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Minnesota Fats: Was He Overrated, or a Great Pool Player and Hustler?

Was Minnesota Fats vastly overrated, or was he one of the greatest hustlers and pool players of all times? Was he a player, or just a big talker?

Mark Twain, Was Minnesota Fats Overrated?, A Brief History of Billiards, Pool/Billiards Record High Runs, The Sexiest Sharks, Johnston City Sharks, Nashville Sharks, Dick Hunzicker, "Saint Louie" Louie Roberts, Earl "The Pearl" Strickland, Who was the best nine-ball player?



To hear Rudolf Walter Wanderone tell it, he sailed around the world six times, survived two shipwrecks, had sex with harem girls, laid Fatima and then 20 years later her daughter, was forced to perform fellatio at gunpoint by a pistol-packing beauty, beat Hitler at pool, and hobnobbed with kings, queens, Clark Gable, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Arnold Rothstein, Damon Runyon and Al Capone. Ironically, one of the few places he never ended up in all his wanderings was Minnesota! Where reality ends and myth takes flight, no one knows, but there is one thing we know beyond the shadow of a doubt: the man who claimed to be Minnesota Fats only after the movie The Hustler introduced the fictional character in 1961, was always wildly entertaining. For instance, Richie Florence once spotted Minnesota Fats 8-7 playing one pocket and ended up losing $52,000. In a published interview years later, Florence said that Fats was so funny, he was belly laughing the whole time. Talk about expensive entertainment! As for Fats bragging about his sexual exploits, Etta James claimed to be his illegitimate daughter ...



He beat everybody living on Earth. Now, St. Peter, rack 'em up. ó Theresa Bell Wanderone, Mrs. Fats

Rudolph Luther Wanderone Jr., was a man of many names: "Minnesota Fats," "New York Fats," "Brooklyn Fats," "Broadway Fats," "Chicago Fats," "Fats," "Fatty," "The Fat Man," "The Fat One", "Double Smart Fats," "Triple Smart Fats," "Rudy," "The Bank Shot Bandit," "The Dean of the Green" and "The Sultan of Stroke." Although he never won a world championship, or even a major tournament, Wanderone was pool's top orator, comic and publicist. (Some might say its biggest "loudmouth." Willie Mosconi wore ear plugs when playing Fats, to avoid the distraction of his incessant palaver.)

If Cornbread Red ever plays me, he'll be known as "No Bread Red." ó Minnesota Fats

Fats once toured the country in a colorful Lincoln limousine with his elongated nickname painted on the side panels in a translucent paint that changed colors as it reflected the sun: "Minnesota Fats, King of Pool." When someone suggested that he was the uncrowned king of pool because he didn't win tournaments, Fats responded: "You judge a king by the size of his wallet and his palace. You can leave the crown in the toilet."

Iím the greatest pool player that ever lived, bar none. ó Minnesota Fats

As Muhammad Ali once pointed out, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." One of the most-debated things about pool is whether Minnesota was all talk, or whether he could really play. I think the answer is that he was all talk and he could really play, although he wasn't a player of the highest rank because he was spotted balls by world champions like Ronnie Allen, Eddie Taylor and Richie Florence. But with his ability to talk and hustle, Fats probably made more money from shooting pool than just about anyone else on the planet. Here is what people "in the know" have said about the Fat Man:

According to one of the very players of that era, Marshall "Tuscaloosa Squirrel" Carpenter, "Fats was a very streaky player. When Fatty got on a roll he could beat anyone. His best game was three cushion, then banks, and then one pocket." Since most of the games Fats played for big money were in his third-best specialty, one pocket, that makes his accomplishments even more impressive.

Here's another account, which I believe has been confirmed by Weenie Beenie himself: "The day after Bill 'Weenie Beanie' Staton won the 1972 Stardust Open, Fats beat him so badly playing even up that Beanie couldnít breathe. Staton was in dead stroke when the match started, having just defeated the top one pocket players in the world, but that didnít save him from a brutal beating. Fats ran the last three racks, eight and out, to finish the session and Beanie could barely stand up. At an age when most elite players can no longer win in professional competition, Fatty was still depriving top players of their bankrolls." [It goes without saying that short stops and B players don't run three racks of one pocket.]

