Along with Cisero Murphy, “Youngblood” Washington, “Rotation Slim” Hairston and “Rags” Woods were among African American players at the early Johnston City events.
In case you missed it, George and Paulie Jansco finally received their much-deserved induction into the BCA Hall of Fame back in November 2019. The principle contribution of these two legendary pool promoters was their creation of the Johnston City tournaments of the 1960s. In Johnston City, for the first time ever, players could compete in a de facto national one-pocket championship. The southern Illinois events also were the first to feature modern nine-ball rules, and the first to favor nine-ball over straight pool in national class tournament settings.
But beyond all that — and perhaps much more importantly — the Janscos made strides with regards to the racial integration of pool. At a time when pool’s sanctioning bodies regularly shutout African Americans, the Janscos opened their doors. African American player Javanley “Youngblood” Washington participated in the Janscos’ second tournament in 1962; Cisero Murphy, George “Rotation Slim” Hairston and Robert “Rags” Woods participated in the third event in 1963.
A fair amount has been written over the years about Cisero Murphy, who won a big title in 1965. Much less, however, about Javenley “Youngblood” Washington, George “Rotation Slim” Hairston and Robert “Rags” Woods. And so here, in an attempt to begin to rectify that neglect, I present quick thumbnail profiles of this trio of lesser known but nonetheless significant pioneering African American players.
- Javenly “Youngblood” Washington, one of the greatest bankers ever, was from Chicago’s South Side. According to Freddy “The Beard” Bentivegna, Youngblood battled mental illness and yet pushed through it to gain fame as a top competitor. “He was periodically institutionalized at the Manteno mental center in Chicago on Irving Park road (and) Youngblood backers would often go there and help him escape over the wall so they could take him to play … bank pool,” Bentivegna wrote in his 2014 Encylopedia of Pool Hustlers. Bentivegna recalled that Washington often would play with his medical ID bracelet still on his wrist. Youngblood eventually was honored with inductions into both the One-Pocket and Bank Pool Halls of Fame.
- George “Rotation Slim” Hairston began his pool gambling career in Matewan, West Virginia, and then headed to Chicago where he would have challenged James Evans, another legendary African American pool player of his generation. Slim owned a Chicago poolroom during the 1940s, on Broad and Bainbridge, which apparently was frequented on occasion by the police commissioner. Slim suffered serious brain damage during a turnpike car accident on his way to Philadelphia during the 1960s, spent his recovery selling numbers, and then went back to hustling. George Fischer, a Pennsylvania room owner, described Slim as one of the best pool players in the world. “All you had to do was say Rotation Slim was putting on an exhibition and the room would be filled,” Fisher said in 1969. But Rotation Slim, by the end of his career, also expressed deep bitterness at his exclusion from pool’s top tiers because of his race. “My whole life has been wasted ability,” he said.
- Robert “Rags” Woods, born in 1921, got his start in his native Detroit after discovering a pool room while walking home from school. According to a 1985 profile in The Los Angeles Times, it was the sharp clicking sounds of balls “like crickets on a summer night” that drew Rags in. “He stood at the corner for several minutes, trying to figure out the sounds, and then walked into the pool hall,” according to writer Miles Corwin. “Soon Woods could beat everyone who played on the third table at the pool hall, then the second table, then he was the best player there. By the time he was 19 he was one of the top pool players in Detroit.” Woods earned his nickname because of his ability to shoot the cue ball with great accuracy from the rail, or “rag” in poolroom parlance. Woods played on TV — look him up on IMDB — and continued hustling throughout his life, playing competitively even into the late 1980s.
— R.A. Dyer