boy it made him so damn mad. I don’t know if you know him or not, but he had a little temper, and he used to box, so he said, ‘You wouldn’t have the best of it if we went outside,’ or something like that. I was just a little bit older than he was, and he didn’t scare me, but anyway he gets so pumped up… But he got his money back because the next day he beat me. I didn’t play with him any more. He darned near wanted to fight if you beat him.

Everybody was trying to play a different position on somebody; trying to trap them at something or other. They’d jockey for two days trying to match up — match up tight, you know. Man, if the guy thought he had just that much the best of it, that was all he wanted.

Handsome Danny Jones was there with this other guy from Meridian. Danny was always scuffling; trying to trap somebody. So he said, ‘Here, I’ll tell you what we’ll do; we’ll strap this thing on your leg that gives a little shock and we’ll tell you which ball to shoot.’ You know, if it was the four, they’d go bump, bump, bump, bump. I believe the guy from Meridian is the one that had the machine; he didn’t shoot pool but he knew every proposition in the world.

So they matched me up with this older player that was a friend of Hubert Cokes, but didn’t play as well as Hubert, for two hundred a game. That was a lot of money back then. I believe it was the first time I had put this thing on, and I had a long shot that I had to lean over the table to shoot, and the damn thing came out of the little band that was around my leg and got up around my testicles, and that’s just when they bumped me. Boy it made me jump, God dang; I nearly jumped clear across the table!

The guys sitting there watching all looked at me funny… And the guy beat me, too. Afterwards Danny Jones and the other guy said, ‘Shit, Sonny, you need to go back home to Mississippi and learn how to play One Pocket!’

So I did. I went back and I played myself for a year. In the meantime, of course while I was still up there I watched players like Weenie Beenie and Cornbread and Squirrel, and tried to pick up pointers and all. I guess I did, because when I came back, people that were giving me two balls, now I could give them two balls. But of course I didn’t do that, and I made some gooood money before they found out that I could play.

I remember guys like Mr. Hubert Cokes, boy, they’d just run over themselves to play me One Pocket, because the year before I couldn’t play a lick! And they knew I would play a little high because I had my own money.
Of course, you’re interested in One Pocket, but I fooled with dice and cards so much… But nobody around home played One Pocket. The closest that One Pocket was played was Squirrel (Marshall Carpenter), over in Tuscaloosa. I did go to Tuscaloosa quite a lot to play. Squirrel had a brother that played real good too.

OnePocket.org: Oh really, I didn’t know that.
Sonny Springer: Yeah, it seems like he had two brothers that played pretty sporty.

OnePocket.org: So Squirrel was one of the players that you learned from watching.
Sonny Springer: Yeah, I would watch him.

That’s Sonny, just visible behind Boston Shorty, between Jimmy Moore and Joey Spaeth

I remember one time I watched he and Cleo Vaughn. Cleo Vaughn was a bookie from Blytheville, Arkansas, but he was up at Johnston City, and they were playing in that block building of Jansco’s — playing for two hundred a game, which was good money back then. I sweated the game all night. I already knew Squirrel, from playing up there in Tuscaloosa; we’re about the same age. So I asked Squirrel for half of his bet when they started off, but he said, ‘Well Sonny, I’ve already got somebody in with me.’ I said, ‘Hell, I’m going to watch anyway, Squirrel; give me a ten dollar sweat bet. He said, ‘You got it.’

When they got through the next morning it was way after daylight, and Fats pulled up. This was right after that movie The Hustler came out and Fats of course was pushing that aspect of his career. He was New York Fats up ’til then. So everybody walked out to talk to Fats. I said, ‘Hey, Squirrel, you gonna catch my bet?’ He said, ‘Oh, Yeah, I forgot about that Sonny; how much do I owe you?’ As near as I remember it, I want to say it was $220. What would that have been, twenty-two games? That sounds about right. My share was ten dollars a game.