Here are excerpts from the personal memories of Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna: "Surfing Internet pool forums I came across a string of posts saying that Minnesota Fats (Rudolph Wonderone aka New York Fats) was a 'B' player. For many years stories have gone around claiming that Fatty couldnít beat his way out of a wet paper bag. However, such fanciful rumors do not conform to my memories of seeing the Fatman in action in Johnston City in the early 60s. Fatty put Squirrel [Marshall Carpenter] in the ditch by running three racks of one pocket in a row. Tell me how a 'B' player can run three consecutive racks of one pocket? People who demean Fats never played him and probably never saw him play for big bucks. Fats had enough speed to finish fourth in the World One Pocket Tournament in 1961. Considering the field and the fact that Fats was almost 50 years old at the time, this was quite an accomplishment. Despite an abundance of top players in attendance in Johnston City, no one treated him like a 'B' player. Even the best players were wary about matching up with the Fatman. Fats was dangerous and everyone there knew it ... Fatty was the most energetic fat man I ever saw. He moved like a ballet dancer pirouetting from shot to shot. He floated around the table like a ballroom dancer, light as a feather, firing in ball after ball. Onlookers were often deceived by Fats' babble, which was designed to lure players who should never play him into big money games. To casual observers, Fats' boasting, bragging and tall tale telling were amusing, but more serious analysts recognized a deeper, more insidious aspect of his chattering. After convincing victims to get down for some serious cash, Fattyís talk turned to undermining opposition confidence. What seemed entertaining at first took on a sinister tone that eroded self-assurance. On top of the words, Fats dismayed opponents by running rack after rack. The fact that so many people think that Fats couldnít play may be a tribute to his ability as a con man or maybe the Fatman fooled people because of the erroneous notion that fat people are congenitally incompetent. The Minnesota Fats was one of my heroes and I miss him."

 

Sonny Springer with Minnesota Fats

Here's what Sonny Springer has said in interviews: "I know Fats ó seems like this was in Atlanta, Georgia ó it was down to the quarterfinals and Fats and I were playing, and the Mayor had brought his friends there to see Fats play. I was playing Fats ó this was One Pocket ó and I had Fats beat. I had him beat, but I missed a ball and that rascal made three fantastic banks on me to beat me. Anyway, I'll never forget it because the Mayor gave us a 'key to the city.' ... Fats was a great player; a lot of people knocked him, but boy, I never did knock him. He did a lot for pool, and boy he played that One Pocket, he played it jam up. He and Weenie Beenie ó they played a lot alike. They didn't play too much safe, like Clem [Eugene Metz] did. Clem always used to make the remark that he'd 'stick all those hurricane players in the ... shit house.' He was at that time considered the best in the world ... When Beenie and Fats would match up together, if there was a long rail bank they didn't worry about where the cue ball would end up, they just knew they were going to make that bank, and they just banked that bastard right on back into their pocket and went on to the next shot. There wasn't any safe playing just because it was a little tough bank."

Note: In another interview Sonny Springer said that when Clem Metz used the term "hurricane players," he meant power one pocket players like Ronnie Allen who, rather than playing traditional safeties, would take risks to move "half the rack" to their advantage on a single shot. I once watched a road player called the Bus Driver move nearly an entire rack to his side of the table on a single shot. That shot came from the Ronnie Allen school of ultra-aggressive one pocket. And of course it put "the fear of God" in his opponent. (Or at least the fear of a pool demigod.)

