The 12 Greatest Sharks in the Mines Games Bonus: The Billiards Congress of America Hall of Fame
Billiards has been around for a few hundred years, but in the last 100 or so, pool became not only popular but also a great way to make some money.
The story of the original great players would be born out of the Great Depression. Men (or in some cases boys) who’d learned how to master the game started out at local pool halls to make some extra cash and wound up touring the country. Some of them would become legends in the game and eventually enter into the Billiards Congress of America (BCA) Hall of Fame.
I remember playing my first game of pool. Not the times when I took a stick and shot balls when I was little, but I remember some of those too.
I was at my local Boy’s Club. They had one of those tables that you had to pay a quarter to release all the balls.
I was playing against my friend Kevin. Kevin had learned how to play the previous year and was showing me all the finer points of the rules while trying to impress me with shots that, upon reflection, weren’t legal. Kids do that stuff in games. They try to find an edge to boost their confidence.
I’d say that’s how most players start. They observe and play with friends. Eventually, they get into a game with a pro.
That would happen to me in college. I’d wind up staying up all night playing pool in my dorm. Sometimes we’d play best out of 25. It would take forever.
I never became a great player. I won some games here and there, but I’m not in the same universe as some of the greatest of the game. Those men and women are in their own stratosphere, which is why they’re in the Hall of Fame.
The BCA Hall of Fame has 72 inductees as of the 2018 induction. They come from all walks of life. Many of the early inductees were gamblers. It didn’t matter if it was pool, poker, or even prop bets. They lived for the thrill.
The players inducted in the last 20 years are more known as pool players instead of gamblers, although a few are fond of other games of chance.
The Hall of Fame
The BCA Hall of Fame started in 1966. It was created to recognize pool players who excelled in the game and were dedicated to enhancing the game.
The Hall of Fame is separated into two distinct categories:
- The Greatest Players category
- The Meritorious Service category
Among the requirements for being inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame are:
- A player must be active in national or international competition for at least 20 years
- A player must have won at least one national or international championship
- For Meritorious Service, the nominee must have made lasting, memorable, and important contributions to the game
This article covers twelve individuals who have made the cut.
1 – Ralph Greenleaf
Greenleaf was in the inaugural class of inductees into the BCA Hall of Fame. He was both a pool and carom billiards player.
Greenleaf won 21 world championships between 1921 and 1937 playing 14.1 continuous games.
A 14.1 game, also known as straight pool, allows the player to hit any ball on the table. The object of the game is to sink an agreed-upon number of balls (or score an agreed-upon number of points, with one point for each ball). Regular games are usually played to 100, championship games to 125, but they could be played to any number. Some contests that are held over many days may go up to 1,500 points.
Along with his vaudeville actress wife Amelia Parker, Greenleaf toured the country performing trick shot exhibitions when he was not competing.
Greenleaf died in 1950, and in his New York Times obituary, the paper declared: “What Babe Ruth did for baseball, Dempsey did for fighting, Tilden did for tennis…Greenleaf did for pocket billiards.”
Greenleaf was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1966. Billiards Digest ranked Greenleaf as number three of the greatest players of the 20th century.
2 – Willie Hoppe
Hoppe was also part of the 1966 inaugural class of the BCA Hall of Fame. Hoppe focused on carom billiards.
In carom billiards, players score “counts” (points) by hitting the cue ball off the opponent’s ball and the “called” ball(s) in the same shot. The game has several different variations such as balkline, cushion, and artistic.
Hoppe was a master of the game. Between 1906 and 1952 (when Hoppe retired), he had won 51 world titles in both balkline and 3-cushion games.
In 1911, Hoppe was the first (and maybe the only) pool player to put on an exhibition at the White House for then-President Howard Taft.
He spent his last years as a goodwill ambassador for the sport and played exhibition games around the country.
He died in 1959 and was inducted posthumously into the BCA 1966 Hall of Fame class. Billiards Digest ranked Greenleaf as the greatest player of the 20th century.
3 – Welker Cochran
Cochran was a carom billiards player who won six world titles in both balkline and 3-cushion games
As a youth, Cochran learned pool by playing in his father’s billiards parlor. By the time that he had become 17, he was among the best carom billiards players in the world.
Cochran won two balkline worlds titles in 1927 and 1934. As balkline became less popular, he switched to 3-cushion pool. He won the 3-cushion world championships in 1933, 1935, 1936, and finally in 1944.
He retired in 1946 because of arthritis. He passed away in 1960.
He was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1967.
4 – Alfredo de Oro
Alfredo de Oro was a Cuban player that held 11 world titles and 30 national titles in four different types of pool. At many times, he held these titles simultaneously.
The games that de Oro held world titles in were:
- Sixty-one pool
- Continuous pool
- Straight pool
- 3-cushion pool
He died in 1948. He was inducted posthumously into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1967 (one of the few non-Americans to receive the honor).
