Sunday, April 2, 2017

St. Elmo: Favorite Haunt of Wimpy Lassiter

This photo of the St. Elmo pool hall in Norfolk, Virginia. It was the favorite haunt of the world famous Wimpy Lassiter and also was featured in the book, Hustler Days, which is available from online retailers. It was taken by photographer Harry C. Mann and is available under common licensing from the Library of Virginia.

You also can learn more about the pool hall and Lassiter in the book, Hustler Days, which is available online.

Former sailor John Pizzuto was a St. Elmo's regular during the late 1960s. He sends us this brief recollection of his time there.

"Most of the players had a nickname, mine was Sailorboy. I kept Sam Bass in beer money Saturday afternoons, getting straight pool "lessons" from him. Carolina kept my cue behind the bar when we were out to sea. I played golf and straight pool with Old Red. He was pretty old and towards the end of my time there, he didn't come in very often. At the time he seemed like he was in his 70s. Some of the other regulars were Cab Driver, Onion Head Red and a pretty good player named Cash McCall. He ran a bartending school. 

One Saturday afternoon, I was practicing alone. One of the regulars egged me into asking "that old man in the chair" to play some nine ball. I walked over and asked, but he politely declined. I awkwardly offered him a spot. He shook his head. As I walked back to my table, the regulars all started laughing, asking me if I knew who that was. By then, I figured it must be Wimpy. I had heard he came in from time to time, but I had never seen him. I walked back over to where he was sitting and offered my hand in apology. He shook it with his left."

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 to describe what has been described as one of the greatest pool towns ever.

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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The History of High Rolling

Lassiter & Fats: Big Bets in Today's Dollars

9-ball genius Luther Lassiter
This is what Luther Lassiter said about Norfolk, Virginia, back in the 1940s: "Greatest pool town that's ever been. You had five or six people there who were really gambling. People had lots of cash, and players from all over the country -- anybody that played for money at all -- came to Norfolk."

Lassiter was a prince among the Norfolk hustlers during his World War II Coast Guard years. During one particularly memorable  straight pool match-up Wimpy took $5,000 from a club owner. You can read all about it in Hustler Days.

The size of that $5,000 wager -- and the heart Lassiter needed to win it -- got me to thinking. That amount of money is a lot, even today.  After all, many of the regional tournaments even now pay less for first place. Shane Van Boening  also recently won $10,000 from Mika Immonen, but it took him three days to do it. But Lassiter won his money during a single game in the 1940s. During those years $5,000 was a king's ransom.

You can find various inflation calculators on the Internet. Here's a link to one. It's from the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics. So how much is $5,000, wagered in 1946, valued in today's dollars? According to the inflation calculator: $61,000! During a 100-point game of straight pool Lassiter's opponent was within just two balls of taking the cash. That's when Lassiter ran 92 and out. Talk about heart.

There are other references to historic wagers. For instance, Minnesota Fats won about $20,000 from Richie Florence and two others in Johnston City, back in 1971. You can read about that encounter in The Hustler & the Champ. How much would $20,000 be valued today? More than $117,000, according to the  inflation calculator. However, unlike Lassiter's score, it took Fats a couple of weeks to win all that money.

I've also came across a reference to a $250 wager between Alfredo De Oro and Charles Otis back in 1916. It was a private bet between the two players before their championship billiards match held in Havana, Cuba. In today's dollars, the wager would have amounted to more than $5,000. De Oro, then considered the greatest player ever, was said to have put up his own money. Otis was staked.

Have a story about a particularly memorable wager from yesteryear? Send me the details, and we'll plug it into the inflation calculator.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wimpy Lassiter's World War II records

Wimpy Lassiter spent most of World War II on one of three Coast Guard cutters, all of which operated just off Norfolk. The Navy subsumed the Coast Guard during the war, and the cutters were tasked with picking men from the burning wreckage of German u-boat attacks. But by all accounts, Lassiter made for a terrible sailor. Eyewitnesses tell us that he was sick most of the time. Lassiter himself told a friend that he he wanted to crawl off and die because of the motion sickness.

