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Original Issue

The Frail Gray Man with the Strong Pool Cue

He is 55 years old, his build is slight, his taste in clothes is that of the conservative businessman he is—but Irving Crane happens also to be one of the greatest pool players of all time

Irving Crane, who is one of the best straight pocket billiards players in the world, could be the now slightly aged prototype of the original 97-pound weakling. A friend once gave him a playful bear hug and cracked a rib, and Crane himself says, "I must be made of tissue paper." His once-brown hair has long since turned to a slightly frazzled, anemic gray. His dress tends toward the rigidly conservative—gray hats, gray overcoats, expensive but colorless suits and sports coats. Despite his status, there is no electric anticipation before he enters a parlor; after he leaves there are few regrets. He is a shadow in a darkened room.

In fact, at the age of 55, when most first-rate athletes spend idle hours regaling their grandchildren with apocryphal stories of their halcyon days and otherwise rest on laurels won long ago, Crane probably is better known in his home town of Rochester, N.Y. as a car salesman (Cadillacs) than as a master with few historical peers in the demanding world of pocket billiards. He has won four world titles, the last in 1968, and scores of lesser ones in a 32-year career. Recently—in Rochester, no less—Crane was passed over for a seat at the head table at the annual Hickock Belt awards dinner in favor of a local horseshoe player and he has yet to be accepted into Rochester's own sports Wall of Fame.

This lack of recognition is due in part to the fact that his sport has never enjoyed wide public acceptance. Its ranks have been split since the game was invented, in the time of Anthony and Cleopatra if you believe Shakespeare or in the 14th century if you believe Frank G. Menke's Encyclopedia of Sports. On one side are the colorful hustlers with names like Harry the Horse and Little Augie and personalities to match, who say that some tournament players tend to choke when there is money on the line, especially their own. On the other side, the tournament players contend that the only true test of ability is round-robin competition or a 1,500-point match game. Though tournament players—Crane especially—do not like to be called pool players at all but rather "professional pocket billiards exhibitionists," there is often more money in sight in the back room of a pool tournament than there is in the tournament pot.

The nature of the game also offers itself far more to personal participation than public spectating. Unlike most other sports, straight pool does not produce a direct confrontation between offense and defense and the drama that affords. From the lag, pool is uneven: the only thing the player not at the table can do is sit and stew and curse his luck. "You sit there," says Crane, "and you hate your opponent. You hope he misses every shot or breaks a leg. You can't win sitting in the chair and you can lose badly without ever missing a called shot."

In such situations great animosities are formed and, of necessity, large egos. An old hustler named Don Willis said recently, "Every player's an egotist. You get four drinks in a guy and he's never lost a game; you get 10 in him and he's never missed a shot."

Crane drinks only an occasional highball, but suffers from a grating professional personality which has alienated him from most of the other tournament players despite his obvious skill. If nothing else, Crane is consistent. As a youth in Livonia, N.Y., where he was born and grew up, he was sardonic, outspoken and egotistical, traits not entirely surprising in a lad who had been given a toy pool table at 12 and two years later had a run of 89 to his credit on the then-regulation size five-foot by 10-foot table. In middle age he retains all three traits. During the 1947 world tournament, in which he unsuccessfully defended the title he had won for the second time a year before, Crane said, "Pool is the poorest paid sport in the world," a truism that unfortunately still holds. Then he added, "There are lots of people in this game I don't care to associate with. I'm decent to them and they don't know it, but Jesus, when I see some of those crumbs in the poolroom, sometimes I say to hell with it."

After he had won his fourth world title and backed that performance by winning the International Pocket Billiards Championship, Crane showed that the intervening years had not softened him a bit. The occasion was a minor tournament in nearby Syracuse that he had agreed to enter only if he received a small amount of expense money. Crane didn't like the double-elimination format—he prefers the more demanding round-robin play—nor did he like playing 125-point games, figuring correctly that the standard 150-point games favor the better player—namely him, of course. He first lost, despite a high run of 87, to a talented youngster named Alan Kiehle. After the match Kiehle shook Crane's hand and said, "Irv, I hope there's no hard feelings."