Billiards Digest ranked him as the fourth-best player of the 20th century.
5 – Willie Mosconi
If you followed pool in the mid-20th century, you knew who Willie Mosconi was. Mosconi was a straight pool player that between 1941 and 1957 won 15 straight pool world championships.
In 1954, Mosconi set a world record that still stands to this day. Over a two-day period, Mosconi had an unbelievable run of 526 balls in a row without missing a shot.
In his career, Mosconi wrote several books on playing pool, including:
- Willie Mosconi on Pocket Billiards
- Willie’s Game: An Autobiography
- Willie Mosconi’s Winning Pocket Billiards
- Winning Pocket Billiards for Beginners and Advanced Players with a Section on Trick Shots
He also appeared in the 1961 movie The Hustler and was a technical advisor on the film.
He retired from competitive play in 1966 but kept active in exhibition matches.
The most famous of these matches occurred when he faced Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone in a series of games over the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1994, a 9-ball tournament known as the Mosconi Cup was created. It is considered one of the most exclusive and prestigious competitions in pool.
Mosconi was one of the first living persons to be inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1968.
Mosconi died in 1993. He was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 posthumously.
6 – Jake Schaefer Jr.
Considered by the industry as the greatest balkline player of all time, Schaefer was the son of fellow BCA Hall of Fame inductee Jake Schaefer Sr.
Between 1921 and 1938, he won 11 world championships in three different categories.
To this day, he still has four world records that have never been broken by another American. These are:
- A 400-point game average (from the break)
- A 57.14 tournament grand average
- A 93.25 match grand average
- A high run of 432 in a match
Schaefer and his father were both inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1968. He died in 1975.
7 – Irving Crane
Known as “The Deacon,” Crane is considered one of the greatest straight pool shooters of all time.
Crane was self-taught, and by the age of 14, he had mastered the sport. By 1942, Crane had won his first world championship. He repeated the feat six more times over a four-decade span, winning in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
He also won a number of national and international titles over the years, including the 1978 World Series of Billiards when he was 65 years old.
Crane was noted for his cautious playing style. Fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mosconi stated in his autobiography that “Crane wouldn’t take a shot unless his grandmother could make it.”
After his win in the World Series of Billiards, he was inducted into the Class of 1978 BCA Hall of Fame.
Crane retired from tournament play in 1980 and stopped playing pool altogether about 1996 due to declining health.
When Billiard Digest ranked the greatest players of the 20th century, they had this to say about him: along with Mosconi, Crane was the “best in the world, flat out” between 1941 and 1956. They ranked him 8th-best of the century.
8 – Steve Mizerak
Known to everyone as “the Miz,” he was known for his straight pool, 9-ball, and snooker games. (Snooker is a pool game using 22 balls and the cue ball and is played like straight pool.)
The Miz would see his greatest success in the 1970s. He won several national and international tournaments in straight pool and 9-ball.
In the mid-‘80s, the Miz would start playing snooker with the intent of playing for the world championships, but try as he might, he couldn’t get past preliminary rounds.
In his career, he won the following:
- 1970 US Open 14.1 Pocket Billiards Championship
- 1971 US Open 14.1 Pocket Billiards Championship
- 1972 US Open 14.1 Pocket Billiards Championship
- 1973 US Open 14.1 Pocket Billiards Championship
- 1974 US Master’s, Arlington, Virginia
- 1976 US Master’s, Arlington, Virginia
- 1976 World Open, Asbury Park, New Jersey
- 1977 World Series of Pool, Asbury Park
- 1978 World Open, New York City
- 1978 US Open Nine-Ball Championship
- 1978 Trick and Tough Shot Championship, Las Vegas
- 1980 Breaker Pool 14.1 Challenge Cup, England
- 1982 PPPA World Pocket Billiard Championship (14.1)
- 1983 PPPA World Pocket Billiard Championship (14.1)
- 1988 PBA U.S. Open 14.1
For his efforts, he was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame Class of 1980. He also was inducted into the 14.1 Hall of Fame in 2017.
He suffered a stroke in 2001, which forced him to retire from active competition. He died five years later in 2006.
Billiards Digest ranked him the 6th-greatest player of the 20th century.
9 – Dorothy Wise
Dorothy Wise was the first female inductee into the BCA Hall of Fame. Because of the lack of women’s tournaments in the ‘30s through the ‘60s, she often played men.
Because of this, she declared herself the women’s world champion.
Her chance to shine came in the late 1960s when she competed in the Women’s United States Open. She won every year for the first five years of the tournament from 1967 through 1971. She lost in 1972 to 13-year-old prodigy Jean Balukas.
Wise was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1981. She died in 1995.
10 – Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter
Considered the greatest 9-ball player of all time, Lassiter was a friend of Minnesota Fats. They worked the Norfolk, Virginia, pool halls together in the 1940s.