While researching Hustler Days I reviewed Lassiter's military records and put together a time line. I've reproduced it below. You might come across a few of my typos here and there because this is pretty much how the time line appeared in my raw, unedited notes. I find the entry for May 8, 1943 particularly instructive. The military records for that day indicate that Wimpy neither desired a job, nor had requested to attend a service school. This shouldn't come as a surprise, as Wimpy already was making himself rich in Norfolk. He was said to have amassed several hundred thousand dollars in pool winnings in the  pool halls during these years -- and remember, this was the 1940s. Under such circumstances, why would he want to attend a service school?

Lassiter would go on to win eight major 14.1 titles during the 1960s -- and that's not counting his four straight pool victories at Johnston City. He also picked up five nine ball championships in Johnston City, a Johnston City one-pocket victory, and he won the Johnston City all-around championship five times.

I've also posted this time line of his early years in my separate Wimpy Lassiter blog. You can find it here.

Total time in Service: Three years, 10 months, and 7 days.
Spent time aboard vessels:  CG 83511, CG 74307, CG 74306

September 1934 - Dec. 14, 1937
Attended high school. In letter by Edgar E. Bundy, Superintendent of Schools to recruiting board, Wimpy was said to have left school for work.

Employed by J.C. Connery, Burgess Street, Grocer man (according to Coast Guard application), drinks intoxicating liquors on ``rare occasion,’’ never convicted of crime.

April 2, 1941
Walks into recruiting station, Norfolk, to sign up. Signs special temporary enlistment contract.
Employment was shown as clerk; enlisted or three years; described as 22 years old, 5’10’’, weighing 136.5, with blue eyes, black hair, fair complexion,

April 22, 1941
Receives physical examination that reports:
20-20 vision, not color blind, hearing normal, height 70 inches, weight 136.5 pounds, chest (exhale) 34; (inhale) 31
pulse before exercise 84, after exercise 100, after three minutes 84.
Tonsillectomy, 1931.
Age 22 years, 6 months.

April 25, 1941
A form he fills out shows no experience in any trade.

May 1, 1941
Accepted for service in Norfolk, VA
Receives clothing bounty pay of $112.75
Immediately transferred (at 2:30 p.m. that day) to Curtis Bay, Maryland for training.

May 1, 1941
In designation of Beneficiaries for Death Gratuity, names mom, Florence L. Lassiter as beneficiary. No mention of dad. Signed by recruiting officer.

Aug. 12, 1941
Requests transfer to Elizabeth City, where Wimpy understands vacancies exist in Seaman branch.

Aug. 27, 1941
Transfer denied.

Sept. 1, 1941
Advance from rating from Seaman to Seaman second class.

Dec. 2, 1941 (1730)
Depart for temporary duty, course of instruction at the Internal Combustion Engine School, Norfolk, upon completion report to the senior Coast Guard officer, Fifth Naval District, for assignment.

Dec. 3, 1941-Feb. 14, 1942
Class assembles. Names of classmates listed in records.
special qualifications record shows:
``Norfolk training station, 2-14-42, completed operators’ course in Internal Combustion Engines, with a final mark of 76.3 or 3.1, 43rd in a class of 45 men.’’

Dec. 6, 1941
World War II begins.

Feb. 21, 1942
Transfer to CG-140 (There is some uncertainty on this entry)

Nov. 17, 1942
Also shows him aboard CG 73406

March 21, 1942-Nov. 20, 1944
transfer to CG 74306

June 8, 1942
Raises in rank to Ffc (something first class -- uncertainty on this entry)

March 15, 1942
landing party boat training, New River, N.C..

Nov. 17, 1942
promoted to machinist mate second class

May 31, 43
Becomes machinist mate first class

July 31 1943
Trains on Camp Glen Rifle Range, receives expert rifleman’s medal on 14 Aug. 1943.

April 30, 1944
Enlistment involuntarily extended for the duration of war, plus six months.
Vessel Designation: CG 74307, at CG base: 05-013

May 1, 1944
Enlistment involuntarily extended for duration of war, plus six months.

May 8, 1943
Coast Guard Enlisted Qualification Card Shows:
7 years grammar school, ending in 1931; three years High School, ending in 1934 (which means six years of playing pool before the service)
And Grades of 80 in social studies, 66 in Arithmetic, and 79 in Mechanical aptitude. Shows no service schools qualified for, and no service schools desired. Weight then: 158 pounds. Main occupation: no jobs.
Says:``No jobs, no service schools desired.’’

