By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Bums play pool, gentlemen play billiards. I noticed it the minute I lit in Chicago. The pool tables were either in the back of the room, or in the basement, so that the pool players wouldn‘t bother the billiard players. If you walked in a joint needing a shave, they would escort you right to the back, where the rest of the bums were. There was always a sign over the pool tables: “No loud talking. No swearing. No gambling. No masse shots.” When one of the players missed a masse shot for some money, he might holler, “Goddam sonofabitching motherfucker!” and the house man would shout, “Shuddup, you stupid cocksucker! Can’t you read?” . . . I was a no-good, useless drunken bum, but I wanted to be a gentleman. The only way open to me was to take up billiards.
Danny McGoorty, the voice behind that quote, was a pool hustler and world-class billiards champion living in San Francisco when writer Robert Byrne first met him in the 1950s. An immaculately dressed, charmingly profane roue who had misspent his life grifting, drinking and associating with a cast of larger-than-life characters, McGoorty also happened to be an extremely gifted raconteur. Byrne began filling notebooks with McGoorty‘s tales and eventually suggested that they put a book together. McGoorty replied, “Why do a thing like that? If what I told you got published they’d lock us both up for life. I tell the truth . . . I don‘t pour piss in people’s ears.”
In 1970, though, McGoorty had a change of heart. He had contracted “the Big Casino” (cancer) and told Byrne that the “croaker gives me only six months.” After work every day for six weeks, Byrne lugged a heavy reel-to-reel Wollensack tape recorder up to McGoorty‘s one-room apartment, which he described as “a key joint, since they discarded the telephone switchboard, the clerks, the bellboys and the whores.” The resulting tapes painted an evocative picture of McGoorty’s world.
I was playing a game for a couple of dollars, and here was this old fart sitting along the wall, eye-fucking me and getting his nuts off because I was miscuing and scratching. Finally I had all I could take. “What‘s so funny you old cocksucker?” I said. “Go somewhere and buy a piece of candy.” “Huh?” he said. “What?” “We are playing for money, don’t you know that? No, I guess you wouldn‘t. You wouldn’t dream of putting any money behind your mouth. You wouldn‘t bet five cents you were alive.” Which is a big reason I am not well liked. I talk too much. I say what I think.
Despite years of blackout drinking, McGoorty retained a vivid memory, and he regaled Byrne with a wide variety of geographies, from Capone’s Prohibition-era Chicago to San Francisco‘s Tenderloin. And his interests weren’t limited to felt; he opined knowledgeably about cops and robbers, orgies, horses, alcoholism, vagrancy, whores, Panther Piss, thievery, riding freights and lunching with President Kennedy.
Byrne‘s transcription of the recordings, McGoorty, was published in 1972. Unfortunately, McGoorty, who succumbed to cancer in 1970, never laid eyes on his magnum opus. McGoorty didn’t last much longer, going out of print a decade later. Fortunately, a young publishing house, Total Sports Publishing, is now using the “Sports Illustrated” moniker to republish an array of out-of-print sports classics, such as Peter Dent‘s North Dallas Forty and Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay. And, God bless them, McGoorty. Now a whole new generation of readers won‘t have to sup only on pathetic sports-page crumbs like Dennis Rodman and John Rocker. They can go straight to McGoorty’s banquet.
By the time I am 26 years old I am through busting virgins. Too much work! I am leaving that to the younger guys. One night I am sitting in the kitchen of a speakeasy having a few drinks with Jimmy Carver, a good friend of mine, when in walks a clown we both know by the name of Butterfield. Now this Butterfield is a skinny, homely sonofabitch with straight red hair that won‘t stay combed and a complexion like a fart through a keg of nails. But he has a tomato with him that is out of this fucking world! Where he got her, how he got her is a big mystery, but she is a dream -- a solidly packed, absolutely perfect shape inside a tailored white suit, with long hair hanging down and eyes that would shine in the dark. Here is probably the best looking broad I have ever seen in my whole life, walking around with an idiot who stinks on ice.
A photo of McGoorty shows the Pacific Coast champion wearing a double-breasted suit -- for all appearances, he could be a bank president or businessman. But the truth is that McGoorty frequently resided in flophouses and had little more than the money in his pocket. As Sacramento Union reporter Bob McCarty put it, “McGoorty was championship timber but he gave the dolls and refreshments first call.” These contradictions -- the suave figure who speaks like a longshoreman, the alcoholic who plays majestic three-cushion billiards (an incredibly difficult game requiring enormous skill and imagination) -- all lend themselves to the McGoorty mystique. His life turned on a simple hedonistic principle: Why not?