OnePocket.org: So Squirrel really came out ahead…
Sonny Springer: Yeah, there wasn’t no quit about Cleo once he matched up, but he couldn’t beat Squirrel at One Pocket.

OnePocket.org: So when you learned One Pocket, you were pretty quiet about learning it.
Sonny Springer: Yeah, until word kind of got around a little bit, but I didn’t play in any tournaments or anything. In 1967 I did play in the World’s Tournament, they called it, and I believe I came in 9th . I don’t know if that was in Vegas or Johnston City. I believe it was 15 th in Vegas and seemed like it was 9 th at Johnston City.

OnePocket.org: In the One Pocket or the 9-Ball?
Sonny Springer: I don’t remember. I’ve got the scrapbook deal on it at home, but I don’t know now; I’ve forgotten. It was when they had the all-around with 9-Ball, One Pocket and Straight Pool. I never did play Straight Pool, however I did win the Mississippi State Championship, and went on to St. Louis and came in 15 th up there.

I remember one year they had a little write up in the local paper — the Johnston City paper — and they said that the upset of the night was Sonny Springer beating the ‘Knoxville Bear’. Well of course that kind of thrilled me. But I had learned how to play a little by then. But before that — hell, I just didn’t know how to play One Pocket.

OnePocket.org: So you never got in all three events; in fact you hardly ever got in any of the events; you mostly just matched up…
Sonny Springer: Yeah, that’s what I did, mostly just match up with people. I never did get into that Straight Pool. I probably didn’t get into the One Pocket but maybe just once or maybe twice. I know Fats — seems like this was in Atlanta, Georgia — it was down to the quarterfinals and Fats and I were playing, and the Mayor had brought his friends there to see Fats play. I was playing Fats — this was One Pocket — and I had Fats beat. I had him beat, but I missed a ball and that rascal made three fantastic banks on me to beat me. Anyway, I’ll never forget it because the Mayor gave us a ‘key to the city’.

Fats was a great player; a lot of people knocked him, but boy, I never did knock him. He did a lot for pool, and boy he played that One Pocket, he played it jam up. He and Weenie Beenie — they played a lot alike. They didn’t play too much safe, like Clem (Eugene Metz) did. Clem always used to make the remark that he’d ‘stick all those hurricane players in the…’ — don’t know if I’m supposed to cuss on this — but he said, he’d ‘stick all them hurricane players in the shit house.’ He was at that time considered the best in the world.

OnePocket.org: Clem was known for the traditional style, just make a couple balls and play safe…
Sonny Springer: You just wouldn’t get a shot; that’s about what it amounted to.

Sonny with Fats

OnePocket.org: But Fats and Beenie were more aggressive players, especially banking?
Sonny Springer: When Beenie and Fats would match up together, if there was a long rail bank they didn’t worry about where the cue ball would end up, they just knew they were going to make that bank, and they just banked that bastard right on back into their pocket and went on to the next shot. There wasn’t any safe playing just because it was a little tough bank.

OnePocket.org: How about Ronnie Allen?
Sonny Springer: Now Ronnie — I used to take him around for years. He’d be broke and call me and I’d have to send him plane fare and he’d fly in to Memphis and I’d pick him up. I’d pick him at Memphis and we’d go around to different places.

OnePocket.org: When did that start; when he first started to come to Johnston City?
Sonny Springer: I didn’t even know Ronnie until I went to Johnston City. When I first met Ronnie Allen he said, ‘I’ll play you where you give me 8-6 and I’ll shoot one-handed.’ I said, ‘Get it up.’ Well, he beat me; I’ll never forget that; he beat me.

OnePocket.org: He was a darn good one-handed player…
Sonny Springer: Yeah, he was. Damn right! That’s when I met Ronnie Allen; it was right there at Johnston City. Anyway, I’ve taken him all over around here. Hell, I remember one time I took him to Mobile to play Junior Moore, and he played Junior Moore the same way, and he beat him, too. I was staking him. Dang, we made a lot of money, but dad gum it, the next day Ronnie would want to — and would — send his end home, or tell me he had anyway. So we had to start a new day, instead of taking our winnings and playing on our winnings, he’d send his home to his wife and kids, which I guess he did. He had about three kids.

