Calling the Corner Pocket

By Ed Staskus

   There were two snooker tables, two billiards tables, six 5 by 10-foot pool tables, a beat-up ping pong table, mismatched beat-up stools, and a beat-up front counter at Joe Tuma’s Billiards. There was a seven-foot eight ball table in a corner for tourists. All the tables were clean as a whistle. The floor was swept nightly but never washed. The front windows were filthy. The bathroom was sketchy at best. There was no bathroom for women. Nobody ever saw a woman inside Joe Tuma’s anyway, so it didn’t matter.

   The pool hall was on the south side of Euclid Ave. at East 19th St. on the second floor of a two-story building. Pool halls were often in basements or on second floors to save on rent. The Morse Graphic Art Supply Company was on the ground floor. As many times I went to Joe Tuma’s was as many times I didn’t go to the art supply store.

   Cleveland State University was two blocks up the street. It was where I was student, until I dropped out instead of getting flunked out my freshman year. I spent more time at the pool hall than I did attending lectures in the humanities and sciences. My teachers were always asking me who I was and if I was in the right class.

   I wasn’t the only one. Ron Mabey graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, lost his student deferment, and was waiting to be drafted. He and a friend with the same 1-A ticket to Vietnam rented cheap office space in the nearby Corlett Building, doing odd jobs. “We started going to Joe Tuma’s and spent less and less time at the office,” Ron said. “We were killing time waiting for our letters from Uncle Sam. The billiard club was more enjoyable than the 3rd Platoon, D Company, 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade, where I ended up.”

   Joe Tuma’s called itself a “Billiard Club” and advertised “Bowling and Billiard Supplies” on its front window. I never saw anybody wearing a monogrammed club sweater and never saw supplies of anything except cue sticks and chalk. I never saw Joe, either. After a few months I stopped looking for him. 

   His club didn’t have slot machines, darts, or foosball, staying true to pool billiards snooker. When my dad found out I was playing pool he said it would only lead to gambling, laziness, and philandering. He said it was a “social ill.” I told him I didn’t have any paper money to gamble with, learning to play was elbow grease not laziness, and I didn’t know what philandering meant. My mom had just seen the movie “The Music Man” and referred me to the song “Trouble.”

   “You got trouble, folks, right here in River City, trouble with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool.”

   The Cuyahoga River was right around the bend, and it was always catching fire, which was trouble enough. My dad was an accountant and said it was the price of progress. My mom didn’t say much. She was a cashier at a Pick-N-Pay supermarket, racing home to make dinner for my dad, brother, and sister, hoping to not burn it. I had already moved to the bum and beatnik neighborhood around Upper Prospect Ave.

   The front door of Joe Tuma’s was at the side of the building and the front stairs were lit with a single 40-watt bulb. Inside, most of the lights were over the tables. It was usually quiet, except for the clicking clacking sound of balls hitting each other. There were no radios and no TV’s. Balls used to be made of stone, back in the 14thcentury when high society played a game that was a cross of croquet and billiards. When the game evolved onto a table, balls were made of wood and clay.

   When the makers of balls discovered ivory, they started making them out of ivory. It was a slow go, though. One elephant tusk yielded only five or six of them. They were prone to discoloring and cracking if struck with too much force. Europeans hit the mother lode when they developed a resin and plastic combination called phenolic resin. They were the Saluc’s and located in Belgium. They started in hide tanning way back when and are the largest manufacturer of billiard balls in the world.

   Nobody ever argued anything or cheered anything at Joe Tuma’s. They didn’t give a fig about politics. “Less talk and more chalk,” is what they said. Somebody might tap his cue stick on the wood frame of a table to show appreciation for a shot, but that was about as demonstrative as anybody ever got.

   Whenever he was there one of the soft-spoken men was Baby Face.

   “I was given the name Baby Face when I was 15 years old,” he said. “I had just played Buddy Wallace right here. Buddy played straight pool in some championships where he ran large numbers to beat some world class players. I played him for money to 50 points and won decisively.”

