Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fats in Johnston City

Minnesota Fats was a fixture in southern Illinois during the 1960s, which was the heyday of the Johnston City tournaments and the pool revival I described in Hustler Days. The famous tournaments were created by George and Paulie Jansco, who are both members of the One Pocket Hall of Fame. I got to thinking about George and Paulie and Fats after receiving a letter the other day from Gary Carlson, a former graduate student from Southern Illinois. In it, Gary describes a chance encounter he had with Minnesota Fats. It was a small encounter, and yet the sort that appears to have taken on added meaning for Gary as he has learned more about Fats. That's because it quietly reflects some of the great qualities of Fats: he loved playing pool, he loved being around people and -- despite his hustler reputation -- there was a certain kindness about him.

Here's Gary's note:

From 1966 to 1969, I was a graduate chemistry student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. I used to research my project from time to time during the wee hours and then go to a small hamburger place on the north side of Carbondale where they had 2 or 3 pool tables. I was usually the only one there and after a hamburger, I’d shoot some pool. I was only a fair player. One night (late 1968 – mid 1969), there was a guy sitting at the counter talking to the owner – I paid little attention to them. I had my hamburger, got a cue off the wall and began practicing.
Before long, the guy at the counter strolled over, watched a bit, and asked if I wanted to play a couple of racks. I said OK and asked if he wanted to bet a dollar a game. He laughed and said “A whole dollar”? I didn’t know if he was mocking me or couldn’t afford a dollar so I said “OK, how about 50 cents then”? He smiled and just said “Let’s play a bit for nothing and we’ll see what happens.” Well, he beat me several games with no trouble, shook my hand and left. The counter man said “Do you know who that was”? I told him I didn’t – and he told me it was Rudolph Wanderone – Minnesota Fats. I just said “Oh”. I had no idea who he was. Later, I saw a picture of him somewhere and realized who he was. Later still, I learned he was living not too far from Carbondale.
You asked for some remembrances of the man. That was mine. Recently I’ve read about him and from everything I understand, he was a pretty nice fellow.

Thanks to Gary. And, like he notes: I'm always looking for memories of the great ones. If you have one, send it in. If you'd like to learn more about Johnston City (or see another Johnston City video), check out my separate blog on the topic, which you can find here.

-- R.A. Dyer