The Hustler 

Danny McGoorty, professional character

Wednesday, May 23 2001

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.

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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?

Here is the kind of thing I would do. Four times I went into whorehouses flat broke and diddled the best-looking hooker in the joint, which is pretty stupid when there is an eight-foot pimp hanging around. Twice when I got my pants back on I just flew out the front door -- Fleet-footed Dan -- and raced for the railroad yard, jumping on the first freight going in any direction. Nobody was ever peppy enough to chase me and catch me. And, you know, a pimp can’t very well run down the street hollering: “Stop that man! I‘m a pimp and he stiffed my whore!”

In today’s sports world, where the stars do their best to project nonstick personalities so as not to spoil their endorsement contracts, McGoorty blows in like a revitalizing stiff ocean breeze. Though he failed to reach his full potential as a billiards champion -- he never achieved a higher ranking than fourth in world competition -- he was always his own man. When asked to comment on one of the best-known pool players in the country: “Minnesota Fats was never a top player. He was good, sure, but not tops. There have always been at least 20 people in the country who would have been glad to swim a river of shit to play Fats for money.”

If you‘re in the market for one of those uplifting sports biographies where the hero becomes a megastar, then devotes his free time to visiting kids with cancer, don’t bother with McGoorty. If, however, you like basking in the smoky poolroom ruminations of a keenly observant, street-wise juicer who calls them as he sees them a la Bukowski, this tome‘s for you. Consider this moment just before McGoorty was to play in a major tournament:

Naturally, I had to open the show and put up with the flash bulbs and the speeches about Ebeneezer Sneeze swallowing a cueball when he was five years old. About 10 minutes before the ceremonies were supposed to start, I went into the shithouse, bought my way into a stall, and sat down on top of the lids. I wanted to be alone for a few minutes, and the shithouse was the only place. I was sitting there with my face in my hands when two old Slavonians came in and stood at the urinals. “You gonna go in to the game todays?” “I guess so. But that fucking McGoorty.” “Well, he knows how to plays.” “Yeah, but he’s no good. He‘s no good.” They move over to the sinks, and I am on my tiptoes trying to see who they are. “Well, I guess I’ll buy a goddam ticket.” “Me too. And you know something? I got no use for that McGoorty, but I hope he wins.” “Me too. I don‘t know why.”

In these generic, politically correct times, one pines for a profane, self-centered lout who’s not afraid to shake the cage. Danny McGoorty more than fits the bill.

  • Danny McGoorty, professional character

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