Straight Pool Masters – Joe Balsis and Irving Crane

Straight Pool Masters – Joe Balsis and Irving Crane

When I was 21 years old and had been training for a couple of years with Jerry Briesath, it was truly a magical time in my pool development. The teaching and room full of inspiring talent present daily, made for a terrific learning environment.

Once per year, Jerry would hire a famous pro player to come to

Cue-Nique Billiards. Jerry’s pool room was amazing in both decor and quality players and where I learned genuine pool skills. Beginning as a sub-horrible player, I paid for lessons and time on the table, so much that I must be his all time best customer.

Jerry selected me to play an exhibition match against Joe Balsis. I was playing well enough to score and look not too bad, but not well enough to pose a big threat. I was really excited for the opportunity to play someone from the top echelon of the sport which was my goal to become someday.

Joe Balsis had a magnificent career and when he was very young he played against star players Erwin Rudolph and Andrew Ponzi, just like I dreamed of doing. Joe then later went on to win many titles and have high finishes in the biggest tournaments

Joe’s nickname was “the Meatman” as his father was a butcher, and I guess Joe sliced up his opponents similarly. His forte was in executing long tough shots and he struck the balls harder than most other top players. His finesse and position game was not the best, but his power shots and remarkable accuracy were his calling cards.

I wore a suit, had a cute girlfriend and she had traveled from Milwaukee to Madison, Wi. to witness my performance and had a front row seat for the pinnacle of my pool career. As the match began, we were tied at zero and that was as close as it ever was, Joe muscled up a run of 76 and beat me in humane and clinical fashion using only three or four innings, 125-14.

The “Meatman” was not gentle. Well…that was quite different than what I had in mind.

I continued training hard and the following year I had another opportunity to get to play another legend and personal hero, the great Irving Crane. I truly admired his dignity and class, along with his reverence for the sport and the fact that he owned 6 World Championships against the Mosconi’s and Lassiter’s in their primes too.

Irving was now near 68 years old and had been the victim of a stroke which left part of his right side paralyzed. You would logically think this had diminished his skill, and possibly you would be slightly correct, however imagine someone that possesses a full lifetime consumed by playing pool everyday at world class level. They know all of the pitfalls and shortcuts to excellence that inevitably occur.

I would liken Crane to a wounded lion that is enraged and possesses only survival instinct, they have no quit, nor feel sorry for themselves or you, that was my sense of the 70 year old stroke surviving Irving Crane.

Irving Crane played with great style, finesse, supreme confidence, while presenting a very stoic demeanor. He was everything that I dreamed of becoming someday, and he was always dressed classy and wore a suit coat or tuxedo. Genuine leadership by example as he respected the sport and placed it above himself. Irving became my favorite and I will forever remember and appreciate learning how greatness carries itself, he still inspires me many years on.

Crane was also noted as the best safety player in the game and would not take big risks, but rather he would use a strategy of great defense to earn the first good shot. These offensive scoring opportunities would be created by a conservative style of not committing unforced errors.

Due to his lanky angular build, distinguished attire, gentlemanly behavior, and conservative playing style, his nickname was “the Deacon” as he reminded you of a church elder.

Minnesota Fats play was never in the same league as Crane, but that never slowed his outspoken observations about the quiet, conservative, and highly skilled man which were delivered in Fat’s New York accent, “Irrvving Crraane…he is so borring, if Lady Godiva came riding by, he would know what kind of horse she was riding on”. (Fat’s reference was about- The Lady Godiva legend dating back to at least the 13th century, in which she rode a horse naked – covered only in her long hair.)

The finals of the 1966 U.S. Open was ironically, Crane versus Joe Balsis, and after a couple of innings Irving Crane generated a run of 150 balls to win the title. Later that same year, Balsis returned the battering and ran 150 against Crane, that is truly spectacular skill by both of these legendary players.

Despite Crane owning six world championships and my career record representing the other extreme, I was hopeful and better prepared this year. Naturally the crowd that assembled at my home poolroom, Cue-Nique Billiards, to see the legend, was enthusiastic and exceptionally large.

The match began and I was overly nervous which generally spells disaster, but upon pocketing a couple of early tough shots as I just tried to remain very still and create a smooth transition timing-wise from backswing into the fore swing, the nerves supplied a surge of focus and adrenaline, because after the year before, I was really afraid to miss.