"Of course not," said Crane. "If you hadn't taken advantage of the chances you had, I wouldn't have respected you."

The following day Crane lost again, to Joey Canton, who was once quite good but now is nowhere near Crane's class. Crane was furious. He had played poorly, but in short order he bemoaned his luck, rapped the tournament format, questioned the saints ("Why do dead men wake up to shoot well against me? Canton hasn't played like that in 20 years") and, finally, knocked his opponent, saying, "I'll play Canton 1,500-1,000 anytime."

To his credit, or at least in his defense, Crane grew up in an era of large tables, small pockets, ivory cue balls and Belgian clay object balls, conditions that made a run of 100, some say, comparable to a run of 300 with today's equipment. Today the tables are smaller (4½' by 9'), the pockets are larger (5½" vs. 4‚Öû") and the object balls and the cue ball are made of plastic. "The ball skids like an ashtray when you hit it," Crane says. "It's not supposed to skid, it's supposed to roll. These plastic balls are pretty. They don't ever chip, they don't ever break, they hold their color forever—and they're the worst balls ever made. The old mud balls were far superior. With the smaller table and the bigger pockets, any meatball can throw a run of 100 at me. I don't worry about guys like Joe Balsis or Steve Mizerak or Luther Lassiter. I know I'll win and lose my share against them. But one of these guys who can't play at all will suddenly come to the table and run a hundred—against me. Always against me. Lassiter once went 112 games without a run of 100 against him. I'd call that luck, wouldn't you? Yes, I was lucky to win those two tournaments last year, but my luck was bound to change. It had to."

Other players have other opinions. Joe Balsis said bluntly, "The equipment is the same for everybody." Another tournament player went further. "Crane's making excuses for all his past losses," he said, "and for all his future ones, too."

A few retain a strange affection for Crane. Lou (Machine Gun) Butera said, "Three years ago if you told me anything bad about the guy I would have jumped up to defend him. But in the last three years he's gotten so he can't stand to lose. I don't like it the way he talks about people, running them down. But he's helped me. I used to get upset when I lost. At the world tournament in 1966 Crane told me to play the game, don't play the opponent. So the next game I play, it's against him. I cut his heart out. He wouldn't speak to me for nine days. Then when he does say something he says, 'I thought you were lucky to beat me, but I've been watching you and you're a good player.' He's a strange duck, but deep down inside I think he's a decent guy."

In spite of Crane's agonizing, he still can say, "I've got some money—not a lot, but some—for the first time in my life, but if I had to make a choice between selling cars and playing pool, I'd choose pool. The only time I've ever been really happy is when I was at a pool table."

Happiness is compounded by victory, and Crane has won often enough over the past three decades to be considered by some the third-best tournament player in modern history. Pool's nonpareil was Ralph Greenleaf, who enjoyed most of his success during the 1920s. Greenleaf was a tempestuous man who would not play sober because he was too nervous and could not play drunk because he was too mean. He compromised, won 16 world titles (the last against Crane in 1937), and died at midcentury at the age of 50. The second was Willie Mosconi, the Boy Wonder from Philadelphia who was giving exhibitions at 7, played in his first world tournament in 1933 at the age of 20 and ruthlessly dominated the sport for the next 24 years. Therein lies the cause of much of Crane's bitterness. He and Mosconi are almost the same age and for decades fought each other for pool's top honors. Mosconi usually won, though Crane is loath to admit it. All Crane's efforts did little more than secure Mosconi's place in the sport's history.

