Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Memories of Hubert Cokes

Johnston City Sign
Gary Carlson, a former graduate student from Southern Illinois who wrote recently about a chance encounter he had with Minnesota Fats, also sends in this note about stumbling into a poolroom owned by George and Paulie Jansco, sometime back in the late 1960s. The Janscos were the creators of the famous Johnston City tournaments, which I write about in Hustler Days. Carlson appears to have stumbled into a game with Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes, although his memory is a bit fuzzy on the point. He says they appeared to be off their game and ended up spending a good part of the evening arguing about the spot. That's a picture of Daddy Warbucks, below, although he's standing there next to another young fan. Right above this post I've included a picture of the Johnston City sign.

You can read the rest of Carlson's note, below:
Prior to the experience with Fats, maybe it was 1965 or 1966, I lived in Decatur, Illinois and was finishing up my bachelor degree in Chemistry at Millikin University. A buddy of mine who I played pool with said we should go down to southern Illinois to watch a major pool tournament. So, we piled into his ’58 Chevy Impala and away we went. I have no idea how he learned of the tournament, but the drive took longer than I had anticipated.
Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes history
I didn’t know what was going on — I knew nobody and certainly didn’t see nor hear anybody named "Minnesota Fats." The place was wall to wall packed. Difficult to see the action and it seemed somewhat disorganized. After watching endless 9-ball, we learned that the more interesting stuff was going on “out back.”I can’t recall (after all, this was about 45 years ago) if it was in a part of the same room walled off or a small building separate from the main room. I think we paid $5 for entry. It was north of the main building (which was like ‘50’s deco), the latter which sat on the northwest quarter of the intersection. In any case, we were there only maybe a couple hours and the only memory I have was in this back room. Frankly, I wasn’t very impressed with the caliber of play – but what did I know? I thought I saw people just as good back in Decatur. I used to watch Don Tozer play there. Anyway, I recall or heard of or saw “Jersey Red,”Eddie “Knoxville” Taylor, and “Big Daddy Warbucks” who I much later learned was Hubert Cokes. The match I recall was between Big Daddy and somebody else – I can’t recall who – seems like Taylor, but I’m not totally sure if Taylor or Red were even there that year and I just heard their names – but it was certainly Big Daddy. I also remember a LONG conversation about what the handicap would be. The game was going to be 8-ball and a race to something for $100 (good money back then). Now, instead of their bridge hand, Warbucks was to use his hat for a bridge and the other guy went into the toilet and returned with a big toilet brush. As I said, the play was unremarkable. I expected long runs, “magic” shots, etc. I was young.
Now I regret that during 1966-1969 when I was in Carbondale, I never bothered to even go back there to watch again – even though it was just east a few miles. Curiously, I did play in a band and we actually played a couple of gigs there at that location. I’ve forgotten the name of the place. It might have been “Janscos."

-- R.A. Dyer

Memories of Minnesota Fats

Minnesota Fats was a fixture in southern Illinois during the 1960s, which was the heyday of the Johnston City tournaments and the pool revival I described in Hustler Days. The famous tournaments were created by George and Paulie Jansco, who are both members of the One Pocket Hall of Fame. I got to thinking about George and Paulie and Fats after receiving a letter the other day from Gary Carlson, a former graduate student from Southern Illinois. In it, Gary describes a chance encounter he had with Minnesota Fats. It was a small encounter, and yet the sort that appears to have taken on added meaning for Gary as he has learned more about Fats. That's because it quietly reflects some of the great qualities of Fats: he loved playing pool, he loved being around people and -- despite his hustler reputation -- there was a certain kindness about him.

Here's Gary's note:

From 1966 to 1969, I was a graduate chemistry student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. I used to research my project from time to time during the wee hours and then go to a small hamburger place on the north side of Carbondale where they had 2 or 3 pool tables. I was usually the only one there and after a hamburger, I’d shoot some pool. I was only a fair player. One night (late 1968 – mid 1969), there was a guy sitting at the counter talking to the owner – I paid little attention to them. I had my hamburger, got a cue off the wall and began practicing.
Before long, the guy at the counter strolled over, watched a bit, and asked if I wanted to play a couple of racks. I said OK and asked if he wanted to bet a dollar a game. He laughed and said “A whole dollar”? I didn’t know if he was mocking me or couldn’t afford a dollar so I said “OK, how about 50 cents then”? He smiled and just said “Let’s play a bit for nothing and we’ll see what happens.” Well, he beat me several games with no trouble, shook my hand and left. The counter man said “Do you know who that was”? I told him I didn’t – and he told me it was Rudolph Wanderone – Minnesota Fats. I just said “Oh”. I had no idea who he was. Later, I saw a picture of him somewhere and realized who he was. Later still, I learned he was living not too far from Carbondale.
You asked for some remembrances of the man. That was mine. Recently I’ve read about him and from everything I understand, he was a pretty nice fellow.

Thanks to Gary. And, like he notes: I'm always looking for memories of the great ones. If you have one, send it in. If you'd like to learn more about Johnston City (or see another Johnston City video), check out my separate blog on the topic, which you can find here.

-- R.A. Dyer