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Taking Cues From the Champ

June 15, 1989|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

If Tony Ramos was going to face the champ, he figured he might as well do it right.

So, the La Puente electrical technician went out and bought a new pool cue and a new set of shiny balls and had his billiard table at home clothed with a new layer of green felt.

But even after weeks of practice, Ramos, 46, was no match. When he finally got to show his stuff last Sunday, he sank just one ball and then missed. You never give the champ a break.

Because the champ is Willie Mosconi--15-time world title holder, member of the Billiards Hall of Fame, Mr. Pool, the good-will ambassador of the game. At 75, with thinning white hair, a dapper gray suit and matching hankie, Mosconi has seen this all before.

The jowly author of "Winning Pocket Billiards" chalked up his custom-made cue and nailed his next eight shots . . . clack clack clack . . . like firing BBs at a row of tin cans.

"He's the best there is and ever was," Ramos said later. "I just wanted to say I played him."

So it went at the Billiards & Bar Stools showroom in West Covina, where two dozen amateur challengers laid down $25 for the honor of getting mopped up by Mosconi, receive an autographed photo and be handed a certificate saying they faced the champ over a game of nine-ball.

The exhibition, which benefited the wheelchair sports program run by Casa Colina Hospital in Pomona, drew more than 150 spectators to a large canopy set up in the parking lot, where Mosconi gracefully fielded opponents and performed trick shots for nearly three hours.

"He's the Joe DiMaggio of pool," said another unsuccessful challenger, Gene Bohlender, 55, of Downey, comparing Mosconi to the smooth-as-silk former New York Yankee. "He's super class . . . a credit to the game."

Mosconi, who in recent years has settled into retirement in New Jersey, takes such exhibitions in stride.

It's part business: He was flown out by World of Leisure, the Covina-based billiard-table manufacturer, which shuffled him around to five Southern California salesrooms.

And it's part show: Mosconi knows these appearances are good for billiards, a game to which he has helped bring respectability after years of being considered merely a seedy backdrop to other vices.

"I was never a shark," Mosconi said between matches. "And sharks . . . they steer clear of me. I kind of think I was one of the ones who took the bad name away from this game."

2-Decade Run

If nothing else, Mosconi, for about two decades, was the best pool player on Earth. Between 1941 and 1957, he won the world title a record 15 times. One night in 1954, at a Springfield, Ohio, exhibition, he sank an extraordinary 526 consecutive balls without a miss.

The son of a Philadelphia pool hall owner, Mosconi as a child was forbidden to have anything to do with billiards, and his father locked up the balls and cues at night just to be sure.

But Mosconi practiced secretly, using a broomstick and round potatoes while he perched over the table on an old apple crate. When his talent was discovered, his father entered him in a match at Philadelphia's National Billiard Academy, where Willie, just 6 years old, sunk 40 straight balls in the first round.

"The trick is not who can make the hardest shots," Mosconi said at the West Covina shop. "You have to set yourself up. The winner is the guy who can get through the table the easiest."

Nothing came easy last Sunday for George Shiuan, 41, a San Marino insurance agent, who won only a few chuckles when he sent the 8-ball flying off the table.

"I never tried to beat him," Shiuan said. "If I beat him, I am good. And I don't think I am so good."

Visibly Nervous

Eddie Freeman, 33, who also tried his hand at Mosconi, came a bit closer. Visibly nervous, repeatedly puffing out his cheeks and stroking his cue, Freeman had been sinking the balls, according to the game rules, in numerical order, one after another.

But on his final shot, a routine stroke of the yellow 9-ball into the corner pocket, he missed. Mosconi sunk the ball with a grin and offered Freeman a friendly pat on the back.

"Pool's a psychological game," said Freeman, a lumber hauler from Rowland Heights. "I should have just taken my time. . . . But Willie was a real gentleman about it. I liked his manner."

A few times Mosconi was downright generous. If he saw that his opponent was a novice, he would deliberately miss a shot or even point out the proper angle where the ball should be hit.

Denise Eaker of Covina, a 30-year-old computer graphics specialist, was on the receiving end of one of Mosconi's intentional flubs. She chalked up and confidently sunk the last four balls on the table.

"He gave me a chance," she said. "So I took it."

Just what the champ would have done.

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