Raw History- The U.S. Open 1966-1975

Mr. Bond

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An enlightening look at the modus operandi of the BCA and their first U.S. Open.
This article was originally published in 1975

Take a good look, much can be learned from the past.

A Thriving 10 Year Old
by Matt Racki III

But there were some anxious moments before the U.S. Open's 1966 debut

No one remembers it exactly the same way, of course. What they do agree on is that it hardly seems possible that a decade has passed since the BCA came up with a "showcase" for the game - the U.S. Open.

There had been other BCA tournaments, to be sure, mostly at places like Chicago's decrepit Navy Pier. It was a perfectly named setting for the event back in the mid-50s, but it soured the Congress on holding showcases for the game until the Open some 10 years later.

If Navy Pier was the place to take a financial bath, the BCA plunged right in - to the tune of about $80,000. And that's enough to make anybody want to forget about staging another disaster like that for a few years.

"There heart was in the right place, I'll say that much for them," said one BCA official. "The problem was that, if anything, they were too generous. We had a 64-man field, a 32-woman field and another field of 32 three-cushion players." The crunch was that BCA picked up the travel expenses for every one of them; hotel bills, meals, the works.

"They figured people would flock to Navy Pier and that BCA would at least get its money back. Well, the people didn't flock, they stayed away in droves. That lapping sound wasn't the waves from Lake Michigan, it was the sound of the BCA taking a nice warm bath."

In a way, that was the end of one era, the 1966 U.S. Open the beginning of another. In the interim, [high] class pocket billiards was nowhere. There was some action in Las Vegas and Johnston City to be sure but that was about it.

Said Mike Geiger, BCA president, "You've got to remember that back in the days before the U.S. Open, home billiard table sales were just about zero. Actually, the Open originally was intended to give table manufacturers a chance to display their wares as much as it was to give players a chance at some real money in a class tournament."

That's pretty much the way Bob Froeschle recalls it too. Froeschle, who's served as tournament director of every U.S. Open noted that "We wanted a showplace for sellers. Table sales were beginning to take off and the main thought behind coming up with a new event like The Open was to show people that billiards was something they could enjoy right in their own home. Naturally the BCA board of directors wanted to present the game in its best possible light, so we opted for the ballroom setting, with blazers for the players and so forth."

It's impossible to bestow "Father of the U.S. Open" status on one man, although not many would quarrel with giving Froeschle and Don Neer, former BCA executive secretary, a lion's share of the laurels.

The board of directors eventually made the final decision, but there was more than one skeptic in the crowd. After all, the Navy Pier disaster hadn't been that long ago.

"One of the main concerns," Froeschle commented, "was that we were giving away too much in prize money. The top spot was worth $2500 and the runner-up got $1500, a far cry from what those two places will be worth next month.

Others felt that BCA shouldn't be sponsoring a tournament at all, that we should simply sanction it and get an outside sponsor. Well, they weren't beating down the door for the chance so BCA ended up putting on the first Open itself."

The 1966 Open was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Sherman House in Chicago, to better get across "the new image" the BCA would from then forth cultivate. About 20 manufacturers had set up displays in hopes of cashing in on the rising demand for home tables.

The biggest thing going for that first event, and something which hasn't happened since, was live TV. A Chicago UHF station beamed the finals, with "Whispering" Joe Wilson of Championship Bowling fame doing running commentary. BCA later edited the show and together with the station, sold it to several other TV outlets.

"It wasn't all sweetness and light," Froeschle recalls, " For instance we didn't have the overhead score projectors then; had to use kids not even in their teens as scorekeepers. We didn't even have official score pads. One thing I'll never forget is one of the kids falling asleep during the title game between Irving Crane and Joe Balsis. I guess he just got bored with the safeties and the fantastic way Crane was just making shot after shot.

We wanted to give the players a sort of "Tournament of Champions" that the golfers and bowlers had. At that time, you had all sorts of "World Champions" all over the place and that only confused the issue."

The players were enthralled by the whole affair, figuring pocket billiards was ready to make a flying permanent leap into the limelight. Perhaps, but Geiger recollects the player's attitudes a little differently.

"I don't think too many of them were all that excited about the size of the prize fund. Kind of funny when you remember that most of the BCA board felt even that much money was too much risk. I think Boston Shorty Johnson probably summed it up best. After it was over he said, 'I finished 10th and got a lousy hundred bucks. You mean to tell me being the 10th best pockets player in the world is only worth a miserable C-note?' I'll have to admit I think Shorty had a point."

Irv Nemecek Sr. of Kieckheffer Mfg Co [now Tweeten] in Chicago and a member of the BCA board at the time recalled that, "One of our biggest problems was raising money for the prize fund. We literally had to go hat in hand and scrape up what we could. But we did manage to get enough to come up with what most of us considered a decent prize fund.

