Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone Jr.
Front cover of Minnesota Fats on Pool (1967)
|Born||January 19, 1913|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||January 15, 1996 (aged 82)|
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Other names||New York Fats|
|Occupation||Professional pocket billiards player|
Rudolf Walter Wanderone Jr. (January 19, 1913 – January 15, 1996; originally spelled Wanderon) was an American professional billiards player, also known as "Minnesota Fats". Although he never won a major pool tournament as "Fats", he was perhaps the most publicly recognized pool player in the United States — not only as a player, but also as an entertainer. Wanderone was inducted in 1984 into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame for his decades-long public promotion of pool.
Wanderone began playing at a young age in New York City. As a teenager, he became a traveling pool hustler. Later, in his thirties, he moved to southern Illinois, where he met and married his first wife, Evelyn. During World War II, he hustled servicemen in Norfolk, Virginia. With the end of the war, Wanderone returned to Illinois and entered semi-retirement.
Wanderone adopted the nickname "Minnesota Fats" from a character in the 1961 film The Hustler, claiming that the character, played by Jackie Gleason, was based upon him. He parlayed the association with the film into his own book deals and television appearances, including a series of matches with rival Willie Mosconi. Later in life, Wanderone divorced Evelyn and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he married his second wife, Theresa, with whom he remained until his death.
Early life and career
Known as "Rudy" to friends and family, Wanderone started playing pool as a child while living in Washington Heights, Manhattan. In 1923, he traveled with his father to Europe, where he received training from German balkline billiards champion Erich Hagenlocher. His first prominent match was in 1926, when he competed against former nine-ball champion "Cowboy" Weston; Wanderone won, handily. Wanderone left school in the eighth grade and became a traveling pool hustler, spending much of the 1920s playing at a pool hall called Cranfield's in New York City, where he received his first nickname after beating another hustler known as "Smart Henry". The intensity of their competition led Wanderone's friend Titanic Thompson to dub Wanderone "Double-Smart". By the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, Wanderone had become a manager of a pool hall, owned by a friend, in Anacostia, southeast Washington, D.C. He had acquired more notoriety and nicknames, including "Triple-Smart Fats", "New York Fats", "Broadway Fats", and "Chicago Fats", attracting from other hustlers, including the then-unknown Luther "Wimpy" Lassiter.
In 1941, Wanderone and friend Jimmy Castras arrived in southern Illinois—a major hustling center on a fast track to televised tournament play—and settled in Du Quoin, Illinois, where he continued hustling. Eventually, he met Evelyn Inez Graff; they married two months to the day later, on May 7, 1941. Following their wedding, the Wanderones settled in Dowell, Illinois. In 1942, the couple moved to Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk had become a key mustering point for American soldiers, as well as a shipbuilding center. The growing population led to an enormous interest in gambling; Wanderone, in partnership with fellow hustler Lassiter, quickly recognized the financial possibilities. Following World War II, however, the action soon "dried up", and the Wanderones returned to Little Egypt, Illinois. Throughout the 1950s, Wanderone was in semi-retirement, making only occasional hustling trips to New York City.
In 1961, the film version of Walter Tevis's novel The Hustler was released. The film tells the story of a pool shark named "Fast Eddie" Felson and his quest to beat the greatest pool player in America, "Minnesota Fats". World Champion Willie Mosconi served as a technical advisor and trick shot stunt man for the film. Wanderone almost immediately dropped his "New York Fats" nickname, adopted the name "Minnesota Fats", and began spreading the story that the character was based on him. Tevis denied this for the rest of his life.
Wanderone's notoriety as "Minnesota Fats" led to a job as executive vice-president of billiard table manufacturer Rozel Industries, playing exhibition matches and giving demonstrations. Rozel, in 1965, published Wanderone's first book: Minnesota "Fats" Book of Billiards. On January 17, 1965, he appeared on the television game show What's My Line?, successfully stumping the panel.
