Never Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

This phrase has been attributed to Mark Twain (is there anything evenly remotely plausible that hasn’t been attributed to Twain?), but other sources call it proverbial. This itself is an exquisite irony! Today’s blog is going to be about Minnesota Fats, a man who easily could have, and probably did, say this about facts and stories. Minnesota Fats (1913-1996) was born Rudolf Walter Wanderone, Jr. in New York.  In the 1930s-1980s he made his living as a pool hustler and claimed he had been doing so from an early age. “By age 10 he was playing adults for money in poolrooms in New York City. In his prime as a player, from the 1930s through the 1960s, he made his living by wagering on private games in pool halls throughout the United States, which contributed to his legendary standing as one of the best players in the nation.” He was a gentleman hustler … charming, outgoing, with the gift of gab to spin any story and make you believe it. And he’d laugh with you. “In many ways, the man known as Minnesota Fats was the precursor of today’s athlete, a self-promoter and a blowhard. He could be beaten in a match, but by the time he finished talking he’d have you swearing that he’d won.

Minnesota Fats cuing for a shot. An irrepressible showman, he was pocket billiards' greatest hustler. Source: https://bit.ly/3mGyauo
Minnesota Fats cuing for a shot. An irrepressible showman, he was pocket billiards’ greatest hustler. Source: https://bit.ly/3mGyauo

Although he had genuine skill for the game of pool, he never won a tournament, but he won many a hustle. Even his nickname is a bit of fiction … he was originally known as New York Fats.  In 1961 the movie, The Hustler, was released, with Jackie Gleason playing the part of a hustler known as Minnesota Fats. The movie was a big hit, winning an Academy Award for best picture, best actor (Paul Newman), best supporting actor (Jackie Gleason), as well as many others. Rice Library has this DVD available for checkout: PN1997 .H9 2002. Not one to miss an opportunity, Wanderone immediately began to call himself Minnesota Fats, claiming that the Gleason character was based on his life. The author of the novel on which the novel was based denied this to his grave. Wanderone was able to parlay this into household recognition in the 1960’s by competing in televised tournaments and hosting a television show. There was a grain of truth in his appropriation of the name Minnesota Fats, at 5’10” and about 300 pounds, he was a big man. He had a prodigious appetite, particularly for sweets, but never indulged in the habits of many pool hall habitues, smoking and drinking. “An irrepressible showman with a flair for windbag stories, Fats was more of a trickster and entertainer than a great champion of the art. Always carrying wads of hundred dollar bills rolled in his chest pocket, Fats never won a major pool tournament. But his sideshow verbal antics nonetheless made him one of the most recognizable and colorful figures in the circuit.

Minnesota Fats appeared in Evansville at least twice. In March 1965, he appeared at the Tri-State Boat and Sports Show at Roberts Stadium. In April 1972, he played in the River City Pool Tournament held at the Elks Club. The club was on SE 1st Street but burned to the ground in 1977 and was razed. Hmmm … Roberts Stadium has also been razed. Fats also had ties to the Tri-State: he lived for a period of time in Dowell, IL, about 16 miles north of Carbondale, IL. His first wife, Evelyn, was from Dowell. They were married just 2 months after they met and stayed married for 44 years. And moving a bit further afield, he spent his last years in Nashville, TN. With his last wife, age 27 and her boyfriend.

You cannot make this stuff up! It’s a challenge to try to pin down the truth about Minnesota Fats, a man to whom truth was fluid. It was always about the story, about the entertainment. Researching this, I stuck to reliable, credible sources, but even there I found conflicting information. Only Fats knows what’s true, and “he ain’t telling!” Here are some of the more amusing, entertaining, outrageous, etc. bits of information…and this time, you get to decide if you believe it…or not.

First, even his birth date is in question…most sources say 1913, but the man himself sometimes claimed 1910 or even 1900. The family name is transcribed in a variety of ways, too.

The family’s pet goose, Gans, won in a game of chance by Fats at an early age, brought him to the pool table. “Well, the way Gans introduces me to pool came about when I was four years old. We were at an outing and Gans took off on me and ran into a big pavilion at the amusement park and I ran inside after him. It was an enormous place with bowling lanes and card tables and a bar that looked like a distillery and right near the bar they had these pool tables. It was the first time I ever saw one.

“Fats was playing a card game at a gambling hideout that belonged to the late Louie Reid of Du Quoin on the Little Muddy Bottoms. On this particular night, there was a robbery, and some men with guns were coming after their money. “Fatty always had either a diamond ring or a sapphire ring on his hand – a big, flashy thing,” Keith said. “Anyway, the story goes that as they were coming in, he slipped off that ring and swallowed it.”

As he told it in his 1966 biography, “The Bank Shot and Other Great Robberies,” by Tom Fox, “I’ve been eating like a sultan since I was 2 days old. I had a mother and three sisters who worshiped me, and when I was 2 years old they used to 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.” The early pampering perhaps explains why Mr. Wanderone, who once said he never picked up anything heavier than a silver dollar, grew up with a fierce aversion to physical labor, so much so that on their cross-country trips his wife was expected to do all the driving, carry all the luggage and even change the flat tires. “Change a tire?” Mr. Wanderone once exclaimed. “I’d rather change cars.”

According to Parker in The Southern Illinoisan, Fats had a soft spot for animals, unable to turn away any stray that crossed his path. “Of animals, Fats wrote in his biography: “I’m crazy about every living creature, it doesn’t matter what it happens to be. I even love insects; in fact, I wouldn’t swat a fly or a mosquito for a whole barrel of gold.”

Fats once claimed, “I outdrew the pope in Rome by 200,000 people–and that ain’t even good pool country,

Fats had the last laugh … take a look at the inscription on his gravestone below. “Beat every living creature on Earth. St. Peter, Rack ‘em up! Fats.”

Minnesota Fats is buried in the Hermitage Memorial Gardens in Nashville, TN. Source: https://bit.ly/3mEK2Nd
Minnesota Fats is buried in the Hermitage Memorial Gardens in Nashville, TN. Source: https://bit.ly/3mEK2Nd

References Consulted

Boyer, E. J. (1996, Jan 19). “Minnesota Fats: flamboyant pool player.” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1996.

Lyons, Bill. “Here’s one superstar who wasn’t all talk.” The Sporting News, January 29, 1996.

McDonald, Mark.  “Here’s the Skinny on Minnesota Fats.”  The Oklahoman, January 2, 1994.

“Minnesota Fats.”  Encyclopædia Britannica online.  January 14, 2020.

“Mosconi & Fats, The Great Pool Shoot-Out.” sportshistory.com, January 27, 2019.

Parker, Molly.  “Remembering Minnesota Fats: The real, imagined and exaggerated.” The Southern Illinoisan, March 1, 2017.

Thomas, R. M.  “Minnesota fats, a real hustler with a pool cue, is dead.”  New York Times, January 19, 1996.

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