OnePocket.org: Yes he did, that he put through school playing pool. So then you had to start over.
Sonny Springer: He was a hell of a player. Matter of fact, I staked him to play Little John (Macias) just a few weeks ago, when they had this deal down here.

OnePocket.org: So you’ve been working with Ronnie over thirty years now!
Sonny Springer: Yeah, a long time. Little John beat Ronnie Allen when Ronnie had him six balls to two. I matched the game up myself; I told Little John I hadn’t seen Ronnie play in, hell in fifteen or twenty years, but I knew that that son-of-a-gun could play. I got to see him play just a little bit before we came down to match up with Little John.

OnePocket.org: So this was recently…
Sonny Springer: Yeah, I matched it up. I told John, ‘We’ll play three out of five, where you give Ronnie the first break.’ We rotate the break, so that means if it came down to two-two, we’re going into the last game with the break. It was a hell of a spot in my mind! So I thought we had the best of it — and we did. The last game it was two-two, and we’re playing for a thousand — I’m staking Ronnie – and he had him six to two, and by God, Little John won the game! He sure did; he played so damn safe that Ronnie f***ed up. You know, it’s just a matter of who makes an error first – somebody’s going to make an error. I don’t give a damn how good they are, they’ll finally make an error or shoot a ball just that much too far and leave the guy a bank or something that he wasn’t supposed to, or kiss off a ball and scratch. Numerous things can happen, and that’s what they count on.

OnePocket.org: So who where some of the other players you got Ronnie matched up with?
Sonny Springer: Oh, they were all more or less shortstops; I don’t know what the stops were we went to. One time we went off to Virginia trying to catch — what’s the guys name that made that Miller commercial?

OnePocket.org: Steve Mizerak?
Sonny Springer: Yeah, we were trying to match up with him, but he wouldn’t play.

OnePocket.org: Steve did turn into a pretty good One Pocket player himself eventually, although his health isn’t very good now. When you first started to learn One Pocket; how does I guy go about learning to play by shooting against themselves? How do you do that?
Sonny Springer: Well, that’s a good question. But if you watch some people, and can see kind of what you’re supposed to do… You say to yourself, ‘Where can I put that cue ball so he doesn’t have a shot?’ That’s if you don’t have a shot yourself. And if, at the same time, I can knock a ball somewhere over on my side where he can’t see it, that’s that much better. But if not, where and how can I put that cue ball where he don’t have a shot? Or, that he’s got a hell of a hard shot, that if he attempts and misses, I’m going to hurt him. That’s about the only way I could answer that question.

OnePocket.org: So by observing the game you picked up the principles, like putting balls near your own pocket and not letting the other guy see them, then you went back home and practiced.
Sonny Springer: Yeah, I just played myself.

OnePocket.org: How about learning things like playing the score — pushing the balls out of play with the lead, and trying to keep them in play when you’re behind…
Sonny Springer: Well I was a little bit more aggressive than that. I know a lot of people wouldn’t, but say if a guy needs two balls, and I need six, I might shoot a shot that maybe would be fifty-fifty, but if I made it, I’d win the game from there.

OnePocket.org: If you could get position…
Sonny Springer: But there’s players that won’t do that; they just won’t ever take a flyer. I noticed Little John the other night — matter of fact, I was betting on him — but anyway, he could of took a flyer at this guy, which I would have done. He ended up winning anyway, but he played so damn safe that the guy just finally f***ed up. When the guy f***ed up, well, he got out on him.

OnePocket.org: It sounds like you’ve taught a little One Pocket to quite a few players in your area…
Sonny Springer: Well, I guess you could say that. Yeah, come to think of it, I really have. Cecil Abel, he has a poolroom in (Grenada??) I’d be on my way to Memphis — ‘cuz I played a lot in Memphis — and I stopped by there and I matched up playing him One Pocket and I beat him thirteen straight games. I thought he was going to quit after the second or third game — we had started off playing ten dollars a game — but instead he says, ‘Let’s play for twenty.’