"The U.S. Open was different from all previous tournaments in that we didn't just invite the 'stars' to take part. We had qualifying tournaments for each of the spots, something that rarely, if ever, had been done before. Before the first Open, most tournaments simply invited the hottest dozen or so biggies in hopes of insuring a big gate. But I can't fault them for that; that way you were almost always guaranteed a couple of stars in the final game."

Another BCA board member at the time, Bill Sheffer of Tweeten Fibre Co in Chicago said that "I was sort of lukewarm to the whole idea of an Open. I had seen big tournaments come and go many times before and I couldn't see the Open as being all that different.

The way I saw it, we were headed down the same old path of hundreds of tournaments. But we had nothing else to try so I decided to go along and see how it turned out."

How it turned out is history, of course, history that seems to say billiards "family style" is here to stay for quite some time. But instead of looking too far ahead, let's look back at the past nine U.S. Opens. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.....

Mr. Bond

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1966 - The inaugural event unfolded June 8-11 at Chicago's Sherman House and featured such shooters as Handsome Danny Jones, Larry Lisciotti, Cisero Murphy and Eddie Kelly, in addition to Crane, Balsis and Johnson.

In the title match, Balsis won the lag and Crane broke. Joe ran 11 before missing, and the next four innings featured a series of safeties and fouls. Finally Crane took a chance, made the shot and proceeded to run 150 and out against a shocked Balsis for the title and $2500.

BCA officials had hoped for a turnout upwards of 50 players but only 26 showed up. The gate for the 4 day event was $6400, which when coupled with sales of exhibit space and programs, came to nearly $15,000.

As a part of the festivities, Willie Hoppe, Ralph Greenleaf and Charlie Peterson are inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame, established a month earlier.

1967 - The Open moves to the Sheraton Jefferson Hotel in St. Louis and inaugurates a women's division with $500 as first prize. Dorothy Wise, Sheila Bohm, Pat Zinke and Jackie Gorecki are entered, as well as a dozen other distaff shooters. (Jean Balukas is just starting elementary school, don't forget)

Jimmy Caras charges from the loser's bracket and defeats Luther Lassiter 150-123 for the $3000 top money. Mrs. Wise topples San Lynn Merrick, playing in her first pro tournament. It will be four more years before the women's division has a different champion, a skinny freckle-faced kid from Brooklyn. Grumbles abound because several top-rated lady billiardists who were invited to compete politely declined.

1968 - The tournament moves again, this time to the Lansing Michigan Civic Center. A 3-cushion tournament is added as companion competition in hopes that attendance will soar. They don't and 3-cushion disappears forever as a part of the U.S. Open. Boston Shorty Johnson wins the event and $1000, knocking off Jimmy Cattrano by 50-40 in the title game.

Back in the real action, Joe Balsis mauls Danny DiLiberto by 150-92 in only 14 innings and earns $5000.Mrs. Wise beats San Lynn Merrick again for the women's title and picks up a nifty $500. Japan's Kazuo Fujima is the first foreigner to play in the Open.

Willie Mosconi is inducted into the Hall of Fame and is so choked up he cant finish his acceptance speech. Later, though, he treats a group of night owls to champagne and pizza to celebrate his selection.

1969- Las Vegas and its Sahara Hotel is the host this year, and the event, in the words of one BCA official, is an "unmitigated disaster" in terms of the gate. The ballroom is packed for the two-game finale between Luther Lassiter and Jack Breit, until the final night, when the glitter of Vegas proves too much competition for the fans' attention. Lassiter, coming from the loser's bracket, defeats Breit 150-114 to force another match. It's already midnight , but Wimpy adjourns to the Sahara coffee shop for a snack.

He eventually wins the title game 150-131, when Breit scratches three times in a row, loses 16 points and can never recover. Fans figure Breit, with a little less aggression and more ball control could have won the $5000 top prize. But, it's 3:15 am and by now, who cares?

Only the runnerup changes in the women's division: Mrs. Wise is first, Geraldine Titcomb comes in second and Miss Merrick finishes third. A persistent rumor somehow gets around that 59 year-old Ruth McGinnis is coming out of retirement to see if someone besides Mrs. Wise can win the U.S. Open women's division.

1970- Mrs. McGinnis doesn't come out of retirement and Mrs. Wise wins her fourth straight title. In those four years she loses only one game, to Gerry Titcomb in 1969. Steve Mizerak end the reign of the "old timers" (Crane, Balsis, Caras and Lassiter) by taking the $5000 men's prize in the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Chicago Hotel. He does it by defeating Lassiter 150-107, after Wimpy emerged from the loser's bracket to win the first "title" game 150-25. Steve breaks down in tears afterwards, prompting Lassiter to remark "I wish he'd done that during the game."

