Sunday, May 15, 2011

PoolSynergy 19: The Norfolk Glory Years

The Greatest Pool Town In American History?
Wimpy Lassiter

There are pool meccas and then there are pool meccas. Our PoolSynergy task this month is to pick one and write about it. But as I deal with history here, for my essay I’ll reach back into time and describe one of the great pool towns of the past.

I’m not talking Johnston City.  I’m not talking Los Angeles or Chicago. I’m talking about Norfolk, Virginia, during World War II: the town where Wimpy Lassiter was king. Norfolk was the home of the the famous Tuxedo, the town’s main action room. The Tuxedo was located downtown, on City Hall avenue. But there was also St. Elmo, with the flashing ball and stick above the door, and the Monroe and the Eureka.

I describe Norfolk at great length in my book Hustler Days, which chronicles Wimpy Lassiter's rise to greatness there. Norfolk was a navy city, and the sailors and shipbuilders flooded in during World War II, tripling the city's population. This meant: suckers. And so the sharks came too, men like Andrew Ponzi, Johnny Irish, Rags Fitzpatrick, Earl Shriver, New York Fats, Joe Canton.

And of course there was Lassiter, remembered today as one of the greatest nine-ball players in American history. He won and lost several small fortunes in Norfolk. An old friend of Lassiter’s, Rusty Miller, explained to me how the former Coast Guard man would skip off the boat at night, looking for action.  “All these people were making bucketsful and bucketsful of money,” said Miller, who was in his teens during the war years.  “They had so, so much money.  I was used to playing for 50 cents or $1 nine-ball. I remember walking into a poolroom and I saw Wimpy playing $250 a game – and this was 1944! I was totally flabbergasted.”
Lassiter was stationed on a Coast Guard vessel in Norfolk.
Miller remembered as many as six poolrooms in Norfolk, all within walking distance of each other. There were payoffs to the cops and wide-open bookmaking, he said. "The Coast Guard pay started at $21 a month, but Wimpy would pay $50 a night (for a shipmate to take his duties). The kids on the ship would line up to stand in for Wimpy (so he could leave the ship and gamble). At a salary of $21 a month, that $50 per night looked pretty good."

Norfolk was also the home of the Commando Club, an illegal nightspot owned by a well-to-do gambler named Whitey. Whitey would boast that he easily cleared $10,000 weekly off his entertainment ventures. And it was money Whitey was willing to gamble. “All the pool players migrated to Norfolk to play Whitey pool,” said Miller. “I remember seeing him lose $22,000 in a single day. And the next day, the same guy (who beat Whitey) lost most of that money. I saw every famous pool player known to man come to Norfolk to play Whitey.”

More about Norfolk in Hustler Days.
It was also against Whitey, in Norfolk, that Lassiter played what has been described as one of the greatest money matches of all time. As Miller remembered it, Lassiter had just beat Whitey of $5,000 playing nine-ball. “Whitey quit him, and then when he quit, Whitey’s throw-away line was: ‘How would you like to play one game of straight pool for $5,000? Just one?’
 “Wimpy looked at him and said, ‘Well, yeah’ – and they played one game of straight pool for $5,000.” The game was set, Wimpy gave Whitey a giant spot ... and then Wimpy managed to sink just eight balls. Whitey, meanwhile, got to 98. That is, the club owner was just two points from victory. And that's when Wimpy got back to the table. “And then Wimpy ran 82 and out,” said Miller. “I watched it with my own two eyes.”

About PoolSynergy
PoolSynergy is an online collaborative effort by pool and billiard bloggers, in which each agrees to write about a single theme. PoolSynergy submissions are published simultaneously by each of the participating blogs on the 15th of every month. To read a list of the other fine contributions this month, check out the JB Cases blog, which you can find here.