Same way with RH (RH Gilmore); RH is a pretty dad gummed good player, but I think I beat him seventeen straight. I wouldn’t say that in front of him, but he knows it.

OnePocket.org: I think RH was saying that when you were showing him a little One Pocket, you started with just one ball on the table, right in front of his pocket, but with you shooting first.
Sonny Springer: I learned that at Johnston City; I forget who showed me that shot. You take the object ball right here and put the cue ball right there, and that’s his pocket, but it’s my shot. I’ll shoot from there, and I’ve got the best of that game. It’s just a shot that you shoot that’s not all that hard. You hit it rail first with bottom left hand English and the cue ball stays there and the object ball comes down here, and he don’t have a shot — he’s going to leave you something.

OnePocket.org: That’s one of the few pool shots that really doesn’t come up in any other games but One Pocket — where you have to take a ball out of your opponent’s pocket.

Sonny Springer: I remember when Squirrel and Cleo were playing and the object ball’s here and cue ball here and Squirrel had to play safe. The ball evidently wasn’t quite frozen, and so he just lagged up to it and touched it to play safe. I didn’t know that shot at the time. It was a nice safe.

OnePocket.org: Their pockets are down on that end?
Sonny Springer: It doesn’t matter, either one. You try to hit it square; ninety degrees. If that ball ends up frozen, he’s kind of in trouble. What’s he going to do? He’s got to hit a rail.

OnePocket.org: Oh yeah, it’s almost a scratch either way; I’ve never seen that position come up, but now that you mention it, that’s a difficult spot!

Sonny Springer: I showed RH another shot that he didn’t know. You’ve got two balls here and your pocket’s here. We’ll say this is RH’s pocket and he’s shooting. There’s two balls setting there with one of them out just a little bit. He didn’t know that you could bank that ball. It’s setting way up where ordinarily there’d be no way in hell you’d bank at that ball because you couldn’t play safe. But what you do is hit this ball first, and if you need to ‘turn it’, okay, you put a little right on it. Anyway you can bank that ball and leave your cue ball right there! It’s a billiard bank.

OnePocket.org: So you use that other ball to get a more natural approach into the ball you’re actually banking…
Sonny Springer: Yeah, right. Now you’re coming at it like this instead of like that.

OnePocket.org: Now that’s a smart way to play that shot.
Sonny Springer: Not everybody knows that shot; I know RH didn’t, and he’s been playing a long time. Matter of fact I think I showed him that shot about six months ago.

OnePocket.org: So you have quite a few tricky little shots up your sleeve!
Sonny Springer: I remember one time — like I said, I played a lot up in Memphis — when players came through there. One time Sigel (Mike Sigel) came through there, and of course Sigel just didn’t miss a ball hardly ever playing 9-Ball, and he played a hell of a game of One Pocket. But, I knew I had the best of it playing him One Pocket so I matched up with him playing One Pocket. He knew he could beat me playing 9-ball, since I’d been to a tournament or two that he was at; in fact I knew him from Johnston City and Alabama and other places. So the shot came up that he didn’t know, and I couldn’t believe he didn’t know the shot — with two balls frozen on the spot, and the cue ball back up here. He didn’t know he could force the head ball and bank the second ball. Also, it didn’t look like he knew you could bank that second even if the cue ball is over here — you just hit it with left hand English and it will twist that ball.

OnePocket.org: How did that turn out when you played Sigel?
Sonny Springer: Oh, the first game he ran eight and out on me, and we’re playing two hundred a game — two hundred or four hundred, I can’t remember which. I had a buddy with me who didn’t know nothing about pool; we bought heavy equipment together. By then I had my car lot and all. Anyway, this guy didn’t know nothing, and his boy was with us too. And I walked over to them and boy, they were amazed that he ran those eight balls and got out. So I said, ‘I hope that son-of-a-bitch don’t quit, because I’ve got him locked up!’ They looked at me like I was crazy as hell, but I beat him the next three games and Sigel quit.

