Erling Hammarstrom, the son of Norwegian parents, wrote me a few years back to recount stories of his poolroom hero, the famous Onofrio Lauri. I’ve reproduced his letter, shortened somewhat for space.
My sister and our parents settled in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Bay Ridge. The year was 1953 and I had just graduated from high school. A friend asked to go shoot a game of pool at a second-floor room managed by Onofrio Lauri, known as ‘The dean of pocket billiards.’
I was fascinated. The sound of the click of the balls. I even liked the smell of the powder that you put on your hands. One day I came to the poolroom early and there was no one in the place except Lauri. He challenged me to a game of straight pool and gave me a 90-ball spot on a 100-point game, playing for a pack of cigarettes.
Lauri ran five racks before he got out of position: the fifteen ball, which was his break shot, ended up behind the rack. Lauri called it in the corner pocket and I told him he’d never make it. He said let’s double the bet. He hit the cue ball off the right-hand side rail and it clipped the fifteen ball into the corner pocket before it broke open the rack. After running 150 balls Lauri unscrewed his cue and said that was enough for today. I went downstairs and bought him two packs of cigarettes.
Sometimes Lauri and I would talk baseball. I was a real Brooklyn Dodgers fan and I thought Lauri would be too. But years ago he shot pool with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and ever since that day he was a Yankees fan. I also asked him who was the best player of all time. Was it Greenleaf or Mosconi? Lauri had played against both of them. Lauri thought for a moment and said in a single game he’d pick Greenleaf, but over a series of games it would be Mosconi because he was so consistent.
Every year Lauri would play Willie Mosconi at Julian’s in Manhattan on 14th Street. Lauri might win two games, but he said you always get punch drunk playing Mosconi because he was so good. The last time I saw Lauri and Mosconi play was in 1965, at a place called the Golden Q in Queens. They were playing 200-point matches and Lauri ended up defeating Mosconi with runs of 90 and 110. After the match Mosconi turned to the crowd and said, “doo you believe this old man?”
Mosconi in his biography Willie’s Game co-authored with Stanley Cohen, speaks of Onofrio Lauri. “You wouldn’t want him to be the guy standing between you and a championship. He was a sensational shot maker. If he got on a roll he could run out on you quicker than you could count the balls.”