Old-time hustler was part of pool’s most colorful generation.
Billy Burge, better known as “Cornbread Red,” was a famed road player, an expert one-pocket player and a colorful wild man. He was a fixture of “The Rack,” a famed pool hall in Detroit, and a backroom denizen of the Johnston City tournaments. He placed second in the Johnston City one-pocket division back in 1966 and second place in the Super One-Pocket tournament in 1993. I got to thinking about Cornbread recently after stumbling across this goofy snapshot, above. It’s one of a whole bunch posted by veteran pro Mary Kenniston over the years (thanks Mary!) and it also appears in Eddie Robins’ hard-to-find book Winning One-Pocket.
Burge, who died in 2004, epitomized the Johnston City generation of pool players that included Boston Shorty, Handsome Danny, Jersey Red and the Tuscaloosa Squirrel. He was the subject of a delightful biography written by Bob Henning, and he also turns up in the autobiography of Minnesota Fats, The Bank Shot.
On page 135 of the Fats book, in the chapter titled “Exposed By Hollywood,” Fats describes encountering Cornbread and others in Johnston City. The players were all razzing Fats about being a has-been player. Cornbread Red piled on, and then withered under one of Fats’ famous put downs. Here’s the exchange:
“I really think you’re all washed up,” Danny said.
“I think so too,” Mr. Tuscaloosa Squirrelly chimed in.
“And so do I,” said Mr. Cornbread Red. “I think Danny and the Squirrel are right, Fatty. You’re finished.”
“Is that so?” I said to Mr. Cornbread Red. “Well I’ll tell you what I’ll do. When I get through with Mr. Handsome Danny, which will be very shortly, it will be your turn to come to the table with the cash, Mr. Cornbread Red. And when I get through busting you down to your last dime and paying your bus fare back to Detroit, you’ll be known as No-Bread Red.”
That was enough to silence The Breadman but it wasn’t enough to convince Mr. Handsome Danny, on account that Handsome kept right on trying to out talk me.
Newspaper columnist Tom Fox, who co-authored The Bank Shot, apparently witnessed the exchange first hand. And despite Cornbread getting the worst of it, he’s remembered by poolroom insiders as one of the very funniest in pool history — and only slightly less entertaining than Minnesota Fats himself.
If you haven’t picked up Fats’ autobiography, you should. It’s hilarious. I’m also a big fan of Henning’s book on Cornbread, “Pool’s Greatest Money Player.” You can find it on Amazon or order it directly from Henning, at Bebob Publishing.
And finally, if you want to read more about Cornbread Red, check out Onepocket.org. Cornbread Red was inducted into the organization’s One Pocket Hall of Fame in 2004.