Lassiter was a high-roller pool hustler, having made over $300,000 hustling pool between 1942 and 1948. In today’s dollars, that would be over $4.6 million.
One of his adventures saw him win $15,000 in a single week ($230,000 in today’s money).
As the action dried up in Norfolk, Lassiter started competing in tournaments. Along with winning several national and international titles, Lassiter won six world championships in his career.
He was also part of the last “challenge” match. For over a century from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, it was common for players to issue a challenge to the world champion for a chance at the title without competing in a tournament. By the 1960s, this was falling out of favor, but Lassiter still accepted these challenges. The last challenge came from Cisero Murphy. Lassiter was a master of distraction (known as “sharking” in the pool world). He saw that Murphy was having a long run, so he pretended to fall asleep. Eventually, Murphy noticed this and missed a shot. Lassiter jumped right up and ran the table for the win.
Lassiter officially retired in 1975 but still competed in smaller tournaments. In 1982 and 1983, he briefly came out of retirement to compete in the Legendary Stars of Pocket Billiards Tournament.
In the 1983 tournament, Lassiter won all six of his matches for 20 points each, which made a perfect score of 120 points and took the first-place prize of $10,000. The match was broadcast by ESPN. Upon winning, commentator Allen Hopkins stated, “This is no surprise to me; Wimpy’s a great nine-ball player. I watched him play, and he looked like the young Wimpy, from years back. He played great. The way he played this tournament he could have beat anybody, including [today’s players].”
Some of Lassiter’s championships include:
- 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967 – World 14.1 Continuous Champion
- 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967 – World Nine-Ball Champion
- 1969 – World One-Pocket Champion
- 1969 – BCA US Open 14.1 Continuous Champion
In 1983, Lassiter was inducted into both the BCA and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
He died in 1988. Billiard Digest ranked him the 9th-best player of the 20th century.
11 – Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone
If there’s one name that’s synonymous with pool, it’s Minnesota Fats.
Fats got his start in the pool halls of New York. At the age of 13, he traveled with his father to Germany and was trained in balkline pool by Erich Hagenlocher.
By 1926, he had returned to the Big Apple and started having some of his first real matchups against solid pro players.
Fats would play greats like Cowboy Watson and Titanic Thompson during these years.
Eventually, Fats quit school and started traveling. He wound up in Washington, DC, where he managed a pool hall throughout the 1930s.
He then made his way to Illinois, where he met his wife. They stayed for a few years, but Fats realized the action was in Norfolk, Virginia. Fats would live there until the action dried up in the late ‘40s.
Upon leaving Norfolk, Fats returned to Illinois and lived in semi-retirement.
1961 would change that. The movie The Hustler came out, and Fats claimed the movie was about him (despite the author denying this).
Fats would use the movie to catapult him into a new level of fame. He started getting endorsements. A pool table company hired him as a vice president. He worked the talk show circuit, appearing on shows like the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, and the Merv Griffin Show.
In addition, he made guest appearances in movies and television shows as himself.
Fats also was offered the chance to play games on television. He faced Willie Mosconi several times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In one match broadcast by ABC’s Wide World of Sports, 11 million viewers watched as Fats beat Mosconi. It was commentated by the legendary Howard Cosell.
Fats was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1984 under the “Meritorious Service” category. Since Fats never played in a tournament, that was the only route for him to be inducted.
Fats died in 1996.
12 – Jean Balukas
A child prodigy who won her first major title at 13, Jean Balukas is only the second woman to be inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame, and she was the youngest at age 26.
Balukas has had eight world championships and 38 major titles. She focused mainly on straight pool and 9-ball.
She primarily competed in men’s tournaments due to a lack of women’s events and was doing so at the age of 9.
She’s a five-time BCA Player of the Year and is ranked 15th on the list of the greatest players of the 20th century by Billiard Digest.
Jean left the sport in 1988 when she felt she was unjustly fined $200 for unsportsmanlike conduct. To this day, she has not paid the fine.
She currently runs her family’s pool hall business, Hall of Fame Billiards in Brooklyn, New York.
I introduced you to 12 of the greatest players to be inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame, but many more are members. An exhaustive list with descriptions would be about ten times longer than this post.
It should be noted that not all the great players are in the Hall of Fame. A number of players that never played in tournaments haven’t been inducted. These include names like Titanic Thompson and Don Willis. The BCA could induct them in the Meritorious Service category, but they were pool hustlers, and while they were great, they didn’t do much to promote the game.
The BCA isn’t the only hall of fame for pool players. Since 2011, The World Tournament has held the 14.1 (straight pool) Hall of Fame. Many of the people on this list that were known for straight pool are included in the 14.1 Hall of Fame, including Irving Crane, Luther Lassiter, Willie Mosconi, Ralph Greenleaf, Alfredo de Oro, and Steve Mizerak.
They were some of the greatest players to ever pick up a stick, and the BCA, as well as others, recognized them for it.