In 1966, he wrote his autobiography, The Bank Shot, and Other Great Robberies, with Sports Illustrated journalist Tom Fox. His first television game show, Minnesota Fats Hustles the Pros, debuted in 1967, featuring "Fats" playing against other pro players.
In 1967 he completed and published an instructional paperback, Minnesota Fats on Pool, which was reprinted through 1976 in large-quantity editions, was then reissued as a hardcover in 1993, and remains to this day commonly available.
The next year, on January 24, 1968, Wanderone was a guest on The Joey Bishop Show. By 1970, Celebrity Billiards with Minnesota Fats, another short-lived television game show series, featured Wanderone playing against celebrity guests such as Sid Caesar.
In a feature film entitled The Player (produced in December 1970, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Wanderone played himself as "Minnesota Fats" and was featured prominently on the promotional poster. The screenplay was written and directed by Thomas DeMartini, also starred pool pro Jack Colavita, and had a limited release in 1971 by International Cinema. That same year Wanderone was a guest on both The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (September 21, 1971), on which he hustled Carson out of US$1, and the British David Frost Show (October 13, 1971). His fame as "Fats" had already made it difficult for Wanderone to hustle effectively, so he relied more and more on exhibition games for income.
By 1979, Wanderone was well known enough to play himself as a celebrity guest star on a season 2 episode of the popular television detective drama Vega$ titled "the Usurper". The episode featured "Fats" and pro Jimmy Mataya playing one another in a game of pool. In 1980, while visiting a one-mile stretch of St. Louis, Wanderone had to double his order of autographed pictures after he was stopped thirty-seven times. During this trip he was beaten by Michael Boulton 4 out of 10 times in games of pool.
Rivalry with Willie Mosconi
Wanderone enjoyed promoting a feud with world champion Mosconi over how to present pool—either as a rough-and-tumble gambling game (Wanderone) or as a genteel pastime and art form (Mosconi). Mosconi's widow, Flora, said of the rivalry, "My husband hated Minnesota Fats because he felt that [Wanderone] was always hurting the image of the game instead of helping it." Wanderone would state smugly, "I may have 'given away' a few games to deserving competitors, but I have never lost a real money game since I was old enough to spell 'Weeli Mesconi'." The two competed on Valentine's Day (February 14), 1978 in a televised match on ABC's Wide World of Sports. With almost 11 million viewers, the game was the second-highest-rated episode of the show for that year, behind only the Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks rematch. The game was held at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel and was announced by Howard Cosell. Although Wanderone lost the game, he won the audience with his banter and with his joking manner. Mosconi, on the other hand, was reportedly perceived as cold.
"Fats" lost a number of rematches to Mosconi in the following years. However, in the nationally broadcast Resorts International Shoot-Out of October 1984—Wanderone's last notable television appearance—he finally turned the tables on his rival. The event began with a trick shot competition among four players—Wanderone, Mosconi, Steve Mizerak, and Allen Hopkins.
Next, Hopkins and Fats played against Mosconi and Mizerak in doubles seven-ball, then nine-ball. Wanderone and Mosconi ultimately played a one-on-one game of seven-ball; Wanderone won the match. During the exhibition, a very quiet and genteel Mosconi blocked Wanderone's rough-and-tumble banter by wearing ear plugs; yet that failed to stop Wanderone from putting on a show for his fans. In an interview, Wanderone was asked about his strategy to defeat Mosconi and replied that he had thought to himself, "I'll make [the 7 ball] on the break and end it... then I'll help carry Willie out on a stretcher."
The Billiard Congress of America in 1984 inducted Wanderone into its Hall of Fame for "Meritorious Service" in recognition of his contributions to helping popularize the game of pool. In 1984, Wanderone abandoned his wife, Evelyn; they divorced a year later.
Wanderone moved into the Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, in 1985, remaining there for several years. In 1992, while undergoing surgery for a knee injury, he suffered a massive heart attack but survived. In 1993, he met and married his second wife, Teresa Talley Bell. He lived in Bell's Nashville house until his death on January 15, 1996, four days shy of his 83rd birthday, although some sources, including The New York Times, erroneously gave the date of his death on January 18.
