Steve Mizerak, Barbara Long, and The Kansas City Lemon Drop Kid


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September 9, 1965, Vol. X, No. 47

Blue Chalk & Lemon Drops

By Barbara Long

Last week Jake and I went up to Broadway Billiards on 52nd Street where the $10,000 New York State Pocket Billiards Tournament is being held.

Twenty minutes early for the first of the two scheduled matches that night, we found the tournament room filling up already…a couple of Broadway types with shades and betting money, teenagers in blue jeans, a Yalee with a rep tie and a friendly fascist face, a bearded hippie, two young execs carrying attache cases, and a lot of old men pale enough to have spent their lives in pool rooms. Actor Peter Falk usually attends tournaments when he’s in town, but we had to settle for Hugh O’Brian’s stand-in. (“I think it’s O’Brian.” “Not tall enough.” “Too tall.” “I’m going to ask him.” “Cool it, Herbie.” “Never could stand that lady, she always used to watch it.”)

Larry Johnson, a short, pudgy man with nasty red pimples on his bald head and fact, was practicing for the first match which would be with Johnny Ervolino.

“Look at Johnson’s face,” said Jake. “It looks like it’s been machine-gunned.”

Johnson was low-man in the tournament-standing at that point. Only 5’3″ or 5’4″, he is seriously handicapped by his height. Some shots are impossible unless the player can lean his hip on the table and extend himself toward the center of the table (permissible as long as he keeps one foot on the floor). The only alternative is using the bridge, a wooden implement on which the player rests his cue, gaining length for his thrust, but an alternative abhored by competition players because it cuts down on direct control over the cue.

At 6.50, Johnny Ervolino, a kid from Brooklyn, came in. Tall, slim, with a ducktail haircut, and wearing a black leather jacket, he looked like he had just had breakfast.

Ervolino, still wearing the hip-length jacket, took a few practice shots. Missing an easy one, he laughed and said, “Wait till I wake up.” A few minutes later he came back wearing a black dinner jacket. (Several years ago someone got to the competition players and said, “Look, fellows, we need more class,” so now they wear dinner jackets at tournaments. Which is nice because the black jackets contrast dramatically with the pool room pallors.)

Johnson made a bad break, the break being the most important part of the game because it determines the position of the 15 balls that have to be pocketed, and pocketed only five Ervolino ran 13, and scratched, followed by Johnson’s 21. Ervolino then stepped up to the table, whistled an old Sinatra tune, and began his longest run in tournament play.

During a long run the tension of both the player and audience rises. The room is silent except for the official announcing the shots to be attempted, occasionally interrupted by the player correcting the call.

Thinking of “Nine-Ball” Mike, a friend of Jake’s and mine, an inept but dedicated player, I said, “Jake, it’s too bad we didn’t bring ‘Nine-Ball’ along.”

“Are you kidding?” said Jake. “He’d be screaming ‘Not that shot,’ or running up and grabbing the cue. They’d have to throw him out of the room.”

Ervolino was making a break. Jake said, “This is the end. He’s not going to make that break.”

Ervolino didn’t make that break successfully, and scratched on the first ball out. The run ended at 96. Johnson then ran 42 balls. Ervolino scratched after three. Johnson was unable to start a good run, and Ervolino pocketed the six balls necessary to take the match.

The next match was between Steve Mizerak and an older man named Farber. Mizerak is a tall, clumsy, overweight college kid, already being touted as a potential world champion. Farber played some nice pool, but Mizerak was The Man. Although his highest run in the match was only 46, he has genius and we all knew it. His approach, his feel, his hands, his positioning, his breaks were superlative.

As Jake and I were leaving the pool parlor we were discussing the phenomenon of Mizerak. Jake said, “This kid’s going to kill pool as we know it. Healthy, tanned, college. Nothing like the little guttersnipes who never see the sun after they’re 10 or 11 and go into the pool room for the first time, never to come out again.”

Waiting for a cab, Jake pulled a box of lemon drops out of his pocket and popped one into his mouth.

An old Negro who had been sitting near us came over and said, “Excuse me, but are you The Kansas City Lemon Drop Kid?”

The Kansas City Lemon Drop Kid. The name evoked the whole great tradition of hustlers. Men who could beat many of the competition players but made more money hustling privately, or preferred the anonymity. Men who went from town to town showing up in shabby clothing at a pool room, getting into a game, fluffing a few easy shots, cajoling someone into playing for a little money, and then eventually cleaning out everybody in the place. Men who didn’t want their names known or their pictures taken. Men who were afraid of being recognized when they went into a town because then no one would play them.

The grand tradition of Cornbread Fred and Tugboat Whaley, Meanie Beanie from Baltimore, New York Fats, Mexican Eddie, and Rotation Slim.

And apparently, one Kansas City Lemon Drop Kid.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]