Well shoot — everybody waxing eloquent about their memories of seeing Willie Mosconi play, here’s mine:
Yes, I can remember it as if it were yesterday (insert flashback music).
I think I got interested in pool right around 1968 or '69. A friend and I went to a bowling alley with his dad and mom one weekend and while they bowled, we discovered the pool room that was part of the bowling alley. My family lived in San Francisco, down by the Cow Palace, and bowling alleys with pool rooms in them were a pretty common setup back then around there. In fact, just a short walk away from our house was Castle Lanes, where very early on in life I learned courtesy of a summer bowling league that I had absolutely no talent for that game.
But occasionally I'd wander into the pool room there. It had perhaps nine or so Brunswicks and I'd watch all these old guys bat the balls around. They seemed to favor some odd game where it only mattered if you made a ball in one particular pocket, or perhaps the other. I wouldn't decipher what they doing until much later on in life... Not long after my buddy and I became proud owners of our very own personal pool cues, I learned that Willie Mosconi would be making his annual appearance at Castle Lanes.
This was huge.
I had watched "The Hustler" several times by now and knew the lore. So the day of the exhibition I get out of school early and zoom down to Castle Lanes to get a front row seat. They had recovered the front table and all the regulars already had their favored perches secured. Nonetheless, I squeezed in. Then Willie Mosconi walked into the pool room, nattily dressed in a sports coat and tie. He came into the room with a box of balls and a luggage-style cue case. His hair was pure white then and he had this very elegant, tailored look about him. To warm up, he racked all fifteen balls, separated the head ball and set up a break shot off to the left of the rack. The break shot he seemed to favor was a little steeper than I would have thought comfortable but it certainly didn't slow him up.
He run off two racks and was done ready to play his opponent, 150 points of 14.1. Over the next few years I was to see him play four times and depending on whom he was playing, he'd often kick into the back of the stack and play the head ball two rails into the side, just to give his opponent the chance at a running start. He'd always run at least a 100 and I saw him go 150 and out twice. If he had missed somewhere along the way and got out running a 50 or something like that, he'd turn to the crowd and ask, "Would you like to see a 100 ball run?" And we'd all go, "Well, yes." And he'd keep shooting and always get the 100. Then he'd shoot some trick shots, including some pretty nifty masses, and then hang around and talk and sign autographs. (It's the only autograph I have ever asked for in my life.).
Mosconi made running 100 look so simple every person in the room left convinced they could do the same, but of course we could not and now, years removed and having seen most of the great players of today I can tell you, without a doubt, *no one* made the game look so easy. His play, patterns, position, shot making, stroke, and just the way he moved around the table — sometimes walking backwards to get to the next shot faster — was so pure you left knowing you were seeing the greatest of all time.
Perhaps the last time I saw him was towards the late 70s, like maybe 1976, at an appearance in downtown San Francisco at a walk-up bowling alley named, appropriately enough, Downtown Bowl. He did the usual exhibition that I had seen several times before and it was still fascinating. Particularly because of the way his cue ball behaved. It was extraordinary how it would muscle into the balls and keep diving into them again and again until it had plowed through them all and come out the other side of the cluster or stack, totally unscathed.
So after his exhibition he's standing around, leaning against the table and talking to all the old timers and they're asking all the usual, "Did you ever play...?" "What'd you think of so and so's game?" and I'm trying to get closer to listen in on all this and I'm right by the side pocket of the table he's just finished his exhibition on and I look down and there it is:
Right there, at the bottom of the side pocket, is Mosconi's Cue Ball.
The blue circle on it is staring right back up at me and somehow, it was challenging me. Everyone is focused on Mosconi. No one is looking at me. I stare back into the abyss and realize I have but one moment to make a critical, and yes, criminal decision. I look down into the pocket and I swear, Mosconi's Cue Ball is virtually howling with laughter at me. I quickly seize the little sucker, muffling it as best I can, stuff it into the pocket of my coat and dash down the stairs of the establishment scared to death that if Mosconi discovers His Cue Ball is missing, they'll lock down the whole bowling alley -- and perhaps even cordon off the entire downtown district -- until they find the missing orb.
Now, some 45 years later, I still feel bad about the larceny I committed in my callow youth. But it's done and I can't undo it and so Mosconi's Cue Ball now sits, somewhat more meekly and quietly, on my bookshelf of pool books. But I think it still knows it's Mosconi's Cue Ball and now, just every once in a while when I'm sitting at the computer writing about the trials and tribulations of my pool game, I occasionally hear a tiny little giggle coming from behind my back from somewhere on my book case.