Wednesday, August 8, 2001
Fat Man of Pool
By Jim Murray
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 29, 1962.
DU QUOIN, ILL. - The fat man drummed his fingers on the table and his eyes darted around the room. Ordinarily, Rudolph Walter Wanderone wouldn't spot a person he didn't know because everyone from Dog Walk to the north to Crab Orchard on the south knows the fat man.
You'd know him, too, if he looked more like Jackie Gleason from the neck-up. Right? The Hustler from the movie of the same name. Minnesota Fats, alias New York Fats.
Fats is restless because this is race week in Du Quoin. And there might be some "marks" -- people looking to give their money away to strangers -- out there in that crowd. Fats spends his life looking for marks.
He goes through the world carrying a pool cue in one hand and a deck of cards in one pocket. The cards have eyes in the back of them. The pool cue is 58 inches long and 20 ounces heavy. It's collapsible and as delicately balanced as a micrometer. For Fats, it's his equalizer.
You wouldn't think Dowell, Ill., which is only a three-cornered shot from Du Quoin, would produce the world's best in anything -- unless maybe hog calling. There aren't enough people in it for one good bridge tournament. But Fats was the world's pool hustler in his day. He passed through towns like a gray shadow. He hustled the best. His life was a click of cue balls and a silent passing of money.
Well Known in Pool Halls
He was a silhouette you could duplicate only with a lifetime supply of plover's eggs and champagne. And it robbed him of the hustler's main stock in trade -- anonymity. Pretty soon he was as well known in the pool halls as a brass spittoon. Hustlers he never heard of used to practice nights for the day when they would run into the Fat Man. They came into town looking for him and the Fat Man finally got to the point he could sit like a toad in a second story pool hall in Chicago and wait for them.
"Everybody wants a piece of the Fat Man," the grifters admitted. Fats was a world's champion at a shadowy sport that symbolized to a nation a misspent youth and a squandered adulthood. Fats could do tricks with a pool cue Willie Hoppe would have gotten invited to the White House for. Willie Mosconi could put on a white tie and monkey suit and go on the Ed Sullivan show. But the Fat Man just shuffled around in blue slacks and light tan shoes. He put a tie on only when he went to Johnson City for the tournament, the one pocket grift -- the summit of hustlery.
The Fat Man goes through life via side entrances. A hustler doesn't want his picture on national TV any more than he wants it in the post office. The Fat Man's calling is a 55-in. waist and a pool stroke that's pure silk. He doesn't ask anything of life but that he shouldn't have a rail shot when all the money is on the line and the "mark" is on, having a run of luck.
He has played in all the lonely sections of town where the pool halls are. He has seen the sun come up redly through drawn blinds at the end of 50 hours of steady pool, a stubble of beard on his cheeks, his lips cracked and dry but his wrist as sure and steady as a piston.
Can't Drink and Shoot, Too
Fats doesn't drink because you can't drink and shoot hustler's pool. You give the "mark" a break with every beaker of booze you throw down. Sometimes in three- and four-day matches, the Fat Man would watch with satisfaction as the other fellow hurried to the bar for a quick one to recharge the batteries. "I know three, maybe four, people in the world that can shoot and drink," he says. "No more."
Fats is 49 now and out of stroke, as the hustlers say when the balls don't drop. He's had to play so many guys one-handed the cue feels strange with 10 fingers on it. He tried to quit, went into retirement. He married a girl from Dowell and came down to sit in the sun and pick up stray dogs.
The Fat Man loves animals. He has more dogs and cats in his backyard than the rest of Dowell put together. When they smell a skunk, the whole neighborhood gets an ear ache. He burns bones from butchers for them and he hustles for stray dogs. Friends swear if Fats saw a fly with a broken leg, he'd put a sling on it. He'd let a rabid dog bite him.
Fats blew the biggest hustle in the world when he didn't capitalize on the movie when it was up for Academy Award. He could have been on every show on television if anyone could find him. Instead, he sat on the porch and fed the dogs. "I'm the laziest guy in the world," he admits. Someone sued the movie company for him and Fats brightens at the prospect of a little fresh money but is bored at the prospect of having to testify to anything.
"I don't do nuthin'," he admits. "I went on television over to Harrisburg once." He also lectured on the art of bank pool at the University of Indiana.
He's proud that he came from a long line of educators and professional people. The Wanderones were German-Swiss and produced several college professors and doctors -- but only one hustler. Fats. "But I was the best in the world at what I done," he says quietly. That is something not many men can say with any assurance.
The grifters in a pool hall are a cynical bunch -- about everything but their own legends. The Fat Man is their legend. The game of pool died when someone saw the drama in the legend of the Fat Man who could make a pool cue talk and hustlers cry.
Fats is a familiar sight on the streets of Du Quoin on Hambletonian week. Fresh money is arriving in town on every rented car and Fats is trying to divert it to his ample pockets. He comes into town maybe three, four times a day, going home only to feed the dogs or let the cats out.
His pretty wife chats with the customers and their wives up front, but Fats is in another part of town where the curtains are drawn, a light bulb blinks under a green eyeshade, the cards are dealt and the hustle is on. The pool cue is in the trunk of the car, just in case. "I don't miss no place," says Fats. "I like wherever I'm at. But when I'm gone, I don't miss it." His home has got green felt on it and pockets in all the corners and chalk on the rail.
As Fats says, he's one of a kind. And probably the last of his kind. Minnesota Fats. New York Fats. Illinois Fats. American Fats -- Vanishing American Fats.
This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.
|Originally known as "New York Fats," Rudolph Walter Wanderone, took his more famous nickname, "Minnesota Fats," from Jackie Gleason's character in "The Hustler."|