A handful of athletes have been elevated by almost universal acclamation as the best-ever in their respective sports. In baseball, it would be Babe Ruth. In basketball, probably Michael Jordon. But pool? Who’s the best ever at our sport?
I recently conducted a poll at this site in which I asked readers precisely this question. I limited candidates only to U.S. players, and only to those known for pocket billiards. That meant that Filipino Efren Reyes and three-cushion player Willie Hoppe — two of my personal favorites — didn’t make the list. You can find the results on the sidebar at the right. (You have to scroll down a bit.) As expected Luther Lassiter, Mike Sigel and Steve Mizerak all got plenty of votes — as did Shane Van Boening. But the two top vote getters (and this shouldn’t come as a surprise either) were Ralph Greenleaf and Willie Mosconi. Both had long and dominant careers. Both smashed records. Both were feared by the competition.
Neither Greenleaf nor Mosconi, however received a majority of the votes. Mosconi came close, but still was held to below 50 percent. So in the spirit of true democracy, I'm conducting a runoff. It's time we came to the bottom of this very important question.
This month’s PoolSynergy column I devote to these two fine players. Consider it an advance on an upcoming Untold Stories column for Billiards Digest. Our PoolSynergy assignment was to write about our favorite player. Well, I pick these two: Mosconi and Greenleaf. They had different temperaments, different playing styles, different reputations. But both were among the very best ever to play the sport.
I read online somewhere in which some knucklehead suggested that if Greenleaf and Mosconi were still playing today, they wouldn’t be able to stand up to modern talent. This is, in a word, horseshit. During his heyday, Mosconi killed the opposition with repeated 100-ball runs. Not occasional 100-ball runs, but repeated 100-ball runs. Over and over again. It was devastating. It would take the air out of the room. Sigel, in his prime, would run 100s — but never with Mosconi’s consistency.
Likewise Greenleaf, during his heyday, would slice through the competition — sometimes going through an entire double round-robin tournament without a single loss. And often he did so while drunk. Greenleaf started young, rose to the national stage at age 16, won his first world title a few years later, and then continued smashing the opposition for the next 13 years.
I recently posed this question to historian Charlie Ursitti: which player really was best. Charlie is an expert in the field, having recently created a website with more than a century of pool statistics. He is a man of strongly held opinions when it comes to pool. Charlie’s answer to me was emphatic. Without a doubt, he said, Mosconi was the superior player. Charlie says this is not simply his opinion, but rather the indisputable conclusion one must draw from examining the facts.
“I statistically proved that Willie was better,” said Ursitti, recalling to me an analysis he conducted some 20 years ago. “He (Mosconi) won 76.3 percent of the games and Greenleaf won 70 percent of his games.” Charlie said these numbers, first published in an article for The National Billiard News, did not sit well with Greenleaf's fans. “I got more hate mail than anybody had in 10 years. They’d say: ‘you don’t know, you never saw Greenleaf play.’ I said both of them played in competition, I never saw them (play against each other) — all I did was present the numbers. And the numbers don’t lie.”
That may be true but consider a few other facts. Greenleaf played more exclusively on the 5 by 10s. Mosconi played extensively on them, but was more known for playing on smaller tables. Greenleaf also was the youngest American ever to win a world straight pool championship, having been only 20 when he took his first title. Mosconi tried to beat that record, but came up short. And while it’s true that Mosconi may have had the slight edge in head-to-head competition, Greenleaf held it early on, when he was still playing in his prime. Recall that Mosconi was somewhat younger than Greenleaf — he was, in fact, Greenleaf’s protégé — and by the time that Willie was in his prime, Greenleaf was already on the way down.
Mosconi, in his own autobiography, says that Greenleaf beat him 57 games to 50 during a 1934 exhibition tour. And this was even though Greenleaf was dead drunk during many of the games. “All told, we played 107 games in 112 days,” wrote Mosconi. “Of course, Greenleaf was the principal attraction. He was not only a great player, but he was great to watch. He had looks and style, a theatrical flair, and a shooting touch so soft that only a connoisseur could fully appreciate it.”
So who really was the best? As I mentioned previously, I’m going to explore these issues further in an upcoming column. But in the meantime, I’m going to post up another poll. A runoff! You pick the best, Greenleaf or Mosconi. Vote early, vote often.
-- R.A. Dyer