OnePocket.org: Sigel was already well known at that time?
Sonny Springer: Oh, yeah.

OnePocket.org: So he was a champion at 9-Ball and Straight Pool, but you had the best of him at One Pocket.
Sonny Springer: Right.

OnePocket.org: So who were some of the other great One Pocket players you ran into?
Sonny Springer: Jersey Red was a hell of a player. Junior Goff, down in Florida, was another one. That rascal, he shot left-handed; I shot left-handed, too. And so did Jersey Red.

OnePocket.org: When you watched the other players, who would you say you most enjoyed watching?
Sonny Springer: Oh, Lord, that’s easy! I most enjoyed watching UJ Puckett; he’d clomp around the table — hell he was what, 6-5 or something — it seemed like nearly seven foot tall. He wore those size fourteen shoes that clomped when he walked, and he was an amusing guy anyway. Yeah, I loved to watch him play, and he was a hell of a player, too.

OnePocket.org: Wasn’t he mostly a 9-Ball player?
Sonny Springer: No, I don’t remember if he played Straight Pool, but he played One Pocket and 9-Ball. He played the hell out of One Pocket.

OnePocket.org: So he was a very entertaining One Pocket player.
Sonny Springer: He was just entertaining to watch, whatever he was playing. You said I can say what I want? Well I’ll just put it this way; he could get more girls than anybody I ever saw for being as old and ugly as he was!

OnePocket.org: That’s pretty funny! It sounds to me that when you watched players shoot, you were very observant. Which player would you say you picked up the most moves from watching?
Sonny Springer: I’d probably say Squirrel.

OnePocket.org: He did play real smart One Pocket — and he still does. What do you think of today’s players?
Sonny Springer: Damn, some of them can run out from nothing. That Efren, he’s a hell of a kick artist.

OnePocket.org: He sure is! He won the One Pocket last week at Derby City, again.
Sonny Springer: Well you probably picked up a pointer or two over the week.

Sonny with Nancy Hart of Viking Cues, probably at one of the Jansco’s Stardust events

OnePocket.org: I hope so. Another thing he does real well is play position by bumping the cue ball off a second ball. Most players would be trying to avoid running the cue ball into another ball, but Efren does it on purpose to play position, and often he’s being productive at the same time.
Sonny Springer: There sure is a lot to learn in One Pocket.

OnePocket.org: Sonny, it seems like even early on you were more comfortable playing for bigger stakes on your own money, than other players; why do you think that’s so?
Sonny Springer: Yeah, I’ve been told that. I always liked to play on my own money; I always did. I was in on my dad’s lime and fertilizer business, and I had a little money.

I went off to the Navy, and heck I didn’t play pool for several years, but I ran a craps game, and gambled you know; I ran about eight games a week. I wasn’t scuffling any pool, but after I beat UJ Puckett and they told me about Johnston City and I went up there, well that’s when I discovered all this gambling on pool. Like that time I first played Ronnie Allen 8-6 where he played one-handed. I think we were playing for two hundred a game. Of course he was probably getting staked, but I wasn’t, and I went broke.

OnePocket.org: So you were already comfortable gambling at dice and cards, so pool was just another thing to gamble on.
Sonny Springer: Yeah.

OnePocket.org: You mentioned that you spent a little time in the pen. There have been a couple of players lately that have done some time, and both of them seemed to come out shooting better than they went in! Something about using their idle time to practice pool in their minds. How did you shoot when you came out?
Sonny Springer: Well, you know it’s amazing, but I’ve noticed lots of times when I’ve not played for a while, then my first two or three games I look like I play better than I’ve ever played. I’ve noticed that several times.

OnePocket.org: Well thank you very much for your time, Sonny.