I played my best game ever and assembled several runs of 30 and 40 balls with quality safeties in between to win 125-36. After 4 innings I was ahead 112-36 and felt some obligation to let Mr. Crane have a turn due to the audience being there to watch him, but then I also considered that perhaps this would be my only time ever to play him and certainly he could win without me getting another turn and I would always wonder if I could have finished the job.

I was elated about the victory and readily admit that he had forgotten more about Straight Pool than I knew, but I had proved to myself that with work I could absorb maximum pressure and pull the trigger.

Much of the audience had known me from my pool beginnings and were elated for me, which felt really terrific. Irving was very respectful but clearly displeased and indicated that perhaps now I would like to perform the trick shots too. He did a great job on the trick shots and was personable to the terrific audience throughout.

He then went to dinner and was to return for an evening show. While at dinner with Jerry Briesath, he asked that for the evening show could he have a rematch against me. Jerry told him that he had promised that match to Joe Capossela (a great guy also) and it would not be possible to change.

I returned early to get a good seat for the evening contest along with my brother Steve, we were both feeling great, as another large crowd was preparing to watch the all time legend. My main objective was to pay attention to details that might help my pursuit of excellence, while in the midst of legendary Irving Crane.

He arrived, proceeded to warm up, and I will never forget his demeanor…he was there for serious business and the look in his eyes was keenly focused. That look has never left me because it was so intense. Today, 40 years later, and without exaggeration, I can recall it. If a bald eagle targeted a rabbit, his gaze would not be more locked on than Crane’s was leading up to the evening show.

The game commenced and Irving began to run balls to demonstrate the afternoon fluke would never happen again. Every shot selection was considered and executed to perfection with predatory resolve and a singular refusal to allow any ball to miss the pocket’s precise center, let alone barely rattle home, and for absolute certain, missed balls were not going to occur. Performing in the fashion that we witnessed that night requires a lifetime of commitment and training along with the experience of competing against the elite players in the world.

No matter how skilled and experienced the player, the balls often do not want to cooperate. During this performance the ball arrangements naturally conspire to deny immense success despite the mastery on display by the 6 time world champion. Sometimes several racks of balls obeyed and “came along peaceful”, but several times, Irving found himself with two balls left on the table, facing a tough shot on either ball, and neither ball suitable for a subsequent break shot to continue the run.

He would study the untenable circumstance and conclude that to continue the run he would have to add difficulty to an already tough shot by utilizing extreme side spin to create an unnatural cue ball path that would travel the cue ball seven feet to hopefully collide with the last remaining object ball and manufacture any kind of a break shot, while still pocketing the object ball. The crowd was silently captivated throughout three or four of these near impossible shots that all succeeded to enthusiastic applause as this great run surpassed the game total of 125 balls.

This run concluded at 186 total balls and was an emphatic demonstration of mastery. Only that singular time in my life have I observed such an incredible run where he had to call upon decades of guile, creativity, and tenacious execution, with a class and style performance displayed that evening. He had summoned a “force of will” by applying intense focus to command obedience from inanimate objects. This only can be generated by dedicating every molecule of your being for a lifetime, to produce what he displayed on that evening.

My afternoon triumph was tremendously superseded by the evening performance which encapsulated why Irving Crane is beyond a Champion and more than a Hall of Famer, rather he is the greatest legend and best that ever lived.

Years later was the night in Nashville, Tennessee that I set my personal all time Straight Pool high run, I pocketed a thin break shot that shattered the rack and an object ball clipped the cue ball and sent it backward 18 inches scratching the cue ball into the same side pocket that I had shot from, this unusual scratch sickened me because the balls were open and everywhere, my next stop upon finishing that rack would have been 201 balls, but instead I concluded at 186, which is my forever best and matches what Irving Crane produced that long ago night. I have always found that number curious.

Here is one final explanation of the Deacon. A very young Mike Sigel whose destiny was to also become a world champion lived nearby Irving Crane in Rochester, New York.

Mike Sigel relates, I was a young straight shooter that could easily beat the local experienced players as a teenager and wanted to test myself versus the legend, just to see how I would fare against a real world champion. He said about his first encounter with the Deacon, that he was a little nervous but very excited as Irving Crane had agreed to play him. Mike said, “on Crane’s first shot he ran 200 balls…and then played safe”.

Irving “the Deacon” Crane only knows one way to play.

Post Log-

I tried to capture a segment from my pool development where I competed with Balsis and Crane 40 years ago as they were old men. Today, as I sit here reflecting, I am now in their age bracket long ago. Besides myself and Nick Varner, you will not know many people that played those kind of special talents in that more respectful and prestigious era, I am now feeling even more blessed and honored.

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