In the early 1930s, a year or so after he dropped out of high school, Eddie Taylor caught the bus in Knoxville and headed to Morristown, about 40 miles north. He had an appointment with Herman Roddy Jr. and he had about $40 in his pocket, money he had won over several months in pool games.
“This was the Depression,” he told me years later, “and we were playing games for a dime or 15 cents.”
He was successful in Morristown, beating Roddy. “He had broke me twice before,” he said, “but this time I got him. And I knew then that I could do all right on the road.”
So Eddie Taylor, who had been playing since his father took him into pool rooms when he was a child, became a pro, hitchhiking around the South, playing pool for money, often big money. He was 15 years old.
It was a world of smoky back rooms, spittoons and illegal gambling, a world where many of the players hid behind colorful nicknames – the Tuscaloosa Squirrel, Wimpy, New York Fats. Taylor picked up his own years later, when he became known as the Knoxville Bear. He was tagged with the moniker after a series of games in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His opponent, after losing his bankroll, said Taylor was as hard to handle as a Smoky Mountain bear.
By then Taylor was known in pool halls from coast to coast, bringing enough fame to Knoxville to warrant an “official” visit to the University of Tennessee campus in the mid 1960s. He was invited to the decidedly sterile student billiards room – not exactly a back-room pool hall, but nevertheless the site of several well-maintained tables and second home to a score or so students who found it easy to cut a math class for a few games of eight-ball or rotation.
I was in the crowd when the Knoxville Bear made his appearance. In dress pants, white shirt and tie, he looked more like a professor than a pool hustler. But there was nothing absent-minded about his demeanor as he made seemingly impossible trick shots and then sank bank shot after bank shot, turning his head before each so that he was shooting “blind.” The crowd of wide-eyed would-be pool hustlers left shaking their heads and vowing more practice, classes be damned.
My reaction, at least for a while, was to start frequenting the more dicey pool rooms downtown – Comer’s and McDonald’s, places where the denizens were known as Flop, or Butterball, or Lefty. There were no exhibitions there – the players were paid not with a check from the university, but with cash from their opponent at the end of each game.
Once, friends and I joined the two dozen or so spectators at a two-day match where more than $30,000 changed hands. The game was nine-ball, $500 on the five and $500 on the nine. The winners were a player from Johnston City, Illinois, and his backer. The losers – one the first day, the other the second day – were a couple of Knoxville’s best players, including a pool-room owner from the north side of town, and their backers. The Bear was not present – he was out on the road, probably playing big-bucks games of his specialty, banks, in another city.
When the downtown McDonald’s, a mainstay of Knoxville’s pool rooms, closed in 1971, I wrote a story for The Knoxville Journal about its history. The second-generation owner, J.D. McDonald, told me about hanging out with the Bear, about hosting some of his matches in the 1950s.
As the years passed, and I realized that I did not have the patience or the “eye” required to become a good pool player, I would occasionally read or hear something about the Bear. Pool was beginning to become “legit” with big-money tournaments in Las Vegas and other cities, and the Knoxville Bear and other veteran road hustlers such as Luther “Wimpy “Lassiter and Irving “Deacon” Crane were usually among the finalists.
In 2003, I met up with J.D. again. He and his son were running a room in south Knoxville and selling and installing pool tables. He told me that the Knoxville Bear was living in Shreveport, Louisiana. And he gave me his telephone number.
By then Taylor was retired. He had seen his game go from clandestine matches in rooms that doubled as bookie joints to glitzy tournaments carried on national television. He had seen women players become TV stars, a long way from the days when they weren’t allowed in pool rooms at all.
Maybe the game had become more legitimate than it had been in the days when he made his living at it. But, Taylor said with a chuckle, he had no regrets: “There were times when I was broke and ended up sleeping on a park bench, or in my car when I had one, but I’d do it all over again.”
He talked about traveling with and playing many of the game’s legends – Crane, Lassiter, Jimmy Moore, Willie Mosconi. And he reminisced about his early days, surviving as a boy in a man’s world.
“I dropped out my first year of high school,” he said, “because I couldn’t stay away from pool. I was always slipping out of school and going to a pool room. My mother was always threatening to blow them up, but she finally gave up.”
Taylor’s education came in other ways. “I was playing in rooms in downtown Knoxville when I was about 13 or 14, with men like John R. Cook. He would play me with his overcoat on. Or he’d wear gloves. And he’d win. But in a year’s time I was beatin’ him even.”
It was then that he decided to head up to Morristown for the match with Herman Roddy Jr.
“His dad owned a pool room, and everyone around East Tennessee talked about how good he was. He broke me the first time I played him, then gave me 50 cents for the bus ticket back to Knoxville. I worked on my game for a couple of months, saved my money and went back. Same thing – he broke me again and gave me money for the bus ticket back. But the third time I beat him.”
After that win, Taylor headed out to surrounding towns, picking up pointers from other players, learning the lessons of the road.
“I went down to McMinnville with a guy named Charlie Brooks. Charlie was a lot older than me, sort of like a second father to me.
