Norfolk during World War II was a mecca for big-time pool.
Greatest pool town ever? Johnston City you say. New York during the 1960s? Ladies and gentlemen I present for your consideration Norfolk, Virginia. During World War II the Navy town was a wonderland of gambling, top-notch pool hustling and just general pandemonium. It also was in Norfolk that Wimpy Lassiter, arguably America’s greatest-ever nine-ball player, made his reputation.
I wrote a fair amount about the city’s glory years in Hustler Days, particularly as they pertained to Lassiter’s adventures at the city’s pool halls. And Norfolk was home to great ones. The famous Tuxedo, the town’s main action room, could be found downtown on City Hall Avenue. Located not far away was the St. Elmo, with its flashing ball and stick above the door. And just down the street you could find the Monroe and the Eureka.
Sailors and shipbuilders flooded in during the war, tripling the city’s population. This of course meant new suckers. And so sharks came too, men like Andrew Ponzi, Johnny Irish, Rags Fitzpatrick, Earl Shriver, New York Fats, Joe Canton and Lassiter, the future King of Nine-Ball. He won and lost several small fortunes while stationed on Coast Guard cutters there.
An old friend of Lassiter’s, Rusty Miller, explained to me once how Lassiter would sneak off the moored vessels at night. “The Coast Guard pay started at $21 a month, but Wimpy would pay $50 a night (for a shipmate to take his duties). The kids on the ship would line up to stand in for Wimpy (so he could leave the ship and gamble). At a salary of $21 a month, that $50 per night looked pretty good.”
“But all these people were making bucketsful and bucketsful of money,” Miller continued. “They had so, so much money. I was used to playing for 50 cents or $1 nine-ball. I remember walking into a poolroom and I saw Wimpy playing $250 a game — and this was 1944! I was totally flabbergasted.”
Norfolk also was home to a well heeled gambler named Whitey who owned a famous nightclub there, The Commando Club. Whitey easily cleared $10,000 weekly from his various business interests and — happily for Lassiter — the club owner liked to gamble. “All the pool players migrated to Norfolk to play Whitey,” said Miller. “I remember seeing him lose $22,000 in a single day. And the next day, the same guy (who beat Whitey) lost most of that money. I saw every famous pool player known to man come to Norfolk to play Whitey.”
It was against Whitey, in Norfolk, that Lassiter played what has been described to me as one of the greatest money matches of all time. As Miller remembered it, Lassiter had just beat Whitey of $5,000 playing nine-ball. “Whitey quit him, and then when he quit, Whitey’s throw-away line was: ‘How would you like to play one game of straight pool for $5,000? Just one?’
“Wimpy looked at him and said, ‘Well, yeah’ — and they played one game of straight pool for $5,000.”
The game was set, Wimpy gave Whitey a giant spot and then after a bit of back and forth Wimpy managed to run just eight balls while Whitey — with the assistance of the giant spot and some good rolls — got to 98. Now because the two were playing to 100 the lopsided score meant that Whitey needed just two balls — just two — while Wimpy needed 92. Imagine the pressure. In those days $5,000 was enough money to buy a small house.
“And then Wimpy ran 92 and out,” said Miller. “I watched it with my own two eyes.”