   Life is a game and money is to keep score. It’s draw for show and follow for the dough.

   “As I was going out the door the man who covered the pool tables for Joe, who was named Butch, asked, ‘Who’s the baby face?’ When I got into my 30s, I was on the road playing everyone I ran up on. I busted Reid Pierce at the Office Lounge in Mississippi. I busted Tommy Sanders and Gabby in Texas. I busted Rich Geiler in Washington.”

   “Who in the hell is he talking about?” I wondered, even though I knew he was talking about Minnesota Fats kinds of guys.

   “I was pretty much undefeated except when I ran into Mike Siegal. He showed me what a world champion could do. I played him on the big table. It was painless. He only gave me a couple of opportunities. I started stalling with him the first rack out and he hit me with a 4 pack. I never came out of it.” 

   “The easiest way to win is to not let the other guy shoot,” is what road players say.

   I didn’t know much about pool when I started playing between classes. I had played eight ball on coin-operated bar tables with my friends, but it meant nothing except some fun. When I first saw the tables at Joe Tuma’s I knew for sure I knew nothing. There were always local geezers hanging around, playing an occasional game on their welfare and social security money. One of them, Brooklyn Bob, who lived in Old Brooklyn near the Cleveland Zoo and took the bus downtown, helped me. He taught me how to play straight pool. I learned how to play billiards and snooker later. I didn’t take to billiards, but I liked snooker.

   The first thing Bob told me was to “stroke it, don’t poke it. The ball will go where you look, but you don’t have to aim straight if you stroke straight. Let your cue stick do the work. Take what the table offers. Don’t try to get perfect shape when good shape will do.”

   The rules were simple enough and keeping score was even simpler. Every table had sliding scoring beads on a wire perpendicular to the table, using the light centered over the pool table as the middle string mount. The beads were made of wood. Fifty of them were dark and the other set of fifty were light colored. First one to fifty wins.

   At first my shooting was like I was shooting with a rope. I lost more games fifty to zero than I could count. I was on the hit and hope bandwagon. After I got a little better my nickname became One in a Row. It got so nobody wanted to play me, so I practiced by myself.

   “It’s not the cue, it’s you,” Bob said. “Hold the stick like you’re shaking a lady’s hand. Don’t crush it, but don’t be limp, either. Don’t cry in your beer about it, though.” Bob always had a lukewarm bottle of Blatz in his hand and a cigarette burning down in a tin ashtray on the table beside his stool. 

   The big open room stank from years of incessant smoking. Everybody drank beer and smoked. I didn’t drink but started smoking some to keep up. I never hit the pack a day habit. They all smoked Camels and Lucky Strikes and it was strong stuff. After a while I had a pool hall tan like everybody else.

   The fewer classes I went to at CSU and the more I practiced at Joe Tuma’s the better I got. I started picking up games. I never played for money because the only loose change I ever had went to pay for table time. “Never gamble with a man named after a state or a city,” Brooklyn Bob told me. When he tried to get me to play for money, I followed his advice.

   Some of the town players and lots of the road players had nicknames, all of them more flattering than mine. There were Frisco Jack, The Rocket, Handsome Danny, Cadillac Ed, and Cue Ball Kelly. Before the movie “The Hustler” came out Minnesota Fats was Fats and New York Fats and Double Smart Fats, even though his real name was Rudolf Wanderone.

   “Perhaps the most striking aspect of the pool hustler’s argot is the use of nicknames. My impression is that the percentage of them who have nicknames is not only higher than among either professionals or hustlers in other sports but is higher than in any other adult group in America,” Ned Polsky wrote in “Hustlers, Beats and Others.” 

   Oklahoma Flash sounded good, and he was a good shooter, but his handle had nothing to do with pool. “I had a friend who started calling me that when we played softball together in Oklahoma,” he said. “Every time I ran to first base, he said a dust cloud could beat me there.”