Excerpts from an article by "Fast" Larry Guninger: "I have been hearing for years that Fats could not play. Those writing these things were not even around when he did play his best pool. They saw him on TV in the 80ís as an old man way over the hill and yes, then, he could barely run three balls. So they assumed that was the way he always played which was not true. He was not put in the BCA hall of fame for doing nothing. During that same period we would see Louis Armstrong on TV trying to play the trumpet. He could not play a lick. He would go toot toot a couple of times and then sing. He blew his lip out years earlier and was over the hill like Fats. He no longer had to play as he was then a legend. All he had to do was show up. It was the same with Fats. I went to one of his shows in the late 80ís and he walks in with his cue, tells jokes for 20 minutes, has the room in stitches, opens his case, tells jokes for another 20 minutes, takes the cue out, screws it together, tells jokes for another 20 minutes, breaks the cue down and leaves. Everyone was happy and had a great time. I was the only one who said, wait a minute, the guy never hit a ball? It no longer mattered, he was now an entertainer, and no longer a player. Could Fatty play? Yes he could, I was there, I saw it. I saw him play from the 40ís to the 60ís, when he shot a good stick. When he began entertaining in the mid 60ís full time and no longer gambled for a living, his game tanked. The same thing happened to me as well. His prime was in the 20ís ... In the 30ís, 40ís, 50ís he was one of the best one pocket and bank pool players ever. He was not a great tournament player and only entered a few when young and did not do well at them.  He was a roadie, a gambler and at that profession he was one of the best of all time. As a pool entertainer, he was the best of all time. I first saw him playing at Kling and Allenís in KCMO in the late 40ís and 50ís. It was one of the top five great legendary rooms in the country and all the great hustlers came through to play at least once or twice a year ...  He was called New York Fats, or Rudy, or Fatty. He used to call himself double smart fats, then he changed it to triple smart ... When he moved to Chicago he began calling himself Chicago Fats. By the mid 60ís he had moved close to Johnson City, Ill. and hustlers in Chicago made swings down into KCMO and over to St Louis all the time. Having Fatty living within a day's drive of me for decades meant I saw him play a lot. When I would hear he was in town, I would go to where he was working, which was not easy as he moved around a lot. It could be 30th and Troost, or Millerís downtown, or a hot bar on 46th street. Where there were marks, suckers and pigeons, you found Fatty plucking them. I just watched the guy hustle and play ... The Hustler movie came on in 1961, and by '62 he was running around telling everyone Minnesota Fats was him. Everyone believed him ... When he would come to town I would always go see him. I loved the guy; he never cursed, was always polite, did not smoke, do drugs, he drank milk. He taught me to be a locksmith: to ask for the moon and not play unless you have the nuts and a Hungarian mortal lock. If you see a bum you can beat drunk and give him the snap and the seven, do not gamble until you con him to give you the snap and the seven; then, you never lose. Fatty was never the best player, but he was good enough. What he was, was what he said he was, triple smart. Nobody had more experience and street smarts than him. He was simply the greatest pool hustler and gambler of all time. Nobody ever matched up better than him, and that is what he taught me it was all about. He would go to sleep early and rest, then wake up and walk into a big time room around 1:30am and begin playing the boys around two or three, when they were exhausted, drunk or half-stoned on speed. He beat people then, that he could not have beaten during the day when they were straight. He just outsmarted most of them ... [For instance, after Fats won most of the money in the first year of the famous Johnston City gambling, the next year] the young turk Richey Florence is beating everyone. Soon he has the biggest carbuncle in da joint. He has both socks loaded and over 25K to play with, [in] todayís money, 150K ... Fatty sits back and lets the kid wear himself out playing. He then hires and brings in from Chicago one of the top call girls in the business. He plants her at the bar and her cover is her boyfriend busted out and left her high and dry. It does not take long for Richie to find her and she does her job well. She gets him drunk, [use your imagination] ... When he comes to, he walks in the joint looking like something the cat dragged in, head on fire, cotton-mouthed, looking like warmed over death, and who jumps on him? Fatty of course and cleans the kid out and busts him flat. Few hustlers have ever made 100K scores. So here is two years of Johnston City action and Fatty taking down most of the cash and the man is in his 50ís. So for those of you who now are running around saying the man could not play, allow me to now tell you, ding dong, that you donít know shit. Could Fatty beat the kid if he had not drugged him, hell no, but that is the point, he outsmarted him and nobody made the kid play. It was almost a replay of the hustler movie, Richie, Fast Eddy getting drunk, and the wise, smart Minnesota Fats, who could not beat the kid, ending up with all his money ... Titanic Thompson acknowledged once losing $10,000 to Fats during an ill-advised pool game in which Fats played pool one-handed! In today's money that was a 60K hit. So you figure it out, the top con and hustler of his era, would be the hardest to take down, and who did it? Fatty. Who won all the money in the 63-64 Jansco events while in his 50ís? Fatty, so never say the guy could not play. Here is your evidence, he could and did. This was the hustlers' world, its championship, and any way to win, was cool. Just following Fatty around and listening to his mouth run nonstop was too cool. God how I miss, that ole fat man."

Minnesota Fats Quotes, or, "It ain't over till the Fat Man zings" ...

A pool player in a tuxedo is like whipped cream on a hot dog. ó Minnesota Fats

My crib was a pool table.  ó Minnesota Fats

Money is the root of all good. ó Minnesota Fats

I'm the laziest guy in the world.  ó Minnesota Fats

Iím crazy about every living creature. It doesnít matter what it happens to be. I even love insects;  in fact, I wouldnít swat a fly or a mosquito for a whole barrel of gold. One time I drove all the way from Mobile, Alabama to Dowell and it was the summertime and my car was loaded with a zillion mosquitoes, but they didnít even bite me. It was unbelievable because if you happened to drive from Mobile to Dowell with a carload of pool hustlers, you would get bit so hard and so often that you would need a malaria vaccine and a new bankroll as well. ó Minnesota Fats

The way I see it, human beings could learn an awful lot from lesser creatures like cats, dogs, and even crocodiles. ó Minnesota Fats 

I know three, maybe four, people in the world that can shoot and drink. No more. ó Minnesota Fats, explaining why he drank milk rather than alcohol

Mark Twain, Was Minnesota Fats Overrated?, A Brief History of Billiards, Pool/Billiards Record High Runs, The Sexiest Sharks, Johnston City Sharks, Nashville Sharks, Dick Hunzicker, "Saint Louie" Louie Roberts, Earl "The Pearl" Strickland, Who was the best nine-ball player?

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