“Charlie was a bookmaker, did a lot of football parlays. He got hit pretty hard one week and was really in the hole. He told his customers that if they’d give him two or three months he’d pay them off. He was an honorable fellow and they all knew it.
“So he heard about a big poker game in McMinnville and we drove down there. It was summer and it was hot. He found the game and I found a pool room, three tables. The owner was also a bootlegger and was drinking moonshine. There was a huge front window and the sun was coming in and it was blazin’ hot. I wound up beating him pretty good. The wind-up was he gave me a check for $300.
“Charlie did pretty good, too, ended up paying off his betters. Of course the check from the bootlegger wasn’t any good. I learned not to take a check.
“Charlie taught me a lot. People are always asking me how I got into the pool rooms as a kid. It was because I never acted or dressed like a kid. I had been hanging out with adults since I was 8 or 9, when my dad would take me into the pool rooms. And Charlie Brooks taught me to dress respectable. He always wore a suit and tie and a hat. Kids didn’t dress like that.”
There are many games that can be played on a pool table, and the favorites varied from time to time and region to region. “When I first started out,” Taylor recalled, “there were a lot of defensive games, where the objective was to play ‘safe,’ games such as one-pocket and check. We played a lot of snooker back then. But that changed and you couldn’t get any action. Then we’d go to one-pocket or check or banks. I’d play check all day for a nickel or dime a game. Maybe win $5 for the whole day. Of course back then, that was a lot of money.”
As Taylor widened the circle of towns where he could get a game, he learned a better way to make money at the table. He learned to hustle.
“A guy in Lexington, Kentucky, showed me how to lose games on purpose,” he said. “How to talk a big game until the money got big, then start really playing. I’d go on about how good I was, how I’d played Ralph Greenfield the week before and they’d all be laughing at me. They knew I meant Ralph Greenleaf, and thought I was too stupid to know his real name. I’d lose and then I’d say, ‘Well, I can’t really play unless we’re playing for big money’.
“It didn’t bother me that I was taking their money – I mean, they were trying to rob me, too.”
So Taylor made his way from town to town, city to city, hustling in pool halls, relaxing at the horse tracks in places like Hot Springs. Then he found his first big-money tournament.
“It was in 1960 in Macon, Georgia. The guys were all telling the promoter that I was good, that I was as well-known around the South as Coca-Cola.
“There were 10 or 12 players, Willie Mosconi, Ralph Greenleaf, Irving Crane, if you can picture that. But they were playing straight pool and I didn’t want that – that wasn’t my game.
“By then, my game was banks, which is what they played around Knoxville and Nashville and Atlanta. So I just watched.”
The next year, George and Paulie Jansco, who owned bars with adjoining pool rooms in Johnston City, in southern Illinois, started a tournament. The first was for the game of one-pocket, but by the third year, there was an all-around title as well, involving one-pocket, nine-ball, and rotation. And that third year, it was covered by ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports.
“Me and Wimpy Lassiter were in the finals two years in a row,” Taylor said. “He beat me in 1963 and I beat him in 1964. That was my first world championship.
“Not long after that they set up a big tournament in this really nice place in San Francisco. Some of the best were there — Lassiter, Jimmy Moore – there were 10 of ‘em. You had to win a sectional, then a regional to get in. I was out on the road and didn’t have time for that. The wind-up is that I went to the tournament and got a game on the side with a guy from Chicago named Tom Bunch.
“I played him one-handed, $200 a game. One-pocket. Lassiter was in with me [as his backer]. I got it up to where he owed me $800. I asked if he wanted to quit and pay up. He said ‘screw you’ and we went double or nothing. I ended up winning $6,000. And Willie Mosconi won the tournament and only got $2,500.”
By 1967, the Jansco brothers had started the Stardust Open in Las Vegas. There, Taylor picked up his second world championship, as the game continued its move from smoke-filled back rooms to lit-for-television show bars.
In his hometown, Taylor’s exploits were making The Knoxville Journal sports column of Tom Anderson. Taylor remembered a couple of favorite Anderson phrases: ” ‘The Bear was suckering them years ago,’ he’d write. I remember once he wrote about me beating somebody and he said, ‘Taylor pocketed the coin.’ I thought that sounded great.”
Before his age started crimping his game, Taylor and his wife Violet bought a pool room in Tampa, Florida, and ran it for several years, hosting players such as Lassiter, Moore and Rudolph Wanderone, known as New York Fats and, later, as Minnesota Fats.
Then, in 1993, Taylor, who had traveled across the U.S. for decades making his living hustling in pool rooms large and small, was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame in ceremonies in Kansas City. The hall had been established in 1966, and many of the tournament players had been inducted already. The consensus opinion at the ceremony was that it was about time that Taylor made it.
Lou Butera told about playing Taylor in 1962 and the lesson he learned. “He taught me to be humble,” he said. “He beat my brains in.”
“It’s long over-due,” Jim Rempe said. “He was my idol.”
When I talked with Taylor in 2003, he was still wielding a stick, teaching his doctor how to play. He died two years later, age 87.
Black-and-white photo: Taylor at the University Center at UT, circa 1967. Photo by Tom Green.