Minnesota Fats (Rudolph Walter Wanderone, Jr.)
Minnesota Fats (Rudolph Walter Wanderone, Jr.)
(b. 19 January 1913? in Brooklyn Heights, New York; d. 18 January 1996 in Nashville, Tennessee), pool hustler who popularized the game in the 1960s.
Wanderone, called “Roodle” as a youngster by his adoring family, was the only son of four children born to Rudolph Walter Wanderone, Sr., a merchant seaman and later a plumbing and heating contractor, and Rosa Bergin Wanderone, a homemaker. Wanderone later revealed only scanty details of his early life, and much of what he did reveal turned out to be mythical. Thus, there is not much of a factual historical record.
His birth date is an example of Wanderone’s taking liberties with facts. The most universally agreed date is 1913, but at other times he gave 1914 and 1900 as the actual year. He called the variations “my baseball age,” after a practice of professional athletes who took a year or more off their ages as they got older. He also claimed to have sailed around the world six times, surviving two shipwrecks.
Wanderone traced his early interest in pool to the fact that when he was two years old his uncle, in the absence of Wanderone’s seafaring father, often took him to poolrooms and placed him on vacant tables. Said Wanderone, “A pool table was my crib.” He also claimed to have pulled his first pool hustle when he was only six and “won a bag of gumdrops from a ten year old.” He also said of his early childhood, “I’ve been eating like a sultan since I was two days old. I had a mother and three sisters who worshiped me, and they would plop me in a bed with a jillion satin pillows and spray me with exotic perfumes and lilac water and then they would shoot me the grapes.”
Leaving school in the eighth grade, Wanderone made several trips to Europe with his father and claimed to have studied under a national champion pool player from Switzerland. In the 1920s there were hundreds of thousands of pool tables all across the nation, and 5,000 poolrooms in New York City alone. The game was primarily a “gentlemen’s” form of recreation. There were bets made, to be sure, but these were friendly wagers to add interest to the competition. However, as the Great Depression descended upon the nation, a new type of competitor came on the scene—the hustler. Here was a player interested only in winning money, and almost any means of doing so was acceptable to the hustler. “Lemonading,” or disguising one’s true ability as a player, was one method; losing a match on purpose was another. So, too, was “sharking,” the practice of distracting an opponent to break his concentration. Wanderone used all these at one time or another.
Wanderone, who weighed 300 pounds and stood five feet ten inches tall, soon came to be known as “New York Fats,” “Brooklyn Fats,” or “Broadway Fats.” He immodestly proclaimed a dislike for “an honest day’s work” and was quoted as saying he “never picked up anything heavier than a silver dollar.” As he traveled much of the country in large Cadillacs that became his signature, his wife—a waitress named Evelyn Inez, whom he met in southern Illinois and married on 7 May 1941—was expected to do all the driving, handle the luggage, and even change flat tires. The less-than-courtly Wanderone said, “Change a tire? I’d rather change cars.”
Speaking in the vernacular, as he often did, Wanderone said he “never lost a game when the ’cheese’ [money] was on the table.” Evelyn verified this, saying, “Fatty tended to be just good enough to win.” He told of a 1930s match in Chicago with the three-cushion billiards champ Arthur Thurnblad that began as a $100,000, fifty-point game. Heavy interest and heavy betting “jacked it up” (poolroom lingo for raising the bet) to $250,000. According to Wanderone, “Thurnblad didn’t have a ‘bean’ [a dollar],” while Wanderone reached into his jacket pocket and spread 250 $1,000 bills on the table. Again according to Wanderone, he gained a large and early lead of 10 to 15 points and won the match, 50—32. “When it was over,” he said, “I collected my money and went out to get something to eat. That’s all there was to it.” Pool folklore says that Wanderone always had between $200,000 and $300,000 in crisp bills in the trunk of his Cadillac.
Although unpolished in some ways, Wanderone reminded opponents to watch their language when Evelyn—he always called her “Eva-line”—accompanied him to poolrooms, which she often did. He was said to have been an easy touch when asked for a loan, seldom getting repaid. He also was a lover of animals, keeping at one time twenty-seven cats, fourteen dogs, and a groundhog. While making a good living, Wanderone lost a considerable amount due to his inability to stay away from the dice tables.
Wanderone’s reputation was greatly enhanced after 1961, when the film version of Walter Tevis’s novel The Hustler appeared. Playing opposite Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason portrayed the character “Minnesota Fats.” Despite Gleason’s dapper onscreen appearance—he played in a coat, tie, and vest, even sporting a boutonnière—the rumpled and disheveled Wanderone claimed that the character was based on him. To bolster his claim, he began billing himself as “Minnesota Fats.”
Wanderone engaged in a celebrated public rivalry with the perennial billiards champion Willie Mosconi, who won thirteen national billiards championships between 1940 and 1956. Mosconi extended countless invitations to settle the issue of who was the better player in head-to-head competition. Fats never accepted but did continue to fan the flames of the feud. Finally in 1978, Fats and Mosconi were matched on an ABC-TV Wide World of Sports show, with Howard Cosell as emcee. Fats lost by a wide margin to the gentlemanly Mosconi.
The new “Minnesota Fats” persona led to Wanderone’s first structured, full-time job, working for a billiard equipment company. Personal appearances and the accompanying travel created tensions at home, and he and Evelyn divorced in 1985. He moved from Dowell, Illinois, where he had lived for years, to Nashville, where he lived in a subsidized celebrity suite in the Hermitage Hotel. His days were spent feeding pigeons in a nearby park, his nights rubber-stamping his “autograph” in Music City honkytonks.
Fear of being declared incompetent and institutionalized led him to marry twenty-seven-year-old Theresa Ward Bell, a nurse, in 1992. She, his only survivor, provided round-the-clock care until his death. He died of heart failure and is buried in Hermitage Gardens in Hermitage, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville.
Whether or not he was the inspiration for the Gleason character in The Hustler, Wanderone remained the consummate pool hustler. His role in pool history is best described by the writer George Fels: “He was once a very good—but far from great—player. He was certainly a champion storyteller.”
Wanderone’s autobiography is The Bank Shot and Other Great Robberies, written with Tom Fox (1966). Fred Walther, Minnesota Fats —Never Behind the Eight Ball (1998), is an informative biography. George Fels, “Where the Boys Were,” Sports Heritage (Mar./Apr. 1987) further discusses Wanderone and the pool scene of the 1930s. An obituary is in the New York Times (19 Jan. 1996).