Wanderone had no known children. Singer Etta James said she believed that he was her biological father, having reportedly been told that by her mother as well as by others who knew her mother and whom James described as "people who were there and should know". However, there is no published evidence of such a relationship. James and Wanderone are only known to have met once, in 1987.
In her autobiography, Rage to Survive, James recounted their meeting, writing that Wanderone neither confirmed nor denied his paternity. According to James, he told her that he did not recall the details of his life at the time of her conception well enough to know whether he could have been the father.
Wanderone was known for ostentation, self-aggrandizement, tall tales, fast talk, and entertaining banter. He was even publicly recognized by famed boaster Muhammad Ali as better at boasting. His critical biographer, R.A. Dyer, documents that Wanderone completely fabricated a "here-by-fate" tale about a car wreck which brought the player to Little Egypt; it was a tale that Wanderone encouraged to be spread and further embellished in his autobiography to lend an air of the mystical to his public persona. He made false claims about beating Willie Mosconi so frequently that Mosconi filed a slander lawsuit, to little avail.
According to Dyer, Wanderone was notorious for nonstop chatter on subjects about which he knew little, or stories about himself. At the beginning of his first television match against Mosconi, Wanderone claimed: "I've never lost [a game] for money in my life; beat everyone that ever lived." Yet, as Dyer concedes, "Pool hustlers are, by nature, liars. And by this measure, Minnesota Fats was just a very, very good pool hustler."
Wanderone was a lover of animals and was reported to have had dozens of cats and dogs simultaneously, and to have devoted a lot of time to finding homes for strays. "I'm crazy about every living creature", he wrote in The Bank Shot. "It doesn't matter what it happens to be. I even love insects; in fact, I wouldn't swat a fly or a mosquito for a whole barrel of gold."
Remembered well for his turns of phrase and his puns, Wanderone once wrote, "If you happened to drive from Mobile to Dowell [Illinois] with a carload of pool hustlers, you would get bit so hard and so often that you would need a malaria vaccine and a new bankroll as well", a reference not only to the area's notorious mosquitos but also to the predatory nature of hustlers. Wanderone is remembered for saying on his way out a pool room door, "Boys, the only difference between me and everybody else is that everybody else drives around in a Volkswagen, and Minnesota Fats drives around in a Duesenberg." Wanderone would go virtually anywhere to help promote the game, and he was a crowd pleaser.
Wanderone owned various limousines throughout his career. He once toured the country in a colorful Lincoln limousine with his extended moniker painted along the side panels in translucent paint, changing colors as it moved with the reflections from the sun: "Minnesota Fats, King of Pool". His 1980 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine was later in the Nashville auto museum, until the facility closed.
Wanderone was notorious for his spontaneous wit. When he was named the "uncrowned king" of pool because he never got actively involved in tournament circles (owing to being too busy hustling), his reply: "You judge a king by the size of his wallet and his palace. You can leave the crown in the toilet."
- Minnesota Fats: Pool Legend (a Sega Genesis and Sega Saturn video game featuring a virtual version of Wanderone)
- "'Rudolf W. Wanderon' Waymark". Waymarking.com. Seattle: Groundspeak. January 26, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-24. Includes three photos of his grave marker; provides birth and death dates, and legal surname spelling.
- 1920 United States Federal Census ("Rudolph Wanderon" entry in New York City (the only one there) ed.). Washington, D.C.: United States Census Bureau. 1920. Retrieved May 12, 2016. Provides surname spelling without the terminal "e", name with "Jr.", age of 7 as of 1920, mother's name as "Rosa" or "Rose", New York City residence. Copy is poor; data columns verified by comparison to legible blank 1920 census form. Census-taker's handwriting poor as well, but "e" clearly absent. Note: Full details of search results, including scan of document, only available to site subscribers, but original document on file in US National Archives.