Crane is doggedly colorless in his quest for perfection. He has neither the rumpled flair of Luther Lassiter, the pleasing exuberance of Joe Balsis, the youthful (but irritating) enthusiasm of Steve Mizerak nor the arrogance of Petey Margo. He walks around the table with the air of a man sorely in need of a smoke (he gave up a two-packs-a-day habit cold in 1951) or a Baptist preacher about to fall off the wagon. Crane says, "I like to play best when my hands are shaking just a little bit." If the game is not going especially well he will mutter, "It's brutal, it's brutal," but one has to be a lip-reader to hear him. Beyond that, the only expression he allows himself is an occasional slightly churlish grin.

He rarely breaks off a spectacular shot—not because he cannot make them, but because he rarely has the opportunity. At Crane's level of play, pocketing the object ball is the least of one's worries. What is important is knowing what shot to take to best continue the run, how to break up clusters and remove annoying balls near the rail that may cause future problems and, finally and most important of all, positioning the cue ball. Keeping whitey—the cue ball—on a string involves the application of spins (draw, follow, reverse English and such) to the ball with a 57-inch, 20-ounce custom-made cue stick that may cost $200, plus an acute awareness of the resiliency of the bumpers and the speed of the cloth.

"The good player is not the player who makes the tough shot," says Mosconi. "It's the guy who makes a lot of easy ones, because he's placing the cue ball in such a way that he's making every shot easy. And that's what Crane does best." He does it so well, in fact, that in the areas of position play and safety play—the latter meaning those occasions when a player must shoot not to pocket balls but rather to be sure the opponent is not left with an open shot—Crane has been called the best ever.

Crane won his first world title in a challenge match against Erwin Rudolph in 1942, and his second in an eight-man tournament in Philadelphia in 1946, defeating Andrew Ponzi 125-97 in the final match. But during the '40s and '50s Mosconi was winning everything that Crane wasn't, which was considerable—15 world titles before a stroke hastened Mosconi's retirement in 1957.

Mosconi refuses to say he was the better player but agrees that he was the bane of Crane's existence. "I think one reason I had more success against Irv was that right from the beginning I was a more daring player," Mosconi said. "If I thought I had a pretty good chance of making a shot, I'd just step up there and shoot the darned thing, but Irv would weigh the possibilities of what would happen if he missed. I never gave a thought to that. He's always been able to stand up pretty well in the tournament matches, but when he came head to head, at least in my own experience with him, it seemed he couldn't maintain the pace, couldn't run a lot of balls, especially if the match were a long one. Crane is very conservative. He wouldn't take that tough shot and that's what cost him a lot of games."

They met, the blitzkrieg vs. the Maginot Line, for the last time in round-robin world tournament play in 1955. The duel became a classic. Crane needed a victory to tie Mosconi for first place, but when Crane came to the table after Mosconi missed in the 150-point game, he trailed by 146-23. Sweating profusely, Crane methodically pocketed the balls and, after breaking the final rack, he needed but eight balls to win, all of which were open. "You can bet I was nervous and wringing wet," said Crane. "I took 30 strokes on each one of those shots, and when the last one went in it was the happiest I've ever been." In the playoff Crane and Mosconi jousted through 21 innings of safety play before Crane got the upper hand and won 150-87. That was world title No. 3, but Crane had to wait 13 years for his fourth, and even then it was anything but easy. Again, in the last game of round-robin play, Crane needed a victory to tie for first place, this time with Luther Lassiter, the defending champion and four-time winner. Lassiter opened with a run of 84 and at one point led 94-0. Crane did not give up, however, and won that game 150-98; after a 20-minute break he returned to the table and beat Lassiter in the playoff 150-24. The match ended at 5:13 in the morning, which in itself tells a great deal about the pressures of tournament pool.

There have been no world tournaments since then, and when another is held Crane will be the oldest defender ever. In rare tribute to his rival, Mosconi recently said, "When I retired I predicted that Crane would dominate this game because his knowledge of it is so great. It was just a question of him asserting himself, and it looks like it's finally happened in the last couple of years. I think Irv's knowledge of the game is so far superior to the other fellows' playing today that it's not even funny."