Karen Fox, widow of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Fox, was there during the ’61 Johnston City tournament.
Karen Fox, the widow of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Fox, recounts just below how her late husband came to author what would become one of the most important articles in the history of 20th Century pool. Tom Fox’s “A Hustler’s Holiday in the Lion’s Den,” written in 1961, brought New York Fats (AKA Minnesota Fats) to the world’s attention. Fox also was the first to shine the light of the media on the famous Johnston City tournaments. It is not an over-statement to say that Tom Fox helped to usher in the 1960s pool renaissance.
Tom Fox in 1961 worked with the sports department of the Evansville Sunday Courier and Press. The then 21-year-old Karen Wessel was working for the newspaper’s women’s page. The two married in 1964, with their relationship forged during early road trips to Johnston City. Karen later would assist Tom on The Bank Shot and Other Great Robberies, the autobiography of Minnesota Fats. She also helped conduct other interviews — including one with Ralph Greenleaf’s widow (you can read about that here).
Tom later became a columnist for the The Philadelphia Inquirer as well as a regular contributor to Billiards Digest. He died in 1989. I spoke to Karen back in 2004 about her early road trips to Johnston City. The following are brief cut-and-paste excepts from that interview.
— R.A. Dyer
“During basketball season, I did color stories — mostly high school sports — of Evansville college games. The sports editors recruited a lot of us young women to help with the box scores — that was my entrée into the sports department. And he (Tom) was the lead sports writer and columnist. He never wanted to be the sports editor. He didn’t want to do all that administration and time sheets. He just wanted to write.
“I started there (at the Evansville Sunday Courier and Press) in 1961, and he was already there for two years when I got there. I think he was there in 1959, roughly speaking.
“Tom did take me to that movie (The Hustler) and he loved it. And after we went to the movie, we went to the press club. They had a pool table at the press club, and a lot of us worked at night. If you didn’t want to go to a bar, or to dinner, there was the press club. It was a very active place. And when we walked in, everybody was all excited about playing pool because the movie was in town. Most of the writers had seen the movie. It was a big deal at the time. Everywhere, people had seen that movie.
Tom Wore His Hair Like Bob Hope
“He was born in 1925, so he would have been 38 or something like that, and I was 21 years old. He was a curmudgeon. He was five foot eleven. He was sort of pudgy at the time. He wore his hair like Bob Hope, but he was better looking than Bob Hope. He parted his hair too high, and he had slicked back hair.
“Tom knew right away, at the (Johnston City) tournament — he knew it was a great story, because the movie was such a phenomenon. And here was this guy, Minnesota Fats, who had never been written about. All these guys had nicknames. … Here was this culture unfolding in front of Tom. It was real. He didn’t have to write fiction. You know: there was Daddy Warbucks, and Minnesota Fats, and Danny Jones — who was Handsome Dan — and there was the Tuscaloosa Squirrel, and Wienie Beanie. He knew he had a story by the tail.
“That first night he took all the girls over — I don’t think we got back until four in the morning. We had to stay awake, and keep Tom entertained, so he could drive us home. He was a hilarious guy. He could be a stand-up comedian.
“I think the other girls went a second time, but by the third time, I was the only one willing to go. I can’t remember if that was what fascinated me with Tom. … I think I loved the characters and the scene as much as he did. It was after that trip, when we went by ourselves, that he decided to write a book.”