- Dyer, R. A. (September 2008). "Fats Family Breakthrough". Billiards Digest ("Untold Stories" column ed.). Chicago: Luby Publishing: 46–49.
- Dyer (2003), p. 9
- Thomas, Robert McG. (January 19, 1996). "Minnesota Fats, a Real Hustler with a Pool Cue, Is Dead". The New York Times, ibid. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- Dyer (2003), p. 13
- Dyer (2003), p. 16
- Dyer (2003), p. 35
- Dyer (2003), pp. 13, 122–23
- Dyer (2003), pp. 34–37
- Dyer (2003), p. 52
- Dyer (2003), p. 61
- "Minnesota Fats"; Fox, Tom (2006) . Dyer, R.A. (ed.). The Bank Shot and Other Great Robberies: The Uncrowned Champion of Pocket Billiards Describes His Game and How It's Played (rev. ed.). Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons. ISBN 1-59228-701-8.
- Dyer (2003), p. 71
- Dyer (2003), p. 88
- Dyer (2003), pp. 122–28
- "What's My Line? episode #747". TV.com. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- "1967, May–June". Broadcasting. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan. 72: 70. 1993.
- "Fats, Minnesota" (1967). Minnesota Fats on Pool: The Complete Book for the Pool Enthusiast Including the How to of Shotmaking and All Game Rules. Billiard Library Co. ISBN 99903-959-5-0.
- Rudolf Wanderone Jr. on IMDb
- Dyer, R.A.; Billiards Congress of America Rules Committee (2005). Billiards: The Official Rules and Records Book. Globe Pequot. p. 154. ISBN 1-59228-744-1.
- Celebrity Billiards on IMDb
- "Profile". Time. December 28, 1970. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- The Player promotional poster (1971). USA: International Cinema. See illustration in article.
- Mitchell, Darren. "Profile at". BilliardBoys.com. Seattle, Washington: Billiard Boys LLC. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
- "True Animal Stories by Pool Hustler Rudolph Wanderone". EgyptianAAA.org. Egyptian Area Agency on Aging, Inc. 2008. Archived from the original on April 19, 2012. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- "Vega$: "The Usurper" (1979)" on IMDb
- "Photocaption". National Billiard News: 22. March 1980.
- Dyer, R. A. (2007). The Hustler & The Champ: Willie Mosconi, Minnesota Fats, and the Rivalry that Defined Pool. Lyons. ISBN 1-59228-883-9.
- "Willie Mosconi, 80, Who Ruled the World of Billiards with Style". The New York Times ("Obituaries" section ed.). September 18, 1993. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- "Minnesota Fats vs. Everybody". National Billiards News: 22. April 1980.
- Dyer (2003), p. 212
- Dyer, R. A. "TV Fiasco Spawned Mosconi–Fats Duel". BilliardsDigest.com. Luby Publishing. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- Dyer (2003), p. 123
- "Stars of Resort Shoot-Out". National Billiards News: 21. October 1984.
- "Shootout on the Boardwalk". National Billiards News: 11. November 1984.
- "BCA Hall of Fame Inductees". BCA-Pool.com. Billiard Congress of America. Archived from the original on January 7, 2008. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- Dyer (2003), p. 219
- Dyer (2003), pp. 220–21
- James, Etta and David Ritz. Rage to Survive (New York: Villard Books, 1995); ISBN 0-679-42328-1
- Quan, Denise (September 19, 2002). "A Life Singing the Blues". CNN.com. CNN. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
- Dyer (2003), pp. 49–56
- Dyer (2003), p. 122
- "Fatty". InsidePOOL Magazine: 8. April 2006.
- "PPPA World Tournament". National Billiard News: 8. September 1976.
- Stutz, Ellen (February 1982). "Legends of Pocket Billiard Stars Tournament". National Billiard News: 11.
- Dyer, R. A. (2003) Hustler Days: Minnesota Fats, Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red, and America's Great Age of Pool. New York, MJF Books; ISBN 1-56731-807-X.