    I learned how to handle the cue and how to stand in the right stance, keeping my head down on the ball with the cue below my chin. I got in the groove of gradually approaching the cue ball keeping my follow through straight and relaxed. I stayed down after the shot. I hit thousands of practice shots, then tens of thousands, until I realized getting to the level of guys like Baby Face was going to take hitting a million practice shots. I didn’t think I had it in me.

   One afternoon after an occasional class I stopped at Joe Tuma’s. A crowd was gathered around the only ping pong table where a man was playing all comers with a small rusty battered garbage can lid. His off hand was tied behind his back. Nobody was having any luck scoring any points, even when he played two opponents with two balls in play at the same time. It was Danny Vegh, who was from Hungary, where he had been the country’s boy champion, junior champion, and adult champion. 

   He came to the United States after the Hungarian Uprising. “The border opened up and I ran like hell!” he said, landing at Camp Kilner Air Force Base in New Jersey. “I knew no one in this country.” Somebody on the base told him many Hungarians were going to Cleveland. He and his wife packed up and went to Cleveland. Four years later he was the USA Singles and Doubles Table Tennis Champion. It didn’t pay the bills, though, so he opened a ping pong center.

   “The business was a complete failure,” he said.

   Since he was a good pool player, too, he moved to the Hippodrome Building just west of East 9th St. and opened Gaylord’s Pool Hall. It was a big success. He added four ping pong tables “just because I loved it.” He started staging pool tournaments with 600-and-more players competing. The entry fees went to the Cleveland Plain Dealer Charities “so we had a lot of publicity.” 

   Kids played in age divisions. “I was in the 9- to 10-year-old group and my cousin John was in the 8 and under,” said Tim Goggin. “He could barely see over the top of the table, but still made it to the quarterfinals.”

   Now and then, somebody would blow into town, give a demonstration at Gaylord’s, give some lessons, play whoever was up to it, and blow out of town better off than the day before. They didn’t usually come to Joe Tuma’s, but one morning when I walked in a road player was showing off trick shots. Jew Paul was from the Rack & Cue in Detroit. He looked like he had been up all night. There were dark circles under his eyes.

   “He was here all night and he’s still here,” Butch said. “He ordered breakfast for everybody, should be here soon. Make sure you stay.”

   His real name was Paul Bruseloff. He was there with a friend of his, Cornbread Red, whose real name was Billy Joe Burge. Jew Paul was from East New York City. The first time he played pool in 1939 when he was 12 years old was the first time he gambled on the game. It was for five cents. He won enough nickels to come back. He needed three cents for an 8-ball rack and twenty cents for an hour of straight pool. He won enough to play all he wanted.

   He made a white-collar living selling kitchenware and a no-collar fortune betting on his cue stick after he moved to Detroit. He preferred one-pocket on a snooker table but played anything and everything, including heads or tails with pennies.

   I found out later what he “liked most to do was come out a few games behind but win all the money. One day he’s doing just that, betting $300.00 a game in the center and $8,000 a game on the side. But his hapless opponent was running out of dough, so Paul ‘accidentally’ dropped a couple of thousand on the floor so the guy could keep playing.”

   After breakfast somebody tried to take his picture with an Instamatic. He pushed the man away. “Pictures are for movie stars,” he said.

   “Jew Paul don’t let nobody take his picture,” Butch said.

   He wasn’t the only one. I had started taking artsy black-and-white pictures, guided by Virginia Sustarsic, a friend of mine who was a hippie photographer and some-time writer. She had access to a dark room where we developed the film and pictures ourselves. I borrowed her 35mm Nikon camera and brought it to the pool hall, but was firmly not-so-politely told, “No pictures.”

   When I went back to school after dropping out, I dropped playing pool. I couldn’t do both. I was majoring in English literature and going to all my classes, reading and writing at night, and working part-time to keep the wolf away from the door. It took up all my time. Playing pool would have snookered me. 

   “All gents know how to play pool,” Butch told me later when I was messing around with a friend during spring break, showing him how to put English on the ball. “But any gent who plays too good, he ain’t no gentleman.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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