Pool history includes plenty of examples of grander tournaments but few were as colorful as those in Johnston City.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the famous 1960s Johnston City tournaments, especially given the recent selection of tournament founders George and Paulie Jansco for posthumous induction into the Billiard Congress Hall of Fame. The colorful tournaments in Southern Illinois were among the most celebrated in pool — both for the quality of play there, but also for the general mayhem surrounding them. Although American pool history includes examples of grander tournaments, few had a reputation for such raucousness and pure fun as the joyful events sponsored by George and Paulie Jansco in Johnston City.
I’ve written plenty about the Hustler Jamborees over the years and as a consequence I’ve received several letters from actual attendees. I also wrote a Johnston City retrospective for a 2011 edition of Billiard Digest. That’s the cover below and to the right.
For this post I have decided to reproduce excerpts from a few of these eyewitness letters. But before we get started, let me first provide the Cliff Notes explanation as to why you should care about all this. As mentioned previously, the brothers Jansco organized their tournaments in the 1960s. The first of them took place in 1961 and featured one-pocket only. The last in 1972 featured one-pocket, nine-ball and straight pool — and so much gambling that federal agents shut it down.
The tournaments were noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which was their elevation of nine-ball as the official tournament game of pool. They also helped establish Minnesota Fats as America’s most famous pool player and — with Cisero Murphy’s participation in 1963 — they became among the first integrated national-class pocket billiard tournaments in America.
The Johnston City Hustler Jamborees also were the first significant pool events to bring pool gambling out of the shadows. In fact it was the gambling — and the romance surrounding it — that attracted the national media to Johnston City. Whether for good or bad, this is simply a fact. You can get a sense of that media coverage from the video embedded at the bottom of this post. This is the sort of coverage today’s tournament promoters can only dream about.
Last month the Billiard Congress of America membership voted George and Paulie Jansco into the Hall of Fame. This is wonderful, wonderful l news. I have been lobbying for the Janscos’ induction for years and I think it’s fantastic that they finally made it in. Georgie passed away in 1969 and Paulie in 1997. Wherever they are now, I hope they know we’re thinking about them.
And now on to the letters:
Gary Carlson writes that in 1965 or 1966 he piled into a Chevy Impala with a friend and the two drove down from Decatur, Illinois to Johnston City. And that’s where he witnessed the famous “toilet brush” incident.
“I didn’t know what was going on — I knew nobody. The place was wall-to-wall packed. Difficult to see the action and it seemed somewhat disorganized. After watching endless 9-ball, we learned that the more interesting stuff was going on “out back.” I can’t recall (after all, this was about 45 years ago) if it was in a part of the same room walled off or a small building separate from the main room. I think we paid $5 for entry. It was north of the main building (which was like fifties deco), the latter which sat on the northwest quarter of the intersection. In any case, we were there only maybe a couple hours and the only memory I have was in this back room. I recall or heard of or saw ‘Jersey Red,’ Eddie ‘Knoxville’ Taylor, and ‘Big Daddy Warbucks’ who I much later learned was Hubert Cokes. The match I recall was between Big Daddy and somebody else — I can’t recall who —seems like Taylor, but I’m not totally sure if Taylor or Red were even there that year and I just heard their names — but it was certainly Big Daddy. I also remember a LONG conversation about what the handicap would be. The game was going to be 8-ball and a race to something for $100 (good money back then). Now, instead of their bridge hand, Warbucks was to use his hat for a bridge and the other guy went into the toilet and returned with a big toilet brush.”
And here’s a note from John Rousseau, who read one of my essays in Billiards Digest:
“I am glad I went to Southern Illinois during that period and got to go to Johnson City every day. Grades sucked but it was quite an experience on life. I was there that night thanks to my deceit and larceny. The tickets for the broadcast were very expensive so I bought extra tickets for the regular tournament as they had no date or reference to ABC. We made a stink at the front door when they refused to admit us when Jim McKay yelled out, ‘this is f—— live, let the a**holes in!’ ”
Ross Parker Simons was just 13 when he want to Johnston City. That’s a picture of him at left with Boston Shorty, and the image at the top of this post is Ross with his dad and an unidentified gentleman at the tournament sign. Here’s what Ross has to say:
“When I was 13, my father took me out of school is Wisconsin for a road trip to Johnston City and the Jansco Brothers 1965 tournament. I don’t recall my mother’s reaction, although she couldn’t have been too mad as she packed a cooler with fried chicken and seven-ounce bottles of Schlitz for the overnight drive. … Although I don’t recall much about the games, I knew good pool and remember that Harold Worst was impressive. Looked like a haberdasher and shot like a machine. I also liked to watch one-pocket. What’s funny about the picture of Boston Shorty now that I look at it is his bored sneer… like ‘beat it’ kid. But I don’t remember anyone being rude to me, even the imperious Daddy Warbucks. Saw Handsome Danny Jones there and he was, in fact, quite handsome.”