Upon hearing of her husband's $5000 night, Mrs. Mizerak gives him an hour to get back home to Perth Amboy, N.J. More than 1000 fans pack the stands for the finals and BCA terms in their best Open ever, by any measurement.

1971- The Open is back at the Sheraton Chicago, having found a permanent home after those not terribly profitable "side trips" to St. Louis, Lansing and Las Vegas. The Women's first place check doubles from $500 to $1000; the men are still playing for "only" a $5000 top payout.

Mrs. Wise nabs her fifth straight crown, knocking out Mrs. Titcomb as she did the previous year. People wonder if she can go on winning forever; nobody pays much attention to the 3rd place finisher, Jean Balukas.

Mizerak wins his second straight by defeating Balsis 150-118 before ABC 'Wide World of Sports' cameras, back for a return engagement after taping the 1969 finals.

1972- The stocky New Jersey school teacher Mizerak knocks off Danny DiLiberto with an 87-and-out run to win his third consecutive title. He blows the first game to the loser's bracket champ 150-89, but after a 20 minute intermission and a change of clothes, comes back to stroke a 150-16 victory.

The Women's division doubles to 16 players and 1st place rises to $1500, only this time, it isn't Dorothy Wise who collects it. She wins her first two matches, but then looses two straight matches and eventually finishes 6th. Everyone's attention focuses on Miss Balukas; she keeps their attention all the way to a 75-42 thrashing of Madelyn Whitlow for her first U.S. Open tiara.

BCA executive director Fred Herzog proclaims it the most successful edition ever. Media coverage is way up from previous Opens: 3 1/2 minutes of Walter Cronkite's CBS evening news and a lot more interest on the part of the wire services.

1973 - ABC returns again with its Wide World of Sports retinue to the Sheraton Chicago ballroom and fans wonder about the "every other year" interest shown. ABC's interest dampens considerably when Mizerak again loses to the loser's bracket champ 150-110, in a marathon 22 innings, forcing another game for the title and leaving ABC with a lot of useless videotape. (For reasons never divulged, the finals never do get on the air)

The "nightcap" drags on to 25 innings before Mizerak emerges with his fourth straight title at about 1am. Miss Balukas takes her second consecutive title, but is forced to run 26 and out against psychologist Donna Ries for the 75-72 win. Her check is $2000 this time, the women's prize fund having been increased once more.

The event is a smash financially. Herzog joyfully announces the attendance was twice that of 1972, which itself was a record year. The ballroom is packed to overflowing and even a special room set up with closed-circuit TV coverage of the Mizerak-Lassiter encounter cant handle the overflow.

1974 - Stung by the fact the 1973 event never did show up on ABC's Wide World of sports, BCA makes a radical change in format designed to eliminate "meaningless" title games where the loser's bracket champ forces another contest for the title. The 32-man field is divided into two 16-man brackets; the 16 woman field is also halved to two 8 women brackets. The two men's winners meet for a one-game match and the women do likewise.

In defiance of all odds, the men's and the women's champion are decided by a single point - Balsis wins his second title and ends Mizerak's reign with a 200-199 win over Jim Rempe. Miss Balukas rebounds from a 99-89 deficit to nudge Japan's Mieko Harada 100-99 for the women's title.

1975 - Aug. 4-9 are the dates and the Chicago Sheraton is still the place. The men are shooting for a $10,000 top prize this year, probably the biggest in billiards history. Second place swells to, from $4000 last year to $5000. No change in the rest of the men's prize list, or the women's for that matter.

Ticket prices are up only modestly in this day of inflation; afternoon sessions are $4, evening sessions $6. The women's finals go from $3 to $5 but the men's are still only $8. Season tickets, which admit the holder to any session, rise from $40 to $45, a savings of $12 if a fan purchased tickets to every session individually.

Mizerak, Crane, Balsis, Rempe, Balukas, Harada, Byrd et all will be back once more, but after last year's one-point thrillers, 1974 is going to be a hard act to follow. But the players no doubt will think of something.


AzB Silver Member
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Wow. Great read.

Where did bca get its funding, early on? The article implies it wasn't from table sales:"...before...table sales were nearly zero."

Mr. Bond

Orbis Non Sufficit
Gold Member
Silver Member
Wow. Great read.

Where did bca get its funding, early on? The article implies it wasn't from table sales:"...before...table sales were nearly zero."

It is interesting isn't it.
And a little disheartening to learn that their intent, from the beginning, has truly always been bolstering their own retail sales.

The funding, just like today, would have been provided by member dues, their own corporate donations and sponsorships, and the gate/promo income from events like The Open ( tv rights etc)