Nov. 7, 1944 (1145) -Nov. 24, 1944
Received inpatient treatment for Pyelonephritis
Vessel designation CG-74306

Nov. 20, 1944-Nov. 29, 44
Aboard CG 74306

Nov. 29, 1944 through Sept. 12, 1945
stationed aboard CG 74307

Sept. 12, 1945
On leave, from vessel CG 74307

Sept 16, 1945
Transferred to CG 83511 for duty, CG Patrol Base, Municipal Pier, Norfolk, VA; apparently from CG 74307

Oct. 1, 1945
Letter from J.I. Crews states:
``Lassiter ... has completed a continuous period of three years’ active service on 4 April, 1944, with no mark in conduct of less than 4.0. Accordingly, appropriate entry has been made of the service record and above named man has been authorized to wear appropriate (ribbon) in lieu of issue of actual award at this time.’’

Oct. 10, 1945
1300 hours
Letter addressed to Wimpy in Norfolk, Virginia says,
``Proceed to: Portsmouth, Virginia,
CO.CG Personnel Separation Center, No. 5, Crawford Street
Discharge from the Coast Guard on Draft No. Nornor-56.’’

October 11, 1945
Discharge papers show that he weighs 161 pounds. Apparently gained 25 pounds in the service (up from 136.5 pounds)

October 12, 1945
Discharged in service

-- R.A. Dyer

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pool Synergy 10: Don "Cincinnati Kid" Willis

The two out-of-towners are relatively short men, in their thirties, the unfortunate age when the paunch begins to show. Neither carries a pool cue. They've appeared unannounced and unexpected in a back-water pool room, which they immediately size up.  Who in here has some gamble to them?  They get a table. They rack for nine-ball. They start shooting.

"Remember how I beat that boy down in Nixonton," says one, a bit over loudly.  He makes his shot, but it wobbles in. "Kid never had a chance." He blasts in another ball, but the shape is awful. "Look at that," he says, admiring his own game. "Ever seen anything like it?" He keeps shooting, keeps boasting. He makes some balls and he misses some. He plays passable pool. Not great pool, but passable pool.  And yet he keeps on. The boasts keep getting bigger. Louder. Remember this? Remember that?

And then here it comes. Here it comes. He looks over to the local boy at the next table.  Hell, I bet I can even beat this guy right here, he says. Hey buddy you wanna play?

Maybe the local says yes and maybe he says no. Maybe he has these strangers pegged as hustlers, or maybe he has them pegged as hapless and helpless braggarts.  It doesn't really matter. This is how it starts: A few games a passable pool, a few boasts, some loud taunts. And then the trap is sprung. In less time than one might expect the challenge is met. Some hot shot local will approach the strangers or someone will call in a ringer from the pay phone. Hurry down. Bring your stick. When the hustle works just right, when the know-nothings are loud enough and the locals are sufficiently irritated, whoever steps up will have some gamble to him.

And then it's all over.

This is the Big Hurrah hustle, performed regularly over several years by Wimpy Lassiter and his road partner Don Willis. That's a picture of Willis at the upper left and Lassiter at the right. The task we've been assigned for this month's Pool Synergy edition is to write about a pool player's support network.  As this blog is devoted to pool history I've decided to devote my essay to Don Willis, Lassiter's long-time wing man.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Memories of Norfolk and WImpy Lassiter

In my continuing spring cleaning efforts, I'm transferring some posts from an old blog that I'm about to discontinue. Here's one from a few years back featuring a letter from Ken McCarthy, who recalls fondly his years in Norfolk, Virginia, a favored haunt of Wimpy Lassiter. Lassiter was a giant there in the 1940s, during and right after World War II. I've got a fair amount written about Wimpy's exploits in Norfolk in Hustler Days. I also wrote an article about Norfolk a few years back in Billiards Digest. Although the formatting is screwed up, an online copy of that article can be found here.

Just below are two notes from Ken McCarthy. According to my records, he sent them to me sometime
before 2006. And just below these notes from Mr. McCarthy I've reproduced some other online memories of Norfolk....

