The colorful Carl “Cue Ball Kelly” Zingale stood witness to much of 20th Century pool history, including matches featuring some of its greatest players like Greenleaf, Mosconi, Lassiter and others.


By Sam Korte

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Sam Korte is the author of Greenleaf: Pool’s Greatest Champion, which is available in paperback and digitally. In this article, Mr. Korte describes the life of one of pool’s greatest referees and advocates.

Carl “Cue Ball Kelly” Zingale. (Image courtesy The Billaird Archive and Arnold Silvernail)

Pool fans endlessly compare the legendary pool players — Greenleaf, Mosconi, Lassiter, Crane, Mizerak and others — but perhaps only one man in history could claim he was present to watch each from mere feet away. Carl “Cue Ball Kelly” Zingale was pool’s top referee from the 1930s until the 1980s, conducting world championships, orchestrating exhibition matches, and supervising high-stakes money games. By Zingale’s own estimate, he spent a quarter of his waking hours for nearly 60 continuous years in pool rooms. His profound respect for the game and its players, coupled with his own skills at the table, earned his reputation as one of pool’s best friends.

Born in 1895 in Brooklyn, Carl was the second child in a large family of twenty-four siblings. His early years were marked by profound poverty. According to his own account, Zingale often helped his family find food by scavenging for berries and hunting for squirrels. But it didn’t take long for Zingale to find poolrooms as an escape from these everyday troubles. By age 11, he was winning spare change from other teens. “The dough wasn’t too bad for a kid and I figured that I could make more money this way than I could in school,” Zingale later told writer Ned Polsky for his 1961 treatise on pool hustling, Hustlers Beats and Others. Carl eventually progressed from minor hustling to playing in respectable 14.1 tournaments in New York City. But, despite his successes, Carl reported that “after a few years I suddenly realized that I wasn’t the greatest pool player around. So I decided to start picking up some money by refereeing and booking [professional] games.”

Cue Ball Kelly was busted for (allegedly) cooking up counterfeit Chanel perfume on his fire escape.

Fast Champions
In 1932, “Fast Companions” hit the theaters. It was a minor movie about crooked jockeys, gamblers, and other sporting men. It featured a tough, bald, pool hustler named “Cue ball Kelly.” Locals applied the moniker to Zingale, likely based on the physical resemblances between the two—both looked like bald eagles—and the name stuck for the next 50 years.

At 5’5, 220 pounds during his heyday, Zingale could physically control a table and its players. “Pool players are all nuts, and pool halls are like houses for crazy people,” recounted Cue Ball to author Michael Kaufman in 1973. “A guy is perfectly normal outside, but he walks into a poolroom and it’s like he’s dreaming…. All of them are saying that they’re better than somebody else, all the goddamn time. I’ve seen dumb little pishers, who couldn’t shoot their way through five hangers, go completely meshugener and start talking like they were the kings of the world. I’ve seen guys throw away careers and marriages because they think they can knock balls into holes better than other people.”

Despite (or because of) this craziness, Cue Ball went out of his way to help players. “There weren’t too many people who really gave a damn for the players…the players needed the bread and I was able to get them some of it,” said Zingale of his philosophy for arranging pool matches. “The professional pocket billiard player has been the most abused professional athlete in the world and anything I did to make their burden a little easier I say thank the good Lord that I was able to do it.” Zingale had arranged the final Greenleaf-Mosconi exhibitions before Ralph Greenleaf’s death in 1950.

Zingale loved the players, but he had a simple rule to survive life in a pool hall: Don’t bet on other players. “You back somebody, you’ll end up being put in the middle” (where opposing players fix games and divide the money from their backers). “I stick to horses, they’re more predictable. Pool players, you see, are human.”

Master of Finger Pool and Bathtub Perfume
Zingale was also a master at finger pool (spinning and flicking a cue ball with your hand to make shots that would be impossible with a cue), reinforcing the “Cue ball” nickname. After developing arthritis that made gripping a cue difficult, Cue ball spent months developing his touch for spinning a cue ball—practicing how to spin and flick the ball so that it could travel around the entire table on one roll to sink several distant object balls. One trick that Zingale mastered was holding a ball in his right hand, a ball in his left hand, and suspending a third ball between the two. The trick appears easy—try it for yourself—but be sure to wear shoes! Zingale was once paid $500 to appear in a promotional ad featuring this trick.

As with anyone who spends his life in pool halls, Zingale occasionally found himself involved in misadventures. In 1958 he was arrested for manufacturing bootleg “Chanel” perfume in his bathtub and selling it from behind the counter at New York’s legendary McGirr’s poolroom. Zingale’s (alleged) concoction was one part Chanel, six parts alcohol, and one part water; aged for 6 weeks under the fire escape outside his apartment. For his part, Zingale claimed he was innocent: “Everyone knows Cue Ball… so whenever anyone is in trouble selling some imitation perfume they tell the law that they got it from Cue Ball. So when the law hears this they either show up at the Billiard parlor or at my home and I’m in trouble and then I have to fight to clear my name.’” Zingale’s defense apparently held well enough, and nothing came of the stinky Chanel operation.

By the 1960s, “Cue ball” was a fixture at the Johnson City Jamborees, the 14.1 World Championships, and every major game in New York City. Zingale was universally acclaimed:

“He’s done as much for billiards as anyone. I know that I have always found him very helpful.” – Luther Lassiter

“Ever since I started playing I knew that you could always count on him.” – Cicero Murphy

“He’s witty and most of all he can always be counted on to be fair.” – Jack (Jersey Red) Breit

Sam Korte is the author of Greenleaf: Pool’s Greatest Champion.

“If ever the players had a friend it had to be him” – Frank Paradise (legendary NYC cuemaker

As the Hustler era faded, Zingale continued to referee world championship 14.1 matches through the 1970s. When the pool room at SUNY-Stony Brook was on the brink of closure due to lack of activity, the 80-year-old began showing up every day to teach students how to play and love the game of pool. Zingale officially “retired” in 1979, and moved to a nursing home, but still managed to referee several 14.1 tournaments through 1985. And, in early 1986, he even partnered with J-S Sales (a billiard supply company) to have his name and likeness used to market cues and cue balls. A few months later, he finally passed away after a long and happy life in billiards. “I feel that once a man is able to really enjoy what he does then what the heck does the making of money really mean…. I can honestly look back at the 60 odd years I have been associated with the sport and say that I’m happy.”

And his verdict on the greatest player? “Greenleaf.”


Sam Korte is the author of Greenleaf: Pool’s Greatest Champion, which is available from your favorite online retailer.