A few months ago, the United States celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday that for the past 32 years has commemorated the life of the slain civil rights leader. However, for many Americans, the day, in practice, is a celebration of not having to go to work; the historical significance of the holiday is understood, but easily overlooked in light of many civil rights advancements.
Watching the nine-minute short film, Black Balled: The Story of Pool During Jim Crow, I wondered if race relations within billiards occupied a similar mental space among those enamored with the sport. The entire film is available to watch here.
As the movie’s creator and narrator Mark Ewings notes, 1962 marked the first time an African-American, Javanley “Youngblood” Washington, a “self-proclaimed Negro bank [pool] champion,” was allowed to participate in any large-scale US billiards competition, the Johnston City Tournament. Prior to that time, blacks were barred from competing in such tournaments. Such exclusion was the writ of Jim Crow. Alabama, for example, said it was “unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards.”
In 1965, James “Cisero” Murphy, a Brooklynite who only started playing pool because a sports injury at an early age made ruled out baseball, became the sport’s version of Jackie Robinson by competing in – and ultimately winning in a 3-day match against Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter” – a Billiards Congress of America (BCA) regulated event, the Burbank World Invitational 14.1 Tournament. (Mr. Ewings shares that Mr. Murphy tried to compete in the inaugural 1961 Johnston City Tournament, but was allegedly excluded based on a majority vote of the participants.)
Mr. Murphy won the Burbank pot ($19,800) and the world champion title on his very first attempt. More historically important, this victory led to the Billiard Room Proprietor’s Association of America (BRPAA) reluctantly inviting Mr. Murphy to compete in the organization’s New York tournament. As billiards historian R.A. Dyer notes, once this happened, it “effectively ended all official race-based barriers to entry in major professional pool tournaments.”
Today, there is little chatter about race relations and billiards (though there is a hilarious rant from Martin Lawrence in the 1982 comedy Boomerang about the symbolic racism between the white cue ball and the black 8-ball in pool). As legendary pool hustler and scholar Freddy “The Beard” Bentivegna tells Mr. Ewings in Black Balled, “If you seek racism stories, you are in the wrong venue. Pool is the least discriminating life area I have ever experienced.” Billiards is purportedly color-blind, tournaments are integrated, and the majority of players (in the US) are both cash-poor and unrecognized, black or white.
Less clear, however, is why there are so few African-Americans competing in the top echelons of billiards today. Perhaps, history is not so simple or so long ago that we can disregard the African-American trailblazing pool players that helped get us to this point in time. Mr. Murphy, who was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 1995, a year before his death, is the most famous, with the ultimate digital recognition of a Wikipedia page and a mural in the Flatbush neighborhood of New York. Some of the other legends – Mr. Youngblood, Melvin “Strawberry” Brooks, Leonard “Bugs” Rucker, John “Cannonball” Chapman – deserve more acclaim, but have fortunately at least been recognized by the One Pocket Hall of Fame. Yet others, such as James Evans, a man Minnesota Fats once described as the “greatest Negro player who ever lived” and a mentor to Mr. Murphy, are barely footnotes in today’s billiards annals.
This is a tragedy.
I give a lot of credit to Mr. Ewing for Black Balled, a film project he created while in college. No one else, to my knowledge, has even attempted to tell the story of African-American pool players before the modern civil rights era.
Still, I can’t help feeling the film falls so far short of what it could have been, had it truly tackled the topic. While the movie’s title suggests it’s about the racial segregation of billiards in the Jim Crow Era, which was roughly from 1890-1965, the film really is about the (white) Jansco Brothers, who launched the Johnston City tournament in 1961 (and integrated it in 1962), and Mr. Murphy, who vanquished the color barrier in billiards.
There is no reference to billiards racial conditions prior to the mid-20th century. For example, when black YMCAs opened in the 1920s, most included billiards tables in response to Jim Crow laws. And since segregation prevented black players from competing in tournaments, the Colored Billiards Players Association was created in 1914, though sadly very little remains documented about its history.
Equally problematic, the film only briefly touches on the sport’s early pioneers, such as Mr. Evans, who pre-dates Mr. Murphy and helped contribute to his fame. Other players from the 20th century’s first half are completely omitted, perhaps because they are unknown..?