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Debunking the myth of Minnesota Fats

I ran across this cool signed photograph of one Rudolf Wanderone, aka Minnesota Fats. He is arguably the most famous pool player in the world, a point that severely aggravated a number of his contemporaries and left couuntless others at least mildly bemused.

Irving Crane, whom I have written about in other columns, would belong in the former column; Willie Mosconi, whom Fats played in campy television matches in the 1970s, I would characterize as in the mildly bemused column. Thirty years ago when I spent the better part of four months mostly racking balls for Crane during practices sessions (her mercifully allowed me to shoot on the rare occasions when he missed) near his home in Rochester, N.Y.


Hard as it is for me to imagine now, I was the young whippersnapper then, still under the dreaded age of 30, and Crane was all of 65. Short of questions directly related to the practice session at hand, decisions about idle conversation surrounding the afternoon were in his hands, but I was always particularly delighted when he would reminisce a bit about his storied history in the game.

It was pretty rare when he talked much at all, since he took practice more seriously than anyone I’ve ever known, even though he was competing sparingly by then and would retire from the pro tour a couple of years later. He told me stories about Ralph Greenleaf, whom he admired but was also appalled by Greenleaf’s alcoholism; he also talked occasionally about Mosconi, and even more rarely about Fats.

Mostly what I remember about Fats’ name coming up was Crane’s insistence that despite the flashy nickname and legendary self-promotion, Minnesota Fats couldn’t have competed with any of the top players at straight pool, which was Crane’s favored game. Fats was a nine-ball player, or more likely banks or one-pocket games that lent themselves to the gambling end of things. It was part of Crane’s mystique that he didn’t even care for gambling, which could be a real handicap for a guy trying to make a living in a “profession” so exquisitely involved with wagering.

I only met Willie Mosconi on one occasion, I would guess around the mid-1980s when I got lucky and wound up having lunch with him at an billiards exhibition at a restaurant in the Philadelphia suburbs. The place, Williamsons Restaurant, is a local institution in Horsham, Pa., for old-time collectors just a couple of miles up the road from the site of the Eastern Pennsylvania Sports Collectors Club (EPSCC) shows in Willow Grove.

I was clearly unworthy of sitting at the same table for lunch with Mosconi and the man he was playing against, fellow Billiards Congress of America Hall of Famer Jimmy Caras, who lived in nearby Wilmington, Del., and their wives, but simply hustled a bit (the generic use of the term) to snag the seat. I was with an old friend, a poolroom operator from Delaware who had played high school basketball with Dick Groat, and we simply figured out where we thought the guest(s) of honor would be planted and just plopped down in the other seats at the table. The worst that could happened is that we would be politely asked to move to another table.

Instead, Mosconi and Caras just sat down and apparently assumed that the two reprobates at the table had some divine right to be there. Needless to say, we were thrilled. While we largely left the choice of table discussion topics to the actual dignitaries, I did mention to Mosconi that I had spent a good deal of time with his old archrival Irving Crane.

While Willie didn’t precisely use the quote attributed to him in this autobiography about “Irving Crane wouldn’t take a shot unless his grandmother could make it,” he did confirm the conventional wisdom that Crane had been perhaps the most careful player he had ever encountered.

And about Fats he was a bit more diplomatic than Crane had been a half-dozen or so years earlier, noting simply that while Fats hadn’t truly been one of the top players on tour – or even actually playing in the major tournaments – he had been an incredible ambassador for the game. He did tell us, however, that he would go to great pains to find ways to tune out the legendary Minnesota Fats shtick and nonstop banter, which even in exhibition matches could prove to be a problem for pool players more accustomed to relative serenity and quiet while shooting, two words that wouldn’t even show up in Fats’ vocabulary.

But a couple of words that did allegedly pass from Rudolph’s lips always tickled me, whether he actually said them or not. “Irv Crane would have been the only guy to notice the horse under Lady Godiva.”

Of such witty gems are legends forged.

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