Read on...

"When I was in the navy (1961-1965) I was stationed in Norfolk ,VA and played pool every minute I had at St. Elmos pool hall (2nd floor, a few buildings up from the YMCA). As you know this is where Wimpy played when in town, and it is where I saw him ( I still have a perfect vision of that white head standing out in the dimness along the left wall watching the goings-on). I was just starting to play pool and my friend pointed him out to me as a great player, although at the time I really didn't realize HOW great a player.

"In 1963 or 64 I bought a Willie Hoppe special (Brunswick) cue through the owner (a kindly, short, bald-headed man). I then sanded off a section on the top of the butt, bought a Parker ink pen and asked Mr. Lassiter to sign it. He did, and I still have the cue and the pen. I have recently picked up the game again and I now know that he was actually at the top of his game when he signed my cue!"

I wrote Ken back later, asking him if he had any photos of the St. Elmos to post up here on the Untold Stories website. I also asked if he had ran into other players like Fats at the pool hall. This is his response:

"I do not have any pictures of St. Elmo's even though at the time I was an amateur photographer and my ships official photographer. In 1963 there was no such thing as a family billiard parlor. This was an old time pool hall where you keep your mouth shut and pay up when you lose. I think you can imagine that taking pictures in an establishment like that may have made one "un-popular" with some of the notoriety. But now I sure wished I had.

No, I never run into Fats or Willie. I did meet Art Cranfield once simply because he was from Syracuse, my home town.

So I'm sorry to say that the only thing I can give you are my memories of St. Elmo's and a vivid picture of that white mane sitting along the side wall watching the players.

My good friend at the time, and the guy who started me in pool, played Luther once for five bucks -- a lot of money for a sailor in 1963. Fred broke and nothing went. The one ball lay down by the corner pocket and the nine up by the side. Luther stepped up, pocketed the one, came back up the table with the cue ball and knocked the nine in the side pocket. He turns to Fred and says 'My gosh, what luck. Let's play another.' Fred declined.

If there is anything else please let me know. I would be delighted to see any pictures of that venerable palace of pool if you run across any in your research.



And now, here are a few notes I received on the same topic:
Brian the Bricklayer said...
"I have lived in Virginia Beach my entire life and you have brought back some fond memories for me about St. Elmo's. I was fortunate enough to have gotten one of those cherry wood grained tables when SE closed and I went to the auction. Unfortunately that table went up in a fire a couple years ago. In Lassiters last few years I was lucky enough to have met and talked to him quite a bit. He was full of stories very colorful stories of his life. He told me about when he won the US Open in 64 and going AWOL from Navy by jumping off the ship he was assigned to.
He died like he lived. Playing pool in Elizebeth City practicing the game he loved. What a character"
Anonymous said...
"I grew up in Ocean View and remember St.Elmo's as the old time pool hall it was. Like Brian I was also fortunate enough to aquire a table at the auction. Sorry to hear Brians pice of history went up in smoke."
And Foodbill said...
"I played there from august 66 to August 68. I was a Dental Tech at N.O.B and spent a lot of time at St Elmo's. I went there on the last night of my tour of duty at Norfolk and ran 49 balls in a straight pool match. I too wished l took some pictures. Last year l was looking through Ebay and won a bid on an old cue ball that was used at the pool hall before it was sold in 1970. I was telling a young pro in Conn. about that place all the money you could win or lose in those days. The owner back then was Carolina Witfield,his son worked there too. Does anyone remember Big Red? He love to play golf pool."

-- R.A. Dyer

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wimpy Lassiter & Boston Shorty in Johnston City

Here's another great video of Wimpy Lassiter and Boston Shorty playing one-pocket in Johnston City, Illinois. It's from ABC's Wide World of Sports. Lassiter won everything there was to win at Johnston City. You can read more about the famous tournaments an the newly renamed Johnston City Hustler Tournament blog. (It was formerly the George Jansco blog. Same content. Just more stuff.) That's a picture of Shorty, on the left, with fan Ross Parker Simons in 1965. You can read more about Shorty at, which has inducted him into its Hall of Fame. Shorty also won big in Johnston City.