In gambling, and sometimes in billiards, the myth is better than the truth. That’s why sometimes a player is called a “hustler.”
No one was a better hustler than Rudy Wanderone, who learned to play billiards from a European master and brought his skills back to the States where he hustled many unsuspecting “marks” and later went on to become a competitive player. In the later stages of his career, he seized on an opportunity to identify himself with a fictional character and made many people believe it was really him. That he did under the fantastic name of “Minnesota Fats,” one of the sport’s most famed showmen.
Wanderone was born to Swiss immigrant parents in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City just prior to the outbreak of World War I. When he was 10 years old he traveled by steamer to Europe with his father, where he met German billiards champion Erich Hagenlocher, who took a liking to the outgoing young Rudy. He was a quick learner, and by the time he took the ship back to America, the young Wanderone was a good billiards player.
The first time Rudy turned any heads in a pool hall came in New York at a place called Cranfield’s, which is where a teenaged Rudy defeated a hustler known as “Smart Henry” in a match that had everyone in the establishment glued to the table. After Wanderone was triumphant, one observer proclaimed that the kid must be “Double Smart,” and a nickname was born. It would be only the first of many that Wanderone would attach to himself.
During World War II, Rudy traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, where he knew the pickings were ripe with young sailors who thought they were good with a cue. They usually weren’t, and “Double Smart” Wanderone made a killing. He later settled in Illinois, where he continued to make a living on the felt.
In the 1950s, Wanderone made many trips to New York, where his legend as a pool hustler grew, earning him the nickname “New York Fats” or “Broadway Fats.” Those nicknames would prove crucial to the next phase of his career.
In 1961 the film “The Hustler” was released. The picture starred Jackie Gleason in the role of “Minnesota Fats” as a veteran pool shark opposite Paul Newman’s “Fast Eddie” Felson, who was trying to slay the older player on the table. The movie was a box office hit, and Rudy began telling people that he was the basis for Gleason’s character. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter to Wanderone, who started calling himself “Minnesota Fats” to piggyback on the popularity of the film.
After “The Hustler” and his name change, Minnesota Fats gradually became a household name as one of America’s most famous hustling pool players. He wrote a book on billiards that was reprinted for years and sold millions of copies, and he toured the country playing in exhibition games as a promotion for a billiards table company. He also came to build a rivalry with the greatest billiards player of all-time.
Willie Mosconi was the most successful billiards champion in America. Between 1941 and 1957, Mosconi, who was born the same year as Fats, won the World Straight Pool Championship nineteen times. When Americans thought of pool after 1941, it was usually Mosconi who came to mind.
Mosconi wasn’t just famous, he was superb. In 1954, he set the straight pool high run world record when he sank 526 consecutive balls.
Mosconi had been a consultant on “The Hustler,” and when Wanderone usurped the nickname “Minnesota Fats,” and attempted to leech off the popularity of the film, Mosconi seethed. He also disliked Fats’ persona as a pool hall hustler and shyster.
“My husband hated Minnesota Fats because he felt that [he] was always hurting the image of the game instead of helping it,” said Mosconi’s wife years later.
Fats played the game while running his mouth nearly non-stop, often spinning tales that were only partially factual, if at all. He was notorious for traveling hundreds of miles to hustle on the billiards table if there was significant money to be made. He was flashy, wearing expensive watches and traveling in one of his signature limousines.
While Jackie Gleason’s “Minnesota Fats” in “The Hustler” was sophisticated and gracious in competition. The real-world Fats was a braggart, and simply motivated by cold, hard cash. Wanderone, playing the part of “Fats,” was never humble.
In the 1970s, Fats and Mosconi competed against each other several times on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The broadcasts brought the game of high stakes billiards to many in America who had never seen it on such a stage, and it was hosted by Howard Cosell. Fats usually lost to Mosconi, though in their final match in the 1980s, Minnesota came out on top.
Fats made his last hustle in the early 1990s, before he had a heart attack. He died at the age of 82 in Nashville in 1996. His tombstone was continued his braggadocio:
“Beat every living creature on Earth. ‘St. Peter, rack ’em up. — Fats'”